By Robert Schmidt
What is the best preparation for understanding and communicating the Gospel to people of another culture? For the most part missionaries and church leaders have relied upon seminary education. As soon as congregations are planted, efforts are made for the education of the native clergy to serve the fledgling congregations and make the church relevant to that culture. Seminaries are built and the calls go out for theological educators to teach the future pastors of the indigenous church.1
At the seminary the students learn about the Scriptures, Christian doctrine, church history and the practical skills of ministry. However, these are not the only lessons learned. When the seminary is taught by missionaries or by indigenous theologians who were earlier taught by missionaries, the students also learn about the “church culture” that was developed most recently in a western setting. At the seminary they learn the pattern of church life featuring a trained and paid pastor and a supporting congregation.
At the same time, however, they also learn to reject many of their native customs and culture as having their origins in what their teachers had branded “idol worship.” For the most part the seminary students accept this view even though it is taught by missionaries who may have been ignorant or ill informed about the relationship of the native culture and religion. Commenting on seminary education, Roland Allen long ago pointed out that some students know so much Christian doctrine and philosophy that they have forgotten the religion of their country.2
Allen also contrasted the way Jesus taught his disciples and the way seminary education is conducted. He wrote:
Christ trained his leaders in the midst of their own people, so that the intimacy of their relation to their own people was not marred and they could move freely among them as one of themselves; we train our leaders in a hot house, and their intimacy with their own people is so marred that they can never live as one of them, or share their thoughts.3
The results of seminary education in non-western cultures have been mixed. On the positive side, pastors are well trained in theology, and churches in these lands have been able to relate to each other and to other church bodies across the world. On the negative side, the costs of seminaries and the necessity of financially supporting seminary-trained graduates have made many churches in poor nations dependent on western churches for financial support. This reemphasizes the criticism of Christianity that it is but a western import. Furthermore, filtered through a western-oriented seminary education much of the message seems irrelevant to the culture because of the way missionaries and pastors are educated.
One response to the perception that Christianity is but a western import has been the attempt to follow the teachings of Christ without belonging to an organized denominational church. One notable example in Japan has been the Mukyokai-Shugi or Non-church associated with its founder, Kanzo Uchimura. According to Uchimura the Non-church is not an attempt to overthrow anything. Rather it is for people who have no church like a dormitory for those who have no home or an orphanage or fondling home for the spirit.4
More recently has been the endeavor of Native Americans or “First People” to restore an appreciation for Native American customs and values and to center them on the Creator’s son, Jesus Christ. According to their web site, “A new day of freedom and growth for the aboriginal church is dawning. An exciting era in Christian indigenous education will bless the whole body of Christ and prompt healing among the nations.5
In Hawaii a movement has begun calling itself the Aloha Ke Akua or “God is Love.” Among their goals are to let indigenous people know that Jesus Christ loves all people equally and that atrocities perpetrated by the church or Christian nations were wrong and did not come from Jesus. They wish to inform indigenous people that God created them exactly as he wanted them and loved them throughout their history, that he has left them with many treasures and worthy traditions within their culture. Furthermore God desires that they freely worship him in the beautiful and unique cultural expressions that flow from them.6
Perhaps the largest and most significant of these movements is that of the Christ Bhaktas in India, sometimes known as the “Non-Baptized Believers in Christ” (NBBC). In a pioneering study Herb Hoefer did an extensive survey of these believers in Christ, many of whom have not been baptized, nor have they joined any church organization. His results were first published in 1991 and more recently in 2001 under the title, Churchless Christianity.7His research demonstrated that a solid twenty-five percent of the Hindus and Muslims in the city of Madras with over 4,000,000 inhabitants have integrated Jesus deeply into their spiritual life. Half of the population has sought some spiritual relationship with him and three-fourths of them speak very highly of Jesus and could relate to him as their personal Lord if so motivated. All of this is in a city where about ten percent of the people are members of a Christian church.8
Mindful that in India people often pray to more than one deity, Professor Hoefer’s study asked people whether they believe that Jesus is the only way to God. He estimates that people who answered that question in the affirmative make up fully 5% of the population of India, not counting the 2.6% of Indians who belong to a church and are most likely to be baptized. This means that in addition to the 26 million Christians who belong to a church there may be as many as 50 million non-baptized believers in Christ. It is also significant that many of the Christ Bhaktas are from India’s higher castes, groups which have been difficult to reach by western missionaries and the Indian churches.9
Patterns of Ministry
Time and space do not permit a full discussion of the reasons why many Indian Christian believers have not been baptized. Nor is it possible to discuss fully the theological implications for a believer in Christ who has not been baptized. Rather we wish to examine why theological education in its western form has led to a churchless Christianity in various cultures and how such churchless Christians learn to minister to each other and to their society.
