The Importance of Indigenization and Missions Training
Neal Cushman: A question came up in our Acts series as you preached, Mark, on the whole idea of the indigenous church, which I think is such an interesting topic for missions because it’s so easy for us to take what we have in America and just kind of plop that down in another culture and expect it to survive. It doesn’t often work quite the way that we hope it will. You mentioned some obstacles to forming indigenous churches in other cultures, and I wonder if you could kind of review some of those ideas.
Mark Vowels: Sure. One of the obstacles as I see is taking too much of our tradition with us and assuming that we’re able to reproduce a similar experience that we’ve had back home. Perhaps we sometimes fail to understand that our practice of Christianity, wherever we start, is itself contextual to our experience—in this case, Americans coming from a school like Bob Jones University. How we practice—how we think about Christianity is both biblical but also contextualized by our own experience. So if we’re not careful, we take all of that with us to the field and we think we’ve got to recreate all of that—not just that which is innately biblical and eternal, but along with that, all of the application and all of our own particular practice. Whereas, if we would go to the field and, as best we can—this is not much easier said than done—look at what is essentially the message of the New Testament, communicate that in a way that is understandable in that culture, and then help the people to put that into practice in their own culture without us saying, “Okay it has to be like this; it has to be done like this.”
Of course, years ago the epitome of the under-contextualization was the idea of somebody carrying an organ into the jungle of Africa. And so we don’t really do those overt things as much, but we tend to bring with us all of the baggage, which in our own culture is great, helpful, and really helps make us who we are, but we assume that every other culture will benefit if we can just reproduce that. The reality is culture is a very complex thing. Until we really understand that particular culture and we see how we can express Christianity in that culture in a way that makes genuine Christ followers out of people of that indigenous location, we’re really not establishing indigenous local churches.
Cushman: That makes me think about a really obvious kind of question. Sometimes we hear people say, “Well I don’t really need missions training; I’ll just go preach the Bible.” And, of course, that’s very important, but what do you think about the importance of missions training?
Vowels: Yeah, that’s been the course of my life, so that’s a topic in which I’m very passionate. I would say this—ideally, a missionary is someone who is very strong in his ability to execute Scripture. So, if someone goes to the field and they’re a cultural expert but they don’t know the Bible, what are you going to communicate? You need seminary training and a solid biblical foundation, but then you also need the ability to take the same amount of focus, rigor, and intentionality to understand the culture so when you speak, what you’re thinking is actually what ends up in the mind of your hearer. And that, again, is very difficult to actually do. It takes study and practice and learning how to build those relationships, how to build a level of trust, how to understand the cultural dynamics and then communicate what is essentially biblical to that person so that now from within their framework, as much as is not anti-christian or antibiblical, they can begin to live out that gospel truth in ways that are normal for their people. Then, because it’s not foreign, it doesn’t come across as a foreign religion. It’s native Christianity. It is indigenous Christianity. It is more attractive and more relational with their own people and therefore has a much greater likelihood of spreading and having a permanent effect in that culture.
Cushman: Well, that sounds pretty complex to carry all that out and to fulfill the gospel. We’re thankful that you’ve joined us today, and this has hopefully been a helpful session for you.