Indigenous ministry, ministry that is accurately local, is the process of discovering what is “in the soil” that seeks to glorify God. In the process, we concede the fact that we are “here on a mission” and are instead, “seeking to be a part of Jesus finishing a story” for that particular people in that particular region. We seek to “confirm” what already appears as God’s kingdom coming and “confronting” that which is not under the reign of Jesus.
One of the struggles of Indigenous ministry is the temptation to construct folk religion. Folk religion has bits of the gospel and bits of the things within the local culture that are in opposition to the gospel. Another technical word for this is Syncretism; mixing parts of different ideologies into a new construct. This process happens gradually, for many reasons that we can imagine. Perhaps it is a temptation to always have consensus when making decisions or vision-casting. At other times ministry leaders want to appeal to the wider culture and feel that they have to give much in order to gain a hearing.
This is why it is important to have more than a familiarity with Church History. God’s people have continually struggled to proclaim the gospel into new locations, all the while desiring to be faithful to orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathy (right teaching, practice, and passion). No current ministry trying to be relevant is the first one on the block to pursue it. Without our long, rich story the temptation to be “folky” is all too strong.
This is why I really like the subject (and title) of a book that Roger Olson wrote, Questions to All Your Answers: The Journey from Folk Religion to Examined Faith. If we are really honest, we need to examine things that we have considered to be Christian teaching all too easily and track down if those things are of Christian origin or of a folk origin.
For example, the phrase “personal relationship with Jesus Christ”, is hard to find in the NT. The NT does challenge individuals to make Christ the Lord of their life, but I wonder if that type of an idea is really communicated by the modern preacher. Scot McKnight talks at length (in his book The King Jesus Gospel) about what he sees as two different cultures within the North American Church, a Soterian culture (desiring Christ to forgive sins and the promise of heaven upon death of Christ’s 2nd appearing) and a Gospel culture (those who embrace a gospel that includes but exceeds individual sinners getting into heaven, i.e. a renewed creation).
The former seems to be after the “personal” (i.e. private, “Don’t ask me to really give an account for how my faith shapes me today. I’m going to heaven when I die, so what does it matter, anyway.) relationship with God. Churches have a difficult time discipling these folks, for, they already have what they want: a private (assured) faith without much of a cost for transformation and change in their lives as a whole.
McKnight calls these folks “Fantasy Christians”, much like in a fantasy football league, an “owner” of a Quarterback on his fantasy football team doesn’t necessarily need that Quarterback’s team to win the game, but for the Quarterback to put up great stats. In the same way, some of the private Soterians don’t really concern themselves with the whole gospel, a healed creation, for they just want to go to heaven.
Perhaps this is why we do not see the apostles in the book of Acts ever, after their sermons, have people “bow their heads and close their eyes, and pray this prayer with me… if you prayed that prayer, raise up your hands on the count of three,” type of gospel presentation. They were concerned about telling the whole story; God redeeming the world through the story of Israel, in the story of Jesus, through the plan for individual salvation, and to invite all who would desire to be a part of the story. It meant something to join in the story; it invaded and re-organize one’s whole existence.
It is “folky” to think that we can have Jesus and carry on with how we’ve formally lived our lives.This is something that, as those in ministry have interacted with our culture, have accommodated instead of confronted.