Monday, February 25, 2013

“No sacred forms, only sacred meanings.”

What do you think? From Darrell Whiteman’s chapter in the book MissionShift, edited by Stetzer and Hesselgrave (2010):

One often hears the question, Can one remain a Muslim or a Hindu after becoming a Christian? I think that question needs to be reframed. Perhaps a more accurate way to pose the question is to ask, “Can someone enter the kingdom of God without becoming a follower of Jesus?” To maintain fidelity to the Bible, the answer is unequivocally “No!” (Acts 4:12; John 14:6). But if we ask, “Can someone enter the kingdom of God without becoming a Christian?” that’s a more complicated question and deserves a more nuanced response. When the term Christian was first used in Antioch (Acts 11:26), it simply meant a Gentile follower of Jesus and was often used pejoratively to describe those who were followers of Jesus. Today, however, 2,000 years later, the term Christian has become encumbered with many extrabiblical trappings that are now part and parcel of the Christian religion with all of its religious traditions. Therefore, the term Christian today is no longer synonymous with simply following Jesus. Tragically, hundreds of millions of people call themselves “Christian” but have never followed Jesus because it never occurred to them that being a Christian meant following Jesus. If we reframe the question to ask if a person can enter the kingdom of God without joining the Christian religion, then I think we are asking the right question. And here the Bible can help us think through the answer. The lessons from the decision of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 that Gentiles did not have to become Jews to follow Jesus, and Jesus’ own ministry among Gentiles, point to the fact that one can enter the kingdom of God and confess Jesus as Lord and Savior without necessarily changing one’s religion. At first blush this may sound scandalous to us conservative Evangelical Christians. Nevertheless, many Muslims today are attracted to Jesus but turned off to Christianity, which for them conjures up negative images of the Crusades, colonialism, a foreign religion, and the “Christian” West where we eat pork, drink alcohol, and watch R-rated movies. No wonder they don’t want to be identified as “Christians,” but they certainly want to follow Jesus and make Him Lord of their lives.

The question is frequently asked, “Where should we draw the line before contextualization becomes syncretism?” Because many of the debates seem to circle around where to draw the line, some are comfortable with a C5 expression of Christianity, but others are uncomfortable with going that far in contextualizing the gospel. As long as we argue over where to draw the line, we will never get far in understanding what God is doing in the world, encouraging people to know and understand Jesus in a wide variety of religious and cultural contexts.

If the debate over where to draw the line before contextualization erodes into syncretism is an unhelpful approach, is there a better way? Hiebert’s concept of “critical contextualization” gives us a useful procedure for determining how to distinguish appropriate contextualization from inappropriate syncretism. I want to suggest that perhaps a more fruitful approach would be to look at the underlying meanings that are expressed through contextualized forms. We will find much more common agreement if we focus on the Christian meanings being expressed in different forms. However, when we focus on the diversity of forms instead of the underlying meanings, it will cause great debates in the Christian community. The global church cannot even agree on the “correct” form of baptism or what elements should be used for the Lord’s Supper. Perhaps we would find much more consensus if we focused on the underlying meanings of both ordinances.

Radical biblical contextualization such as we see in C5 expressions of Jesus movements within Islam creates much debate and sometimes dissension because the forms used by these Muslim followers of Jesus appear so unfamiliar to us. For example, if we see a Muslim follower of Jesus (Isa in Arabic) praying to Allah five times a day with forehead touching the ground, it will be hard for us to believe that he or she is praying to Jesus because the form of prayer looks so Islamic and so different to us in the Christian tradition. However, the form of the prayer is not as important as the meaning it expresses. It is the meaning of following Jesus that must be maintained to have an expression of vital Christianity. In fact, when the “Christian” forms continue but the underlying meanings are lost, the result is that “they will hold to the outward form of our religion, but reject its real power” (2 Tim 3:5 GNB). When this happens, we have classic nominal Christianity. Tragically, we find this throughout the world.

I am convinced that there are no sacred forms, only sacred meanings. This does not mean that forms are not important. They are important, but they are important precisely because of what they point to, that is, the underlying meanings. Some forms are undoubtedly incapable of carrying Christian meanings, but that decision must be made by local believers who understand their culture and who, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, decide which forms are redeemable and which ones are not. While growing up in a conservative Evangelical church in the 1960s, I was taught that the twang of a guitar and the beat of drums in the church were not forms that could be used to worship God. They were pagan. Today that same church has a praise band, complete with noisy guitars and banging drums, all making music in praise to our Lord. What happened? Did the church go liberal? No, not at all! The people in that church came to realize over time that these musical instruments could be used in acts of meaningful worship to Almighty God.

