Gospel and Culture-An Introduction

When a missionary leaves his home and travels to another land, he leaves with a message. That message is the gospel message. This is what he or she takes to the people. It is a message worth dying for and worth traveling and living in the most difficult parts of the world so that people will hear. The gospel is our life and because we want others to have that life, we do all we can to help them hear it and own it.

Yet, as the missionary takes this message he faces a difficult question: how will that message be presented in the different cultures in which he will minister?  This is not only a question for the missionary. It is also a question for the church he will plant or help build. After he plants a church and leaves, what is the church’s message and how is the church going to present that message in her culture?  

The two words, gospel and culture are words that we use often, but it is not always clear how the two relate. As one goes out to proclaim that message in various cultures he must face the question, what is the relation between gospel and culture? Should the gospel condemn culture? Should the gospel be subjected to culture? Should the gospel change with culture? Should the gospel replace culture? Should there be a separate Christian culture within the culture of the people? Or, should the gospel embrace culture as long as doing so does not compromise the purity of the gospel? The answer is not easy because both gospel and culture are important. So, what is the right way to deal with two things that are so important in our lives? Refusing to answer this properly is not an option. One quickly finds himself facing cultural dilemmas as he goes about preaching the gospel message. It is one thing to have a message, but it is another thing to actually deliver that message in a particular context. If care is not taken, a mistake in gospel presentation in any given culture will result in confusion between what is culture and what is gospel.

In the next blog posts, I am going to advance the view that the gospel must come to a people in their own cultural context in order for it to make sense and bring about true transformation (conversion). For example, Africans need to drink the gospel from their African cups, for only then do they own it and find it tasteful. In addressing this topic, I will briefly define gospel and culture; answer the questions, “What is the gospel?”  And “What is culture?” Lastly, I will talk about the relationship between the two.

Redemptive History and Final Conclusion

It is not uncommon to hear the phrase “Christianity is a whiteman’s religion.” The Christian message is seen as foreign with no relevance to the people. This skepticism arises from a failure to understand how Africans, in their particular people groups, fit into God’s plan of redemption.  It is vital to trace the history of God’s redemptive work and help people see how they fit.  There is agreement that the promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3 is important for understanding missions in the New Testament. The promise to bless all the families of the earth in Abraham is identified in the New Testament as the gift of justification by faith (Gal. 3:6-9). This promise becomes a reality to those who are not physical descendants of Abraham when they put their faith in Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:8, 9, 14).

If the promise made to Abraham (that all the nations will be blessed through him and picked up in the New Testament [Acts 3:25; Gal. 3:6-8]) is emphasized in the West African context, then people can see that their particular people group (nation) was part of God’s plan from the very beginning. They can see that God is concerned with the affairs of man such that he had a plan for them by choosing them for salvation before the world was created (Eph. 1:4). When Africans see themselves in God’s plan from the beginning, then the gospel ceases to be a foreign concept. It becomes the answer to man’s problems in relation to God.

When the gospel is presented from a salvation historical point of view, it becomes clear that God is a God of history. He is faithful in fulfilling his promises. The gospel about Jesus Christ has its genesis in Genesis 12:3 (Gal. 3:8) and is the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham (Acts 3:26). Those of us who are not descendants of Abraham by birth are his children by faith (Gal. 3:14). Therefore, faith in Christ is the means by which we (West Africans) receive the blessing promised to Abraham a long time ago. Abraham is the true ancestor through whom God blesses those who respond in faith.

Such an approach helps to show how people from different people groups (nations) fit in God’s plan of salvation. This truth is not learned at conversion. It comes through an ongoing teaching ministry of the Church. Theological education is an ongoing process after the initial proclamation of the gospel where people are prepared to understand their faith in its historical context.

The history of missions in West Africa is long but the church continues to struggle. A big part of the solution to the African church is a renewed emphasis on theological education, in which the focus is on preparing leaders to finish the great commission in their own contexts. Having theological education as part of mission work is practical, prepares national leaders for the church, addresses the theological issues of the West African cultural context, and above all, helps the African church to see her place in God’s redemptive plan. As we seek to bring the gospel of the Kingdom to all nations, let us not grow weary of teaching the whole counsel of God to bring about the obedience of faith among all peoples (nations) for the glory of Christ’s name (Matt. 24:24; 28:20; Rom. 1:5).

