Volume 5 - Issue 2

The Willowbank Consultation Jan 1978—A personal reflection

By Kwame Bediako

When it was decided that the Theology and Education Group of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization should convene a consultation to study and reflect on the interrelation of the Gospel and human cultures, it was felt that this was one of the most important questions which needed to be examined in the light of the Christian world mission. The discussion of Gospel and Culture has, of course, an extensive history, even if the matter has not always been perceived with the same acuteness.1

For contemporary evangelical Christians, the ‘Gospel and Culture’ issue seems to have emerged as one of the major preoccupations at Lausanne’74. In what was, culturally, the most representative gathering of the evangelical Christian Church, it became apparent that the Church’s mission was no longer (if ever it had been assumed that it was), to consist in the exportation of Western values to the rest of the world. That one could speak of ‘Western culture Christianity’ indicated that we could no more identify the Gospel with Western culture than St Paul’s judaizing opponents could insist on the circumcision of Gentile Christians.2 The call for ‘moratorium’ which had been made shortly before the Lausanne Congress also showed that, for some African Christians at least, the preponderance of Western personnel and finance in the Church’s mission was a hindrance rather than a help. There was the feeling that we were on the threshold of a 20th century version of the ‘Galatian problem’. The Willowbank Consultation, therefore, met in the light of a new evangelical awareness that the Church’s missionary mandate was required to be obeyed on all six continents, in the secularized and nominally Christian West as well as in the traditional ‘mission fields’ of the Third World.

Unfortunately, the Consultation never quite abandoned the older traditional moulds, and it failed to wrestle adequately with the realities and needs of Christian mission in its global dimensions. The fact that the Third World was not as well represented as it could have been, may have had something to do with this, though the point must not be pressed too far.3 There was, for instance, an undue attention directed towards the dangers, real or imagined, of syncretism facing the ‘younger churches’, and correspondingly, an insufficient alertness to similar phenomena threatening the churches of the West. The Report of the Consultation does occasionally express this imbalance; in fact at one point it states quite candidly, for the particular benefit of Western churches, that, ‘perhaps the most insidious form of syncretism in the world today is the attempt to mix a privatized gospel of personal forgiveness with a worldly (even demonic) attitude to wealth and power.’4

Furthermore, the term ‘missionaries’ (or the less emotive, if somewhat cumbersome, ‘cross-cultural witnesses’) was used with exclusive reference to Western Christian personnel working in Third World contexts, thus unconsciously and subtly perpetuating the old ‘imperialist’ Western missionary—Third World national pattern of relationship in Christian mission.

What is clearly needed is a radical reorientation of outlook and attitude on the part of all those engaged in mission. Admittedly, it is not going to be easy for those who have held pioneer roles in the history of world mission to achieve this on their own. However, failure to realize the need for a ‘change in key’5 not only carries serious consequences for cross-cultural Christian fellowship, but also gravely vitiates the perception of the realities of our contemporary situation.

Two main aspects of the contemporary situation need to be highlighted. The first is outlined by Prof. A. F. Walls of Aberdeen University, a leading authority in the study of the modern missionary movement. In 1976, Prof. Walls wrote:

‘One of the most important, perhaps one of the two or three most important events in the whole of Church history, has occurred in the lifetime of people not yet old. It has not reached the textbooks, and most Christians, including many of the best informed, do not know it has happened. It is nothing less than a complete change in the centre of gravity of Christianity, so that the heartlands of the Church are no longer in Europe, decreasingly in North America, but in Latin America, in certain parts of Asia, and most important for our present purposes, in Africa.’6

Prof. Walls’ article was concerned with an interpretation of the place of Africa in Christian history, and we do not need, in the present paper, to follow through in detail all the suggestions he makes or the conclusions which he draws. It is significant, nonetheless, that two years later, in November, 1978, Prof. Walls, discussing the vexed question of the identity problem of African Christians,7 felt able to stress, yet again, the shift in the geographical and cultural balance of the Christian Church in modern times, with the added insight into a peculiar historical connection between Christianity and the primal religions of the world. Prof. Walls points out that primal religions ‘historically have been the most fertile soil for the Gospel’, with the result that, ‘they underlie the Christian faith of the vast majority of Christians of all ages and all nations.’8 This would be true in the first instance, of the peoples of the Roman Empire of the early centuries of the Christian era, then, of the barbarian tribes of Western and Northern Europe, and latterly, of the vast masses of the modern Third World nations. From this remarkable historical evidence, Prof. Walls points to the irrefutable conclusion:

