About ten years ago a new missionary engaging in language and cultural learning in Asia thoughtlessly threw a surprising question to a senior missionary: “Why can’t they (national people) accept the gospel from the West? They seem to accept everything from the West: food, music, movies, car, technologies, etc.” A deep, sub-conscience captivated his pre-assumption that the gospel is of the West. I carelessly pre-judged him, thinking, “How dare you bring the ‘westernized’ gospel of Jesus Christ from your country to Asia without de-westernization?”
I honestly recognize that I might not have been much different than this Western missionary. Although I am Asian, I grew up and was educated in the United States. Because of this, I have been “westernized” in many aspects of my life, especially my biblical and theological training. My westernized education and training have left tremendous marks on my mission work—in spite of my intentional attempts at contextualization.
When I was in the United States, I used evangelistic tools such as Evangelism Explosion, the Four Spiritual Laws, and the Bridge Illustration; however, when I began planting churches as a missionary in Asia, I began using evangelistic tools that were culturally appropriate to the native culture. I am a Presbyterian ordained minister in the United States and am familiar with Presbyterian ways of worship, baptism, and church organization. On the mission field, however, I have wrestled to contextualize local expressions of worship and church organization to avoid any form of imperialism and syncretism.
As director of the Chiang Mai Theological Seminary, I have constantly struggled with the current seminary curriculum that has been transplanted from the typical evangelical seminary. Although I do not deny the proper place for formal biblical and theological training which comes from the West, I agonize over how to de-westernize the seminary training to make it more suitable to the local context. Is formal training the only and the best way? How about informal and non-formal biblical training? Is systematic theology the only way to teach a theology class? Can we adopt narrative theology as a way to teach a solid theology? Much homework is needed. Being de-westernized or culturized is a long process which requires divine discernment, constant dialogue, and much prayer.
Biblical and Historical Evaluation
The beautiful essence of the gospel is its flexibility and divine capability to root in any culture or people group. In Acts 10, the de-jewishnization of the gospel was inaugurated at Cornelius’ house where the Gentile Pentecost birthed the Gentile Church. The Jerusalem Counsel in Acts 15 confirmed the de-jewishnization of the gospel to the Gentiles. Harold Kurtz elaborates on the impact this had on the spread of the gospel:
The Roman Empire would not have been threatened by those early Christians if they had kept their Jewish roots—insisting that everyone who became a follower of Jesus had to de-culturize, leaving their Greek/Roman culture and becoming cultural Jews. It was when the good news of Jesus became Romanized that it threatened the established powers and authorities.1
Unlike the biblical example of the de-culturization of the gospel, parts of Church history painfully portray missions as Europeanization.2 Indian converts were required to dress and cut their long hair like Portuguese and Chinese male converts. The conversion of the natives required them to leave their cultures and adopt Western civilization, with its nobler “moral precepts,” “better methods of work,” and “high culture.”3 Transplanting the westernized gospel was a form of religious imperialism that was culturally inappropriate and insensitive.
Both non-Western and Western missiologists believe that transplanting Western Christianity to the non-Western world is no longer acceptable. Bong Rin Ro expresses his frustration of seeing Western, un-contextualized, theological ideas crammed into Asia.4 William Kornfield, quoting a Southern African Christian leader, warns that the Western cultural transplant is one of the greatest threats to the growth of the Church worldwide.5
To be effective, any missionary strategy must be reproducible. The westernization of the gospel, however, is a gigantic hindrance to reproducibility. The reduplication model of church planting, illustrated by Wilbert R. Shenk, portrays missionaries consciously or unconsciously transplanting and reproducing in another culture the type of church of their origins, with its organizational structure, laws, ways of worship, and theology.
In some aspects, westernized Christianity has captivated the gospel in Western culture for centuries. Examples of this include:
A church needing full-time clergy who have graduated from a Bible college or seminary.
A church meeting once a week on Sunday morning around 10 or 11 a. m.
A church needing a building.
A church needing a three-point sermon.
Church planting needing lots of funding.
The cry of the de-westernization of the gospel is also happening in the West. The West has been slowly learning from the East. Multiculturalism has enhanced the dialogue and communication to understand better the need of the de-westernization of the gospel.
Two gigantic tidal waves impacting the westernization of the gospel are globalization and urbanization. Each impacts the way Christianity is spread around the world. For example, globalization of worship is evident in many urban churches around the world. Songs and musical instruments from the West are gradually accepted by non-Western Christians. Unfortunately, in some instances, this has led to non-Western Christians rejecting their own cultural songs and musical instruments.
So how do we “de-westernize” the gospel? Two points should be noted.
De-westernization of the gospel should not lead us to “Easternize” the gospel or “Africanize” the gospel, but to rediscover authentic, apostolic, biblical Christianity. Every culture is imprisoned in sin. We must ask ourselves, what parts of Western Christianity are “Western culture” and what parts are true “biblical Christianity”? I do not advocate denying every aspect of Christianity through the West. Indeed, rich Christian heritages have been transmitted through Western Christianity to non-Western Christianity.
De-westernization is a long process which requires time, critical dialogue with nationals, and the illumination of the Holy Spirit. It is a growing process. The Body of Christ from every part of the world should work together to make the gospel suitable to every culture and language. This, as the worldwide Church, must be our goal in the coming years.
1. Kurtz, Harold. 2003. “De-Westernizing the Gospel.” In Presbyterian Outlook. 24 November.
2. Phan, Peter. 2003. In Our Own Tongues: Perspectives from Asia on Mission and Inculturation. Maryknoll, New York, USA: Orbis Books, 32.
3. Ibid. 35.
4. Ro, Bong Rin and Ruth Eshenaur. 1984. The Bible & Theology in Asian Contexts: An Evangelical Perspective on Asian Theology. Taichung, Taiwan: Asia Theological Association, 64.
5. Kornfield, William J. 1999. “Result of Paternalism and Some Viable Solutions.” In World Mission Associates. 19 November.