There is an old Swahili proverb: “Travel with open eyes and you will become a scholar.”
There is an old Swahili proverb: “Travel with open eyes and you will become a scholar.” Our recent journey to the Horn of Africa was certainly an eye-opening experience for me. For two weeks we were able to slip behind the headlines of conflict and violence (of which we encountered none), and quietly observe the fingerprints of God upon two very diverse spiritual movements.
Philip Jenkins, the renowned historian, has observed that the future of Christianity will be written in the south. For indeed the Southern Hemisphere here in the West, along with Africa, the great continent of the South, have become the fertile fields for the mighty plantings and reapings of the Spirit of God. And in a matter of years, it seems clear, the most vibrant and active manifestation of Christian faith will radiate from these southern regions of earth. Today there are movements within the great monotheistic religions of Africa—Christianity and Islam—that are providing new opportunities for third millennial contextualization. As I wrote in my blog last week, we were able to observe (and participate) in the living out of Paul’s great missionary passion: “So though I was not a slave to any human being, I put myself in slavery to all people, to win as many as I could. To the Jews I made myself as a Jew, to win the Jews. . . . To the weak, I made myself weak, to win the weak. I accommodated myself to people in all kinds of different situations, so that by all possible means I might bring some to salvation. All this I do for the sake of the gospel, that I may share its benefits with others” (I Corinthians 9:19-23 NJB). Paul is not describing the accommodating or watering down of either his faith or divine truth in order to reach earth’s diverse populace. But it is clear that he was willing to immerse himself in the faith culture (or lack thereof) of the people group he was seeking to reach on behalf of the gospel. Acts describes Paul’s adjusting his worship practice, adapting the emphasis of his theology and teaching, shifting both his civil and ecclesiastical identity—all of it dependent on the group he was seeking to penetrate. He “became” one of them in order to reach some of them. Could it be that there are people groups on earth today that will only be effectively reached for God by men and women, young adults, who are willing to embrace a new identity or at least a new identification with those groups? Could it be that changing our living habits, our dress, our language, along with refocusing our faith practice and adapting our theological expression might be prompted by the Spirit of God . . . just as he did with Paul? Twelve miles up the road from this university is the second most depressed inner city (per capita) in the U.S. Could it be contextualization doesn’t have to cross the equator or the seas to be strategic for God? Perhaps he is calling students and families right here in our parish to “move in” to the new culture and context of Benton Harbor for the sake of the everlasting gospel. This much is clear to me—given that God contextualized himself into our human journey through the incarnation, all for the sake of saving some, he will surely bless both the desire and the efforts of those of us today who are willing to do the same, in grateful obedience to the Christ who has saved us, too.