‘Indeed, it is hard, in the two millennia of Christian history so far, to find large adhesions to the Christian faith except among primal peoples.’9

The second aspect relates to the prolific growth of the so-called independent churches in the Third World. In 1975, Gottfried Oosterwal called on Western churches and mission agents to recognize in the rise of new prophet movements and independent churches in the Third World, ‘the working of the Spirit in African, Asian, and Latin American leaders whom God has chosen as His instruments to advance His mission’.10 Oosterwal stressed, therefore, the need for ‘new attitudes and new relations’ in the strategy and pursuit of the Christian world mission, insisting on a ‘process of mutual sharing’ between Western missions and these ‘indigenous’ churches and their ‘charismatic’ leaders. For a long time Western missionaries and so-called mission churches were hostile or at best unsympathetic to the new movements. The vast majority of Westerners who took a keen interest in them were social anthropologists operating with reductionist theories of religion. By equating, incorrectly, Christianity with Western religion tout court, some Western scholars, in examining these movements which have arisen from the impact of Western missions on traditional, ‘primal’ societies, have tended to explain them in terms of their socio-political significance. The implicit assumption is that if Christianity (i.e. religion) is on the decline jfi the West, then these movements ought to be understood in non-Christian terms, in the light of non-religious factors. Not many Western scholars seem to have realized that the same inter-war period which saw in Europe the rise and growth of despair, the erosion of faith in God, and seeping nihilism, produced in Africa especially, the waves of prophetic movements which filled mission churches and gave birth to new churches. In missionary circles, men like William Wade Harris, Simon Kimbangu, Joseph Babalola and others, were often regarded as political agitators and ‘false prophets’; now with some humility and the benefit of hindsight, we can understand them better as prophets of Christ. They won converts to Christ where Western missions had stalled or were losing ground. The despair in Europe found a counterpart in Africa in socio-political distress, cultural disruption and psychic disturbance, further aggravated by physical disasters like the influenza epidemic. The African prophets related the social, psychological and physical upheavals to the ways of God, and called people to repentance and prayer. Almost all of them worked miracles of healing, and they offered their hearers peace, stability, a new security and a reason for hope in Jesus Christ, not in a return to the old traditional religion. Since Ooster-wal’s essay, it has been noted that the distinction between so-called ‘mission churches’ and ‘indigenous churches’ in the Third World has become ‘of decreasing value’.11 The ‘process of sharing’ required will involve all Christian churches everywhere which are committed to a common vision in mission.

These facts of the present situation raise several questions. What, for instance are their implications for our understanding of the nature of the Christian faith? It is quite probable that an investigation along these lines would lead to a startling reappraisal of the generally accepted notions about Christianity and primal religions. It would be interesting to find out to what extent the decline of Christianity in the modern West is related to the abandoning of the religion-centred world-view characteristic of primal Peoples; for it would seem that whenever the primal religious outlook loses its hold on people’s minds and ceases to inform their perception of reality, a religion of the supernatural like Christianity is likely to lose its power of conviction as well.12 The distinction between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ religions is now a thing of the past; the matter is certainly more complex than that, and we may be surprised to discover that Christianity has after all a closer affinity with the primal religions than we thought.13.

However, for our present purposes, it is for the insight which they can give us into the situation of the Christian world mission that these facts are of interest to us. If the analyses of world church statistics do in fact accurately indicate the direction of events, that the growth areas of world Christianity are increasingly to be found in the Third World, or, to use Orlando Costas’ expression, ‘the Two-Thirds World’,14 is it not fair to ask, how deeply the structures and strategies and attitudes in Christian world mission are being affected by the facts of our present situation? Perhaps one needs to ask afresh what the Christian world mission is meant to achieve. Does mission cease when churches emerge? In places where churches exist, and have done so for many centuries, as in the West (and yet there is a noticeable decline in Christian fervour and discipleship, as well as a widespread rejection of the Christian message), where does missionary responsibility lie?