I have developed the following grid to help us sort through the distinction between forms and the meanings they convey. If we can separate form and meaning in our thinking, it makes it much easier to understand radical biblical contextualization and movements of God’s Spirit like the Insider Movements among Muslims. The horizontal axis of FORM at the bottom of the diagram moves from Western on the left to Indigenous on the right. The vertical axis of MEANING to the far left of the diagram moves from Christian on the top to Pagan on the bottom. When you combine these two axes, you get four possible outcomes. In our cross-cultural mission efforts we need to understand the important difference between Indigenous Christianity (which we want to promote) and Syncretism (which we want to avoid).


This combination of the two axes, Form and Meaning, gives us four different outcomes as explained below.

Quadrant 1. When Western forms are combined with Christian meanings in other parts of the world, we have nonindigenous (typically Western) Christianity, which is frequently perceived to be foreign in that context. This was one of the consequences of mission in the age of colonialism, and we find expressions of Western Christianity all over the world today.  In other cultures this form of Christianity is more prone to becoming syncretistic or nominal over time because of the difficulty people in that culture have in adapting imported foreign Western forms and applying this imported faith to the real issues of their lives.

Quadrant 2. When Western forms are combined with pagan or non-Christian meanings, we have syncretism, which is the combination of Christian and non-Christian beliefs and practices. The resultant form is distinct from both Christianity and the pagan religion. It is neither Christianity nor traditional religion. It is something entirely new and different, as I have explained elsewhere:

Religious syncretism is essentially a response to the problem of meaning. In the interaction between Christianity and animism, if the newly introduced Christian forms are given pagan meaning, then syncretism results—the new belief system is neither Christianity nor is it traditional primal religion; it is a mixing of both, and thus the product is qualitatively new.

Quadrant 3. When indigenous forms are combined with pagan meanings, we have no change at all and so the traditional non-Christian religion continues. But how does one encounter traditional religion with the claims of Christ? Our standard approach has often been to introduce Western Christianity, perhaps because we felt confident that if potential converts adopted our forms they would also follow our Christian meaning. Yet this approach is more likely to lead to syncretism because syncretism comes from striving after meaning. So, if the introduced foreign forms do not make sense to converts, it will be easy to revert to traditional non-Christian meanings in order to fill the void left by foreign forms.

Quadrant 4. When indigenous forms are combined with Christian meanings, we have indigenous followers of Christ, that is, contextualized Christianity that is appropriate to the context.  Christ-centered communities that fit the C5 category are good examples of those found in this quadrant, where the forms are appropriate to the context, but they are used to communicate Christian meanings. Far from being the slippery slope that so many neocolonial missionaries fear will lead to syncretism, contextualized Christianity is the best hedge against syncretism.

I believe the answer to the debate over where to draw the line in contextualization is better understood if we ask a different question: “Do the forms that are appropriate to the culture of the converts adequately convey biblical meanings?” Forms are easy to see; meanings are hard to detect. But we must trust the Holy Spirit to lead followers of Christ into discerning what forms are usable in a particular cultural context for the sake of the gospel.

Much of Hiebert’s writing has been aimed to help us find a way through the sometimes complex world of contextualization so that the universal meanings of the gospel can be understood and lived out in contexts appropriate to the culture in which followers of Jesus live. To move into this missiological arena of radical biblical contextualization will require that we relinquish our need for certainty in exchange for our quest for understanding. May God give us the wisdom and courage to do so.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Mobile Ministry Forum

From 2012 MMF Consultation Executive Summary (HT: Missions Catalyst):


119 mission strategists representing 56 organizations* participated in the third Mobile Ministry Consultation sponsored by the Mobile Ministry Forum (MMF). This more than doubled the 2011 Consultation participation. Presentations and discussions addressed a wide variety of issues critical to the use of mobile devices in ministry (see the topic list below). Collaborative outcomes of the consultation include plans to expand the four-week course into a six-week course, develop a training manual to equip ministries and local believers to use social media, create a mobile ministry pathway for ministries considering mobile ministry, develop a centralized online hub for all resources related to mobile ministry, design a three hour introductory online course, and create a taxonomy for discipleship criteria on the mobile platform.


