HOW PAUL MIGHT HAVE PRACTICED CONTEXTUALIZATION IN A CROSS-CULTURAL MINISTRY
Introduction - Paul believed in the POWER of the gospel to transform lives. Yet he also appreciated the COMPLEXITY of this process. He resisted any attempts to submit to the indoctrination process of Pharisaicalism. He combined an amazing ability to integrate the ``continuous-supracultural’’ aspects of truth with the particular-immanent aspects of most relevant local truths. Over the years of ministry in Africa, I often reflect how the apostle Paul would have approached particular situations in contemporary Africa. Sometimes, it appears that his teachings and methods would be too harsh and polemic. Yet, Paul’s ability to become all things to all men that by all means he might save some would have made him an ideal missionary within Africa. The question seems to be, what kind of missionary methods, messages, and identities would he have assumed as a missionary strategist in our contemporary African seen with all its complex tribal, social, political, and religious tensions?
No doubt Paul would have become a serious student of African concepts of God, The Spirit, man, power, and spiritual forces and their effects on the affairs of people. He would have worked to draw linkages between the African concept of a High God and that of the knowable attributes of God through the scriptures. He would have loved to show fulfillment in many African traditional religious perspectives that God is a Lord of all power through the absolute power found in Christ, His words, and His Spirit. Because of his emphasis on connections, Paul would have deeply involved himself with the brethren from a number of tribes who would have served as mediators for the gospel across social and cultural lines.
Grace would have been interwoven into every interaction, lesson, and committee meeting with the elders so as to contrast the gospel with the law. Whereas Paul would have identified with the importance of the group collectivistic attachments because of his Jewish background, he would have laid emphasis to each individual’s responsibility before God. While he would have been able to support the African idea of the transcendence of God, he would have countered any notions of God being unapproachable, inactive, or reachable only through intermediary spirits. He would have accented the attributes of God’s holiness, creatorship, and Fatherliness to African who see family as the very center of life, nurturing, and identity. Yet he would have lovingly and firmly shown how the ancestral spirits cannot be manipulated in order to work favors for the family. Especially, Paul would have been bold to refute the concept that God does not have control over all of the spirits since they are too numerous.
Similarly Paul would reject the idea that people can be puppets for the spirits to work their deeds without the consent of their wills. Steadfastly clinging to the truth that power is not to be used for selfish ambition, Paul would encouraged more Africans to be self-supporting bi-vocational Pastors. Paul would constantly give examples in contemporary Africa of how he would support himself wherever possible so as not to be a burden on anyone. While Paul would argue that the power of God cannot be manipulated, His Spirit’s directing can still be discerned through the still small and sometimes subjective voice of calm. He would be open to the concepts that God still speaks today through people, through dreams, visions, and even through the exercise of certain spiritual gifts in the church. Paul saw the power of God as being given to certain people for the supernatural enablement to accomplish cross-cultural missionary work. Therefore, he would probably emphasize that some of God’s greatest blessings would continue to be found on the frontiers of missions, evangelism, and church planting ministries!
Paul would revel in the African wholistic perception of life that refuses to separate the spiritual from the physical, philosophical, or social causes of man’s problems. The failures of many present day Pastors to teach the word with accuracy or without relevancy would give Paul considerable remorse since he told Timothy, ``Study to show yourself approved of God a workman who does not need to be ashamed handling accurately the word of truth.’’ (2 Tim. 2:14) He would integrate the notions that our battles are not simply with ruthless military rulers who suppress the people for their own selfish gain. No doubt Paul’s ministry would encourage many young men and women to ascend the political ladders so as to become all things to all men in the government positions of leadership. However, Paul’s priorities would definitely reflect the Biblical emphasis on service to the spiritual aspects of man above all else.
Whenever Paul would hear of the following instances, no doubt he would warn those who practice such things that if anyone preaches another gospel besides the true one, let them be accursed. Paul would refuse to mince words with those proponents of African Independent churches who insisted on syncretizing the truth for the sake of compatibility with their traditional religions.
Example - The Nigerian Saturday Punch, Vol. 15. No. 16,466 of May 23, 1992 reported the following incident. ``A prophetess of an Evangelical Church at Iperu-Remo, Ogun State (name withheld) has been arrested for allegedly beating a teenage girl to death. Punch gathered that the girl, Tolulope Sholuade was beaten to death because she was alleged to have been possessed by an evil spirit. Sources disclosed that the prophetess allegedly used some ``spiritually treated’’ canes to flog the girl when she (the prophetess) and some pastors failed to exorcise the alleged evil spirit from the victim.
