The Gospel in cultural context

Posted on December 9, 2010 by VMMissions Staff

With eyes riveted in wonder at the dancers and their gentle gyrations, Wiang’s heart leapt in longing.  Who are these people who can dance with such freedom and joy?  Did she care who they were?  Not really.  She simply sensed intuitively that she belonged among them.

Wiang was attending a gathering of followers of Jesus.  She had made the four hour trip from her village home outside of Det Udom grudgingly; questions and cynicism dominated her life, since the tragic death of her husband in a tractor accident.  The things she had heard and read hadn’t broken through the hard places in her heart.  But the dancing did.

Her bones knew the nuanced movements better than her brain.  But never ever, since becoming an adult, had she herself danced.  It was typically only alcohol that loosened the sense of restraint in her Isaan village, and she wanted no part of that.  Tonight however, a new door stood open wide before her.  With arms raised, hands poised, and fingers pointing first this way and that, Wiang joined the dance, offering worship to a Lord she didn’t really know yet.  I think this is when she was “born again.” And in some way too, she joined the other dancers in the exciting adventure of becoming more Isaan than any of them had ever been before.

This is what we have seen happen over and over again:  When new believers find themselves wanting to express love, and gratitude, and welcome, and celebration, like the householder that Jesus pictured in Matthew 13, they go digging treasures out of the closets of their culture. They dust them off excitedly and use them!  And when they do so, the effect is powerful!

Sometimes, as with dancing, the expression comes with little or no coaxing.  In other cases, Skip and Andre, in their pioneer roles, were the ones to specifically introduce certain practices that they felt fairly certain would resonate with the new believers. We then had the joy of observing the response.  For example, we had encountered the typical reticence among new believers to pray ‘outloud.’  We didn’t really expect to discover a remedy for this when very early on, we made the rather controversial decision. We agreed to introduce string tying into the church context as a way of welcoming newly baptized members into fellowship and expressing an ongoing bond with those who were going to be away for a period of time. String tying is the cultural way of expressing a sense of deep connection.  Outside of a Christian context, it would most often entail some relationship with other spiritual powers.  But not only did tying strings on each other’s wrists give the members a way to express their love, it gave them a way to pray.  We were amazed at the spontaneous prayers that flowed forth in the midst of the action!  It is as if the people hardly notice that they are praying; they are simply speaking forth blessing in this familiar context, but doing so in the name of Jesus.  Bringing from the storehouse things new and old!

Precisely because of how risky this feels, the leaders always take very seriously the charge to explain what it is, and what it isn’t: “This is normal string. No incantations have been spoken over it. It has no power in and of itself.  This is done to express the fact that we are brothers and sisters in Christ. We use this string as a token of that love.”  This process of explaining is hugely significant, and spares missionaries and local believers alike from the uncritical replication of certain behaviors that tend to be thought of as “Christian.” Discussing what we mean when we do what we do, is like taking shovel in hand to turn over the cultural soil.  This is radical – to the root – work, but this is the way that cultures get reshaped and redeemed!

The church has gone on to identify numerous other places of cultural connection that we would not have known to encourage.  As farmers, they have caught the vision of the Old Testament “first fruits” offering.  They link this with Christmas, many of them bringing their 100 pound sacks of newly harvested rice to the celebration meeting, where the whole heap can be given to the Lord.

Similarly, Thai New Years in April includes an all but mandatory visit home to bless the elders.  Taking hold of this deeply held insistence that elders be honored, the church facilitates a ceremony of blessing.  Scented water is poured gently by “youngers” over the hands of their “olders.”  Consistent however with the impulse to bring new and old together, the water extends beyond hands, and down to the feet.  In a “vertical” culture which considers heads so high and feet so low, footwashing is an extremely powerful image.  The impulse to show esteem and also enjoy the cool water soon breaks beyond cultural prescription and goes from everyone to everyone in a very wet, very celebratory “free-for-all.” As I watch it, I think about the fact that that’s the whole point: The gospel is free for all nations and ‘peoples,’ and for each individual person!  And all alike have storehouses of treasure – things new and things old – to draw from as we seek to serve our Lord!  It is amazing what wonderful things come out of those closets!

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