Missions Launch

Helping those who help the world

Contextualization: Spicing up Service in Argentina

by Heather Carr |

Argentina, Contextualization in Missions, South America

red chili peppersDespite a harsh economic climate, the Reformed Church of Mar del Plata, Argentina, is taking steps to reach a community in need. Latin rhythms are breaking out in services with simple, direct lyrics set to merengue and salsa, among others. The lyrics are infused with words like we and us to heighten the sense of community among this Argentine congregation. Services come complete with the sounds, smells, and tastes of a fiesta, thanks to the direction of Pastor Gerardo Carlos Cristian Oberman. The church operates by the philosophy that liturgy is an expression of ourselves, created as a service of love to the Lord, and in response to everyday questions.

Along with the joyful Latin beat, worship incorporates dance and mime. Drama is sometimes included in the call for confession or biblical texts, with traditional biblical actions infused into the performance, such as the laying on of hands or the washing of feet. Worshipers may leave their seats to walk around while singing, or come forward to circles for prayer and intercession.

The language of the people, along with symbolism, strong gestures, warmth, and sensitivity allows worship to provide what the world does not—acceptance and value for its people. By embracing the local culture, the church is reaching out to the people of Mar del Plata at a time when the needs are many.

To find out more about the Reformed Church of Mar del Plata, Argentina, check out the Calvin Institue of Worship’s article Another World is Possible: Witness in Argentina.

Photo by Robert Thomson

Contextualization in South India

by Heather Carr |

Contextualization in Missions, India

flameChristians have long expressed thanksgiving and praise to our God through worship. The Father is often glorified with shouts of “amen,” and “hallelujah.” Times of prayer and reflection offer us an opportunity to consider the sacrifice Jesus made on our behalf. Offerings are also typical, but do not always require a checkbook. South Indian Christians have found new ways to adapt some old customs into their worship of the Lord.

In South India, some Christians have adapted the traditional Hindu act of worship known as Parikrama into their worship services. Christian worshipers walk slowly around a mandala, which is a space decorated with flowers and stones traditionally used as an aid to meditation. Once a symbol of the universe, the mandala has taken on a new meaning among the South Indian Christian community as a representation of the Holy of Holies.

The people of the congregation walk meditatively around the mandala, holding their heads slightly bowed in honor of the divinity that is in our God. Their hands are held clasped together in a traditional salutation known as the sign of Namaskar.

Gifts are left in offering as a part of the Parikrama ceremony. Flowers or other representations of God’s beautiful creation are left around the mandala. The Christian community in South India has successfully married tradition and truth through the modern Parikrama. Thanksgiving, praise and offering are raised to the Lord through this unique act of worship.

Photo by ms Belvedere

The Parable of the Lost Dog?

by Heather Carr |

Contextualization in Missions, Peru

puppyWhile living in the jungle of Peru, missionary Larry Garman found himself facing a challenge he hadn’t prepared for. While organizing his thoughts for the Sabbath message he routinely delivered to his small native congregation, Larry came to the realization that his message on the Parable of the Lost Sheep was going to be more difficult to convey than he first imagined. The meaning of the message would surely be lost or diluted by the fact that the Aguaruna people had never seen sheep before.

With the help of a lost puppy, Larry found that a sheep in dog’s clothing was the solution he was searching for. One night that week, Larry and his wife, Addie, were awakened by the call of an Aguaruna Indian woman wandering the jungle. As you can imagine, the jungle is no place for wandering after sunset. When Larry inquired as to the reason for this woman’s night walking, he was told that she was searching for her lost puppy.

Dogs play an important role in Aguaruna culture.  They assist the men of the community with the hunting of game for food. Puppies are reared by the women of the village until they are old enough to join the hunters. The people of this Peruvian village may not have understood the value God sees in them through the traditional tale of a shepherd’s joy, but they were able to understand the heart of this message through Larry’s adaptation of Jesus’ words. The Parable of the Lost Dog is just one example of the many creative ways God is reaching his children.  

Photo by wsilver

Kenyan Artists Contextualize Stations of the Cross

by Heather Carr |

Africa, Contextualization in Missions, Kenya

kenyan jesus and maryArtists have long put paint to canvas, or chisel to stone, in an effort to help us comprehend the sacrifice Christ made for us. Many Christians put these masterpieces to use in a practice known as the Stations of the Cross. Artistic impressions of the hours leading to Jesus’ death and burial are displayed to assist followers in reflecting on the scriptures. In Kenya, one church has used this practice to reach the local Christian community at its heart.

