Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Contextualization Weirdness: Some Thoughts on Orthodox Missions and Evangelism in Kenya

Preaching on St. Photini, the Samaritan 'woman at the well', to whom Jesus said,  'If you knew the gift of God and who it was who was talking to you, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.'

Evangelism is a lost art, a forgotten priority in many, if not most Orthodox parishes.  Many of us seem to think that our very existence, or the fact that we open our doors on Sunday, or put a sign outside identifying us, or hold an annual fete is enough for us to declare victory in the evangelism department and then go home having done our duty.  But most of us don’t even think of Orthodoxy and evangelism as existing in the same book, much less in the same sentence.  Most of us, if we are honest, including myself, have had our attitudes about evangelism badly mauled by the excessive, hyper-emotional, manipulative over-doing that passes for evangelism on the part of the TV and mega-church gods and in some Protestant and Pentecostal churches.  Sometimes one cannot tell whether the purpose is to preach some gospel or to demand donations as a demonstration of one’s faith.  The mix of salvation, emotionalism, promises of prosperity and healing and the ever present request for money leaves an understandable bad taste in one’s mouth, and has made not a few people say, if this is what ‘evangelism’ is, then I don’t want to have anything to do with it.

Living in Kenya as I do, one cannot escape the presence of religion.  Almost everybody claims to be a Christian of one sort or another.  This is interesting in that Kenya also is one of the more corrupt countries in the world, one riven by ethnic hatreds, with high rates of promiscuity, domestic violence, alcoholism and other forms of substance abuse, etc.  Which might lead one to suspect that for all the religious hoopla, Christianity actually makes little difference in the way people actually live and has little impact on the communities and cultures of this land.  But that is for another time.

The largest denomination in Kenya is the Roman Catholic Church.  But the predominant style of Christianity that has overrun this country is Pentecostalism in its various forms.  And a Pentecostal style has become the preferred way of preaching, even in many non-Pentecostal churches.  And a Pentecostal style of ‘worship’, with a keyboard or a band and a worship leader with other singers dancing their hearts out, all miked and blaring out of over-taxed loudspeakers, undoubtedly making a contribution to the collective deafness of the community - all of these things, and especially the (very) loud speakers are being reproduced in church after church.  Churches may not be able to afford to pay their pastor, or take care of their poor, or construct a proper building.  But by golly they will have a keyboard and loudspeakers at the very least.  I have traveled over most of the country, and there is not a single place I have visited that hasn’t had many if not most of their churches in more-or-less Pentecostal mode.

All of which leads me to ask, when Orthodox Christians choose to do evangelism here in Kenya, how should we go about doing it?  Should we organise pilgrimages and processions and carry icons around the community whilst chanting?  Should we run seminars to better acquaint our neighbours with who we are and where we come from?  It has been said that funerals are actually a significant (and for many the only) point of contact with Orthodox priests and services.  To our credit (in my opinion) the simplicity and beauty of our funeral liturgy compares favourably with the way funerals are done in other denominations.  But this is more on the lines of exposure as opposed to evangelism.


So if we Orthodox Christians want to introduce people to Jesus, and introduce them to Orthodoxy, how then should we proceed?

People who think about mission strategy have always observed that things go better if we Christians take steps to meet our neighbours where they are (in terms of their context, assumptions, lifestyle, issues, etc) rather than force them to come meet us where we are.  This, of course, means being willing to leave the comfort of the familiar and to venture into territory that we are not used to experiencing.  This can be literally, in that we leave the confines of the Church and go to where the people we want to reach are.  In the UK where I lived, the Anglican Church I was a part of would have regular ‘Pub Nights’ where we would have a team from the church go to one of the local pubs, share a pint with the locals and use either a pub quiz or some other game as a way to introduce spiritual issues into the conversation. This would usually lead to several good conversations about Christ, Christianity, salvation and discipleship.  In Kenya I have tried this approach in several contexts and found an amazing openness on the part of people in the various bars I’ve visited.  I’m surprised that more Christians with a heart for evangelism are not fishing where the fish are, so to speak.  And it’s not just in bars.

The context for a baptismal liturgy in small town western Kenya.