These are very pertinent questions, and yet it would seem that they are not being pursued adequately in the very circles where the commitment to world mission is most deeply felt. With very few exceptions, most evangelical missionary societies and agencies based in the West continue to perpetuate the traditional image of the Third World as the ‘mission-field’ of the Christian Church. Consequently, the post-Christianity and secularity of the West are not adequately perceived in the Third World, where, at the grassroots at least, the myth of the Christian West is still largely accepted uncritically. Whether post-Christianity in the West with its attendant crisis of faith and decline in spiritual outlook is sufficiently perceived by many Western Christians is, perhaps, not for us to say.

Moreover, the sheer economic dominance of the West in world mission tends to falsify the issues involved in mission, and especially to remove them from truly spiritual concerns. Much time and energy is expended on the administration of structures, missions changing policy often only in response to external pressure, and little attention is devoted to listening, together, to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. The Willowbank Report notes the fact of churches,

‘… still almost completely inhibited from developing their own identity and programme by policies laid down from afar, by the introduction and continuation of foreign traditions, by the use of expatriate leadership, by alien decision-making processes, and especially by the manipulative use of money.’15

This statement is not intended to suggest that the exercise of such control arises necessarily from deliberate perversity or a self-conscious desire to oppress, although it ‘may be felt by the churches concerned to be a tyranny’.16 The tragedy of it is that it could simply emerge from an unconscious attitude of domination, arising from culture, of which the ‘expatriate leadership’ is a product. Perhaps the most distressing aspect of the present situation is that we are still far from the authentic ‘cross-fertilization’ in mission and church renewal which René Padilla urged upon participants at the Congress in Lausanne in 1974.

A symptom of the persistence of this ‘serious obstacle to maturity and mission’17 is the way in which the powerful Western agencies of evangelical world mission have neglected or refused to explore creatively the positive aspects of the ‘Moratorium Debate’. The Consultation did not feel able to deal with the issue, though the Report mentions it. Whilst some participants would rather have avoided the word ‘moratorium’ because of a supposed ‘emotive’ connotation, it was retained ‘in order to emphasize the truth it expresses’.18 We have yet to witness the outworking of that measure of truth extensively in mission policy and practice.

Much of the discussion of ‘new trends’ in mission appears unfortunately to reinforce old patterns, simply making Western missionary societies aware of the errors of the past (and present?) so that they may perform their tasks better. No sooner have we begun to raise questions about contextualizing the Gospel in our different cultures and social contexts than a ‘professor of missions with cross-cultural experience’ offers us a ‘package’ on ‘how to do it’! In recent times, those sections of the Church who have the most efficient machinery for getting the work done have usually been the pace-setters. It is understandable therefore that the churches of the West, and particularly North America, with their vast resources, especially in technology, have largely borne the burden of Christian world mission to the non-Western world. In the process, Christianity itself has emerged historically as part of the cultural impact of the West on the rest of the world.

However, we have now learnt that we ought to dissociate the Christian Gospel from the trappings of western culture. But the interrelation of Gospel and human culture is a complex one; the Gospel can only be perceived by us in some cultural form or other—a pure Gospel devoid of cultural embodiment is simply imaginary. The trouble is that we all wear cultural blinkers, and whilst we may affirm an absolute Gospel and accept the relativity of our diverse cultures, each of us fails to perceive some important facets of the one Gospel. It seems hard to convince some Western Christians that theological and missiological thinking and strategies developed in the West are as much products of human culture as they are of Christian reflection, fallible and imperfect as they both are.

