Contextualization in China

c7329ace3db9d428f85d947528660405_400x400The latest issue of ChinaSource Quarterly was released a couple of weeks ago. The articles are all dedicated to issues of contextualization in China. There are some very helpful pieces here, including an interview with a house church pastor and an article written by a Chinese cross-cultural worker. Other articles include engagement with majority and minority cultures in China.

I contributed an article titled “Union with Christ and Contextualization in China.” In it, I  show the importance of union with Christ in the New Testament, specifically focusing on Ephesians. I then point to some conceptual connections with Chinese culture, suggesting that this significant biblical concept can prove useful in evangelism and discipleship among Chinese.

The entire issue can be accessed here:

https://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/chinasource-quarterlies/contextualization-and-the-chinese-church

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A Narrative Outline of Mark

To adequately grasp the message of the Gospels, one must give careful attention to the flow of the narrative. However we understand the genre of the Gospels, they are narratives. Moreover, analyzing the movement of the narrative shows how the unity of the book as a coherent story. To that end, here is my attempt at a narrative outline of Mark’s Gospel:

 

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Most would agree that Mark wrote his Gospel with the dual purpose of introducing Jesus as Israel’s Messiah and encouraging discipleship to Jesus. With that in mind, I have divided the material into two main sections with an introduction, transition, and conclusion. The two major sections focus on answer the questions “who is Jesus?” and “what does it mean to follow him?”

The introduction anchors the story in the story of Israel. Thus Mark presents the story of Jesus as the continuation, and indeed, climax of the OT story. John the Baptist prepares the way for the return of Yahweh to Israel, thereby presenting Jesus as the embodied return of Yahweh.

Part 1 gives particular attention to the question of Jesus’s identity. Mark’s strategy is to tell the story vividly and leave the reader to ponder the issue. The story of Part 1 begins Jesus’s announcement of the kingdom’s arrival and then demonstrates Jesus as the kingdom-bringer through his authority over demons, sickness, nature, etc. Moreover, in his teaching, he is the prophet par excellence, perfectly bringing God’s Word.

Part 1 also draws attention to the meaning of discipleship as Jesus calls his followers to find a new identity in relationship with him. That is, as Part 1 defines Jesus’s identity through the narrative, Mark also invites readers to discover a new identity.

The short transitional passage in Mark 8:27-30 explicitly answers the question: Jesus is the Messiah. Of course, the multiplicity of messianic understandings in the first century demands that we read the entire Gospel in order to understand just what kind of Messiah Jesus is. And that’s just what we find in Part 2.

Part 2 defines the messianic mission of Jesus, beginning with a strong emphasis on his death and resurrection. The rest of Part 2 fills out the details of the mission with Jesus defeating the true enemy, beginning the restoration of God’s people, claiming authority over the temple and even replacing it, all leading up to the climatic moment of his death.

Thus Part 2 defines the messianic mission, focusing on the death and resurrection of Jesus as the means of restoring God’s people and bringing God’s blessing to the nations. In terms of discipleship, the call of Part 2 is for those who have found their identity in the Messiah to join his mission.

Finally, the abrupt ending of Mark fits beautifully with the movement of the narrative (I hold the majority position that the original ending is at verse 8). The question of mission is answered, through somewhat cryptically. Jesus brings restoration through resurrection. Mark is open-ended — the mission is to continue through Jesus’s followers. They are to live resurrection lives and bring the good news of Jesus to the world.

While Mark could be outlined in other ways, I think this narrative outline allows us to keep the focus on the both the message and the medium. The story invites us to participate in it: find our new identity in Christ and join him in his mission.

Don’t Plant Marcionite Churches

New_Exodus_lowfIn his article “Can the Gospels Teach Us How to Read the Old Testament?”, Richard Hays charges that “many ‘main­stream’ Protestant churches are in fact naively Marcionite in their theology and practice: in their worship services they have no OT reading, or if the OT is read, it is rarely preached upon.” Of course, Hays is talking about churches in the West, especially in America. However, there is a related danger for missionaries: unwittingly planting Marcionite churches.

What does “Marcionite” mean?

Marcion was a second-century bishop who sought to erase all Jewishness from Christianity. Believing that God of the OT was a false God with no relation to Jesus, he rejected the entire OT and edited the New Testament writings to exclude those parts he deemed too Jewish. For example, he rejected the canonicity of Matthew and heavily edited Luke. For Marcion, the Apostles had misunderstood Jesus as the Jewish Messiah and this misunderstanding needed to be corrected.

The Church Fathers excommunicated Marcion and rejected his teachings as heresy. However, his influence was never totally eradicated, even to the present day.