Dayanand Bharati, a significant leader among the Christ Bhaktas in India, commented on the role western theological education played in India. Among both missionaries and seminary-educated national pastors, “learning” was expected to happen in seminaries. Unfortunately, in seminaries little “learning” happened with regard to the religious and cultural setting of the communities in which they served. Just as in the West many people call themselves Christians and observe Christian festivals without knowing much about the Bible, so in India many people follow Hindu or Muslim customs without understanding or even believing the religious ideas behind them. As a consequence, Bharati argues for more learning to take place within the communities so that church leaders can understand the difference between customs and culture and the religious ideas behind them.10
Bharati argues for an Indian Christianity where the faith is integrated with Indian culture. Looking at history, he quotes an observation and adds his comment:
The glorious gospel “which began in Palestine as a relationship with a Person, when it moved to Greece, became a philosophy, then on to Rome and became an institution, spread all over Europe and became a culture and then moved to North America and became an enterprise.” And when it came to India the gospel became European imperialism.11
Without a formal seminary education and a church organization, how do Christ Bhaktas do ministry? Bharati points out:
In India society is organized, not religion…. Organized religion will never appeal to the average Hindu. If we want to see the Kingdom of God among the Hindus we must follow the spontaneity seen in the early church. Of course as all gathering requires some kind of coordination, the appointing of elders and deacons in the early church is understandable and equivalent leadership roles will develop today.12
Both the patterns of ministry and theological education among the Christ Bhaktas are very informal as it was in New Testament times. Leaders like Bharati travel from region to region and from house to house. They study the Bible, do puja (worship), incorporating many Indian customs and terminology, and sing Bhajans (songs) and write letters about religious and ethical issues. Not all Christ Bhaktas are connected, but efforts are being made to help them relate to one another.
The growth and relevance of Christ Bhaktas and other “churchless Christians” throughout the world call into question both the patterns of ministry and the education for those ministries in established churches. Philip Wickeri writes in “Missions from the Margins:”
The most dynamic sections of Christianity today are in the movements emerging outside its established centers: The African Initiated Churches (or AICs); Pentecostals all over the world; the rural churches of China; new indigenous Christian communities throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America. They represent a popular Christianity, a mission from below, a mission of transformation. Their emphasis on oral tradition, lay leadership and maximized participation confront historic Protestant churches with our carefully scripted, over-clericalized approaches to church life.13
Furthermore, this is not only true of exotic Christians in far off lands but is also relevant to the lay people sitting in North American pews. Alan Harkness writes:
There is often an ambivalence by lay people toward seminary students/graduates. On one hand they sense that the graduates deserve to be placed on some sort of ecclesiastical pedestal because of their theological education; while on the other hand, they wonder whether the same graduates fail to understand the reality of life in their societies – as if they graduate with the right answers, but to the wrong questions.14
Most seminaries emphasize the need both for a strong focus on missions and also the need for building community in their residential seminary program. However, these two emphases may be antithetical. With which community will the seminary graduate relate? Will it be that of the seminary community with its instructors and theological tradition, or will it be with the community of the people the graduate is called to serve? The elders Paul appointed (Acts 14:23) certainly related far more to their own communities than to the Rabbinic tradition known by Paul.
The growth of the faith among churchless Christians argues for new patterns of theological education, far more similar to that of Jesus teaching his disciples in the midst of mission or that of Paul who equipped local elders for leadership from Iconium to Corinth. In this type of theological education the two communities are not set against one another but are integrated into a single community engaged in mission. This pattern avoids the young seminary graduate who destroys a local congregation because it is not in sync with the community at the seminary. It also better prepares the graduate to do theology with reference to the culture and values of people where ministry takes place.
Changes in this direction are already taking place. Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, is to be commended for its Ethnic Immigrant Institute of Theology (EIIT). In this program future pastors and church leaders remain in their ethnic communities and take seminary courses through the Internet and with a local mentor. Since the program is relatively new, it is still heavily weighted in favor of passing on the tradition rather than a creative dialogue with new communities. Nevertheless, it is a step in the right direction. Perhaps in time seminaries may learn that most theological education should move in that direction if they are serious about the mission of the church.
1. The writer was a professor at the Lutheran seminary in Nigeria and has lectured at seminaries in Zimbabwe, Japan, Germany and Kazakhstan. He helped to train missionaries going overseas from 1970 to 1974 and served most recently as dean of theological studies at Concordia University in Portland.
2. Roland Allen, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours (London: World Dominion Press, 1956), p. 137.
3. Roland Allen, The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church: and the Causes Which Hinder It (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1962), pp. 20-21.
4. Hiroshi Miura, The Life and Thought of Kanzo Uchimura (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1996), p. 107.
7. Herbert Hoefer, Churchless Christianity (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2001). Herbert Hoefer was a missionary in India and taught and did his research at Gurukul Lutheran Theological Seminary in Madras (currently Chennai) India. He is currently serving as the chair of missions at Concordia University in Portland and is the area secretary for India with the Board for Mission Services of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.
8. Ibid., p. 106.
9. Interview with Herb Hoefer, August 2, 2005.
10. Dayanand Bharati, Living Water and Indian Bowl (Delhi: ISPCK, 2001) pp. 25, 26. This writer met Dayanand Bharati at a Rethinking Conference in Pune, India, in 2000. Since then a number of Rethinking Conferences have been held in India, the U.K. and the U.S. in the attempt to “rethink” how to reach many caste Hindus and strengthen Christ Bhaktas in their mission.
11. Ibid., p. 50.
12. Ibid., p. 41, 42.
13. Philip Wickeri, “Mission from the Margins: Missio Dei in the Crisis of World Christianity,” in The International Review of Missions 93 (April 2004), p. 195.
14. Alan Harkness, “De-schooling The Theological Seminary” in Teaching Theology and Religion 4 (October 2001), p. 143.