The Theological Nature of West African Context

Desmond Tutu has said that Africans find the classical arguments for the existence of God “an interesting intellectual game” (by whites), because Africa taught us long ago that life without belief in a supreme being was just too absurd to contemplate” (See Neil and Chadwick, 462). The West African worldview has a belief system that includes God, spirits, ancestors (the living dead), and the living. How they understand the role of God in the lives of the living is important. Does God relate directly to the living or through the living dead (ancestors)? Is God approachable? What role does the spirit world play in our relationship to God? The answers given to these questions in different African theologies vary but indicate a need for clarifying the relationship between the African world-view and the Christian world-view. Although these cultures may have a wrong view of God, it is actually good because it gives us a place to start, as Paul did (cf. Acts 17:23).

Given that the West African context is deeply theological, ministry in such context should be thoroughly theological as well. There is too much at stake for us to take lightly the task of theological education. The kind of leadership needed will come from a concentrated effort in theological education as an essential part of mission work in West Africa. Conversion to Christianity still leaves people in their culture and there is often confusion over what to do and not do. This problem is solved with there is focused teaching within the culture to help people be in culture but not of the culture. It will help them establish a Christian culture within their own culture where there is a difference in how Christians now carry out their cultural practices without compromising the truth of the gospel (cf. 1 Cor. 9:19-23).

Theological Education is Important in Preparing National Leaders

Helga Bender Henry wrote of her father, Carl Bender,

Throughout his mission experience Bender firmly believed that Africa must be brought to Christ through her own converted sons and daughters. Europeans [meaning whites] could and should be primarily encouragers and helpers ( Cameroon on a Clear Day, [Pasadena, CA : William Carey Library, 1999], 63).

A logical conclusion from Bender’s statement is that Africans who have come to faith in Christ are the ones to finish the Great Commission. If this is true, teaching, as part of the Great Commission (Matt. 28:20), is the way to prepare Africans for the completion of this task. If the church on the various mission fields is to be a part of the completion of the Great Commission, it is important that they be given the kind of training that is necessary for the task. This is what William Carey believed and advocated in India. According to Carrey, the completion of the Great Commission could be sped up by the training of Indian citizens who will finish the task. He insisted “on the need for competent and well-trained Indian fellow-workers.”  In 1805, he and his colleagues wrote the following statement,

Another part of our work is the forming of our native brethren to usefulness, fostering every kind of genius, and cherishing every gift and grace in them; in this respect we can scarcely be too lavish of our attention to their improvement. It is only by means of native preachers we can hope for the universal spread of the Gospel through this immense continent (Quoted in Stephen Neil and Owen Chadwick, A History of Christian Missions, [Hammondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1986], 225).

This is definitely true for the context of West Africa. Imagine what would happen if among the unreached people groups as well as in the existing churches, missionaries pour themselves into the lives of the people they are serving, teaching them to obey all theat Jesus commanded and explaining to them the whole counsel of God (Matt. 28:20; Acts 20:25-28). Maybe the way forward in completing the Great Commission is not for the western church to be in the front lines but to play a supporting role.

Failure to emphasize theological education in the history of missions is evident in the absence of godly leaders in West Africa. This is true of Africa in general where “Leaders are in short supply at every level – for village congregations, for the urban educated, for theological training, for missionary endeavour and for national-level leadership” (Mandryk, 37). The church in Africa remains theologically weak despite the years of mission work. This is also a worldwide problem as Mandryk states,

There is a worldwide lack of men and women truly called of God and deeply taught in the Scriptures to lead the churches. . . Those who accurately and effectively expound the Scriptures are few, especially in areas where the churches are growing rapidly. New methods and means of multiplying well-trained, godly, effective leaders must be developed; traditional methods alone will not suffice to produce the number and quality required to meet the need(italics mine. Mandryk, 17)

The italicized part of this statement is key. Theological education seeks to multiply well-trained leaders not only in seminaries, but also in informal settings. We can have a significant role in developing these kinds of leaders by seeking out ways to bring theological education to the people, and being purposeful in making sure they get the best there is to be able to teach others.

