There is a classic missions article from Paul Hiebert called, “The Flaw of the Excluded Middle,” that I think has some real value for Westerners. In our Western mindset, we have categories for things that are transcendent and we have categories for things that are empirical. Religion speaks to one, and Science speaks to the other, and never the twain shall meet.
An Immanent, Buffered Framework
In his groundbreaking work, A Secular Age, Charles Taylor describes the shifts of the West, both in the view of the world we live in as well as how we perceive our place within it.
Westerners have tried to take on a disenchanted view of the world. There are no angels or devils. All that exists is what you can detect and measure with your senses. It is a story of subtraction. We are trying to eliminate the formidable spiritual dynamic of the world and live as if it doesn’t exist. We are attempting to remove it with no clear path for how to replace it. Life is purely what is immanent in this mindset since we have blocked out the transcendent. Taylor points out, correctly, that even with our best efforts, the world feels haunted. Try how we might to ignore the spiritual aspects of the world, they persist. Not only in theory, but in lived experience.
Likewise, we want to believe that each of us individually has no connection to others. Our selves are “buffered” and unaffected by what is outside of us. There are strong boundaries between ourselves and all that is around us, or so we want to believe.
But in much of the world there is a dominant middle category between the immanent and the transcendent. Many peoples of the world still believe actively in ghosts, evil spirits, and in supernatural explanations for things we would explain scientifically. They still see connections between the two and believe unquestioningly that one affects the other.
We can see clearly the worldview disconnect in situations where a missionary brings this disenchanted worldview into a setting who shares no such assumptions. For example, when a missionary from the West is approached by a tribal African to use prayer to heal their child’s disease, the missionary often doesn’t know what to do. If the missionary accommodates with prayer for healing, it may be without much conviction, or even with some sort of explanation that this isn’t “how it works.”
The end result is that many Christian converts in non-Western nations still consult witch doctors to help with a number of pragmatic things, because the missionaries will either have no response, or will deny the existence of whatever the convert feels is a threat or problem. (There are no ghosts…the sickness isn’t because of a spirit…etc.)
I’ll quote a couple of paragraphs from Hiebert about this middle area of experience:
On the middle level, a holistic theology includes a theology of God in human history: in the affairs of nations, of peoples and of individuals. This must include a theology of divine guidance, provision and healing; of ancestors, spirits and invisible powers of this world; and of suffering, misfortune and death.
On this level, some sections of the church have turned to doctrines of saints as intermediaries between God and humans. Others have turned to doctrines of the Holy Spirit to show God’s active involvement in the events of human history. It is no coincidence that many of the most successful missions have provided some form of Christian answer to middle level questions.
I think most of us ministering to Westerners don’t have any people actively worried about displeasing the ghosts of their ancestors. But there is something to be said for reflecting on what the middle areas are in our culture.
We tend to talk about God entirely in theological terms. When we speak about history, if it’s biblical history, we see God hard at work. If it’s U.S. History, we have no paradigm for how to speak about the involvement of God in any of what we’re doing.
Bridging the Gap
It does make for good sermons when we speak about God at work in our time, in our lives, and in our communities of faith. In your sermons, don’t separate the “theological” from the “practical”. Theology, if it is done right, ought to affect everything else. If Jesus is Lord, then he is Lord of all parts of our lives. If God is not at work in our churches, then what are we doing anyway?
Let’s embrace a worldview that God is active now, and not just in the ancient past or in the distant future. I’ve found that people feel empowered when you as a leader will stand up and boldly proclaim the actions of God in the world, and envision what else God can do in your own setting through your own hands. If that isn’t relevant, then what is?
Even so, such thinking is counter-cultural for both us and our listeners. It is going to take prayer, discernment, and a bit of imagination to start reconceptualizing the basic way we imagine the world and our place in it to incorporate what we’ve been conditioned to ignore.
How Big Are Your Prayers?
If you aren’t sure where to start, then begin with prayer. Create a season of petitioning God to renew the church, to open doors of opportunity, and to help us. Invite all your members to pray about this. It can be helpful to set aside a simple thing you invite all members to pray. At our congregation, this was:
“Lord, what do you want to do through me?”
How do you know if your prayers are big enough? Ask yourself this question: “If God didn’t do anything extra, would we be capable of accomplishing everything we’re praying about on our own?” If you don’t need God’s help to accomplish what you’re asking, you aren’t thinking big enough.
Set out bold requests and begin to be attentive to how God answers. When it happens, resist the urge to treat it all as a result of human effort or good luck. Interpret blessings as the actions of God. Keep a record and remind people that we prayed and God answered.
Patrick of Ireland was great at ministering to the middle area. There is an old Irish prayer for just about every aspect of a person’s life, from getting up, to working, to eating, to laying down at night. If you’ve never had a look at the Carmina Gadelica–a collection of old Irish religious prayers and poetry, it is worth your time. What if we invited God into every aspect of our lives?
I hope we see more efforts to study Scripture with our brothers and sisters from the Global South (Africa, Asia, & Latin America). One such effort is by Alan Howell and Garrett Best. Howell is a veteran missionary to Mozambique and Best is a textual scholar. They talk about reading and interpreting Revelation through an African contextual lens. This kind of thing can help Westerners gain access to perspectives not readily available to us.
Don’t attempt to disconnect theology from life. Let the hope of the Gospel speak to the real life situation in which you serve.
The more you do this, the more your preaching will start to matter.