Thus the positive implications of the ‘Moratorium Debate’ involve not so much a pulling out of mission personnel as an acknowledgment that other Christians in other cultures are also called to develop creatively their own insights into the Gospel and its communication; that non-Western Christians need to make such contributions as they are enabled to in ways peculiar to them. There can be no doubt that genuine cross-fertilization in theology and mission will grow only where cultural diversity and specificity is appreciated within the bonds of Christian fellowship under the Lordship of Christ. It is only in the context of a true sharing and partnership in mission that there will occur that maturing of the entire Body of Christ, for which spiritual endowments are bestowed by the sovereign Lord (cf. Eph. 4:11ff). The majority of evangelical Christians will probably accept that mission is the work of the whole body; but the expression ‘the whole Church bringing the whole Gospel to the whole world’ remains an empty slogan until a genuine and meaningful fellowship in world mission is a reality.

It must not be imagined that what is being advocated in this paper is that by means of some mechanistic theory or practice we should attempt to ‘redress the balance’ in missionary involvement in favour of Third World participation. Whatever contribution Third World Christians consider they can make to world mission must be manifestly demonstrated and validated through the Spirit, who is Himself the prime mover in Christian world mission; nor is it to be assumed that ‘Go ye … preach the Gospel to all creation’ involves necessarily, and at all times, the crossing of geographical barriers. We mention the continuing North Atlantic dominance in Christian mission simply to show that when that dominance is assumed as normative, it is likely to produce a distorted and unbalanced perception of the nature of the Church’s mission to the world.

One clear-cut example of such distortion is the uncritical application of pragmatic, sociological research to the interpretation of the history of the Church and to the pursuit of mission, by the theorists and strategists of Church Growth. F. W. Norris has shown recently how tenuous is the connection of Church Growth theory, especially its central tenet—the homogeneous unit principle, with New Testament or early Christian history.19We must be careful not to discount the insights of the Church Growth School into ‘how churches grow’. But it is precisely the contention that the major objective of mission is church-planting which constitutes the central problem here. Mission is defined rather narrowly as evangelism, multiplication of converts, the planting of homogeneous units of churches. Consequently the ‘success’ or ‘failure’ of mission is assessed largely in terms of what can be measured and computerized. Less tangible factors and more painful ethical demands of the Kingdom, faithfulness to the Gospel, growth in grace, the fruit of the Spirit, the socio-political implications of the Gospel message for the life-style of its hearers are generally ignored. Yet for an African, for example, these ‘intangibles’ are important, for they affect his relationship with God and his fellow men. The price that is paid by converts to such a truncated Gospel is incalculable.

Another effect of this distortion is the ‘technological Gospel’, elaborated in the context of a pragmatic, naturalistic world-view, and to meet materialistic ends. Such a Gospel is inadequate in situations of deep spiritual conflict and psychic trauma resulting from disaster or unexpected social upheaval. If social context and culture have an effect on religion and vice versa (and the social sciences have taught us that lesson), then we can understand what Jacob Loewen, a missionary anthropologist, means, when among South American Indian Christians, he found himself excluded from a praying circle in order that a healing could be effected. Dr Loewen comments:

‘It came as a very rude shock to me when I suddenly realized that my western naturalistic and materialistic view of germs and illness actually made it next to impossible for me to “believe” sufficiently to heal.’20

On the other hand, his hosts, the Choco Indians, ‘who operated on an animistic world-view—one much more akin to that of the Bible—could much more readily appropriate the power of God than I could’.21 Loewen’s observation about South American Indian Christianity could equally well be made of situations in Africa and other parts of the Third World. René Padilla is surely right in observing that:

‘Western missionaries took to the Third World not only the Gospel, but also a Western naturalistic outlook. They carried a world-view in which disease and disaster were explained in terms of the natural law of cause and effect. The supernatural was restricted to a small area of human experience. They stressed man’s technological responsibility for the natural world, rather than his interdependence with his environment.’22

The undeniably advanced secularity of Western culture, together with the encroaching rationalism, have had a deep enough impact on the Church to partly explain the decline of Christianity in the West, remarkable in the face of the increased interest in spiritualism and the occult which is widely witnessed in the modern West. Western Christianity, in succumbing to secularism and rationalism, is fast becoming unable to meet Western spiritual needs.

