Should We Be Concerned About Relevance? (Dec 1992)

By Matt Dabbs

by Allen Mann
December, 1992

8We moved to Manila, Philippines, a sprawling, bustling, third-world city of 11 million, in May of 1985. The intense tropical heat of summer was waning and the freshness and inconvenience of the rainy season was dawning as we located housing and began our language study. God led my wife and me to our first receptive soul in a matter of weeks, and a young lady named Pamela was immersed into Christ.

Armed with our Bibles, a few Filipino expressions, and a lot of cultural ignorance, we began trying to plant a church. I had to rely on the Filipino Christians to teach me what methods would reach their countrymen. They taught me how to relate to them so I could share Jesus with their family and friends.

I learned about Filipino TV shows, Filipino humor, local basketball heroes, movie stars, and many other things that would help me communicate the message of Jesus to their time and place. When our American brothers visited the church, they would typically talk about how refreshing and “different” our worship was. The accepted these differences as necessary to our task of relating to teh Filipino people in their own cultural setting.

I was not accused of being “wrong” or “liberal” simply because my methods were culturally relevant to the people among whom I was working. Yet these very tags are hung on American churches who try to be relevant to their culture in the 1990s. They are accused of embracing heresy: “the new hermeneutic.”

More often than not, what is going on has nothing to do with theological liberalism or a hermeneutic that challenges the authority of Scripture. It is simply old missionary methodology brought home. Some of our churches are finally beginning to apply sound mission principles in our local settings. Let me explain.

When I was studying to be a missionary, I was urged to apply the mission methods of Paul in the context of the Philippines. I was told that I needed to become “all things to all men so that I might by all possible means save some.” This is a sound biblical principle and one that al properly trained missionaries try to follow.

Missionaries stress the importance of learning the language and culture of the people they have chosen to evangelize. They need to make Jesus relevant and understandable to the people they approach. They cannot win others to Jesus if they cannot communicate with them in a way that can be understood. They cannot share Jesus with others if they are offensive or irrelevant to their life situations.

When in the Philippines, we did not have a Sunday evening service. When asked about this practice by visiting Americans, I explained that our morning service lasted in excess of two hours, and that our people were simply too poor to travel back and forth to the meeting place twice in one day. The American Christians said, “That makes sense.”

We did not use the name “Church of Christ” in identifying ourselves because that name in the local language would associate us with an indigenous Filipino cult by the same name. The visiting Americans said, “That makes sense.”

Missionaries have been non-traditional and unconventional in their methodology for years. People generally agree that these methods are valid attempts by missionaries to be relevant to their new culture. The thinking seems to be that, moving to a foreign country, one is reasonably expected to be different from his past because he is in a new culture. Missionaries are typically not accused of embracing the values of the new culture simply because they adapt their methods to it in order to share the Good News of Jesus.

When I teach Filipinos that Jesus is greater than all the evil spirits they believe in, I am not accused of believing in evil spirits. I believe in Jesus and affirm that his power is greater than anything or anyone that stands over against him! That is the message my statement communicates to my Filipino hearers. In America, I would affirm that Jesus is greater than our fears, anxieties, and problems. It is the same message made culturally relevant to different audiences.

The primary reason for our lack of growth and even our declining membership is that we are out of touch with our culture. We have a 1950s rural methodology and tradition in a 1992 urban culture. The “change’ some are decrying is simply an attempt to relate to people of our time and place in an understandable way. We are trying to learn their language and culture in the same way missionaries have for years in foreign settings. Without embracing their values, we are only trying to be intelligible and “user-friendly” to people who need to know Jesus.

I do not believe our culture is rejecting the message we preach. Neither do I believe that we should change or abandon our message. The challenge for us is to be faithful to the gospel without being wed to irrelevant ways of doing things. God cannot be honored with anything less.Wineskins Magazine

Allen Mann

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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