It was learned that the ``spiritual flogging’’ which lasted four days made the girl to fall into a state of coma before she finally died and was hurriedly buried.
The aggrieved father, who reportedly got a hint of the incident through one of the church members, was said to have raised an alarm which led to the arrest of the prophetess and the victim’s mother. The Assistant Police Commissioner in charge of the Directorate of Investigation and Intelligence at Eleweran Police headquarters, Abeokuta, Mr. Solomon Anegbode who confirmed the incident, said the girl’s body would be exhumed for post-mortem examination.’’
This method is in sharp contrast with Paul’s encounters with evil spirits. Instead Paul took more of a teaching approach which characterized every phase of his ministry. Out of his resident teaching school ministry, God was pleased to work great deliverance ministries through Paul. Observe the approaches, timing, and perspectives Paul took toward the battle against the forces of darkness from Acts 19:8-20:
``Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God. But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publically maligned the Way. So Paul left them. He took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. This went on for two years, so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord.
God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.
Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed. They would say, ``In the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out.’’ Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. One day the evil spirit answered them, ``Jesus I know, and I know about Paul, but who are you?’’ Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding.
When this became known to the Jews and Greeks living in Ephesus, they were all seized with fear, and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor. Many openly confessed their evil deeds. A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand drachmas (A drachmas was a silver coin worth about a day’s wage). In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.’’
It is worthy of note that Paul did not go out looking for demons to exorcise. Neither did Paul seek to confront the forces of darkness, but concentrated on preaching, teaching, and building leaders up in the truth. He saw every household, synagogue, school, community, and organization as a potential sending agency for the gospel. The note of Paul’s authority, freedom, and power is almost an afternote, since it is almost assumed so he did not have to flaunt it before men. Many missionaries, preachers, and teachers allow the ministry to become a ``power trip’’. It is as if they somehow think that they are the possessors of the power rather than the instrument through whom God has chosen to dispense His power. Paul resisted this tendency to become authoritative, manipulative, and irritated when things did not work out as he planned. In Paul’s contextualization ministry, there is a flexibility without being vacillating. Paul emphasized that the word of God is quick and POWERFUL able to discern the thoughts of a man’s heart and able to cut directly to heart of all matters. From this teaching, God allowed many miracles to pour out of Paul’s ministries. This Paul demonstrated in his life, works, and his oral ministries.
Another fascinating characteristic of Paul’s cross-cultural ministry is that they were sensitive to each context. Using local terms, languages, and references to particular needs, Paul would begin with an understanding of the peoples’ perceptions of truth, salvation, God, Christ, The Spirit, and the condition of man. Paul was especially aware that meanings were primarily in people and not just in language. His teaching was a dynamic interaction of the truth he received from the Spirit and its reflection to the changing conditions of the people. Consistently Paul used the Old Testament as a series of proof texts to reasonably support his teaching. Observe Paul’s approach as he uses Jewish history and the scriptures in Acts 13:16-31. His integrative teaching method shows how a teacher in Africa will have to be abreast of the facts of the social, economic, historical, political, philosophical, and religious elements of the day. Proverbs 24:3,4 says:
``Any enterprise is built by wise planning, becomes strong through common sense and profits wonderfully by KEEPING ABREAST OF THE FACTS.’’
With Africans Paul would probably assume the same approach as he did with the Lystrans when he said in Acts 14:15-17:
``In Lystra there sat a man crippled in his feet, who was lame from birth and had never walked. He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed and called out, ``Stand up on your feet!’’ At that, the man jumped up and began to walk.
When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycanonian language, ``The gods have come down to us in human form!’’ Barnabas they called Zeuq, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeuw, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them.
But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: ``Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. In the past, he let all nations go their own way. Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.’’
Notice Paul was so convincing that the offerings intended for Zeus and Hermes were instead offered to Paul. The people had an ancient legend that may have sparked this dramatic change of perception toward Paul. The legend taught that previously Zeus and Hermes had visited Lystra but were noticed only by one old couple. The result was that the entire population was wiped out by the gods except Philemon and Baucis who were made guardians of a splendid temple and who were turned into great trees when they died. These were men who lived in fear, like many worshippers of African traditional gods. Determined to not allow this opportunity to pass them again, the crowd reacted impulsively thinking that Paul and Barnabas were these gods in human flesh. These were men who were not familiar with Jewish history or the God of the Old Testament like many Africans. They were more responsive to their own gods whom they had worshipped for hundreds of years.