The Church in the West is in danger of missing out on truly vital Christianity, in contrast to other parts of the world, which are still ‘under-developed’ from a Western technological viewpoint. Here, where demonic powers are reckoned with, and the truth of spiritual conflict is acknowledged, churches which take a stand on, and proclaim, the reality of the Personal God, the living presence of Jesus Christ and the availability of the power of the Spirit, still draw crowds, from both the high and the lowly, and seem to experience, in the 20th century, the life of New Testament Christianity. The inescapable fact of Christian world mission at the moment is the shift in the centre of gravity of vibrant Christianity from the northern continents to the south,23 from the more affluent nations of the West to the relatively poor and less powerful ‘younger’ nations of the Third World.

This situation ought not to be allowed to erect barriers between ‘older’ and ‘younger’ churches. Rather, the sheer diversity of the socio-economic and cultural contexts in which we are called to live out the implications of our common allegiance to Jesus Christ provides the Church with greater opportunities than ever before, for self-criticism, mutual encouragement and cross-fertilization in spiritual renewal, mission and outreach. The real problem is how positively evangelicals who claim to be the most concerned for world evangelization and mission react to the new reality.

It is, perhaps, pointless to speculate on what kind of changes Western missionary societies and ‘sending’ agencies might conceivably be required to make to meet the challenges of world mission. The responsibility for changes rests with those bodies themselves. However, they cannot ignore indefinitely the lessons of Christian history, nor can the church world-wide avoid the consequences of present failure to ‘discern the signs of the times’. An issue which readily comes to mind is whether Western missionary societies, as presently constituted, are the best agents to effect world evangelization. The answer cannot come from one person, and the present writer will not presume to supply it.

But if the ‘shift in the centre of gravity of Christianity’ is as significant for world mission as has been suggested above, then there are at least two very important issues which call for serious consideration.

The first is whether Third World churches are capable of assuming their fuller responsibilities in world mission, and not only in their own contexts. It seems obvious, for instance, that Third World churches lack the means and the technical skills to mount and pursue a missionary programme similar to what Western churches have been able to maintain for several centuries. The question here really is whether Third World churches have to seek to produce replicas of Western models; to expect them to do so is simply another way of saying that they may as well resign themselves to a role of passivity and a position of perpetual juniority in the Body of Christ. Mission, in essence, is the outflow of life from the Church—the life and the love of God in Christ shed abroad in the hearts of the people of God by the Holy Spirit—as we respond in faith and commitment to the call of God to participate in His redemptive mission in the world. In this process each of us brings to our common task the endowment and enabling given by the Spirit. Luis Palau of Argentina, arriving in Britain in June, 1979, for evangelistic crusades in Scotland, may well have expressed something of what the peculiar contribution of the churches of the Third World today could be:

‘I believe I do have something to share: mostly the fire of the Gospel. Britain has the knowledge; what she needs is the fire. And if in any way the Holy Spirit can use me to His glory in bringing some fire to Britain, that would be my greatest dream.’24

The churches of the Third World may have to admit to not having the ‘silver and gold’; but on balance, a great many of them can more easily say to a sick and dying world, ‘In the Name of Jesus of Nazareth, rise up and walk’. Existing in circumstances of relative poverty and material weakness they can be the means of proclaiming to a world more and more trapped in consumerism and materialism, that ‘God’s Kingdom is not a matter of eating and drinking’—material affluence—‘but of the righteousness, peace and joy which the Holy Spirit gives’ (Rom. 14:17 TEV). And yet the level and quality of giving in some churches of the Third World are almost proverbial,25 and there are churches which do not require any foreign financial aid. As John Gatu, of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa, has pointed out:

‘The long-cherished assumption that the churches of the Third World are poor is a fallacy that must be discarded.’26

Rev. Gatu is a key figure in the ‘Moratorium Debate’, and his views have not found universal acceptance. But we find little to quarrel with when he states:

‘In the Third World, too many churches have become and remained “receiving” churches. We are very fond of receiving personnel and their salaries, gifts of old clothing, equipment, theology, and even church organizations and structures. We believe the churches overseas to be wealthy and better off, while, on the other hand, we are poor and need help. While we must reject any attitude of triumphalism and self-sufficiency on our part (cf. Rev. 3:14–22), we must at the same time affirm that when we commit God’s work to His own hands and direction, He will find not only the money but also the necessary resources to complete the task.’27

Perhaps what is at stake for the churches of the Third World today is their freedom from the bondage to Western value-setting which has been acquired through a prolonged phase of spiritual tutelage and cultural assimilation, the freedom of the servants of God. But in learning freedom from Western dominance, Third World churches must not, in turn, substitute a new parochialism and provincialism. The great need of the hour is for all to recognize that ‘a new missionary era has dawned …’,28 in which the responsibility for world mission belongs to the whole Body of Christ.

