Neither of these church responses is appropriate, of course. When a missionary takes the message of Jesus into a completely unreached people group, he must find a way to connect that message to their cultural and world viewpoint. This is no easy task for the missionary. Much of the way the life of Christian faith is lived out in a particular culture is not actually essential or biblically derived.
Many churches would make speaking in tongues an essential part of the Christian life, for instance. While the Bible clearly talks about speaking in tongues, and Pauline letters mention it as a great gift of the Spirit, but no where does the Bible mention it as an essential. Despite this fact, there are many Christian groups who would take my last statement as a fighting challenge.
It is easy to pick speaking in tongues as an example, but there are myriad ways that we Americanize our faith, and communicating that faith involves a stripping down of the gospel to its essentials. If we truly believe that this is the word and will of God, then our cultural baggage is nothing but Astroturf lining the best of fairways. The message of Jesus doesn’t need our cultural additions.
We cannot help adding these additions, though. When any culture accepts the Christian faith, it makes it its own. Korean Christians have a practice of prayer whereby all the members of the church pray out loud simultaneously. It creates quite a holy ruckus. It is good. It is holy. It also sounds weird to our western ears. It is a Korean expression of Christian faith. But Koreans can not hope to force Americans to accept their prayer style as necessary to being Christian.
This seems obvious, yet the Church in America sits as the American culture has been radically redefined over the last 40 years, hoping to contextualize American culture to our faith, instead of doing what any missionary would do and contextualize faith. I think that part of the reason has to do with a general assumption that America is a Christian country. Many people seem to subconsciously equate Americanism and Christianity. The klaxon call is to not let the sinners take over our culture, and fight a cultural war to prevent this. Of course, it is important to encourage our government to support healthy morality, but this is not a battle that the American Church should make our front line.
Instead, we should be seeking to contextualize our faith into the changing landscape of cultural America. We should be finding out where people meet, what people want and need, the cultural touchpoints they have. Once we do that, we can use these areas as introduction points, our cultural carriers of the message of Jesus. This will be difficult for the Church to do, but it is absolutely necessary. -Ryan