Note: “M” in this article refers to a follower of the predominant religion in the Middle East
In the modern era the West planted foreign flags and concepts in the Third World through military force. Democracy, for example, has come to be the outward form of government in many former colonies. The democratic form of government was imported to them from without.
Often on the heels of the western military would come missionaries to plant the flag of western Christianity on the foreign soil. Unfortunately, however, the gospel of Jesus Christ is not about outward forms to be “imported” from without. The gospel is rather a seed to be planted within any number of types of soil—cultures—found on our planet. (For a good treatment of this, please click on the link at the bottom of the page to read Charles Kraft’s article.) The seed is: Jesus Christ the Son of God suffered on the cross to bear our sins and then rose from the dead. Those who repent of their sins and follow Him as His disciples receive eternal life. This is the seed of the gospel which is to be planted wherever the kingdom of God is proclaimed.
An orange seed will result in an orange tree whose external form will depend in part on local environmental factors and the nature of the soil in which the seed was planted. In the same way the seed of the gospel will grow and take on a certain external form unique to the culture of the people group where the gospel has been planted. In this way the Kingdom of God should take on different outward forms in different places in the world, although there is but one Lord and Savior.
Unfortunately however, western missionaries have in general not simply planted the seed of the gospel in foreign cultures. Figuratively speaking they have instead attempted to take a plant or tree from the western culture where it was planted and grew and tried to transplant it to a foreign culture. This is why in some Third World churches we can see western forms and ways of doing things. We may see African and Asian preachers dressed neatly in western-style dark suits and ties on Sunday morning. Some of their church buildings have neatly arranged wooden pews inside and are embellished outside with steeples and bells which may contrast starkly with the surrounding native architecture. During Sunday meetings the songs, order of worship, and even the sermons bear an eerie but not surprising resemblance to their western counterparts. Third World churches are also program-oriented like most churches in the west. The kingdom of God has been brought to these non-western cultures from without.
What is the problem with this?
The problem is that the outward form of the gospel in that non-western culture has taken on a distinctively western look. To the people there, it has taken on many of the characteristics of a religion. Take the M religion as an example. Outward form for this religion is very important. It prescribes a dress code for its adherents, a specific language for worship and prayer (Arabic), an onion dome and loudspeakers atop its places of worship, a holy city called Mecca which pilgrims must visit. It ideally prescribes a return to the ways and forms of the seventh century when its founder lived. The same is true to some extent of Hinduism and Buddhism. Unfortunately, because of the importance placed on outward forms by Christian missionaries and their followers, the people of the land view the Way as another religion—one that competes with theirs.
Perhaps even more disconcerting is the fact that most followers of Christ have come to have nearly the same point of view. To them outward forms and labels are not only important, but have come to take on the ring of absolute truth. They have come to believe that those who do not subscribe to the same outward forms and labels cannot be saved. For example, they may believe that for a follower of the M religion (hereafter referred to as an “M”) to be saved, he must formally renounce his religion and publicly convert to what is known as Christianity along with its accompanying customs. (To most native people, unfortunately, Christianity means the competing foreign religion imported by former colonial masters. To them Christianity is the religion that spawned, among other things, Hollywood and the filth that it often exports.) Followers of Jesus may also believe that for an M to be saved, he must become what is known as a Christian. (The reality, unfortunately, is that many so-called Christians are not saved and have a poor witness for Christ. Moreover, Christ Himself never commanded his disciples to be known as Christians.) They also believe that the new convert must join the body of Christ by “going to church.” (But as the saying goes, “going to church” does not make someone a disciple of Christ anymore than walking into a garage makes someone an automobile. In a more serious vein, does the body of Christ gather for fellowship only in church buildings? Must a follower of Christ be discipled and taught only in a church facility, and nowhere else?) It would seem that sincere followers of Jesus Christ have unwittingly turned the Way—to outsiders—into just another religion that competes with their indigenous religions.
Therefore we see one reason why the followers of Jesus Christ have failed to complete the Great Commission even two thousand years after the mandate was given to them. They have unknowingly made it unnecessarily difficult for the adherents of the M religion, and those of Hinduism and Buddhist to enter the Kingdom of God by importing it from without. They mistakenly put undue emphasis on the outward. Jesus by contrast said that we would be worshipping the Father neither on a mountain in Samaria nor in Jerusalem, but rather in spirit and in truth (John 4:21-24). A second reason for the failure of the Church to fulfill the Great Commission is her lack of supernatural power to demonstrate to the lost that the kingdom of God is near.
We have seen that importing outward forms from one culture into another does not work well. Even in so-called democratic countries in the Third World, democracy falls far short of its apparent success in the West where it originated. Observe for example the rampant corruption and authoritarian practices that we observe in so-called democracies in the Third World, especially those which have but a single political party.
Unlike the West, the M religion does not have the military power to force itself upon other peoples. They have decided to try what in fact may be more effective: they are planning to conquer peacefully from within. History tells us that Rome conquered the barbarians militarily, but as the barbarians immigrated to Rome in later generations they conquered her culturally without drawing the sword. In 1848 the United States defeated Mexico in the Mexican-American War after annexing Texas as a state in 1845. But now there are so many Latino immigrants both legal and illegal in Texas and other states that restaurants are known to put up humorous signs which do not say Se habla español (“Spanish spoken here”), but rather English spoken here. The “conquest” is taking place peacefully from within.