The second issue of crucial importance for world mission is the more profound one of theology and the theologizing ministry of the Church. On this issue the Willowbank Consultation limited itself to questions of Biblical hermeneutics as being the task of ‘the whole Christian community seen as both a contemporary and a historical fellowship’. It therefore encouraged churches to seek a ‘continuous growth in knowledge, love and obedience’ by means of a dynamic ‘contextual’ approach which shows ‘awareness of concerns stemming from culture’, and yet lets Scripture remain ‘always central and normative’.29 The particular question here is whether the churches of the Third World have the resources to engage meaningfully, on behalf of the universal Church, in the activity of reflective theology which has been ably championed hitherto by many churchmen of the West. Much has been said about the ‘theological deficit’ in the vast majority of Third World churches; and yet not a little interest has also been shown in their theological potential. If, in the providence of God, Third World Christians are in fact to share more substantially in the saving activity of God, then they ought to be the first to recognize that the theological task which attaches to that call is, indeed, formidable, and will require just as much intellectual rigour and honest discipline as has been demanded of Christian leaders and thinkers of other generations and climes.

However, the question will be falsely put if it is assumed that Third World churches will need merely to ‘translate’, albeit in their own thought-forms and idioms, the theological reflection of Western Christianity. There can be no doubt that the Western theological heritage belongs to the whole Church, and that Third World churches must learn to make it their own, for they stand in continuity with, and in the company of, the people of God of all ages and nations. But it is quite conceivable that the fundamental theological concerns of the Christian Church in our time will be given new direction and form by the responses emerging from the reflection of the Third World churches on the Word of God and the enconnter with the issues of human existence. For, in the process of contextualizing the Gospel anew for their generation, Christians of the Third World may well, as has been suggested in various quarters,30 discover fresh insights into the eternal purposes of God towards His creation. These could well be such as Western Christianity has culturally been unable, hitherto, to see.

This may come about in virtue of the particular socio-historical and cultural context of Third World churches. The vast majority of them have their origins in the massive missionary advance of the Western European imperialist expansion. Now, in the post-colonial era, these churches are having to live down the embarrassing associations of their past. In doing so, they are being compelled to grapple all the more intensely with the fuller implications of their adherence to Christianity. In the days of national political consciousness and cultural revival, how do they validate to their generation what used to be the religion the Europeans brought, and is now also their own? How does their new and often fierce allegiance to Christ relate to their past, and religious pre-history? The deep heart-searching which such questions invoke can often be read between the lines in the writings of Third World Christian thinkers today.

The basic issues at stake are perhaps not new; surely they have been faced before in the history of the expansion of Christianity. The closest adequate parallel to the modern situation may be found in the early Roman Empire with the cultural transposition of the centre of gravity of the Christian Church from its Jewish cradle into the Gentile Hellenistic arena.31 The real problem, then and now, is what to do with the inescapable tension of any authentic Christian existence, namely, the tension between our immersion in our culture, and our attachment to Christ; in other words—our continuity in culture and our identity in Christ. It is those who seek to understand the nature of this tension who know also the threat of syncretism.