Notice how Paul uses nature as an illustration of God’s mighty power in furnishing every good things for all people. He links the effects to the cause. He illustrates how the concrete has an invisible causative agent. This was the kind of inductive thinking that the Lystrans were conditioned to using. Their thoughts moved from example to principle rather than visa versa. He started from the here and now to get the people to the there and then. Paul presents God as one who is benevolent, sympathetic, and resourceful even to those who are not in fellowship with Him. Paul’s ability to heal the crippled man, plus his powerful preaching persuaded the Lystrans of his supernaturally endowed authority. His was a message and a demonstration that spoke to their hearts about an overcoming God who could conquer their fears and deliver them through hardships while providing them with abundant provisions. Paul would no doubt preach that message to Africans and also enjoy great responses.
Paul looked for the good in the beliefs, realities, and perceptions of truth from the receptors perceptions and extrapolated from it. Charles Kraft say that preaching that will have power and meaning in cross-cultural ministries should be receptor in its orientations:
``A receptor oriented communicator . . . . is careful to bend every effort to meet his receptors where they are. He will choose topics that relate directly to the felt needs of the receptors. He will choose methods of presentation that are appealing to them, he will use language that is maximally intelligible to them.’’ (Kraft, Communicating the Gospel God’s Way, William Carey, 1979)
In this way Paul’s ministry within Africa would show the people courtesy and respect for their histories, conditioned thinking patterns, and world views. Contrary to many perceptions of power preaching in Africa, it does not necessarily have to be confrontational to capture people’s attention. Africans are inherently spiritual people who are sensitive to the working of the supernatural in every aspect of life.
With a confidence that the truth of God can relate to every need and situation, Paul would probably not alter his content only its contextualization to suit the perceptions of the Africa conditions. Paul would show today’s Africans how God had continued to work through history, through general revelations, and through key people to bring the liberating light of the gospel to a world trapped in darkness. Yet, Paul would spend a great deal of his time building a trust, rapport, and communication channels with people before embarking on his teaching ministries. Paul knew that speaking without focusing his listeners attention would be like shooting a gun without taking aim first. Not only could it be harmful, but also potentially damaging to the credibility of the speaker. In this Paul was able to use the audience’s past for the linking of the truth with their realities; he used the present perceptions to connect it with the revealing ministries of the Spirit to point to the truths about Christ’s freeing ministries; he used the present to bring warning to the unbelieving and inspiration to the believing of a better hope dawning ahead.
Notice the elements of Paul’s mainly inductive approach to a culture similar to many in Africa:
1. He began with a demonstration of the Spirit and power. He healed the crippled man through the power of his preaching in the name of Jesus.
2. He provided examples that preceded his arguments in his preaching and teaching. Start with concrete illustrations before discussing principles with your audience.
3. People in Africa learn much more through discussions than through lectures. They are much more apt to understand the implications of what is said through participation, reflection, and group analysis than through private note-taking.
4. Draw heavily from the visible surrounding contexts in your teaching. Paul borrowed generously from nature, the local news, and conversations to provide bridges of communication to his down to earth audiences.
5. Speak primarily to those with an unbelieving world view. These are people who are supernaturally oriented, but are generally unaware of the scriptures, Christ, and the Spirit’s nature and ministries. Do not assume that people have a background in the Old or New Testament when you are referring to basics such as salvation, sin, sanctification, justification, and forgiveness.
6. Paul began to reflect about matters of creation, history of the universe, and the concepts that are commonly understood through the general revelation of God. He related these things to the meeting of people’s needs, lives, and legends about the supernatural.
7. Paul based his communication on an understanding of people’s previous experiences with God and truth. He moved them from their knowns to the unknowns truths of scripture. This presupposes that a contextualizer will have to demonstrate a caring concern for what the people consider meaningful, relevant, and reinforcing their cultural norms and beliefs.
8. Paul showed great respect, admiration, and veneration for the people’s backgrounds. He never acted discourteously across cultures, for fear of creating a stumbling block that may unnecessarily hinder the reception of truth.
9. Paul combined the people’s perspectives with the truths about Christ and their need to respond. He always gave people an opportunity to believe, repent, and receive Christ. Evangelism was the heart of Paul’s ministries. He even championed the cause of the Gentiles at the risk of his own life. Paul would go to the regions beyond in Africa, even if it meant death, discomfort, and great personal suffering!
