Friday, March 28, 2008

Oceania Convention 2008 - "Immersion: A Contextualized Church"

Friday 21 March

   As I got on the train at Woodridge station, I must admit that I had several expectations as well as concerns about the subject matter of "A Contextualised Church".
   Expectations as for the past three years, I along with others in Hope Brisbane Christian Church's Eureka Aussie Fellowship had been praying for a breakthrough with regards to reaching out to local Australians given that Hope Brisbane is a multicultural church where Caucasians make up less than 15% of the fellowship.
   Prior to 2005, Eureka saw as many as 70 people come to it's own services on a Sunday. We had small-groups for families, youth, students and working professionals. Eventually, over the next three years, we shrank from 70 to 25. Our youth group was lost, key members backslid and fell away; those who were gifted and annointed in vital areas such as evangelism and leadership came and went.
   Hence, I have the expectation that God will indeed bring an answer to prayer in the form of an increased focus on reaching out to Australians properly.

   At the same time, having grown up in the Uniting Church and seeing it fall into compromise with regards to ordination of ministers who follow alternative lifestyles, bureucratic leadership and liberalism, I confess to being hesitant and reserved about the idea of church contextualization for the sake of cultural relevance and acceptability. I won't go into details as to what scripture says for and against; though my biggest fear would be that on the basis of church history, whenever the church has felt that there has been a need to look at new ways of "doing church", there has always been at least one or more strains of liberalism that have crept in.
   The rise of modernism in the form of Darwinian Evolution's influence upon the natural sciences during the latter 19th century led to several churches - including evangelical protestant denominations such as the methodists and the Baptists - at the time to begin to question the innerancy of scripture in light of "science".
   The 20th century saw the rise of secular psychology under Jung and Freud which not only brought in ideas about the human psyche, but challenged by way of theories about self-esteem the biblical teachings about Total Depravity and the sinful nature the root problems at the core of the human condition.
   Pentecostalism originally began as a movement devoted to personal holiness. Yet as a result of consumerism, we saw the rise of the "Prosperity Gospel" on the part of many ministers claiming to be spirit-filled.
   During the 90's we saw the "seeker-friendly" approach to ministry. While the methods behind this mode of church polity has led to the formation of several megachurches in the world, what is not present in many of these churches is strong, bible-based teaching. Sermons tend to be topical life-enhancement messages rather than deep expositions of scripture.. Issues such as repentance, the cost of discipleship and the sinfulness of man are de-emphasized if not denied to the point of wilful omission. Pastoral care is replaced with various programs that are mpre theresukt of human ingenuity than annointing from the Holy Spirit. As one popular theologian put it, "it would make things a lot more clear about these churches if we simply stopped calling them 'churches'."
   Nowadays, at the start of the 21st century, we see an Emerging postmodern culture that challenges commonly held views about the nature of truth and certainty.

   In each case, there was at the core an open challenge to both the integrity of the gospel and the authority of scripture.

   At 6:30pm, the doors to the Greek Club and Convention centre at West End opened to 1000 delegates from around Australia and New Zealand. Praise and worship had already started, followed by a special welcome to Hope Oceania's pastors, and a short dramatic re-enactment of the ministry of Father Damien of Molokai, the famed missionary sent to a leper colony in the Hawaiian islands who was unable to relate to the people he was reaching out to until he himself showed the symptoms of leprosy, leaving him stranded on the colony until his death.

  The first speaker for the Convention was Ps Simon Eng from Hope Kuala Lumper, Malaysia. In defining contextualization, the main point he made was the difference between contextualization and syncretism. The former is about presenting yourself and your message in a relevant, yet uncompromising manner wherein the culture can understand to the point that they can personally choose freely to follow or reject; in other words, you offer the seed of the gospel which can be planted on their own native soil as opposed to giving the seed already planted in your own soil contained within your own cultural "flower pot".
   Syncretism on the other hand, involves taking two completely different worldviews, and building a middle ground, leading to the creation of a third worldview. We often see this in areas that have had much in terms of evangelistic exposure, but little discipleship; the result being that Jesus and the gospel are merely tacked on as a supplement to the native religion (e.g, a missionary to India preaches the gospel, but instead of people rightfully forsaking hinduiusm, Jesus is merely aded to pantheon as a demi-god.). The consequence of this is that first of all, it encourages easy-believism within the culture. Secondly, it denies true conversion as there is no intention to forsake the idols and false gods so that one may follow Christ alone as Lord. Third, decisions for Christ tend to be made on the basis of following the status quo via a bandwagon mentality rather than personal choice and conviction.

