We reprint this piece in anticipation of July 4 and in memory of its author, Jim Reapsome, who died earlier this week. Jim was a long-time member of College Church, award-winning journalist, missiologist, pastor and beloved husband to Martha. May it serve as a sort of swan song from a leader in Christian missions and journalism. Though written many years ago, the truths of our Christian identity still apply.
The staff of a seminary in Africa threw a big graduation ceremony and party. Government ministers and foreign ambassadors came to the event. One of the American missionary wives baked a chocolate cake. An African who had been to the U.S. tasted her cake and said to her husband, "I tasted something American about it in the very first mouthful."
Write that down as another new slant on cultural sensitivity. Apparently our missionaries even taste American. If our cakes have that unmistakable American taste, what about our gospel, our programs, our way of doing things? No matter how hard we try, we cannot shed our Americanism like a snake sheds its skin.
However, we say that our gospel is transcultural. It's universally applicable. It fits any people, anywhere, any time. Jesus said people everywhere must hear his good news. He did not limit his mission to one people, language, religion, or culture.
Therefore, Christians continually fight to take America out of their cake. Their fight rages not only in Africa but in the United States, where the gospel makes little sense because of the inroads of popular culture and biblical illiteracy. We cannot assume that anyone knows anything about simple Bible stories, let alone the reason why Jesus came, died, and rose again.
For example, I listened to a sermon that included repeated references to "the old man," without any explanatory comments. I began to think about the multitude of meanings the old man could possibly have in that audience. We have to make sure our biblical and cultural terms really mean something in today's world.
Of course, we cannot remove basic Christian ideas from our language. We cannot risk stripping the gospel of its deep-seated theology about sin, salvation, and judgment. We face the difficult task of taking things that are hard to understand and making them understandable, whether in Africa or the U.S. But before we try to do it in Africa, we should have some success doing it in America.
We can never take America out of our cake, but in our presence and in our proclamation we must bend over backwards to avoid the smell of America. For thing, America smells bad in many parts of the world because of the sensual, materialistic culture we have exported. It's even worse because this bad odor emanates from a country that is part Christendom.
Therefore, as gospel messengers we live so that people can distinguish our lifestyles from what they see and read about. We are sorely tested to follow a different standard, one set by Jesus, not by our culture.
Jesus said that he lives in us so that people will get some idea of who he is and why he came. People want to see Jesus. They may not understand our theology at first, but if they see Jesus in us we will have ample opportunities to tell them why we love and serve him.
When I was a kid, growing up in Hershey, PA, I loved to tour the chocolate factory and watch those giant granite rollers smashing through huge vats of milk chocolate. Back and forth, back and forth, they relentlessly made sure Hersheys was the smoothest chocolate on the market. The presence of tiny bits of granite never inhibited my consumption of Hershey bars.
For sure, some of America will always be in our gospel cakes. That's okay. People will eat them if they taste our integrity, love, understanding, acceptance, and patience. Our job is to see that the taste overrules any foreign elements in our cakes.
From Final Analysis: A Decade of Commentary on the Church and World Missions by Jim Reapsome, published by EMIS a division of the Billy Graham Center. Copyright 1999