How Do Missionaries Plant Marcionite Churches?

While no one plans to plant a church modeled after the teachings of a second-century heretic, it unfortunately still happens. I have observed some of these tendencies among my own students: there is a general lack of understanding of the OT and a conscious avoidance of preaching from it. Though churches believe the OT to be God’s inspired Word, it plays virtually no role in the life of the average church.

This happens for at least three reasons:

1. The biblical grand narrative is neglected.

The grand narrative of the Bible should play an important role in all stages of ministry, including evangelism, discipleship, and leadership training. Unfortunately, some gospel presentations move directly from Adam’s sin to the cross, skipping the vast majority of the biblical story (Israel’s story). When this happens, new believers can be conditioned from the beginning to think the OT is of little value.

2. Church planters and new believers lack training in biblical interpretation.

I am convinced that the most important skill to be taught to both a church planter and a new believer is biblical interpretation. Believers need to be able to read and interpret the Bible for themselves within their new community of faith. Unfortunately, training in interpretation is often missing from discipleship programs. I have seen many curricula that emphasize teaching new believers to share the gospel and rapidly plant new churches. Others teach the basics of “how to be a Christian” — how to pray, how to have a quiet time, etc. These are all good skills to have, but if biblical interpretation is missing, we stunt growth in new believers and churches. This often leads to focusing on one’s favorite passage to the neglect of others. And, the neglected parts are usually the OT.

3. New believers are not trained in biblical theology.

Related to the above point, discipleship programs and curricula often lack basic training in biblical theology. Instead, they include isolated lessons on individual topics. While these lessons may include solid biblical teaching, they lack the necessary biblical-theological foundation that leads to worldview transformation. New believers need a new worldview, a new narrative within which to live. When this happens, the OT is inevitably neglected in favor of discipleship lessons from the NT.

How Can We Avoid This?

As a New Testament scholar, I find this disturbing. Much of my work has focused on the use of the OT in the New and I try to bring this to the classroom. One of my primary goals is to help students understand the relationship between the Testaments, especially the way in which the NT must be understood in light of the Old. I find that many students ignore OT quotations and fail to recognize OT allusions in the NT. This is largely due to their lack of knowledge of the OT. The result: a functionally Marcionite church (and a very shallow understanding of the NT).

How do we avoid starting a MPM (Marcionite Planting Movement)?

1. Make biblical theology the foundation and heart of mission strategy.

The biblical story should drive all ministry, beginning with evangelism. The goal is not simply to “get people saved,” but to make disciples of King Jesus. Making disciples means helping people lay aside the false narratives that have shaped their lives for the one true narrative of the world. And, a significant part of this narrative is the OT story. The grand narrative needs a more prominent place in missions.

2. Teach biblical interpretation.

Christians need to be able to read and understand the Bible. We need to teach and model biblical interpretation as we disciple others. This means teaching them interpretation skills and then putting them into practice as we continue mentoring. Thus, instead of telling someone what they should believe, we walk with them through Scripture, allowing them to see the process and come to biblical conclusions. This process is undoubtedly more time-consuming, but it leads to long-lasting fruit.

Related to this, there is a need in theological education to emphasize the teaching of the biblical languages. Learning Hebrew and Greek leads to greater depth in exegetical study of the Scriptures, which should lead to growth among leaders and their churches.

3. Teach the Old Testament as Christian Scripture

Finally, the OT is Christian Scripture and must be taught as such. It is not merely the background for the NT. Nor is it primarily as collection of moral teachings. Rather, it is the story of God’s faithfulness to his covenant promises. This story provides a biblical worldview for those who follow Jesus as King. It must be learned, taught, obeyed, and indwelled in community.

The Need for Speed and the Related Dangers

Hilarious! I’ve seen it a thousand times and it is still funny.

As funny as the video is, it sadly illustrates some missionary methodology. How so? In recent years, some methodologies have put a premium on two things: high numbers and speed. In other words, successful methodology is that which quickly produces high numbers of new believers and new churches. Implicitly, the numbers are taken to represent God’s blessing on a certain methodology.

Of course, there are numerous problems with this, both biblically and practically. Biblically, I don’t see Jesus or Paul focusing on speed or numbers. In fact, by that measurement, we would have to say that Jesus was not very “successful.” After three years, he had only twelve disciples, one of whom betrayed him, one denied him, and the ten others rarely understood what he was talking about. (I say this tongue-in-cheek). Practically, the emphasis on speed overlooks a basic fact of faith: it takes time.

