Monday, May 16, 2005

Extreme Makeover: Culture Edition

Earlier this year, my church sent a group of lay people to Tanzania to help build a chapel for a hospital there. Yesterday, as part of our Pentecost service, these "missionaries" reported on their experience. They were obviously very moved and we were given stories, pictures and videos of difficult living conditions, crowded classrooms and children practicing their writing in the dirt outside the school. And one by one the people who went on this trip gave their testimony of just how little the people there have.

I kept expecting to see a clip of Ty Pennington with a bullhorn shouting, "Good morning Iambi Village!"

Now don't get me wrong. I think "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" and Christian missionary work are both fundamentally wonderful things. But they're both subject to certain pitfalls. (I'll get back to Christian mission in a minute, but first I want to explore "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" a bit.)

On "Extreme Makeover: HE" you can pretty much count on the fact that, no matter who the family is they're helping out, the house is going to come out basically the same. Sure they try to personalize, but in the end you always get a basically upper-middle class white home with lots of electronic gadgets, plenty of theme bedrooms and plasma TVs everywhere. Everybody wants that, right?

I think the fundamental problem with this show is that they send the family away while they redesign their home. The results look painful to me. They talk to a young boy for a few hours, and then go about trying to design the perfect room for him. And it ends up with the designer saying, "He likes cars, so I'm goig to turn his bedroom into a giant car." I have nightmares of myself in this situation and coming home to find a 10-foot crucifix on one wall, a bed made out of a baptismal font and bust-of-Luther lamp on the nightstand.

It's well known that one of the historic problems with Christian mission is that as the gospel went throughout the world, European culture came with it and accepting one meant accepting the other. Now some smart missionaries around the end of the nineteenth century figured out that this was a bad idea, and since then there has generally been some attempt to integrate the Christian message with the existing culture. But this is a really hard thing to do well.

The church in the village my co-parishoners visited uses the Masai Creed as part of their worship service. This creed was written by missionaries who didn't want to impose their culture on the Masai people. It's a beautiful creed, but I can't help wonder how much the creed, with its Jesus who was "always on safari" and who though he died "the hyenas did not touch him", sounds like a bedroom made into a giant car.

But this is mainly a cosmetic issue. The thing that troubles me about Christian missions (and really Christian evangelism) is whether in addition to not imposing our culture we should also not impose our religion.

I was proud of the missionaries my church sent to Tanzania, because they came back seeing that the things the people there need are things like a reliable food supply and clean drinking water. This entry is definitely not meant as a complaint against this trip. But one of them came back proud of the 15 former Muslims who have been baptized into the church in that village and concerned about the many more people throughout the world who do not know Christ.

I'm not advocating a purely social gospel, and I'm not saying that Christians should hide their faith when providing help to a hurting world. But something special happens when we simply act to help people in need, something that far transcends a verbal presentation of the Gospel. And I can't help but wonder how often the felt need to evangelize gets in the way of the spread of Gospel and the receiving of God's grace.

Economist Jeffrey Sachs talks about the "Big Five" interventions that could make the difference between life and death in struggling African villages: boosting agricultural output, improving basic health, investing in education, bringing electricity, and providing clean water and sanitation.

The best Christian missions involve these things, but how often (both in global mission and in local help) is it done just as a way of getting a foot in the door to make more Christians? How much more is the grace of God spread and the Gospel preached simply by the doing of these works?

The kingdom of God is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until it all was leavened. Wherever we spread the Gospel, the result should look like the culture we have entered leavened by faith, hope and love. It shouldn't look like the culture was torn down and replaced with something the missionaries made in their own image.


LutheranChik said...

Great post, Mel.

I know someone from a conservative evangelical background who takes a sabbatical from her nursing job twice a year to do medical missionary work. She came back from her last trip, to Australia, very angry because her group hadn't been able to "save" anyone...this despite doing what sounded like genuine good for indigenous people in the Outback.

I think sometimes we try to, as Luther put it, stuff the Holy Spirit, feathers and all, down the throats of unwilling others. In fact, I have been guilty of just such a thing started out as a simple "This is what I believe" affirmation but turned into something that the other person interpreted as excessive pressure to turn him around to my point of view. Sometimes I just need to act rather than talk, then get out of the Holy Spirit's way and let her do her thing. [rueful smile]

mindflame said...

You’re right, people are not content to do good and let the Holy Spirit do His work. I think a big part of it is pride, people want to see the spiritual change so they can revel in there part in it. This may very possible be why God does not let these same people see the spiritual ramifications of their actions. Providing for peoples basic needs should never be merely a function of spreading the gospel. It is the gospel itself in action