And yet, paradoxically, when a society has so domesticated and institutionalized Christ into its patron saint, that it fails to perceive the tension, then syncretism has, in fact, gained a foothold. Consequently the question of Christian identity ceases to be asked. It is this more subtle and therefore more deadly syncretism which appears to be the basic affliction of considerable sections of Western Christianity in the 20th century; and it may well require a more active partnership with Third World churches to effect the rescue of Western churches from their captivity to culture. Theological reflection from the ‘younger churches’ could ‘help to recover for us all something of the lost radiance of the Christian faith’.32

The theological task of the growing churches of the Third World ought, therefore, to include a fresh affirmation of the truth that theology, in its essence, is missiology, theology of the church in missionary encounter with the world, and the principalities and powers opposed to God. This is simply another way of saying that the only valid Christian theology is the theology of the living Church, that every theology stands or falls as to how it understands, interprets and communicates Jesus Christ, ‘Lord of the universe and the Church’.33

The Willowbank Consultation affirmed that ‘the most outstanding thing about a Christian should not be his culture, but his Christlikeness’.34 It is perhaps not insignificant that one of the most perceptive statements made on the matter of Gospel and Culture has been made by a theologian of the Third World, Prof. J. S. Mbiti:

‘With the tools of our cultures we are both defenders and traitors of Christianity, and this is a paradox which belongs to the whole relationship between Christianity and cultures. We live between the polarities of Christian ethics and cultural boundaries. Yet, the process of transformation means, ultimately, that we become more and more Christian and less and less African (or Japanese, American or Swiss). The only identity that counts and has full meaning is identity with Christ and not with any given cultures.… Paradoxically culture snatches us away from Christ, it denies that we are His; yet when it is best understood, at its meeting with Christianity, culture drives us to Christ and surrenders us to Him, affirming us to be permanently, totally and unconditionally His own.’35

In less than a year from now, evangelical Christians will be meeting again in an important consultation on world evangelization, and this time, in a clearly Third World setting (Pattaya, Thailand). The Lausanne Covenant recognized the hand of God in the growth of Third World churches in our time, and called upon all churches to undertake a ‘continuous re-evaluation of our missionary responsibility and role’, with a view to fostering ‘a growing partnership of churches’.36 Perhaps June 1980 will be the time to evaluate how far this cross-cultural partnership has progressed, and whether the Church, in its responsibility for world mission, has been obedient to the will of God.

1 For the purposes of this article, we shall concentrate on the implications of the discussion for contemporary evangelical missionary thinking and strategy.

2 Dr René Padilla’s contribution at Lausanne (1974) was particularly pertinent to this issue. See C. René Padilla, ‘Evangelism and the World’ in J. D. Douglas (ed.), Let the Earth hear His Voice, World Wide Publications, Minneapolis, USA, pp. 116–146.

3 See Orlando Costas’ evaluation of the Consultation in Gospel in Context, Vol. 1, No. 2, April 1978, pp. 16–17.

4 The Willowbank Report—Gospel and Culture (Lausanne Occasional Papers No. 2), 1978, p. 26.

5 Mission from the West in a New Key is the significant title of the ‘missiological agenda’ of Charles Taber (currently editor of Gospel in Context—a Dialogue on Contextualization), published by Partnership in Mission, Abington, USA, 1979.

6 A. F. Walls, ‘Towards Understanding Africa’s Place in Christian History’, in J. S. Pobee (ed.), Religion in a Pluralistic Society, Leiden, E. J. Brill, 1976, pp. 180–189. In a personal communication, Prof. Walls informs me that his article was written about 1971.

7 ‘A. F. Walls, ‘Africa and Christian Identity’, in Mission Focus, Vol. VI, No. 7, Nov. 1978, pp. 11–13.

8 Ibid. p. 11.

9 Ibid. p. 11. Walls’ emphasis.

10 Gottfried Oosterwal, ‘New Religious Movements: A Challenge to Mission’, in Mission Focus, Vol. III, No. 5, May 1975, p. 4.

11 “See A. F. Walls, ‘The Anabaptists of Africa? The Challenge of the African Independent Churches’, in Occasional Bulletin of Missionary Research (April 1979), cited in Partner-Scan, Vol. IV, No. 3, June 1979, p. 9.

12 It is worth noting, though, that we are not here concerned with the merits or demerits of a so-called modern scientific world-view. More than 20 years ago, John Foster drew attention to the similarities between Celsus’ objections (see Origen—Contra Celsum) and modern criticisms of Christianity, showing that modern objections to Christianity are not necessarily the product of the modern scientific outlook. See John Foster, After the Apostles (Missionary Preaching of the First Three Centuries), SCM, London, 1951.