Never before in human history has there been a technology as highly personal, rapidly deployed, and universally embraced as the mobile device. In late 2011, the number of people living on earth passed seven billion, while mobile phone subscriptions may surpass seven billion by the end of 2012. By 2015, the majority of all Internet access will be through mobile devices. The mobile device presents a unique, two-way communication channel that represents the most important technology available for kingdom advancement.


(Some of links are for Google Docs and may require a Google log-in)

Slide Show – A 90-second slide show from the consultation.

Schedule – The detailed program flow.

Notes – The detailed, crowd-sourced notes from each session on Google Docs.

Mobile Ministry Course – The current four-week mobile ministry course (online).


(Links to recorded presentations are being added as they become available)

Strategy Workshops
Tactics Workshops
For More Information, contact members of the steering committee:


Clyde Taber

Jay Clark

Johnathan Pulos

Keith Williams

The Mobile Ministry Forum

The Mobile Ministry Forum (MMF) is a coalition of ministries working towards the goal of giving every unreached person a chance to encounter Christ and His kingdom in a compelling, contextualized fashion through their personal mobile device by 2020.

* This included 31 participants who joined through interactive, remote access.

Related Posts:

Mobile Phone-Empowered Ministry

How do we respond to the mobile phone revolution?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Insanity of God (Ripkin 2013)

Twice I’ve had the privilege of attending “The Bleeding Edge: Managing Faith in the Midst of Persecution” seminar on the persecuted church led by Nik Ripkin, himself a RNBB (Redneck Background Believer).  It is one of the best trainings I’ve had; here’s a good summary (highly recommended resource).

I’m excited to see The Insanity of God: A True Story of Faith Resurrected finally published.  These stories have significant implications for how we minister to Muslims.

Make sure to check out for a wealth of important articles.  Ripken’s unique missiology stems from his experience in interviewing more than 600 persecuted believers, mostly from a Muslim background.

About The Insanity of God: A True Story of Faith Resurrected:

The Insanity of God is the personal and lifelong journey of an ordinary couple from rural Kentucky who thought they were going on just your ordinary missionary pilgrimage, but discovered it would be anything but. After spending over six hard years doing relief work in Somalia, and experiencing life where it looked like God had turned away completely and He was clueless about the tragedies of life, the couple had a crisis of faith and left Africa asking God, "Does the gospel work anywhere when it is really a hard place? It sure didn't work in Somalia.”

Nik recalls that, “God had always been so real to me, to Ruth, and to our boys. But was He enough, for the utter weariness of soul I experienced at that time, in that place, under those circumstances?” It is a question that many have asked and one that, if answered, can lead us to a whole new world of faith.

How does faith survive, let alone flourish in a place like the Middle East? How can Good truly overcome such evil? How do you maintain hope when all is darkness around you? How can we say “greater is He that is in me than he that is in the world” when it may not be visibly true in that place at that time? How does anyone live an abundant, victorious Christian life in our world’s toughest places? Can Christianity even work outside of Western, dressed-up, ordered nations? If so, how?

The Insanity of God tells a story—a remarkable and unique story to be sure, yet at heart a very human story—of the Ripkens’ own spiritual and emotional odyssey. The gripping, narrative account of a personal pilgrimage into some of the toughest places on earth, combined with sobering and insightful stories of the remarkable people of faith Nik and Ruth encountered on their journeys, will serve as a powerful course of revelation, growth, and challenge for anyone who wants to know whether God truly is enough.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Another nail in the C Spectrum’s coffin?

Here is presentation from Jens Barnett called “Refusing to Choose” from the Coming to Faith in Christ Consultation II in 2010.  Barnett has recently modified it and allowed us to post it on Circumpolar with the hopes of furthering the discussion on socio-religious identity as it relates to our beloved MBB brothers and sisters.

Barnett has two chapters in the upcoming book Longing for Community: Church, Ummah, or Somewhere in Between?  The presentation is a preview of these chapters and includes some very helpful diagrams that enable us to think in terms of identity outside the confines of the C Spectrum.  Barnett’s contributions to MBB discipleship involve the theories of hybridity and multiple belonging, and need to be considered by anyone with an opinion on the Insider Movement.

(See the continuing discussion with evangelical leaders weighing in after the CT Cover Story.)

Download “Refusing to Choose” here and be sure to comment below.  Barnett will be following the comments.  Is this another nail in the C Spectrum’s coffin?