Concrete churches in a bamboo world

by Justin Schneider on February 15, 2013

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.


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  • Derran is to be commended for pushing the previously accepted bounds of what constitutes “church” & using some familiar cultural forms in a place like Thailand. After 185 years of Protestant missionary presence in the country, Thai believers are only 0.3% of 67 million souls.

    • Justin Schneider

      I agree. My wife and I are still amazed at the choices they prayerfully consider and make. Plus, the team runs a pizza shop that easily has the best pizza in Thailand and maybe even the world. If the familiar cultural forms don’t bring the people, the food definitely will.

      • Oh–which pizza shop? 🙂

        • Justin Schneider

          Brick Oven Pizza in Phayao.

    • Wow– this is pretty shocking– I wonder what strongholds, cultural beliefs, or failures of the missionary attest for this? Ideas?I know, John, that you are a bit of an expert in this area of using the culture to communicate gospel . . .

  • I agree that the “how” we do things play a huge role in making a foreign faith familiar. Thai people see Christianity as a Western religion. In truth, we often make it a western religion, doing things the way we do because that’s the way it’s done where we grew up.

    However, in the Bible not a lot is given on what the church’s appearance is like. Or even on how the church service is supposed to be run. (Who came up with the idea that you must sing three songs before the sermon, have a special number, give the message, and then invite people to pray, anyway?) When it comes to the church service, I believe the important things are expositional preaching, observing baptism and the Lord’s supper, and giving.

    We are, however, given much instruction on how we are to act. Love for one another. Taking care of the widows and orphans. Supporting missionaries. Assembling for the purpose of corporate worship. Just to name a few. After all, we are a body, and we must work together as one, with Christ as the head.

    And I think that, as we sincerely explore the Scriptures with our brothers and sisters in our adopted country, we will find an “appearance” emerge. Maybe it will look a little like our church back home. But I think that as long as the focus is on Biblical guidelines and not tradition, the church will feel familiar to the local people, despite being a “foreign” religion, initially. After all, Christians from long ago had churches, before we decided we knew what a church should and should not look like. To avoid syncretism takes an effort, but it is vital to a healthy church.

    Just my two cents.

    • Agree with this here. You make good points about the focus needing to be on love and Biblical guidelines and NOT on our tradition. It’s so easy to confuse the two so often. We assume that the ideals we have in how we “do” church is biblical, when usually it is just Western tradition. Things like: passing the plate, church in a building, one pastor that is supported by the community, not drinking/smoking, using certain versions of Bible, etc. are all things easily confused for “Bible truth.”

    • Justin Schneider

      Who says we even need a service? Meeting weekly and breaking bread, I understand. But why do we need a sermon? The lecture format with little opportunity for feedback is one of the least effective ways to teach let alone disciple and live loving others. If we could redo things, avoiding Constantinianism, how would you set it up for Thailand?

  • In China

    I like how you touch on both sides of the coin by bringing in the “Got Jesus?” analogy: it’s not just a matter of the direction of the worship (who or what is being worshiped) but also the nature of the relationship. But having been classmates with Derran I know for a fact he’s missiologically informed and I’m confident they aren’t recklessly swapping Buddha statues for crosses..

  • Thanks, Justin, for your thought-provoking post and for the shout-out. This is such a crucial issue for missions today, and I hope the conversation continues.
    While I didn’t get into it in the post you linked to, I do think symbols and practices from the Christian tradition need to have a voice in contextualization. The key, though, is that local disciples should be the ones deciding if and how those symbols, rituals, and practices will be integrated into the life of the community. Thus, this is why I think the primary role of the missionary is “theological resource.” The missionary provides options, but entrusts the local community, with the guidance of the Spirit, to discern how to utilize traditions while also re-imagining local rituals and practices.
    Oh, and thanks for the free advertising for our restaurant.

    • i agree. it will ultimately have to be the local church community that decides on the application of biblical truth and principles and determines worship form appropriate to their world and culture. no matter how long i live here, i’m never going to completely identify and understand – and certain traditions and practices, while they become meaningful for me, they will never have the same impact in my life as they do in the life of one of my local brothers or sisters. i’m always reminded of that, overwhelmingly so, my first church service back at my home church in the States… and i’m also reminded that my tcks have a different reality as well.

      i think the key comes down to this – do I trust the Holy Spirit to guide and do I trust our local brothers and sisters to lean into and follow that guidance – or do I want my opinion to carry more weight?

  • Good issues and difficult ones. I think of it as sharing the simple gospel in word and deed and then guiding the new Christian community into their decisions on the forms, balancing traditional orthodoxy with relevant local culture. It is definitely a creative dance that requires wisdom, humility and the relational ability to open/share your life to/with the locals in a way that they see and learn about God.

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