The Missionary Challenge of Christendom and Modernity in South Africa: A Dutch Reformed Account

By Nieder-Hettmann, Jan H. | International Review of Mission, April 2003 | Go to article overview

The Missionary Challenge of Christendom and Modernity in South Africa: A Dutch Reformed Account


Nieder-Hettmann, Jan H., International Review of Mission


In this paper I intend to venture on a preliminary interpretation of South African history from an Afrikaner perspective, with a view to proposing an agenda for the missional transformation of the Dutch Reformed Church. Following the lead of Lesslie Newbigin's so-called "Gospel and Our Culture" agenda, I wish to explore our context from the hypothesis that both culture and Christendom are in crisis in South Africa, and that this challenges us to revision the task today for the Dutch Reformed Church in the country.

Our "rainbow nation"

Whereas most Western societies can readily be described in terms of a dominant culture that is modem and becoming post-modern, South Africa presents much more of a kaleidoscopic picture. As a modem state, it emerged out of a colonial history of 350 years, as diverse colonial, settler, and indigenous forces vied for hegemony. It was not simply a matter of Western culture encountering an array of indigenous cultures; consecutive waves of disparate colonial forces also led to a struggle between competing variations of Western culture and Christendoms. Within these, the gospel has been interpreted in various ways to accommodate a plurality of worldviews and interests.

Hence, a single dominant cultural paradigm demanding the allegiance of all groups has until recently not clearly been in evidence. Yet, we have of late been going through a transformation of such seismic proportions that it influences all of our life together, as well as our particular cultures. All of society, and not only politics, is now impacted by a hitherto unknown consciousness and desire for freedom. (1) This has offset a powerful wave of secularization, and has left all aspects of our public life awash. The situation has now been institutionalized because our new democracy is founded on a liberal constitution and one of the most liberal bills of rights in the world to protect the individual. This development constitutes a new cultural paradigm within which all other existing cultures of Western and indigenous African extraction have to negotiate their place. It tolls the bell for our various Christian projects and poses a formidable crisis for our churches that have a history of legal, social and cul tural establishment.

Only a small number of people in South Africa, through their exposure to Western tertiary education, have been influenced by post-Enlightenment culture, and could be considered to have a thorough modernist worldview. Now, however, as a result of the freedom struggle, this culture is gaining dominance over all other worldviews. (2) As Anthony Balcomb vividly portrays the new situation:

Sangomas [magical functionaries] open conferences for intellectuals, praise singers and enter parliament. Whites go to soccer matches, blacks to rugby matches, gays parade in the streets, and born-again Christians take to the streets in protest at all this licentiousness. South Africa has suddenly become a liberal society. It is an extraordinary phenomenon. And it is unique in Africa. (3)

In a highly pluralist society such as ours, the new uninhibited integration of various ethnic and cultural inflections is furthermore promoting pluralism as a worldview, with the concomitant subjectivism that is elsewhere associated with the postmodern condition.

Even so, not all our peoples are affected in the same way by the paradigmatic changes of the recent past. The moot question is how our various social, racial and cultural categories are responding to secularization and the ascendancy of a modernist worldview. Acculturation can yield different results depending on a variety of historical and cultural factors. An important aspect of the South African Gospel and Our Culture(s) agenda is to assess our shared national culture and the way in which the plurality of ethnic cultures relates to it. Missionary anthropologist, Prof. Piet Jonas, has taken the lead in this respect in a paper read at a conference of the Gospel and Our Culture(s) Network in South Africa. …

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