A trained team of young Kenyan artists was asked to paint a set of stations that would reflect the life and environment of the people of Turkana, Kenya. Authentic Turkana people, dress and localities are pictured in the familiar scenes of the Passion. Roman soldiers are replaced by Kenyan warriors. Pilate is shown in the traditional dress of a Turkana chief, and the cross fashioned from a local tree. The backdrop of many of the stations is comprised of local scenery, including the shops and houses of its residents.

The Turkana people now share an intimate connection with Jesus’ presence among us. Through the work of these Kenyan artists, personal relationships with Christ are strengthened through an intimate understanding of the suffering of our savior. Remembering that Jesus knows the pain of human suffering offers hope to a people who regularly face the burdens of disease and hunger. To view all of the Stations of the Cross in Lodwar Cathederal, Kenya, check out the Africa: St. Patrick’s Missions magazine article Through Nomadic Eyes.

Dance: A Language of Worship and Love in Bali

by Heather Carr |

Asia, Bali, Contextualization in Missions, Indonesia, Oceania

bali dancers

Trace the roots of dance in worship and you will find some of the most beloved characters of the bible. David danced in the streets at the recovery of the ark of the Lord (2 Samuel 6:14-16). Miriam, after narrowly escaping Pharaoh’s wrath, rejoiced at the freedom of her people with song and dance (Exodus 15:20). Today God’s people still rejoice through dance at his mighty power and love.

The people of Bali have found new ways to interpret the traditional dance that permeates their culture. Balinese dance is not just an art of graceful movement, but also a means of communicating a rich message. Gestures of the body convey ideas and emotions. The Christian community of Bali has transformed these age-old methods into an expression of devotion to God. Each part of the body is symbolic of a different thought or idea. The thumb, which traditionally stood for wisdom, is now a symbol of God’s wisdom and providence. The ring finger, once understood as beauty, is now interpreted as God’s grace. The pinkie, historically symbolic of trust, now represents God’s faithfulness and eternal life.

Body parts are not the only means of interpreting Balinese dance. The movements themselves also hold meaning. Symmetrical movements once stood for the balance between good and evil. Now when the Christian Balinese move in graceful symmetry, it is understood as God’s justice and mercy, judgment and grace. Psalm 150 bids us to praise him with tambourine and dancing.

Click the video below to see one of the many traditional Balinese dances.

Coconuts, Sweet Potatoes and Communion

by Heather Carr |

Contextualization in Missions, Cultural Sensitivity

coconut treeWhen I went away to college, I thought receiving Holy Communion was radical stuff. Little did I know, the world of the Blessed Sacrament is about as varied and diverse as the people who receive it. Filipino Christians have been known to replace bread and wine with coconuts, which are a mainstay in their diet. The coconut is broken, and the recipients drink of its milk and eat of the fruit’s flesh, though some have complained about the milk’s pale color. In Taiwan, a communing Christian may encounter a duo of sweet potatoes and tea while partaking of the Body and Blood.

Indonesia offers an interesting twist. Theologians there tried using chicken meat in the sacrament. The popular bird is considered to be a symbol of God’s love, based on the words of Jesus himself in Matthew 23:37, “how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings …” The rooster also serves as a reminder of our vulnerability. A warning that we, too, could deny Christ as Peter once did. Strong rice wine is also used to replace traditional wine or grape juice. Now that would make for an interesting Sunday morning service.

The unique ways in which Christ’s command to take and eat are put into practice today are a beautiful reflection of God’s creation. No matter what the means of receiving Holy Communion, we all share the common reminder of the sacrifice Christ made for us, a sacrifice which bonds us to Him for eternity.

Coconut tree photo by Swami Stream

The Dangers of Over-Contextualization

by Melissa Chang |

Contextualization in Missions, Stories from the Field, Thailand

Buddha StatuesWhen it comes to contextualization, how far is too far? This is a question faced by missionaries on the field every day.  One such missionary is Karl who is currently residing in Thailand.  He has been faced with the question of contextualization lately in his dealings with new Christians, ex-Buddhists, and the local church. This is an excerpt from his blog, Gleanings from the Field.

I’ve heard about a missionary in Northeast Thailand who is teaching converts to call themselves “New Buddhists” (new in the sense that they believe in Christ). Okay, so perhaps the offense of being perceived as converting to a Western religion is avoided by avoiding the label “Christian” but there is certainly an equal if not greater problem which is created. Isn’t the term “New Buddhist” disingenuous? Doesn’t it create confusion and a lack of clarity? I’m all for hanging onto all aspects of culture that are not sinful but doesn’t there have to be some break with the past as a person takes on a new identity in Christ? If I were from an secular humanistic atheistic background and I believed in Christ, could I legitimately stay in my cultural context in order to win my atheist friends and family to Christ by calling myself a “New Atheist”? People whom we are trying to share Christ with are smarter than that and Christians should be more honest than that.

