I’ve seen it multiple times. An American on a short-term trip walks through our church doors in Iraq. He’s bright-eyed, brimming with excitement about cross-cultural ministry. Maybe he’s read a book or two on missions. Perhaps it’s even a book I’ve written about short-term missionaries—because I love their ministry!
But then comes the critique: “Your church is so Western.” I know I shouldn’t, but I always feel defensive in that moment. I wonder how anyone could look at a church with over 20 nationalities and say it’s Western. Our urban church may look globalized, but I don’t think it’s Western.
I suspect the short-term missionaries think we should sit on dirt floors and play sitars in a circle. They probably mean our church service doesn’t seem all that different from the church service back home.
In my better moments, I don’t make assumptions. Instead, I ask, “So, tell me, how does our church seem Western?” “Well,” they’ll say, “you preach in English. You sing Getty songs and hymns and have a band with drums.” Or they might say, “You have a PowerPoint and everyone sits in a row of chairs.”
In my worse moments, I’ll say, “You know, it’s patronizingly Western to decide that others shouldn’t do what appears to be Western.” That’s when Leeann, my wife, kicks me under the table. It’s unhelpful for me to be snippy. But I admit their words strike deep. After all, I hate PowerPoint with a holy hatred. We use it because the non-Westerners want it.
If I’m going to be fair with my accusers, it’s helpful to acknowledge some basic assumptions that are increasingly common in missions today:
- Colonialism in missions is bad.
- Without knowing it, our very presence advances Western imperialism, and that’s bad too.
- Therefore, in missionary work, we need to contextualize our church to look like the local culture. Missionaries should take a back seat in church leadership.
- Paul said to become all things to all people (1 Cor. 9:19–23), so we should adapt to the culture rather than imposing our worship practices on others.
Yes, colonial missions were bad. Not distinguishing between the gospel and the Union Jack created many problems. But that was hundreds of years ago. No missionary I know now wants to advance his or her home country’s political or industrial purposes. Colonial missions largely died with colonialism, and thoughtful missions writers put a stake in the heart of colonial missions over half a century ago. Modern missionaries—at least the ones I know—desire to make disciples of Jesus, not disciples of America.
Of course, we can unwittingly advance our own culture. Some missionaries try to avoid this by giving locals a Bible and hopping on the next bus out of town, trusting the Holy Spirit to do the rest. Unfortunately, this is in direct opposition to the command of Jesus to teach (Matt. 28:20).
As we do so, we should work hard to make ourselves culturally sensitive. But in 1 Corinthians, Paul was speaking about his effort to contextualize himself, not the gathered church. Indeed, the Bible warns against looking crazy to outsiders, but the vast majority of commands to the Christian community, as John Stott says, instruct us not to be like those around us.
I propose a better—and I believe more biblical—way. I call it “mere church.”
It took me years to come to this, but in my experience, the most important thing to do on the mission field—the way that avoids cultural imposition and imperialism, the thing that’s most reproducible, most engaging, least culturally offensive, and most influential long-term—is to make sure the church is mere church.
To strip it down to the essentials. To scrupulously ensure the Christian assembly looks like what the Bible spells out for church. In my opinion, missionaries should spend less energy on the church’s cultural appearance and more energy aligning the church with explicit biblical norms.
Missionaries should spend less energy on the church’s cultural appearance and more energy aligning the church with explicit biblical norms.
I’m not saying cultural sensitivity is unimportant. But when missionaries focus on context first, they’re making a huge, subliminal, cross-cultural error. They’re saying culture is more important than the authority of the Bible. Worse, they’re eroding the courage to tell the hard truths of the gospel in a hostile environment, because the gospel will never, ever, be culturally sensitive.
As I would often say to our church in Iraq, we don’t want our church to reflect American culture, Arab culture, Kurdish culture, African culture, or Asian culture. Instead, we want a church with genuine biblical culture.
So missionaries should practice biblical principles found in 1 Corinthians 3–4, principles of sowing and watering, of wise building, humble service, and faithful stewardship of the gospel. This is our manifesto for church planting. And church services should look like Paul’s prescriptions in 1 Corinthians 11:17–34 and 1 Corinthians 14, including the celebration of communion and the practice of spiritual gifts in mutual fellowship to build up the body. This is our manifesto for a church service.
Since we were serving in an international church (in a globalized, international city), rather than focusing on local culture, we wanted our church service to be so ordered that it’d make sense to any genuine believer. We wanted a church where people could come from any culture—or any time in history—and basically understand what was happening in the service. Did we do this perfectly? Of course not. But at least we were headed in the right direction.
To head in the right direction, we have to start in the right place. For churches in any context, that starting place is Scripture. We center the church on the Word of God. We make sure the church membership is composed of genuine born-again believers, and we hold them accountable to live according to the Bible. We work for love and unity, and then we work on the biblical principles that make for a healthy church. Those simple concepts take time and herculean effort—and they’re the main reason I don’t give an Arab fig about the drums in our worship.