13 Prof. Mbiti has suggested that in spite of the wide-spread condemnation of African (primal) religion by the early official bearers of Christianity to Africa, ‘in reality without African (i.e. primal) religion, Christianity would not have spread as rapidly as it is doing today. It is African Religion which has made the people very religiously disposed towards the Christian message. It is African Religion which has produced the religious values, vocabulary, insights and practices on which Christianity has been able to build so readily.… The points of continuity between Christianity and African Religion have been sufficiently compatible and numerous for the Christian Gospel to establish a footing among African peoples.’ See John Mbiti, ‘The Encounter between Christianity and African Religion’ in Temenos, Vol. 12,1976, Helsinki, pp. 125–135. Prof. Mbiti’s comments are very much in line with Prof. Walls’ observations quoted earlier.

14 See Orlando Costas—op. cit. p. 16.

15 The Willowbank Report, p. 25.

16 Ibid, p. 25.

17 Ibid, p. 25.

18 Ibid, p. 25.

19 F. W. Norris, ‘The Social Status of Early Christianity’, in Gospel in Context, Vol. 2, No. 1, Jan. 1979, pp. 4–14. Some of the responses to Norris’ paper indicate the difficulty of even this enlightened dialogue for renewal. See C. Peter Wagner’s comments, pp. 25–26.

20 Jacob A. Loewen, ‘Evangelism and Culture’, in C. René Padilla (ed.), The New Face of Evangelicalism, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1976, p. 182.

21 Ibid, p. 182.

22 C. René Padilla, ‘An Age of Liberation’, in Tim Dowley et al. (eds.), The History of Christianity, Lion Publishing, 1977, p. 625.

23 It is interesting that the distinguished Church historian, K. S. Latourette, nearly half a century ago, saw the trend which is now being confirmed. See his, A History of the Expansion of Christianity—The First Five Centuries, Harper and Bros, New York, 1937, XXIII–XXIV.

24 Crusade, June 1979, p. 28.

25 The present writer knows from his own experience of a congregation in Ghana which increased its annual thanksgiving offering by 100% when the national economy was labouring under double digit inflation.

26 John Gatu, ‘The Urgency of the Evangelistic Task’, in C. René Padilla (ed.) op. cit. p. 173.

27 Ibid. pp. 172–173.

28 ‘The Lausanne Covenant’ (Article 8) in J. D. Douglas (ed.) op. cit. p. 6.

29 The Willowbank Report, p. 11.

30 cf. Norman J. Goreham, ‘Towards an African Theology’ in The Expository Times, May 1975, Vol. LXXXVI, No. 8; J. S. Mbiti, New Testament Eschatology in an African Background, London, 1971; Aylward Shorter, African Christian Theology, London, 1975; A. F. Walls, ‘Towards Understanding Africa’s Place in Christian History’, in J. S. Pobee, op. cit.

31 Modern evangelical Christians are unlikely to accept Justin Martyr’s claim that Socrates was a Christian for having lived ‘according to Reason (Logos)’; nor would the suggestion by Clement of Alexandria that philosophy was God’s pre-Christian provision for Greeks as the OT was for Jews, find a warm acceptance with many of us. However, theirs was also an attempt to validate to themselves, and to friend and foe alike, that the Christ in whom they believed was, in some way, hard to convey perhaps, at home in their ‘pagan’ culture too.

32 Norman Goreham, op. cit. p. 236.

33 The Willowbank Report, p. 30.

34 Ibid, p. 31.

35 J. S. Mbiti, ‘African Indigenous Culture in Relation to Evangelism and Church Development’ in R. Pierce Beaver (ed.), The Gospel and Frontier Peoples, William Carey Library, Pasadena, USA, 1973.

36 ‘The Lausanne Covenant’ (Article 8), in J. D. Douglas (ed.), op. cit. p. 6.

Kwame Bediako

Dr Kwame Bediako, one of our International Editors, is Director of the Akrofi-Christaller Centre for Mission Research and Applied Theology, Akropong, Ghana, and Lecturer in African Theology at the Centre for the Study of Christianity in the Non-Western World, New College, Edinburgh.