In the same way, the M religion hopes to conquer Western Europe—not from without by force, but peacefully from within. In the United Kingdom, for example, Ms are now perhaps twenty percent of the population. Because of continued immigration and high birthrates, the Ms could be in the majority in the United Kingdom by the year 2020 according to one estimate. When they are in the majority they will have the political power to enact shariah law in some areas. Even the revered Archbishop of Canterbury startled many recently by stating that shariah law is all but inevitable in the United Kingdom.
What can we learn from this? We can come to understand that the Kingdom of God is a seed to be planted peacefully within an indigenous culture. It is not a religion with its outward forms and labels to be transplanted from a western culture and forced upon a non-western culture. Only when it is planted from within as a seed can it flourish.
Mark 4:26 He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. 27 Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. 28 All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. 29 As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”
30 Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. 32 Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade.”
Luke 13:20 Again he asked, “What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? 21 It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.”
Luke 17:20 Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, 21 nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.”
The Pharisees were experts in outward forms and legalistic religion. But according to Jesus, the Kingdom of God is not about the outward and the visible, but is within us.
Therefore when the gospel is brought to a people group who live within a certain culture or subculture—they could even live in East London—it should be planted as a seed. In some cases we should not force upon them “Christian customs,” no matter how time-honored they are to us, in order for them to be saved. The kingdom of God should come from within as the outworking of the growing seed, not imported or forced from without.
Acts 15:1 Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to thecustom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.”
A council was convened in Jerusalem to discuss this matter. Finally the apostles and elders came to a decision.
Acts 15:11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
It is not by following Christian customs—as revered as they may be—that Ms come into the kingdom of God. It is not necessarily by “converting to Christianity” or by “becoming a Christian.” It is not necessary for them to “join a church” after they are saved. In some cases it may be far better for them to seek fellowship and discipleship in a venue not known as a church or associated with a church. Instead, we should encourage an entirely indigenous movement of followers of Isa Almasih, the outward form of which is determined by cultural and local factors. In public, this movement should be separated and distanced from Western Christianity.
When Ms are introduced to Isa Almasih through a supernatural event such as a miraculous healing, dream, or vision, they are drawn to Him. He is already their prophet mentioned in the Quran. Is it not possible that through many such undeniable miracles taking place in a community or mosque, the Ms there gradually decide to follow Him and are discipled according to the Scriptures? Can Jesus Christ be worshipped in a mosque? Can this possibly happen to many Ms and in many mosques to result in a mass movement of M followers of Jesus Christ?
In the estimation of this author who spent nearly nine years as a missionary in Indonesia and has spent time ministering in other M nations, that scenario is far more likely than a mass movement of Ms renouncing their religion and then converting to the western religion despised and known to their community as Christianity. Doing this would require them to betray their culture and their families as well. The certain persecution which swiftly befalls those few who dare take this public step makes a mass movement of Ms to Christianity extremely unlikely if not outright impossible. Only those who have lived in such a culture can understand this.
According to Scripture, is this kind of persecution really necessary in order to enter the kingdom of God?
Matthew 10:32 “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. 33 But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven.
Jesus is not referring here to disowning Christianity or disavowing being a Christian. The verse is referring instead to disowning the person of Jesus Christ. The M followers of Jesus Christ do not disown him. They in fact acknowledge that they are disciples of Isa. We have already seen that following Jesus Christ is certainly not equivalent to the terms the world understands as Christianity and Christian. Following Jesus as taught by Scripture is not necessarily synonymous with converting to Christianity. When former British Prime Minister Tony Blair “converted” from Protestantism to Catholicism, did that mean he disowned Jesus (if in fact Jesus was ever His Lord and Savior)? No, of course it did not mean that. Mr. Blair was simply changing outward religions. And changing outward religions is not the primary focus here. We want to rise above the level of competing religions. We want to see change first and foremost fromwithin that does not necessarily require a corresponding change in outward religion. For sure there will be definite outward change accompanying the inward one, but not necessarily involving converting to another religion.
The world and its religions have serious objections with what is known as Christianity and many of its adherents. But the same cannot be said regarding how they view Jesus Christ. In fact, He is generally honored as a great prophet and teacher. Should we not take advantage of this and put some distance between Him and the religion that was—perhaps unfortunately—named after Him?
So let the Church of Jesus Christ learn a lesson from the Scriptures and even from history. The kingdom of God should not come from without in pre-determined form, but naturally from within as a seed. Before the Ms take over a western country from within via immigration and a high birthrate, let us plant the pure seed of the gospel within them to give birth to an entirely indigenous movement of M followers of Christ. The Lord has already given us the tool: the power and authority to heal infirm Ms and Hindus and Buddhists consistently when we proclaim the kingdom of God to them. With that supernatural power and authority let us now plant the seed and watch it grow “all by itself” to become a tree that gives life (Mark 4:26-29).
The same principle of contextualization might apply to some extent in preaching the kingdom of God to Buddhists and Hindus as well. At the same time of course we must take care not to fall into the snare of syncretism as has happened in the past. It is possible that the Protestant Church has reacted to syncretism by going to the very opposite extreme. The consequence of this may have been to limit the effectiveness of our witness to the world.