After going to an Ash Wednesday service on Ash Wednesday, my wife and I were talking about the history of some of the practices most associate with Christianity yet possibly, or likely, have their roots in pagan rituals or practices. As it turns out, rabbits and eggs are ancient symbols of fertility, and several people groups use ashes to symbolize the frailty of life.
This discussion reminded me of conversations we had in Thailand. Visiting hill tribe villages in Northern Thailand, most of the buildings were on stilts, often made primarily of wood and bamboo. Each village we visited had one concrete building emerging from the panorama similar to how I imagine cathedrals once looked in medieval Europe. Just like then, it was the church building.
At first, we had the response many western Christians have when they see a church building in a country claiming only 1% Christianity: a touch of pride and hope. But when we spent more time with the communities, we saw people who lived their lives in raised homes and who sat on bamboo floors; life was lived in familiar buildings outside of the church building — and outside of the church.
Then I ran into a team of missionaries working in Phayao, Thailand who also wondered why the Western church building should be the house of worship for Eastern people. The team not only wondered why they needed the typical, Western church building but also whether the practices and rituals at Buddhist temples were inherently Buddhist or were just methods of worship familiar to Eastern people and could be redirected towards the worship of Jesus Christ. After all, before the God of Abraham and Isaac, other religions sacrificed animals as offerings, and our God re-appropriated the practice twice.
After years of studying the language, culture, religion, the missionaries created a raised space (second floor) where attendees light incense and bow to the cross and wai when scripture is read. Instead of a buddha in front, a cross is hung. The people sit on the floor with their heads lower than the cross and feet pointed away from it. The sermon message was brief and the service centered around communion and scripture with a little bit of chanting. It was definitely focused on Christ. But at what point does it become too syncretic? Here’s a little bit of insight from the team in Phayao working on contextualized evangelism.
As Derran Reese emphasizes, “The crux of the matter is how the community uses and negotiates the meaning of the relevant symbols and forms in light of its faith in the triune God.” For example, does shifting “Got milk?” to “Got Christ?” allow the community to worship God instead of consumerism? That’s the question we should ask — or something like that.
Exploring the rituals of our faith can be scary. I mean, what is ch
urch without a building that looks like a church? As giant church building construction continues, small coffeehouse fellowships and liturgies in old Mason lodges and communities under bridges begin to do something different in the United States. Are we perhaps yearning for something beyond the building?
So, what symbols do we keep and what do we leave? And what do we redirect towards the worship of the divine that is currently being used to worship another divine?
How do we encourage a foreign faith to become familiar?
I’d love to read your thoughts and experiences.