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What Color Is Jesus?
How Can We Present Jesus to a New Culture without Bringing Our Own?
By David Learner
Reprinted with permission from Mission Frontiers, the magazine of the U.S. Center for World Mission, 1997-07-01.

When I was a kindergarten-aged Sunday school student, I can remember my teacher handing me a piece of paper and some colors and asking me to draw a picture of Jesus. My church was not one to have images of Jesus hanging or standing around, though I am sure I must have seen some renditions of images of Jesus in books, Bibles or hanging on the walls around my community. When I finished my assignment to the best of my young and untrained abilities, my Jesus looked exactly like me in the ways that count. He had white skin, blond hair, and blue eyes. I loved Jesus, and was proud of how I had drawn him.

As a college student I was involved in the missions program of my student union. I was assigned to work among a group of African Americans in my community. It was my first cross-cultural experience. At one point in the ministry I had a group of young students. One day I exhausted all my materials before the time was up. I grabbed some paper, color pencils, and crayons and passed them out. I instructed the children to draw a picture of Jesus. I was surprised when the pictures depicted a Jesus with black skin and African features.

Since those early days in my ministry, I have been fascinated with how various cultures depict Jesus. I have worked with Hispanics, American Indians, East Asians, South Asians, Southeast Asians, and Africans. Children from each culture will render Jesus as looking like themselves unless taught to do differently. This is natural, and I think it is a part of God's plan for reaching the nations. Jesus is no longer flesh and blood, as we know it. He is different from us. At this point in time we meet him as the Holy Spirit represents him to us. He has no color, no ethnic heritage, and no cultural distinctions except the holiness and righteousness of God.

One of the challenges of being a cross-cultural witness is presenting Jesus in the same way the Holy Spirit would. Jesus' cultural heritage is the family of God. As the Creator, He made all of us, regardless of our cultural identity, in His own image. As His adopted children, we should not introduce him as looking or being like ourselves. He is not. And to represent him as something He is not is a lie, first to ourselves, and then to those to whom we wish to introduce him.

For the past twenty years I have given my life to the ministry of cross-cultural witness on the behalf of Jesus. In the early days I was trained to contextualize my witness to my host culture. As I understood contextualization, this was basically to make Jesus acceptable to them by dressing him up to look like them. Add a little makeup, change the clothes, use a different language, and voila, a Jesus they certainly couldn't refuse. But with time, the makeup I applied began to run. The clothes wore out. And the language was always something short of perfect. Jesus, as I understood Him, would ultimately show up, confusing and sometimes offending my hosts.

Regardless of how hard I tried, I could never make Jesus look just right to another culture. Even though I had had some success in presenting my made-up Jesus to my hosts, it was extremely difficult and tiring to keep the make-up fresh, the clothes new, and the language just right. No matter how diligently I studied and researched culture, and built relationships, I could not know my host culture well enough to present Jesus in a perfectly contextualized manner.

I began to question contextualization. Perhaps I just wasn't cut out to be a cross-cultural witness for Jesus. I began to pray that God would show me how to represent Him to others. And slowly, as all good teachers do, God began to teach me through the experiences of others, my own experiences, and object lessons that will never be forgotten.

For the past eleven years, I have been working in World A. I have had to work in secret, and I have had to keep my identity well hidden. Anything less could have resulted in the loss of access to the people to whom God has sent me, and/or the death of those who accepted Christ as a result of my witness. A dressed-up Jesus was not an option. I was non-residential much of the time, and didn't have the time, nor the inclination to keep the makeup straight, the clothes new, and the language perfect. I had to learn another way.

My first learning experience came when I had the unique opportunity to witness to a member of my host community. He was an old shopkeeper who was well liked and had no problems with me as a foreigner. We conversed almost daily. I liked him, and I think he liked me. I did not hide the fact that I was a Christian. Everyone assumed I was anyway, since I had white skin. He did not hide the fact that he was a Hindu. One day our conversation strayed to religion. As a trained witness I was thrilled with the opportunity. But, as it turned out, the opportunity was one for me to learn, not to lead another person into the Kingdom of God.

The old man told me that he just did not understand Christianity. There was no way he could give up his religion, which was so much a part of his daily life, to accept a new religion which from his perspective was so much NOT a part of the daily lives of the Christians he knew. He began every day with meditations, offerings and prayers to his god. As the day went on he would stop for more prayer and meditation. Each business transaction was blessed in prayer, and each dollar made thankfully offered to his god. Everyone knew his devotion, and that devotion was as obvious at home and in private as it was in public. The questions he presented to me shoved me into some long and deep thought and prayer.

"Why would I want to give up the god I can see for one that I cannot see?"

"Why would I want to worship only one day a week when now I worship several times every day?"

"Why would I want to do business without the presence of my god to oversee it and bless it?"

"Why would I want to try to convince others of my holiness with words, when they can see my devotion to my god?"

"Why would I want to let only words teach my children, rather than my life?"

This old man had a limited and distorted view of a committed Christian's life, but the form of secret or private worship that was the norm for most Christians he knew or observed was certainly contributing to his misunderstanding. I realized this had to change. I asked God to give me a local cultural informant who could take Jesus as I know him and present the essence of who Jesus is in a meaningful way to his culture.

