I have frequently commented about the profound impact that a unique group of elders in Africa had on my life. Members of this group are called “traditional initiators.” They are tasked with passing down the cultural values and worldviews of a particular tribe to the youth of that tribe. I had the great fortune of sitting with these elders to discuss their traditions, and the possibility of modifying those traditions if they are determined to be destructive. We were speaking specifically of traditional practices that accelerated the spread of HIV/AIDs in a community.
The culture was rich in traditional values (although very different from ours), and the vitality of the community reflected its norms and customs. However, many of the cultural practices ran contrary to Christian values and Biblical principles. For example, it was a very commonly held practice that in an effort to “cleanse” the spirit of a husband from a widow allowing her to marry again, an anonymous man from the village was assigned to sleep with her. I (being an outsider) attempted to address this issue from a health point of view. Obviously, with an AIDS prevalence rate of up to 20% of the population in some places, the implications of risk were monumental. I would have expected the churches in those communities to address issues that ran perpendicular to evangelical Christian precepts. Unfortunately, that was rarely the case.
This was a classic example of the church being captive to the culture, a phenomena frequently referred to as “over-contextualization.” The consequences are that the church loses its vitality and relegates its prophet role in a community. It no longer has the capacity to be a distinctive voice calling for transformation rather than conformation. It gets caught up in the cultural stream which leads to the great body of nominalism.
Our Army tradition was founded on a counter-culture ethos. In his initial years of independent ministry, Booth’s focus was on traditional evangelism in unconventional ways to a marginalized audience. As time went on, the expression of Army ministry began to separate further from the culture. It is also an interesting historical fact that the most vibrant movements within a culture have been from groups outside the institutional church context. Booth would fit into this generalization as well.
Our ability to affect our generation is directly proportional to our engagement in our society. As Christians, the challenge for us today is to reassess our relationship with and our role in the culture. We must walk the fine contextual line of being culturally relevant, but not conformed; culturally transcendent but not irrelevant.
This is a wonderful time for the church in the “Global North” (the countries of North American and Western Europe). The ease of communication, the speed of transport, technology, globalization and relative prosperity provide a platform for significant impact to take place, both within and outside our borders.
As Salvationists, the challenge for us today is to reassess our function in the body of Christ. What cultural values and worldviews are we passing to the generations that follow?