Academic journal article International Review of Mission

Evangelism and Culture: Natural-Born Enemies?

Academic journal article International Review of Mission

Evangelism and Culture: Natural-Born Enemies?

Article excerpt

Since the 1960s, the relation between mission and missionaries on the one hand and local culture on the other has often been depicted as one full of tension and, eventually, one of mutual negation. Sometimes, mission has even been seen as an important agent in the destruction of (primitive) culture. New research in this field has shown that the relationship between mission and culture had more than simply negative aspects. Mission, in more than one case, also contributed significantly in protecting local language and culture from total extinction by racist colonial rule. At the Conference on World Mission and Evangelism in Salvador, Brazil (1996), these new insights seemed to have done their work: the old analysis of the relationship between mission and culture accentuating the negative aspects was no longer powerfully represented. The discussion on this relationship was far more balanced than ever before in an ecumenical gathering.

The danger though was that the blame (as soon as culture was discussed) formerly cast on "mission" would now be thrown on "evangelism." The whole situation seemed to invite to that effect: the word evangelism already sounds imperialistic; several secular reports on its action show insensitivity towards local culture, etc. Should the church worldwide at least not be severely warned against engaging in culture-insensitive evangelism, or even against evangelism as such? Surely, a conference on world mission and evangelism should discuss such recommendations! It was no wonder, and indeed very wise, that Salvador put these questions on its agenda.

At the conference, the first question about evangelism asked what we mean by "evangelism." The mutual understanding was the communication of the gospel of Jesus Christ, nothing more and nothing less. Evangelism in itself does not indicate a specific method of communication, nor does It speak exclusively of cross-cultural action. Very different methods, verbal and less verbal, primitive or high tech, may be employed; evangelism can be seen as the work of a particular church in its own society, as well as an intercultural event realized by different partners. It is understood that three main actors play important roles in any process of evangelism: the message, the messenger and the recipient. The message is clear: the gospel of liberation and justice, of new life. The messenger may take different forms -- a specific person, local or foreigner, or a Christian community. The recipient is defined as an individual or as a group of people not familiar with the gospel. But the recipient can as well be someone living within or at the edges of the church

At first sight, this description of evangelism seems to be rather obvious. At Salvador though, in a very diverse setting of people, it proved to be important not to use evangelism as a "container-word," whereby everybody could put in his or her own meaning and/or frustrations, but rather to make it abundantly clear what we were talking about during those days.

The next question was how evangelism operated. It was clear that this missionary action is not realized in a kind of tabula rasa situation, with pure-gospel-preachers over against empty-minded-recipients. Evangelism always takes place in a cultural environment that may or may not have had previous encounters with the gospel, or with one of its products, Christianity. It means that a preacher always has to be aware of the cultural understanding he/she has, or, in case of a community, they have. The messenger should further be aware that his/her understanding of the culture of the recipient is bound by the limits of his/her own cultural categories. The recipient operates in the same way: the message is understood within the possibilities that his/her culture provides. It is of Vital importance to discern these processes, for it is culture that decides whether or not the message can be heard and understood. Or, culture can limit or can enlighten the meaning of the gospel. …

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