I’ve been reading Andrew Walls’ The Missionary Movement in Christian History. Not a flashy title, but a fascinating book. It was published almost 20 years ago, so I’m a little slow on the uptake – perhaps everyone else has already been here, done that – but his writing about the incarnation as God’s translation of the Word for us, and the on-going re-translation of the gospel is just beautiful. If, like me, you’re also 20 years behind the times on missiology, it’s worth reading.
But something else about this book caught my eye – it articulated something I’d been thinking about but not quite able to put into words – evangelicalism as a ‘contextualised’ gospel. He argues that the success of the evangelical revivals in the 18th and 19th Centuries were that they made the Gospel meaningful for northern European Protestants, they answered the deep questions these people had at that time.
Western Christianity faced a cultural crisis – attrition of its basis in Western culture, with the weakening of the sanctions of the institutional church, the increasing efficiency of the centralised state, and the relegation of religion to the private sphere. The Evangelical Revival was perhaps the most successful of all the reformulations of Christianity in the context of changing Western culture… It retained the medieval concern (deep rooted in the European psyche) for propitiation. It also extended and clarified the Reformation idea (particularly as developed by the English Puritans of a life of holy obedience in the secular world and in the family. Above all, it combined the traditional framework of the Christian nation and the established church… with serious recognition of individual selfhood and personal decision. That reconciliation bridged a cultural chasm in Christian self-identity. It helped to make evangelical religion a critical force in Western culture, a version of Christianity thoroughly authentic and indigenous there. To use the appalling current missiological jargon the Evangelical Revival contextualised the gospel for the northern Protestant world.
The contextualisation was so successful that people found it hard to imagine there was any other way of following Jesus.
There is, of course, a lurking peril in all successful indigenisations. the more the gospel is made a place to feel at home, the greater the danger that no one else will be able to live there. And the missionary movement required people whose personal religion had become effectively (though critically) aligned with Western cultures to transmit the Christian message in non-Western settings where the assumptions that shaped their religion did not apply.
Walls is still very optimistic. He looks at the history of African missions and the dissonances between the missionaries’ culture and the Africans’ and concludes that both heard and responded to the gospel.
The fruit of the work of evangelical missionaries has not simply been a replication of Western evangelicalism. The Christian message that they set loose in Africa has its own dynamic, as it comes into creative and critical encounter with African life with its needs and its hurts. Exactly the same thing happened with the Evangelical Revival bridged the culture gap for northern Protestantism with such spectacular effect. Africans have responded to the gospel from where they were, not from where missionaries were; they have responded to the Christian message as they heard it, not to the missionaries’ experience of the message.
When we tend to talk about contextualising the gospel, what we normally mean is re-contextualising evangelicalism, never seeing that evangelicalism itself is a contextualised gospel.
But then, does this really matter? As Walls sees it, Africans in the past were able to seize what they understood from the missionaries’ message and creatively respond. The spread of the Gospel was not contingent on the missionaries’ ability to ‘contextualise’ it. Perhaps what’s more important is to remove barriers as much as possible, cultural stumbling blocks, and give indigenous people the freedom to do the contextualising themselves. What do you think?
I’ve also been thinking about Evangelicalism and print-culture. It’s a reading religion. It’s a very literate Christianity with hymn-books, quiet-times, bible-studies. It’s a Christianity contextualised for a (19th century middle class?) literary culture.
But what’s going to happen as we increasingly move towards an audio-visual culture? We already receive most of our information this way, how much longer do we expect books to hold on? Can evangelicalism adapt for an audio-visual culture? Perhaps – and maybe the answer is along the lines of those slick TGC monochrome clips with the Great Men in earnest discussion. Or perhaps evangelicalism will evolve, re-contextualise, translate itself into something else altogether. What do you think? Is evangelicalism prepared for the future?