My wife and I had the opportunity to share lunch this week with a young Christian couple who pursue their vocations in a southeast Asian country. Although the young man originally went there to do evangelistic work, they now operate a ministry center that provides outreach, fellowship, and skill training for people in the community.
The husband pointed out that he had initially seen his ministry as reaching people for Christ and then introducing them into local churches so that they might be discipled and nurtured in the Christian faith. He was surprised and disappointed when he discovered that this second step was more difficult than he had anticipated! The local churches erected barriers (both cultural and theological) that were difficult for new believers to overcome. In many cases, these barriers were western in origin--practices, worship styles, and customs that were completely foreign to the indigenous culture.
As a result, this young man is helping young believers as they form an "organic faith community" (avoiding the use of the term "church") to aid them in their Christian growth and ministry. He says, "They see their gathering as not only a way for them to redeem the beauty of their culture as followers of Christ, but also as key witness to those considering making the huge step of faith into God's family but are reluctant to embrace a 'foreign' religion. For [these people], Jesus is very appealing but most feel they would have to give up their cultural identity to follow Him."
Now, this is not a missionary "going native," it an example of a committed ambassador for Christ learning how to speak most effectively to a non-Christian, non-western culture. This is an example of cross-cultural contextualization--presenting the Gospel in such a way that it can be heard and embraced within a particular culture. In fact, this is what the Apostle Paul and his companions had to do as they pushed out in the Greco-Roman world. They had to decide what was essential about the faith and what was just baggage that could be discarded without harm.
Although most of us are not facing the kind of challenge that my friends in southeast Asia encounter, perhaps we need to ask ourselves, "Are there barriers that we raise in our churches that make it difficult for people to hear the real message of Christ?" It is food for thought.