When Christianity began expanding to other lands outside of Jerusalem —at the beginning— there were religious practices of the Early church that linked Christianity to Jewish traditions. As time passed by, many cultures adopted Christianity, and those practices disappeared giving birth to a local gospel. In consequence, places like Europe and North America —for example— developed their “own” Christianity, and when missionaries from these places went abroad in a missional field such as Asia or Africa, not only they shared the Gospel but also their culture, customs, and cosmovision. As an example of this process, Father Vincent J. Donovan in Christianity Rediscovered (New York: Orbis Books, 2003) shares significant insights about his understanding of what missional work is, and by means of his own experience in Africa, challenges and redefines the traditional concept of mission and gospel as we know it today.
Donovan begins his book by describing the social-cultural background in East Africa and introduces his readers The Masai, an African seminomadic tribe he shares the Good News with. Donovan also introduces his missional theology as he reinterprets the Great Commission in light of doing a traditional exegesis of the verse, “And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved, but he that believeth not shall be damned.” (Mark 14:15-16, KJV). In that regard, Donovan states,
Every time it is mentioned the word ‘nations’ is translated by the Greek word ethne. I do not believe that the Bible knew of nations in the modern political sense of the word, like the nations of America and Canada and Tanzania. Ethne would refer more to ethnic, cultural groups, the natural building blocks of the human race.” (Donovan 2003, 23)
For Donovan, the Gospel should be understood as a history, that is, that Christ was born and has risen (Donovan 2003, 24). Thus, when one shares the Gospel to other cultures —especially to those regions that are very different from our culture, the problem that arises is the lack of an adapted message to the new environment. This is one the central ideas of Donovan’s book and his missional work with the Masai. Missional work should be done locally and abroad taking into consideration the particular characteristics of the culture that is being evangelized in a world where Christianity is a minority (Donovan 2003, 30). In fact, what we are told in the Book of Acts about the role of the Jerusalem Council which took place after the third journey of Paul could serve us as an essential platform of a cross-cultural missional theology. Since it was the conversion of centurion Cornelius what started the cross-cultural gospel we have today (Acts 10), this event allowed sharing the Gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 15). After Jesus’ resurrection, God started the development of the mission to the Gentiles in different ways; for example, the ministry of the Apostle Peter and Cornelius. That work has not finished yet! The fact that the Gentiles were admitted into the Jewish-Christian community without actually obeying the Law stirred up a controversy in Jerusalem, and as a result, the Council in Acts 15 established that the Gentiles were not obliged to obey the Jewish ritual laws. Donovan claims that Christian missionaries must preach Christianity and not the Church as many have done (Donovan 2003, 41). The difference between these two approaches is perfectly understood with the Masai. If we preach the church, all the Masai would be lost. But if we preach the Gospel, that is, that Christ died and arose from the dead, the situation changes.
Christians, especially missionaries abroad, should understand that they cannot force people to accept Christianity in the same terms as they know it and the form it was presented it to them. In its central doctrines and beliefs, the Christian message should be the same, but in secondary aspects —especially those of form that do not affect the fundamental Christian doctrines—, missionaries should grow in the freedom that Christ has given us. The missional experiences Father Donovan shared in Christianity Discovered shows us that the lack of a cross-cultural model affects our understanding of a Christian missional theology. For instance, the rejection of a Masai village is an example of what happens when missionaries present the Gospel, and they forget about the right of people to accept or reject the Good News. Donovan understood this after a short period of wondering what has happened to him. The way a particular group of people understands time, cultural traditions, and the interpersonal relationships does affect how the Christian message should be presented. Those aspects shaped the Masai’s thinking and behaviors in forms Western people cannot understand easily. We should not expect that all the Masai would try to adapt themselves to the post-Western Christianity lifestyle. If we think all the Masai should adapt themselves to our Christian cosmovision, we can be sure that the missional model has failed. The key here consists in understanding that though each ethne shares common things with us —we are all human beings with physical and spiritual needs—, but at the same time, we have several aspects that make us so different from each other. This was what the Jerusalem Council exactly did: they understood that the spiritual needs of the Gentiles were different from the need of the Jewish people. Similarly, the spiritual needs of some villages of the Masai vary not only from other villages but also from ours. By not doing so, every missional strategy to share the Gospel with other ethnical groups will fail, or at least, it will not last for a long time. I am convinced that the Gospel we need to present should —in some ways—respond to the particular needs of every culture.
One important aspect that Donovan highlights in his book is that the adaptation of the Gospel to other cultures could be understood under the concept of inculturation, that is, the adaptation of the Gospel to a particular culture. There are many examples of inculturation in Christendom such as the Roman or Asian Christianity in times of the Apostle Paul and the communities he later created. Such a process of inculturation has been also seen in modern times, such as the Masai Christian faith. As one may appreciate it in the testimony of Father Donovan, the real problem with missional work arises when missionaries spread the Gospel with others and do not pay attention to the inculturation process at all. Although this process of adaptation is always present, it could be intentional or not, however. Of course, there should have limits to this process, and that is the reason the process of inculturation cannot be ignored at all. Thus, when missionaries are in places such as Africa and Asia, it would be impossible to carry out the task of sharing the Gospel if they would have forgotten at all how to present the Gospel in simple terms people could understand and accept. A very specific modern example of the importance of inculturation, while sharing the Gospel to an African context, is the creation of an African Creed:
We believe in the one High God, who out of love created the beautiful world and everything good in it. He created man and wanted man to be happy in the world. God loves the world and every nation and tribe on the earth. We have known this High God in the darkness, and now we know him in the light. God promised in the book of his word, the bible, that he would save the world and all the nations and tribes (Donovan 2003, 148), — An African Creed
The Gospel presented in this Creed is enculturated in the sense that at the beginning the creator did pay attention to the importance of presenting a gospel that would fit the particular and general needs of the Masai culture and their understanding of their worldview. For example, a North American Christian would probably struggle with the idea that the ‘hyenas did not touch Christ’ after dying on the cross (Donovan 2003, 148). For North American Christians, that expression is confusing and not very appealing to us, but for the Masai, is the key of the Good News: it means that the strength of the dark power could not overcome Christ. Now, why was the importance of presenting Christ as the one overcoming the hyenas? It was important because, for the Masai, the hyenas represent the death power since it is a tradition for them to leave their dead to be consumed by the hyenas. Expecting that the Masai could understand the Western or classical notion of death would be a challenge for them since they do not share the same cultural context. In conclusion, if one forces that contextual understanding, the failing is imminent because of the lack of attention to the importance of transmitting the Gospel to a new culture in familiar ways. Because the Gospel goes beyond of ethnicity or language, one can find an adequate way to share the Gospel adequately. Local churches —without any doubt— ought to create spaces and strategies to transmit the Gospel in ways the new culture is familiar with, both locally and abroad. As Donovan holds and I totally agree,
Mission is the meaning of the church. The church can exist only insofar as it is in mission. The church becomes the mission, the living outreach of God to the world. The church exists only insofar as it carries Christ to the world. The church is only part of the mission, the mission of God sending his son to the world. Without this mission, there would be no church. The idea of church without mission is an absurdity. (Donovan 2003, 77)
As one may note, only understanding the main role of existence of church, taking the process of inculturation into account, and respecting the right of people to accept or rejecting the message, missionaries can share the universality of the Gospel to people from different cultures that is faithful to the Scriptures and the Great Commission — that is, a responsible evangelism.