Mission, Evangelism, Contextualization, and the Arts

A part of the planning for the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization: Cape Town 2010 includes a strong artistic presence. In recent times, we have been seeing a renewed interest in the arts among Christians, as well as discussions about the special place the arts may have in the missional task of the Church. The brief piece below is adapted from the Lausanne paper titled “Redeeming the Arts” that was produced out of the consultation in Pattaya, Thailand, in the fall of 2004. The adaptation was done by John Franklin, one of the writers for the original “Redeeming the Arts” document and a member of the arts and media committee for Cape Town 2010. Franklin is executive director of Imago, serving Christian artists in Canada, and is chair of Lausanne Canada. He lives in Toronto.

The Great Commission and the Arts
Near the end of his earthly ministry, Jesus instructed his disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations (ethnos), baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…” (Matthew 28:19-20). The Great Commission, as it is known, has been at the core of Christian mission since its inception. By integrating the use of story (teaching), symbol and ritual (baptism), and cross-cultural communication (all nations), it draws our attention to the strategic role that the visual and the symbolic must play in our work of carrying out this commission.

Generation after generation, people find
themselves through the artistic legacy of
story, music, and image. Art has its own
unique way of “speaking” and “meaning.”

Understanding the nature and purpose of the arts is vital for evangelism and missions, because of the strategic role they play in every culture. Every people group reinforces and passes on its story through the arts. Generation after generation, people find themselves through the artistic legacy of story, music, and image. Art has its own unique way of “speaking” and “meaning.” It does not function well when we try to make it into something it is not.

To put it directly, art is not a good preacher—it is, by nature, allusive and indirect. The arts should therefore not attempt to evangelize per se, but they can “bear witness” to truth. For example, stories, contemporary parables, and allegories are very creative, art-friendly, and meaningful ways to engage the imagination, highlight the human condition, and allow the Holy Spirit to “point” people toward the truth of the gospel.

When considering mission and culture, it is important to note that change can happen in two ways. The gospel can change a culture, and the culture can change the gospel. No culture remains entirely static. To be an agent of cultural change need not be the same as cultural domination. What is interesting about Christianity in this regard is that as a faith, it is not tied to any culture. It has gone beyond both the religion and the language of its founder, affirming that the eternal truths of God may be conveyed in everyday speech no matter what the cultural context.

When it comes to culture changing the gospel, we encounter again the problem of mixing the values of the culture with the gospel such that the essence of the gospel is changed by culture and so takes on different meaning. The important question to discern is whether the gospel of Christ has been compromised or strengthened in its adaptation to culture.

Heart Language
Indigenous arts are expressive, intrinsic communication forms that are integrated within and across the structures of society, where they define and sustain cultural norms and values. We must come to see that becoming acquainted with the artistic expressions of diverse cultures is as important as attending language school in preparation for mission work. The arts provide a window to the language of the heart. Such a language is able to bypass obstacles that keep us from relating to one another. It takes time to do the research that will unravel the meanings of indigenous art, and weave well the threads and patterns of indigenous Christianity, so that the gospel can be poured into indigenous forms. This bottom-up approach is both respectful of our cultural differences and valuable for gaining fresh insights into the gospel story.

Missionaries and the church do their work best when they champion the value of arts done by the local people in their own style, rhythm, and language, allowing them to express their praise to God. Art and music shaped by Western society is present everywhere in the world. Instead of allowing this to erode interest and respect for the traditional indigenous culture, a strong church will accept the healthy challenge to worship freely with both contemporary and indigenous music styles.

Although the approach is changing, there are still groups of missionaries insisting on Western art forms for indigenous churches. Because of teaching they have received, many Majority World churches have adopted this practice, making it a challenging task for local leadership to reclaim their traditional cultural practices. A college dance professor in Ghana observes:

In Africa, the performing arts are not just for the stage. They are part of the life of the people—a language that is seen in everyday activity. It is therefore sad that Christianity has not explored using much of the arts as they already exist in Africa. Songs that came with the faith are foreign. Our many traditional musical instruments were all rejected. So even though our people embraced the Christian faith, it is still seen today as the Europeans’ religion. This is why it is necessary to initiate moves that will lead to the Christians in Africa incorporating their dances, drumming, and singing into the expression of their faith for upcoming generations to see the Christianity as their own.

Every people group has its own unique cultural traditions, artistic expressions, and festivals that are woven into their daily life. The redemptive process must involve indigenous Christian leaders of the culture in the restoration and sanctification of these symbols, ceremonies, and art forms where possible—redirecting them toward Christ. The fear of syncretism, justified as it is, should not immobilize the redemptive process from moving forward, depriving people of the opportunity to worship and celebrate in their own heart language. Only then will they see the gospel as their own.

Indigenous Christian leaders, along with others in the faith community, need to consider not just which art forms are appropriate for the church, but also what ceremonies, symbols, and rituals are to be retained in daily family, village, and city life, so that they will keep hold of their root culture. With this focus, Christians remain accessible to their non-Christian neighbors and the Christian faith will be winsome and reach deeply into the culture. One key is to look for an analogy to Christ in the stories or songs of the culture that show how God was already at work before the missionaries came.