Incarnational faith and mission through multicultural exchange

I am reading an article written by Professor Douglas Sweeney at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, called “Modern Evangelicalism and global Christianity Identity,” in After Imperialism, edited by Richard R. Cook and David W. Pao (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2011), 1–22.

I find something very interesting about the evangelical missionary movement and how some missionaries repudiated imperialistic methods. I am glad that Sweeney is happy to critique the mistakes of some evangelical missionary endeavours, and highlight the good work of people like Hudson Taylor. Here are two quotes.

Western culture often suffused their presentations of the faith. And Western military and economic force too often guaranteed that those they went to serve would bear the weight of all their baggage. As a host of history writers has made clear in recent years, modern evangelical missionaries have often been seen as agents of imperial expansion on the part of Western powers. And, as Brian Stanley has shown, this view has nowhere been more prevalent than in the land of China, where the Opium Wars were only the most egregious sign of aggression on the part of Western “Christians”. (page 14)

This is not the whole story, though, as Andrew Porter explains. Many missionaries repudiated imperialistic methods, as did many local Christians who contextualized their faith more fully than foreigners ever could. In China, a county that has a long history of Christianity and high-level Christian efforts to indigenize the faith, Hudson Taylor and his nineteenth-century China Inland Mission favoured “faith mission” strategies for raising their support, clearly distancing their ministries from Western money and might so they could embrace indigenous cultural forms authentically. (p. 15)

Two things are noteworthy here. Hudson Taylor and co-workers distanced themselves from Western money and might. In other words, their mission work depended on God, rather then the resources and power of the British Empire. Second, such practice enabled them to embrace indigenous cultural forms authentically. This is vital. Embracing indigenous cultural forms is very much a biblical missional practice. Sweeney’s remarks here are helpful.

Further, as Andrew Walls insists, Christianity has always been an incarnational faith, spread through limited, cultural forms: “no one ever meets universal Christianity in itself; we only ever meet Christianity in a local form, and that means a historically, culturally conditioned form.” Wall continues, “We need not fear this; when God became man, he became historically, culturally conditioned man, in a particular time and place. What he became, we need not fear to be.” (pp. 15–16)

Gambian church historian Lamin Sanneh has applied this incarnational theme insightfully in a spate of recent writings. As a convert from Islam, Sanneh is well positioned to see the beautiful cultural diversity intrinsic to Christianity and the cultural malleability of an incarnational faith… Christianity, then, “is not … a religion of cultural uniformity.” And its pluralism “is not just a matter of regrettable doctrinal splits and ecclesiastical fragmentation.” Rather, the Christian faith is meant to spread and grow through multicultural exchange, witness, dialogue, and partnership in ministry. The Christian church is built by God as faithful, humble witness put flesh on His grace, mercy and love—without exhibiting favoritism (Jas 2:1–13). (p. 16)

I really like this: “the Christian faith is meant to spread and grow through multicultural exchange, witness, dialogue, and partnership in ministry.”

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