New Guidelines for working with non-Christians

World Church: Contextualization Makes Message Liberating

June 10, 2003 Silver Spring, Maryland, United States .... [Mark A. Kellner/ANN]

New “Guidelines for Working With Non-Christians,” approved in June by Seventh-day Adventist church leaders, seek to make the gospel message “liberating” to its hearers, a church leader emphasized.

“This should not be perceived as liberalizing Adventism, but as liberating the message,” said Michael Ryan, director of the church’s Global Mission. “We are removing those barriers that keep people from hearing and participating with understanding” in what the Adventist Church is proclaiming, he added.

The new guidelines--an outgrowth of the recent Global Mission Issues Committee meetings at the Adventist Church World Headquarters--are the first of several guidelines to be developed that will help workers cope with a secularized and even post-Christian society.

At the same time, church leaders emphasized that any efforts at contextualization should not promote syncretism, which is defined in dictionaries as “the combination of different forms of belief or practice.”

In a document entitled “Contextualization and Syncretism,” the church, on June 10, voted that contextualization “is based on the authority of the Scripture and the guidance of the Spirit and aims at communicating biblical truth in a culturally-relevant way. In that task, contextualization must be faithful to the Scripture and meaningful to the new host culture, remembering that all cultures are judged by the gospel.”

The first guidelines address three major areas: “Use of the Bible in mission vis-à-vis ‘sacred writings,’” “transitional organizational structures,” and “fundamental beliefs and preparation for baptism.”

The first of these permit “contextualization” of the manner in which the gospel message is communicated, through the use of “sacred writings” cherished by non-Christians “in a deliberate attempt to introduce people to the Bible as the inspired word of God and to help them transfer their allegiance to the biblical writings,” the document said. However, the Bible is the sole authority for Christian faith and practice, and the church “should not use language that may give the impression that it recognizes or accepts” the authority others apply to those non-Christian “sacred writings.”

Additionally, the guidelines allow for non-traditional church organizations--a “study group” instead of a mission, for example--and for a presentation of the Adventist message in a more local context, such as a responsive reading and chanting of Bible verses to convey a message in cultures where the idea of a weekly “sermon” delivered by one person is unknown to non-Christians.

In preparing new believers for baptism, the guidelines stress the need for casting the church’s fundamental beliefs in language local people can understand, aided by locally developed Bible studies and teaching instruments. Baptismal candidates must clearly be brought through a process that will give evidence of a personal experience of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ, understanding the church’s beliefs and message, guidance by the church community and understanding the baptismal vow as set forth in the Adventist “Church Manual,” according to the document.

“For the first time, we are making serious inroads into [non-Christian] cultures and world religions where we are exploring solutions to missiological problems that we have not had in the past,” Ryan explained. “These problems largely center around method rather than issues of theology.”

Ryan said that a study of data on church growth worldwide shows a failure to effectively penetrate cultures that are predominately Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and communist. He claims this is due to a decidedly “Western” approach not resonating with many of these peoples.

We are not using a method they can identify with,” Ryan said. “Our theology is not changing, but it’s our methods.”

Ryan recalled one country where Adventists have labored for more than 80 years, but have baptized only 17 Buddhists during that time. A number of tribal persons were converted, but Buddhists were unable to relate to a Western religion’s concepts of sin, salvation and preaching. In other nations, he noted, attending a Christian worship service would be highly discouraged; joining a Christian church could lead to death.

In such places, rather than seeking to achieve a conversion after a three-week “campaign,” Ryan said workers need to let conversions take time. Adapting the presentation of the message to the local culture--without altering theology--is a part of that process, he said.

“There is a line at which we do not go beyond,” he added, saying that the guidelines voted by the church’s Administrative Committee are designed to prevent “ad hoc” variants of Adventist practice from taking hold in some places, as may have happened with other religious groups.

By communicating the Adventist message “in a way that is attractive, meaningful and understood,” he added, new believers can be attracted to the gospel. During the coming months, other guidelines will be brought forth to further help Global Mission pioneers and other workers to contextualize the message and, as Ryan said, “help finish the work.” --Source: Adventist News Network