Reasons for the Importance of Theological Education in West Africa

In this blog, “theological education,” means teaching the doctrinal truth of the Bible formally and informally with a goal to helping people follow Jesus in obedience (discipleship). One of the ways for the church to grow stronger and to guard the deposit given to us is to teach Scripture diligently to people who will in turn teach others (2 Tim. 2:2). The most important thing that the West African church needs is a firm biblical theological foundation that informs all her actions. The theology of a church guides her conduct. Following are reasons why this task of theological education is important and must be a necessary part of mission work.

How is the church in West Africa going to take the gospel message and put it into practice? How is it going to go from hearing about Jesus and believing in him to actually living out the gospel? Hearing the gospel and turning to Christ in faith is just the beginning of discipleship. Then they need to be baptized and taught to obey all that Jesus commanded (Matt. 28:19-20). Theological education is a practical way to help the church go from hearing to living; to live lives worthy of the gospel of Christ and therefore stand firm at all times (Phil. 1:27-30). Missionaries are not guaranteed long stays in the countries they are serving. Their work needs to be strategic so that in their absence, the church will be strong and continue to grow. If the beginning is done well, less will go wrong in the future. Theological education provides a good opportunity to take what we have learned and entrust to faithful men so that they will in turn teach others (2 Tim. 2:2).

Having theological education as an indispensable part of mission work helps people understand what it is that they believe. This is important both for frontier missions and for already evangelized areas. Those who proclaim the gospel should also be able to teach the content of the gospel, giving new converts opportunity to understand and ask questions (cf. Acts 17:11-12). Teaching should be done with a view to bring about transformation in the lives of new believers. Ongoing obedience to the commands of Jesus comes after teaching and not simply after hearing the gospel (Matt. 28:20). Proclamation of the gospel, resulting in repentance and faith, and followed by teaching was the pattern of the early church (Acts 2:42-43).

The Importance of Theological Education in West Africa: An Introduction

The history of missionary activities in West Africa goes back to the 1800s (see Elizabeth Isichei, A History of Christianity in Africa: From Antiquity to the Present, [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995], 153-82). Yet, the state of the church in West Africa in general is not all encouraging. While there is growth in numbers, the spiritual state of the church leaves much to be desired. Jason Mandryk gives details in Operation World: The Definitive Prayer Guide to Every Nation, (Colorado Springs, CO: Biblica Publishing, 2010). For example, Nigeria has the largest number of West Africa’s evangelicals. But, there are dangers facing the church in that country, such as failure of discipleship, wide-spread prosperity theology, nominal Christianity, syncretistic Christianity, uninformed approach to the spiritual world, and divisions and disunity in the church. While there are many seminaries, colleges, Bible schools and training programmes in Nigeria, many of them have failed to produce the “the genuine spirituality that the churches so badly need” (Mandryk, 645).

These issues raise question about mission approaches in the past. What is the way forward so that the condition of the church can be changed? Proper theological education has to be a necessary part of mission work and should not be separated from proclaiming the gospel. Proclaiming the gospel and teaching go hand in hand (Matt 4:23; 9:35; 11:1; Acts 28:30-31; Col 1:28). To do one without the other is to minimize the impact of the gospel. While people must hear the gospel proclaimed, they must be taught the content of the gospel post conversion in order for there to be a strong church that eagerly awaits the coming of her Savior (Phil. 3:20-21). Sending missionaries to the nations is important, but the preparation of nationals to finish the great commission is critical.

This introductory blog deals with the importance of theological education in West Africa. For the West African church to be strong, theological education must be a necessary part of its mission work. There are several reasons for this: it is practical, it is the best way to prepare national leaders for the church, the West African cultural context is deeply theological, and above all, theological education helps the African church to see her place in God’s redemptive plan.