   For me, this was a relief as it clearly set a barricade around the possibility of compromise arising from the subject matter. If anything, this was really no different from what is taught is the standard missionary training school. Highly effective missionaries spend years studying the societies God calls them to; understanding the language, customs, beliefs, foods, etc to the point that when it finally comes time to set foot in the foreign land, they are able to relate to people in such a way that it does not necessarily come across as imperialistic. There was perhaps no better example of this in Church History than Hudson Taylor's ministry in China. Had he chosen not to adopt the Chinese language, fashion and customs during his outreach, he could have easily come across as just another western imperialist while China was struggling to maintain it's national identity after being exposed to American and British culture during the 19th century.

Saturday, 22 March

   It's often the case that in a church setting, whenever a bombshell is dropped, it tends to open a bigger can of wors that affects everyone. Although given 10 minutes to speak, Ps Nigel Wittwer (sp?) from Hope Busselton gave an affirmation of Hope Brisbane's vision to "help fulfil the Great Commission by building strong and biblical people to plant strong and biblical churches in Brisbane, Australia and all over the world." He then made the point that if building up Australian disciples was the goal and mission, why then, is it that 85% of the Hope Church's congregations consist of people coming from South-east asia while local Australians make up a a very small minority? Ask any missionary if such a stastistic is indicative of successful outreach to a local native population, the answer would obviously be "of course not." Like Jonah and Ninneva, If I were to say that I have a heart-burden to go to Indonesia to preach the gospel and see the nation won for Christ yet during my time there only disciple Australian expatriates that happened to live there, not only am I limiting my outreach, but I am showing the fruit of sectarianism. If people from south-east asia come to Australia, get saved and declare to serve God while here yet don't reach out to Australians, what hope do they have when they put their hands up to serve as missionaries to places like Africa, south america, eastern Europe?
    Given that Hope Brisbane as a church is 15 years old, one would think that there has been plenty of time to learn and practice how to reach out to local Australians. Sadly, Hope Brisbane still bears the unwanted stigma of being "the asian church" to the extent that when Australian visitors come to attend on Sundays, they immediately feel that they are in the minority.

   Let me be upfront by saying that as a Christian with a heart-burden for biblical Evangelism to be taught and applied, I have never honestly been an advocate of the ethno-centric church model where a local church is specifically designed to target a single ethnic minority or alternatively offers seperate services on a weekend to suit such. If christians are to learn how to reach different cultures, the act should begin within the church itself among the believers in fellowship. After all, if the people that make up the church can't get along and thus becomes divided, what hope does it have of being salt and light to the local community.

Monday 24th March
What a weekend!
   Unlike other conventions in years past, this year's convention didn't have on-sight accomodation. Ergo, delegates had to make their own way to the venue where the first session of the day would start at 8:30am, last one 10pm. Living at Logan, this was a real test of disciple having to wake up early enough to catch the first bus. So by Monday morning, lacking sufficient sleep over the past three days I honestly felt stuffed.
   Since I was rostered to join the intercessory prayer team, I had to miss the morning sessions meaning that I could only see the OC2009 preview plus the closing ceremony.
   As we prayed for the delegates, one couldn't help but sence in the atmosphere a heavyness among the people. I thought that it may have been due to Ps Nigel's message perhaps striking the right nerves and making people question their purpose as ministers here is Brisbane. I felt convicted by the Holy Spirit that this is the bottleneck. If the issue of obedience to the call to reach out to Australians isn't solved, God just may decide to declare "ichabod: my glory is departing and I'm getting out of here."
   After lunch, we got to see the 2009 Conection preview: "A Spirit-led Church: Melbourne, 2009." Between now and then, I pray that God bring reform and revival to his church in Jesus' name. Amen. 

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