The emphasis on speed can lead missionary practitioners to neglect some essential aspects of cross-cultural ministry. For the purposes of this post, I’ll focus on just one: worldview. When one’s methodology is focused on quickly producing high numbers, worldview is set aside in two related ways. First, the worldview of the people is ignored or inadequately considered. The result is that we can share something that is true, but is  misunderstood by people hearing our message.

For example, if one presents the gospel in terms of guilt (you sinned and you will go to hell) in China, he could likely present answers to the wrong questions. That is, while the statement is true, it is probably going to be misunderstood or considered irrelevant to the average Chinese person. The Chinese term for sinner (罪人) normally means “criminal” and most Chinese people do not consider themselves to be criminals. Thus, though the statement is true, it is easily misunderstood. Failure to consider worldview in the name of speed leads to misunderstandings of the gospel message.

Second, biblical worldview building is neglected. Central to discipleship is the building of a new worldview. I believe the best way to build a biblical worldview is through the biblical story (see my previous posts on the biblical story). However, much rapid discipleship focuses on a number of “how to’s” – how to share the gospel, how to pray, how to start a church – and neglects the more fundamental issue of helping a new believer build a new worldview. The result is new believers lack the worldview structure that allows them to live out their new faith.

Back to the video above – the runner in the video finished the race quicker by busting through the hurdles. In fact, he beat at least 2-3 other runners. However, he is disqualified and his efforts, while providing a good laugh, did not lead to “success.” I fear that the neglect of worldview issues in missionary methodology leads to similar results: we plow forward quickly, but the end result is not what we desire.

I am not saying that we need to slow down for the sake of slowness. Nor am I saying that God cannot move to quickly bring multitudes to faith. Instead, I am saying that we cannot bust through worldview hurdles to finish the task quicker. We must give careful consideration to both the worldview of our people and to helping new believers build a biblical worldview. In the end, depth cannot be sacrificed for breadth – both must be held in balance.

 

Mission, New Creation, and Genesis 1-2

Genesis 1-2 points beyond itself to new creation and this is important for missions.

new-creationWhile it is obvious that new creation comes into focus after the fall of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3, there are a number of clues within the creation account that indicates new creation was the original goal. That is, there are aspects of the story that point forward to new creation as the ultimate objective.

Notice the following:

1. Beginning Implies End

First, the creation is the story of beginnings – the beginning of the world as God’s kingdom, the beginning of God’s kingdom people, and the beginning of the grand story of Scripture. Yet, beginnings by nature point beyond themselves to something yet to come. While this does not necessarily mean new creation, it is at least future-oriented, which sets the stage for later emphasis on new creation. In any case, having a beginning implies that there is a middle and end, which points forward to a goal.

2. The Impermanence of Creation

Second, it is clear that the first creation was not permanent. One of the primary ways we see this is in the possibility of corruption. After creating all things good (indeed, “very good”), God told his people that disobedience would lead to death. Thus, though very good, the first creation was not eternal since it was possible for death and corruption to enter.

3. Garden Expansion

Third, Adam and Eve were commissioned to “multiply and fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28). As G.K. Beale has demonstrated, this includes the expansion of the Garden of Eden to fill the earth (see his A New Testament Biblical Theology).

expansionThe Garden was a special dwelling place for God with his people and thus is pictured like the most holy place in the tabernacle and temple. This creational most holy place was to expand, filling the earth with God’s glorious presence. Again, the point is that the Garden pointed beyond itself to a greater goal, which turns out to be new creation.

4. Sabbath Rest

Finally, the goal of creation comes into view on the seventh day – sabbath rest with God. It is well-known that the seventh day is unique in that it had no conclusion as the other six days. This establishes the sabbath as the goal – God’s unending dwelling with his people. Since the reader is very aware that this rest is yet to be achieved, the sabbath points to a future fulfillment.

What does this have to do with mission?

humanityIn short, the movement of Scripture from creation to new creation provides the goal and impetus for mission. It is not that we are able to bring about new creation through our mission efforts. Rather, the point is that in mission, we are spreading the message of King Jesus to invite people to participate in the new creation. Through faith in Jesus, people enter the kingdom of God and become covenant kingdom citizens.

Thus, the church’s mission is participation is God’s mission to fill the earth with his glory. As we proclaim Jesus as King, God is restoring his people in glory such that he is honored throughout the earth. And this is but a dim picture of new creation.

This is vastly different from “saving souls” or “getting people into heaven.” Instead, mission is about preparing people to be kingdom citizens in the new creation. This profoundly affects our evangelism and discipleship.

In addition, the hope of new creation provides the impetus for mission. We go for the honor of God’s name knowing that new creation is a future certainty. His glory will fill the earth. And, by his grace, we get to participate in this glorious work.