Paul continually saw his role as a teacher, trainer, and nurturer. He certainly would not major on itinerary ministries if he were practicing contextualized ministries in Africa today. Instead, he would stress that evangelism was the responsibility of every family and individual belonging to the body of Christ. His role involved equipping men and women for the work of service for the building up of the body of Christ. Somehow certain missions in the past have missed this strategic theme of Paul’s ministry. Consequently, development, industry, or social concerns became more of a focus than maturing the believers in their ministries. Even the current emphasis on church planting among unreached people group can distort Paul’s emphasis on bringing everyone to complete maturity in Christ. The popularity of the unreached people group movement has tended to skew many mission organizations’ focus. If Paul were doing contextualized cross-cultural ministries in Africa, he would strongly object to this imbalanced approached. He would emphasize that planting churches is the spearhead, but nurturing, watering, and developing indigenous leaders from these churches must also remain a balanced mark of a contextualized strategy. Without this underscoring, the church will tend to be a mile wide in fellowship, but only an inch deep in mature leadership.
Conflicts are bound to arise in the process of contextualized cross-cultural ministries. Paul gave the churches that he started a measure of freedom to determine their own agendas and procedures. He refused to give into the temptations to dictate to them about his preferences for the ways that the Corinthian believers set up their worship services, for example. Paul even went so far to show how confident he was in the Corinthian believers’ judgment when he told them. ``If you forgive anyone, I also forgive him . . . I have also forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake, in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes.’’ (2 Cor. 2:10,11) While discipline had been exercised on an offender, some people still felt that it was not enough. Unless mercy, compassion, and genuine forgiveness is practiced in the church, many will be driven away through legalism, fatalism, humanism, or even spiritism. Satan is very clever in using these devices for his purposes.
Paul refused to allow anyone to take the matter personally. Injury to one’s feelings is not nearly as important as restoring fellowship between men and God. Contextualizer must avoid this pervasive temptation and refuse to take criticisms personally. These are people who do more damage to the cause of cross-cultural missions than good. Discipline, criticisms, and conflicts can either be seen as positive catalyst for growth or they can be allowed to defeat us. Paul wanted discipline to be used for correction, instruction, restoration, and improvement of individuals and the church. He wanted people to see that the church of Christ does not use abstract or subjective human standards of justice, but those which are from God. Chastisements must always be tempered according to each individual, his context, and the meanings within each culture or we may unconsciously be driving some to despair needlessly.
Paul wanted to develop responsible indigeous leaders who would know how to deal with crisis in ways that would provide lasting solutions to their problems. He squarely centered the authority in each local church that he planted. Paul recognized the ability of the Spirit of God to use the word of God in the hearts of the godly elders to direct His church. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Paul told the Corinthians to obey their leaders and submit to them as those who must give an account to God for their leadership. Observe the implications of Paul’s statement:
``You know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints. I urge you, brothers, to submit to such as these and to everyone who joins in the work, and labors at it. . . . Fortunatus and Achaicus, they have supplied what was lacking from you. For they refreshed my spirit and yours also. Such men deserve recognition.’’ (I Cor. 16:15,18)
Notice that Paul qualifies them for leadership not on the basis of their intellect, training, or previous positions held in the community. Instead, the criteria he uses for promotion to leadership is faithfulness in caring for physical, social, emotional, and the spiritual needs of others. Stephanas’s family completely involved themselves together in the ministry of their house church fellowship. He gained people’s respect because of his spontaneous ability to respond to human and spiritual needs. One’s status, rank, and role does not require honor as much as the continuous service to the people and purposes of God. This gave the church a sense of family caring, resourcefulness, and permanency. The idea of using seed families in Africa continues to be one of the most effective concepts of planting and growing mature churches.
The Deeper Life Church in Nigeria has capitalized on this Pauline concept of caring house fellowship to plant and grow hundreds of churches in the past decade. In Alan Isaacson’s book on Deeper Life published by Hodder 1990, makes this observation on p. 164:
``It seems that it is in the caring that much of the life and strength of the Deeper Life church occurs - practical, everyday caring - together with Bible study and evangelism. The miracles and healings are obviously encouraging signs of God’s powerful involvement in the life of the church - but the caring continues for every member, every day . . . .
We emphasise both the spiritual life, and also catering for members’ needs. The church cares for the needy. If a family needs financial aid, the House Caring Fellowship leader will see what to do. If the House Caring Fellowship cannot help, they ask the Area. If the Area cannot help, they ask the Zone! . . . One man was not OK financially, so his House Caring Fellowship paid his house rent for him. One needy family was given foodstuffs by the House Caring Fellowship. I know a brother who needed some material to make himself some clothes. Somebody wrapped some cloth, wrote the brother’s name on it, and left it at the church. so the brother received the cloth and he didn’t know who it came from. I have seen many things like that. If you have a problem, another member will come to pray with you. Many problems have been solved in this way.’’