But there is another way we can contextualise our evangelistic efforts as Orthodox Christians.  Again rather than wait for people to walk in our doors and imbibe the Orthodox essence and fall on their face and cry out that God is surely in your midst, we can also go into our community’s religious and experiential space, one that has been staked out by a veneer of Pentecostal style, and we can claim that space as our own.  In other words contextualization in Kenya no longer means communicating the gospel in terms of an African Traditional Religious perspective that actually has almost entirely disappeared.  That world view is drying up all over the continent like a water hole in drought.  The common coin of religious experience these days is the hoopla of Pentecostal form, if not content.  This is the wave-length that most people are on, and this is the wave-length that most people are responding to, at least initially.  It may be incredibly superficial, but it is where people are and what they know.  Even some of our own Orthodox parishes have introduced ‘praise and worship’ singing and dancing after the Divine Liturgy.  Imagine.

Preaching at the new St. Tabitha's Orthodox Church meeting in the orphanage sitting room.

So how do we reach our communities?  We speak to them in a language they understand, using a format that they can comprehend, in a style that won’t chase them away.  That means we probably forgo Byzantine chant in favour of a keyboard, singers and loudspeakers.  That means we probably have our event in a place where local people gather.  That means we speak in a style that wont be a stumbling block to the audience.  It’s still Orthodoxy, but its not dressed in a cassock; rather it’s Orthodoxy dressed in local garb.  And in this case, local garb is in Pentecostal style.


I have always studied contextualization in terms of understanding the uniqueness of the host culture, their religious assumptions, their rhetorical style, their concerns and priorities, and then taking the gospel and finding a way to communicate it effectively in light of these parameters.  Much is made of the ‘African world view’ (forgetting of course that ‘Africa’ is a very big place and that there is no such thing as an ‘African’ world view.)  Maybe a Kikuyu world view or a Luhya world view is more appropriate.  And these things are still important even today.  But less and less so.


Even so, care must be taken after we have identified the importance of Pentecostal style for communicating the gospel.  The ubiquity of Pentecostal style is certainly an indication of its success in permeating the various cultures of Kenya.  But as I observed above, the shallowness of the resulting Christianity serves as a warning that the advance of a Pentecostal style is not necessarily the same thing as an advance of the Kingdom of God. For all the 'Christians' here, Kenya is still desperately in need of evangelizing.

I think that, with care, even we Orthodox can use a Pentecostal style to gain a hearing for our Orthodox faith.  Paul was willing to be all things to all people so that he might win some for Christ. We should be ready to do no less than the Apostle.

Not what I was expecting. But then not many people here would respond to Palestrina.

So imagine my bemusement when we traveled to western Kenya and held a ‘crusade’ in a small town on the way between Webuye and Kakamega.  We had a banner replete with pictures of the speakers, announcing three days of ‘Gospel’ meetings sponsored by the local Orthodox parish.  We had our sound system and requisite (very) loud speakers.  We had our worship leader and singers, which led to worship songs and dancing.  And we had testimonies, introductions, and finally the preacher who would preach for an hour or so.  Followed by more singing and dancing until it was getting dark and we had to go home.  I’m a former Presbyterian minister, a university lecturer, an Orthodox  Christian and presently the dean of the Orthodox seminary - this is not my idiom.  But this is one of the ways we can reach people for Christ, one of the ways we can use to build bridges between the weird world of Pentecostal style and the even stranger world of Orthodox Christianity.  And there were people who responded.  I don’t think I am going to quit my day job any time soon and become a television evangelist.  But there is a place and a need for going to where the people are and engaging them in a way that they can hear with the actual gospel of Christ, not the half-cocked, me-centered pablum they are used to being fed.  God knows there are many others trying to do the same as we are trying to do and preaching something other than the true gospel.  If we the Orthodox won't be bothered to allow others to hear the gospel from us, we leave the field to the wolves and heretics, and reveal ourselves to be motivated by a different spirit than that of Christ’s.  So this is not a trivial matter.

Preaching on St. Mary's 'Yes' to God, in contrast to Eve's 'No' in the Garden of Eden.

These are just some thoughts, trying to place my experience of this past weekend in the wider frame work of missions, evangelism and contextualization.  I don't mind helpful criticism, or better ideas on how we Orthodox can undertake our commission to preach the gospel in our Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.  But critics will have more credibility if they themselves are helping their own parishes reach out beyond their Churches and engage with the lost souls of our contexts.