Another example: My wife and I were eating with some Thai friends recently, a Christian couple who work with students. The husband told us that his brother, who is an elder at a well known church in Bangkok, was told by the pastor there that he shouldn’t make a fuss about participating in the Buddhist part of his wedding ceremony as he got married to a Buddhist woman. I don’t know the exact reason why this Thai pastor, who did a PhD on contextualization at a seminary in the West, advised this man in such a way. Our Thai friends who told us this certainly did not think that this was either appropriate or faithful to the Gospel. But I do wonder if this pastor gave such advice in the name of not causing offense that could impede eventual acceptance of the Gospel by the bride or her family.

How far should you go to fit in?

by Melissa Chang |

Contextualization in Missions, Hindu Contextualization, India

 Puja ceremony

When in a  new culture, there is a great struggle to figure out how much of that culture to fit into without “watering down” what it means to truly follow Jesus. Where do you draw the line? 

I myself had a struggle with this issue on a recent trip to India with a devout Hindu family. I wanted to respect them and find a place of connection with them. I was hoping to do this with as much respect and common ground as possible while staying true to my own beliefs. I certainly didn’t want to offend them, but I was hoping to somehow talk to them about my own beliefs. But, once I got there and was faced with their Hindu ceremonies, the issue of where to draw the lines in my own life became very real to me.

ganges offering

Before you read the examples, you should also note that I don’t really know that much about the Hindu religion, so I was at even more of a loss.

-To wash away their sins, they would bathe in the Ganges river. That one was easy for me. I was already washed in the blood of Jesus, so I didn’t need my sins washed away.

-But what about placing gifts of flowers onto the river to send their prayers to their God? I mean, it was very moving and beautiful. Couldn’t I place an offering to send down the river as a symbol of my prayer to my God? Well, I decided not to because I didn’t really understand the meaning of the ceremony and didn’t want make my hosts mistakenly think I was Hindu. So, I gracefully bowed out.

-Another situation I faced was that every morning my hosts would pray in the morning in front of a small alter in their home, and then put some ashes on my head so I would be protected all day. When they did this they would kiss my cheek and tell me they loved me. I decided that it was an expression of their love for me so I just smiled and said Thanks.

-After going to a temple to pray and make an offering they brought out some candy, that was like a blessing from their gods, as far as I could tell. This time I just told them that I followed a different God and didn’t want to make Him jealous.

Ganges Bathing

So, did I do the right things? I am sure I made many mistakes. However, these questions are really worth considering, especially when figuring out how to portray the basics of following Jesus to those of a different culture. I think good advice would be to research and learn from those that have experience in all these things, and look to God Himself to guide you.

Offering photo by judepics
Bathing photo by A. www.viajar24h.com 
Puja ceremony by
orange tuesday  

The Struggle of Contextualization

by Melissa Chang |

Contextualization in Missions, Cultural Sensitivity, Muslim Contextualization

boy prayingOne of the most difficult struggles in church planting and missions in new cultures isn’t just the culture shock, it’s figuring out the fine line between respecting the culture of a people without watering down the gospel or compromising its message. For example, according to a blog called LeakeSpeak, here are a few questions faced when Muslims become Christians:

  • By what name do you call God? Do you tell people that Allah is not God and then try and introduce them to the one true God, giving him some other name? Or do you say that Allah is the one true God and then try and help lead people to a clearer understanding of his true nature?
  • Can a believer worship God in a mosque? Or should s/he never go to a mosque again after beginning to follow Christ?
  • Muslims customarily kneel and pray five times a day. Is this an okay practice for a follower of Christ to continue, or should a Muslim-background believer be encouraged to avoid it?

In a comment posted later, the author tried to show us what the line might look like from an Americna perspective. Here is his comment:

Taking it back to an example in our own culture, which of the following would go over better with you if you were a non-Christian parent in the U.S.?

–Your kid comes home, says he’s accepted Christ, he continues to live in your community as an American, and you see a radical change in his life, OR

–Your kid comes home, says he’s accepted Christ, he’s therefore no longer of this world, so he renounces his U.S. citizenship, refuses to salute the flag or say the Pledge of Allegiance, burns his passport, will never watch a baseball game again because it’s the American passtime, and abstains from apple pie because that’s also too American.

Obviously, it is of utmost important to find that line that continues to maintain culture, without compromising what the very basics are of becoming a Christ follower. The services might change, the music will certainly change…but there is so much more to consider.  What is the bottom line of what it means to follow Jesus and how can we only pass that on to the new believers without forcing our own culture upon them?  That is the question.

Photo by Terminalnomad Photography

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