Should There be an American Church?

I’m taking a contextualization class in three weeks. In preparing for this class, I have been doing lots of reading on this highly debated topic. How far is too far for “contextualizing the gospel”?

However, I am still pondering this question. Should we have an African church, a Chinese church, a Thai church, a Latin American church, or even an American church? When we speak like this, it’s almost as if the church’s are in tension with each other.

When I read the New Testament, I find simply the church. Paul wrote the church in Galatia, the church that met in Colossae, the church in Ephesus. Revelation spoke of the church in Laodicea among the other six cities. I get the sense we have turned the church upside down looking to culture as our guide rather than first being an extension of God’s family. We often let culture shape the church rather than the church shape culture.

As a missionary with five years of service in Thailand, I am far from saying I have all the answers. More to the point, I have more questions than clear understandings. I wonder what are the universal indicators that the church exists. I see Paul establishing a church wherever he went with certain unchanging particulars, a DNA of sorts. They each had faith, love, and hope as part of their essence.

How does the church exist in a setting without being defined by its location? At the same time, how does the church become local in its setting? There will always be subtle differences from place to place as how the church functions. The church will look different in language, dress and style, but when does this cross the line from contextualization to compromise?

5 thoughts on “Should There be an American Church?

  1. In the book of Acts we we see a Jewish Church discriminating against the Greeks in Jerusalem, We see a mixed church in Antioch and we see primarily Greek churches in the greco/turkic area. People relate normally to people who are like them. Certainly the Gospel is helpful in breaking down those barriers, but the Gospel itself as you know, is cross-cultural (no pun intended) and it is adaptable to the many cultures of the world. The issue becomes problematic of course when we insist that our particular cultural expression is superior to others.

    • Michael,

      Thanks for entering into the fray as I process my thoughts on shaping our faith and culture. You are right to a degree. There was a Jewish Church and a Greco church. However, I am afraid that only part of the question is answered with your response. Descriptively, we can say there was this church or that church. Meanwhile, in the NT, the church was only ever referred to as the church in those contexts, not with descriptive adjectives of their context. Can we prescriptively say there should be an American church or any other church for that matter. On the one hand, we will always reflect our localness no matter how much we aim to let God shine through us. Yet, I wonder how much of our localness matters in the big picture. The biggest question in the early church was on how to get the Jewishness out, not how to accommodate to other cultures or nuances of society. I still have so much more I am fleshing out in my mind. I need to get some more thoughts down soon… But thanks for helping me wrestle through this.

  2. If I may, I would like to respond to a couple of your statements and/or questions in your posting: First, How far is too far for “contextualizing the gospel”? Contextualizing is not good or bad; it is imparative. It is when the gospel is mixed with a culture and is diluted by said culture that it becomes a problem. The missionaries who have allowed the gospel idol to be placed on the shelf along with other religious idols, that have milxed unbiblical elements of another religion with the gospel in an attempt to lure adherents to their churches, have misunderstood and overdone contextualiztion until it has become what is called syncretism or syncretization, the mixing of opposites.

    God was contextualizing when He started with man, then more specifically with Abraham. Jesus contextualized the gospel by coming into the Jewish culture and presenting a new way of thinking, which is what our taking the gospel to the “unreached” is. Contextualiztion is absolutely necessary; it is our responsibility to make sure we are not diluting the gospel with our own interpretations of the Scripture.

    You ask about different churches in the world and lament our not being One Church. If you continue to study missions, as you apparently are, and I am so glad you are! If you continue to read books written for the study of missions, you will find this is a big topic, and an area of much discussion, by ppl doing missions. There are several approaches in the arguments. Much of the debate is over the meaning of words, and unfortunately, they become stumbling blocks instead of stepping stones to better missions. We must be careful that we understand the meaning of words w/out taking it too far.

    My husband and I “do missions” — our experience is that in church planting and church growth, birds of a feather flock together. There is great effort made to establish international or inter-cultural churches, but b/c they are not natural, they, in fact, take great effort. I applaud the mix of cultures and enjoy the fellowship it has to offer. But since there is so much effort to be made to establish a church in the first place, why add to the needed effort by trying to mix all the cultures? If we all live in the same community, then let’s get together. But the church that is flourishing around the world is when people feel comfortable in the environment and gather with those of their own context. This is the place where the gospel needs to be contextualized, made easily understood, and thereby easily received.

    You may be interested to realize that “the Church of Jesus Christ” is very alive and well where it is growing the fastest, i.e., South America, Africa, India and China. Most of these are in the southern hemisphere . . . The Next Christendom by Philip Jenkins is very informative in this area.

    I will stop here, but I congratulate you on trying to think this through. It makes for a more effective ministry to those outside your own culture. God bless you!

    • Char,

      Great comments. First…I totally agree that would should not aim to have one international church. I more was attacking the push to have the adjective which belies a stance of one church verse another church. I see the church growing strong around the south. Well, maybe not as much in Bangkok, Thailand where we serve, but all around the other nations bordering Thailand. Another book with great narratives that matches Jenkins is Miriam Adeney’s “Kingdom Without Borders”. As for going too far, I think you answered the question in talking about syncretism. The question that drives me now is wondering when contexting becomes mixing and an appropriate reflection of the church of Jesus within a local setting. Finally, I am not sure that you mean by this what others do, but I do not like the term contextualizing the gospel. The term narrows the concept of contextualization to accommodating the core of the message rather than a broader idea that seems to fit better, contextualizing the Christian faith.

  3. Pingback: Contextualization: Some More Thoughts « Musings on Missions, Life, and God

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