One practical way we sought to avoid Western imperialism was by striving for a plurality of elders who met the biblical requirements for pastors and who could represent the cultures of our church. I was grateful to Emmanuel from Jamaica, who would challenge my myopic cultural perspectives; Samuel from Eritrea, who would quietly and gently help me understand the mindset of the large local population from Ethiopia; and Iskander, who was fluent in both Arabic and Kurdish and could explain to us the local political situation of Iraq.
And, get this, these elders liked Getty songs. They picked those hymns because of their biblical lyrics. But they also picked other, non-Western aspects of our worship too. If you focus on being biblical, over time, you get a diversity of cultural flavors in your worship. Of course, there are numerous other ways mere church can take shape, but those are just some of the ways it happened in our context.
But what if you started with a different perspective? Directly pursuing a contextualized church service that looks like local culture is fraught with difficulty. This is especially true if a Westerner is trying to do it. Do you know how silly it looks when an older person tries to act hip? That’s what the contextualized service often looks like to a local.
Worse yet, if you’re working to make a church service look like the local culture, you’ll invariably incorporate the sins of the culture, because all cultures are fallen. And in a multiethnic, multicultural urban context like ours in Iraq, how do you choose which culture or practice to pick in the first place? Starting with culture or context is simply the wrong place to begin.
As we develop churches around the world, whether international or indigenous, the focus should be on the instructions set forward in the Bible for the weekly gathering. The reformers called this the “regulative principle.” In a missions context, the regulative principle guards against making cross-cultural mistakes while giving us a vision for mere church.
As we develop churches around the world, whether international or indigenous, the focus should be on the instructions set forward in the Bible for the weekly gathering.
In a Christian worship service, we read the Bible (1 Tim. 4:13), we preach the Bible (2 Tim. 4:2), we sing the Bible (Eph. 5:19; Col 3:16), we pray the Bible (Matt. 21:13), we see the Bible in the two sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Matt. 28:19; Acts 2:38–39; 1 Cor. 11:23–26; Col. 2:11–12). Occasionally, there are vows and thanksgivings that have biblical roots. That’s it.
Of course, there’s more to consider in these discussions. Should the congregation pray silently while kneeling, or should everyone pray aloud, in unison, while standing with arms raised? Thankfully, while the regulative principle guides Christian worship according to Scripture, it also accounts for the different elements, forms, and circumstances of worship.
For example, singing is commanded (element), but the specific songs we choose to sing (forms) aren’t set. They can be chosen by godly people who want to sing the truths of Scripture. Whether you sing them on the floor in a dirt hut or sitting on cushioned chairs (circumstances) is less important still. But we should make such decisions with practical considerations in mind.
So it is with all of the necessary elements of Christian worship. They can be done in a house or a church building, under a tree, in a pew, on the dirt floor, or while playing a Kurdish Tembûr or drums. But no matter the case, the Bible must be central in all we do, providing us the essential elements of Christian worship as we consider the best forms and circumstances within a given cultural situation.
Several years ago, I had an experience that illustrated for me the way that cultural differences aren’t as significant in urban centers and our globalized world. In fact, those cultural differences can often be cut through by a clear proclamation of truth.
In 1988, Saddam Hussein dropped bombs on residential homes in the Kurdish city of Halabja. In a matter of hours, more than 5,000 people died from a toxic cocktail of gases, including sarin and mustard gas. Thirty years later, in 2018, I was invited to attend a memorial service put on by the Kurdish government.
When Leeann and I arrived, there were 4,000 Kurds in the room, but no other Americans. We sat in rows of chairs. They used a PowerPoint projector. The talks came from what looked like a pulpit. We had headphones that translated the speeches into English. We sang songs that sounded like pop songs, with drums and a band. To any outsider, it probably looked “Western.”
But as the service continued, the room filled with an ever-increasing, oppressive, raw hatred of the perpetrators of violence—the kind of bitterness that engenders endless cycles of revenge and violence.
Then something happened that I can’t forget. The moderator invited a brave Arab man from Baghdad to the microphone as a representative of the Iraqi government. The Kurds saw him as the enemy. He took a breath, thanked those in charge, and said, “You must stop this constant repeating of the wrongs done to you and move on. This memorial service is hurting you.”
I don’t know the man’s motivation. But he said the main thing that needed to be said rather than what was culturally appropriate. He told the truth when it was hard to speak. And I thought to myself, These abused people, trapped in hate, desperately need to know the way of the gospel. They need churches in hard places that tell them hard biblical truths when doing so is hard.
We live in a complicated world, with complex cultural realities happening all around us. But this diverse world desperately needs the transcultural gospel of forgiveness and hope in Christ. And it needs the church as God ordered it, no matter the context.