Paul’s churches grew qualitative in their love for one another which enabled the church to grow quantitatively as men were attracted by the magnet of genuine - wholistic caring. Paul’s ability to make friends and work closely with these associates, multiplied his ministries in ways that perhaps even he did not fully appreciate. Even though Paul was blessed with an outgoing nature, he encouraged timid Timothy to entrust the things that he had learned in the PRESENCE OF MANY WITNESSES, to other faithful men who will be able to teach others also. (2 Tim. 2:2) Having a network of friends, colleagues, and associates is a very African way of extending one’s influence. Many decisions in Africa are decided on the basis of who you know rather than on what you know. This networking of relationships fit the cultural patterns of a collectivistic society that relies on the interpersonal dimension more than the academic. In our seminary’s church planting and film evangelism ministries, the seminary students continue to amaze me with the wide sweeping connections they have throughout this country with nearly 100 million people. No wonder, the Nigerian E.C.W.A. seminary students have successfully led over 35,000 people to Christ and started nearly 45 churches over the past eight years of ministry. They use their friends who have friends in high and low places to open doors for their preaching, teaching, and counselling contextualized ministries. As they minister in these units and through these networks there is better follow-up, accountability, and bridges of trust developed to the governing body of believers. As it was true for Paul, family and friendship connections are some of the best catalysts for contextualized church growth and church planting in Africa.
Part of the reason why Paul’s contextualized approach to ministry would enjoy good success in Africa today lies in the fact that Paul identified himself with the total man. Africans are aware that change is an inevitable part of life. ``No condition is permanent’’ is a favorite slogan on hundreds of taxis and lorries throughout Nigeria. In Africa, society is not understood so much as in clear-cut categories of economics, politics, religion and vocational pursuits. Instead, Africa societies comprise sets of people, tribes, organizations, institutions in interactions with one another. There is more of a symbiotic view of life than a competitive western outlook. Paul said, ``I have become ALL things to ALL men that by ALL means, I may save some.’’ (I Cor. 9:16-23)
He understood that cross-cultural contextualized missions meant that one would have to involve himself in the local, regional, and national identities and problems of the people. He would draw upon his Jewish group mechanisms more than from his Greek individual orientations. He would attend naming ceremonies, book dedications, chieftancy celebrations, launchings of new denominational headquarters. Paul would aim at satisfying the communal and public needs for confirmation of people’s status, roles, ranks, and respect. He would maintain a social entity and identity through the power of the gospel to adapt to any situation. Certainly Paul would be an advocate of human rights and caring governmental policies. Paul would not stand still at the gross inequities of distribution of assets in most African countries. However, his focus was always so that with these identification ministries, he could make the gospel more relevant, need meeting, and all-encompassing for all status of African society. Paul would not feel content to only minister to the grass-roots of the community. Instead, Paul would probably begin with those in the churches who represented the early adapters of modern African socio-economic classes. Through these influencers, Paul would try to instill a transformation of values.
His tactics flowed from his understandings of people and cultures. For that reason Paul looked at every family, individual, people, or organization as a potential source or sending agency for cross-cultural missions and evangelism. Perhaps, this explains the fact that he was able to speak about the Thessalonians with such glowing affirmations when he said,
``You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. And so you became a MODEL to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. The Lord’s message range out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia - your faith in God has become known everywhere . . . They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God . . . ’’ (I Thes. 1:6-9)
Paul saw the Thessalonican church as exemplary. They were seen as the pattern for how many other young churches could develop through faith, truth, and love. They became the precedent setting pattern for many other house churches to examine for how they could be transformed by the renewing of their minds. Paul knew that people are always looking for good illustrations of the kinds of changes that are possible. The believers were his brothers not just his members or followers. They were men and women who he addressed as the beloved by God. This phrase was used by Jews normally when they wanted to refer to extremely great men like Moses and Solomon. These humble Gentiles were now afforded the highest compliment that a Jew could extend to anyone and Paul knew that the letter would be circulated to many. These were pioneers of the faith who were willing to trumpet their faith near and far without fear of persecution. When one considers the boldness of many African believers, it becomes clear that they will be considered equals to the Thessalonians in their fearless forthright pronouncements of the gospel and its implications. When common sense would seem to call for more subtle approach to cross-cultural ministries, it is usually those who refuse to be intimidated that are the most successful. The phrase could be understood at ``crashing out like a roll of thunder.’’ Nothing will be able to stand in the way of its power!