As Christians first interact with Hindu believers practicing their faith in contextual ways, some see a problem with it. When bhaktas chant, wear a tilak, light lamps, etc., some people begin to question whether it is ‘right’.
For these people, they feel it would be much safer to stay with the default version of Christianity, what many might call being a ‘New Testament Church’.
The only problem is that such a thing does not exist.
What we call ‘default Christianity’ (explicitly or implicitly) is highly contextualized. We have trouble seeing past the end of our nose and think that what we regularly practice is globally normal and highly similar to what churches in the first century looked like. North American churches are some of the most highly contextualized examples available.
For the purpose of this article, I’ll only take examples from modern North American evangelical churches, partly because they are the ones I am most familiar with, and partly because I don’t think there is a better example of contextualization. However, I’m sure similar parallels could be made in other types of Christianity.
These observations are not meant to point out errors, but to show the cultural influence.
- The Lord’s Supper consists of a thimble-sized disposable plastic cup of cheap grape juice and a few crumbs of bread. This appeals to our cultural values of low costs, commoditization (same thing for everyone), convenience, and the evangelical disapproval of alcohol.
- Church leadership usually has two parts. One is led by a senior executive with a team that carries out the duties of the church. The other is an elected elder board that creates the rules and policies. This looks very much like the executive and legislative branches of our government and/or the CEO/Board of Directors structure that exists in most corporations.
- Times of worship are highly structured and programmatic. My Hindu friends are blown away when I show them a run sheet that a church will follow for a Sunday morning with everything planned down to the last minute. This appeals to the American sensibilities of promptness, professionalism, and respecting people’s time.
- The instruments used in worship include electric guitars and drum sets that not too long ago were called “the devil’s music” by similar churches. This reflects the ever-changing American taste in music and the willingness to adopt forms that appeal to younger audiences.
- The obvious, if not unspoken, driving force in most of these churches is growth in attendance. Things are good when numbers are on the rise; things are bad when attendance drops. This is such a key metric that it is often published in the weekly bulletin along with the other most important indicator – the budget goals. This same focus is seen in corporations that are only seen as healthy when their revenue numbers or share prices are on the rise.
These are just a few examples easy to see from a quick glance. Should a group of first-century believers walk into one of these churches, they would be highly confused and potentially disturbed at some of our practices.
Again, I do not list these things as errors; none of these violate any biblical prohibitions. But they are not following any mandates either.
When leaders from these churches interact with Hindu believers, they are comfortable when Hindus choose to structure their leadership, organization, worship, devotional lives, and theology just like North American evangelical churches. Deep in their minds, they feel that this is the accepted default for what a group of believers should be like in the 21st century.
But it is wrong for any church to call itself a ‘New Testament Church’ in the sense that they feel they are expressing the closest form of Christianity that is found in the Bible. The only group that could have a claim to decide what ‘default’ Christianity would look like was early Jewish believers – and they very clearly abdicated this right in Acts 15.
When we see the ways that we have adapted our faith to our own culture, we offer ourselves a lot of grace because we understand the cultural nuances. A church that served wine in lavish communal cups, had no obvious figurehead, held unstructured worship times that lasted for hours, and showed no concern for getting bigger would not do well in middle America. Furthermore, because there isn’t a biblical mandate for or against these things, choices must be made, and we do the best given our circumstances.
If we can have so much grace with ourselves, we should be able to offer it to others as well.
Acts 15 makes it clear that there is no default Christianity – just one savior that everyone is free to worship in the way that seems best as guided by the Spirit.