As I prayed for this person I realized that I had to find a way to minimize my cultural representation of Jesus. This is quite different from dressing Jesus up in a way that would be acceptable to another culture. How can I ever know another culture well enough to dress Jesus up to meet their expectations, wants, or needs? I cannot. But I do know my own culture, and if I am honest with Scripture, and critical in my thinking and planning, I can present Jesus in a near a-cultural way that can be assimilated and transformed into a cultural model by one God has chosen and prepared to do so. I have learned that God has prepared men and women in every culture who can meet those who love Jesus from another culture, learn to love Jesus from them, strip away the cultural baggage attached (which we can minimize), and present Jesus to their own culture in a loving and caring way which results in lives changed and the Kingdom enlarged.

The most obvious areas where I needed to strip away my own culture and cultural expectations were in my styles of worship, both private and public. As I taught my new friends worship, I taught the elements of worship, not style or form. This was not easy. What was natural for me was foreign for them. I learned to ask questions as I taught.

When I introduced prayer, I asked them how they would pray. The Bible teaches we are to pray. They began to pray in a way that was familiar to them and directed toward the God we all knew and loved.

When I introduced singing, I asked them what songs they would sing. They had none. I gave them none. They were inspired by the Holy Spirit to write their own. It sounded like their music, and it gave glory and honor to God.

When I introduced teaching, I asked them how they would teach God's word. The style was different from mine, but normal for their culture.

When I introduced preaching, I asked them how they would exhort others to follow the teachings of Christ. The resulting form of preaching was different from what I was used to, but it met their needs and was acceptable to their culture.

When I introduced church leadership, I asked them how they would lead a group in their community. The results were different from the congregational approach I would have taken, but it fit them and their way of doing things.

For my new friends, worship and church were a daily and day-long life style that was apparent and obvious to their community. It was despised by some and spoken against by others, but was much more acceptable to the community than anything I could have presented to them or lived out before them. It had impact.

Regardless of how careful one is to deculturalize one's message, there are teachings in the Bible that are simply against cultural norms. For instance, in a culture where the norm is multiple wives, the teaching of one wife for life is difficult to accept. In these situations one must teach God's word, but more importantly teach that all of us are to obey God's word. The Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) includes the admonition that we are to teach others to obey everything Christ has commanded. I have learned that teaching doctrine and teaching obedience are two very different things.

I went overseas with all kinds of doctrinal material to present to the new believers. I discovered that doctrine was another area where cultural baggage can be found. Doctrine is basically my church or denomination's teachings on what they believe the Bible says and how it is to be lived out (in my own culture). Doctrine often includes forms and traditions that are outside the biblical context, though acceptable within the biblical and cultural context under which the doctrine was developed. Church polity, church staff, ordinations, the practices of baptism and the Lord's supper, the teachings regarding clergy and laity, and more can carry significant cultural baggage that may be extra-biblical without being disobedient to the Scripture in a given culture. The cross-cultural witness must be able to identify the cultural areas and eliminate them from his or her teachings.

The focus in discipleship has become obedience to the Gospel, not adherence to a doctrine. With a doctrine centered discipleship program one must teach everything to assure a person has the knowledge to be obedient. With an obedience centered discipleship program the emphasis is how we can be obedient to Christ in every area of our lives and in every circumstance. When a new disciple asks a question, my answer is always the same: What must you do to be obedient to Christ? I may have to help them to find the appropriate passages in the Bible to answer the question, but the question always remains the same.

During one baptism it was observed that the village leader was agitated. He and his family were to be baptized, but as the time approached, he became more agitated and angry. He was overheard mumbling that "this is wrong," and "this is evil." He was referring to the baptism. A wise worker allowed him to voice his feelings and then asked him to explain what it was about the baptism that was wrong or evil. The village leader explained that it was wrong for a man from outside the family to touch the women in his family. The doctrinal teaching was that an ordained minister should administer baptism. The worker was quick to ask himself the question, "In this, how can I be obedient to the teaching of Christ?" He quickly asked the leader if it would be appropriate for him to baptize the leader, and then the leader could baptize the rest of the new converts. A change was made, and the baptism continued.

We learned that the form of baptism we had been practicing was a hindrance to the spread of the Gospel. Many women were refusing to be baptized because a man other than a family member would be touching them. Baptism by ordained ministers was not a requirement of the Bible, but was simply a tradition of the church. With a simple change in form, baptisms increased from a few each month to tens if not hundreds each week. What's more, the leadership transferred to the village was significant. Many who may have stayed on the fringe of the work became key leaders as they accepted the spiritual responsibility of baptizing their families, and went on to become the true spiritual leaders in their homes and villages.

As you may have discerned, baptism is primarily of family groups. The Gospel is presented to families, much the same as the pattern found in Acts. This avoids extraction evangelism, and conversions usually result in a church being established. A child or a woman may be the door into the family, but the head of the household usually leads the whole family into the decision to follow Christ. This is different than found in some cultures, but if the traditional, individual conversion approach had been maintained, then the growth of the church would have been hampered.

There are more examples of how form and practice from one culture may have a negative or neutral impact on another culture. You probably have many examples from your own ministry. Part of the job of the cross-cultural witness is to eliminate the cultural aspects of his or her own understanding of doctrine and practice, and to help those in the host culture discover Biblically acceptable ways of expressing their own love, devotion, and worship of the Lord Jesus Christ.

So the question remains: What color is Jesus? For the cross-cultural witness the color is always neutral. When Christ is in the culture, He will look just like the members of that culture. He will represent God and His righteousness to the culture. He will become the measuring stick by which everyone in the culture is measured.

Reprinted with permission from Mission Frontiers, the magazine of the U.S. Center for World Mission, 1997-07-01.

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