There is no argument about its importance. Everyone agrees that one of the biggest religious struggles we face today as churches, especially in the first world, is that of inculturation. The problem is how to do it.
What is inculturation? Peter Schinellers, in his A Handbook on Inculturation, defines it this way: Enculturation is the incarnation of Christian life and the Christian message in a particular cultural context in such a way that this expression not only finds expression through elements proper to the culture in question, but becomes a principle that animates, directs and unifies the culture, transforming and remaking it so as to bring about a new creation. … And this must create an expression of Christianity not just in the local church, but in the church universal. (Paulist Press, 1990)
Many of us who grew up in immigrant or ghetto churches know exactly what that means. We had a first-hand experience of it growing up. The churches of our youth did indeed help animate, direct, and unify the cultures and subcultures within which we lived. The church stood in the centre of town, towered over its landscape, and life revolved around its feasts and cycles. Everyone knew when it was lent, advent, Christmas, Easter, or Pentecost. The church made the laws and dealt final truth.
As recent criticisms of those churches have made clear, not all of this was good. The church was powerful, but it often too was narrow and contained elements of racism, sexism, and bigotry. Much of it however was good and its real problem was only this: It broke apart as the immigrant cultures which spawned it broke down. It worked well, but within a certain sociology.
In any case, irrespective of what judgement God and history will make upon it, it has, save precisely for some present immigrant communities, broken down and we have not found anything to replace it with that in any way approximates its power in terms of a Christianity that is effectively inculturated. And so we are searching today for a new way. Where should we go?
When one surveys what is being tried, both theoretically and practically, one sees four basic approaches being taken:
Enlightened Christianity. The approach here is to try to affirm-the-culture, to try to make Christianity relevant within the culture by positively affirming what is good within that culture. At its best, this approach moves beyond the old dichotomy which puts faith-against-the-world and helps the culture to evangelize its desires. At its worst, it degenerates into Gallup-Poll Christianity and becomes so relevant that it ceases to have any relevance, salt without tang.
Immigrant Christianity. The approach here is fear-the-culture-and-create-a-subculture. This still exists in some immigrant ethnic churches and also in some situations where the church is in a minority or oppressed situation. At its best, it comes closest to true inculturation. Its problem, as already mentioned, is that it eventually comes apart when the immigrant sociology that helped spawn it breaks up. Put more simply, it is powerful in that given, ghetto, situation but often loses its power when people move out of that particular community.
Evangelical Christianity. The approach here is to try to create-a-counter-sociology. We see this in the Evangelical churches and among those who have been influenced by Charismatic renewal. In essence, this is the purest biblical position since it tries to mimic the original apostolic community and evangelization. It is also strong on prayer and on having a deep private relationship to Jesus. Its major problem is that it is too easily marginalized by the mainstream culture. As well, it runs the danger of falling into fundamentalism and elitism.
Prophetic Christianity. The approach here is to critique-the-culture. Its strength is that it emphasizes the preferential option for the poor and presents the world with the crucial agenda, justice and survival. Its problem is that, too often, it lacks a sufficient link to private prayer and contemplation, is too ideological, and substitutes a vow of alienation for a vow of love.
So if these are the possible approaches, where should we go? Given their strengths and weaknesses, I suggest that the road to making the church again an effective instrument in the world is for all of us, churches and individuals, to become selectively-affirming, inner immigrant, evangelical, prophetic Christians.