In a brilliant paper analyzing research in the behavioral sciences titled The Weirdest People in the World? (HAT-TIP to Richard Beck) it is pointed out that

(A) recent analysis of the top journals in six sub‐disciplines of Psychology from 2003‐2007 revealed that 68% of subjects came from the US, and a full 96% of subjects were from Western industrialized countries

Furthermore

In the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the premier journal in social psychology—the sub‐discipline of psychology that should (arguably) be the most attentive to questions about the subjects’ backgrounds—67% of the American samples (and 80% of the samples from other countries) were composed solely of undergraduates in psychology courses. In other words, a randomly selected American undergraduate is more than 4000 times more likely to be a research participant than is a randomly selected person from outside of the West.

This group is called WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) because, not only do they point out that not all studies on this group can be universalized, but in comparative research it would seem that this group generally lie on the extreme many different aspects which research has been done on. You can find many examples in the paper.

In a growing conversation over the past years many of us have become skeptical of the easy way in which we buy into American church models and ideas. Think about our models for youth ministry, mega-churches, emerging churches etc. Think about all the times George Barna statistics is quoted, usually with a disclaimer such as “we know that this is America, but we are only a few years behind them”.

Although this article doesn’t talk about church, it does raise the suspicion concerning the effectiveness of American church models even further. It compares Westerners to non-Westerners, only to find that Westerners are somewhat weird in the world, being the extreme in different aspects of their being, and not the universal example. The Americans are compared to the rest of the Western world, just to find that in many respects Americans are the extreme with the Western world. Other comparisons are also made, and some things which do seem to be universal is also pointed out.

Reggie has been pushing me on this point over the past years, and I’m more convinced than ever that he is correct: We need to do local research on church, society and theology. This do not mean we ignore American research, we can learn a lot from the vast amount of research that is being done in America. But the findings cannot be assumed to be true for our own context. Furthermore I would suggest that it would be almost impossible to engage American dialogue partners whom are unable to recognize the contextuality of their own approaches to church and theology (and sadly many of the American books on the shelves of our Christian bookshops, and speakers we fly in to “teach” us do not seem to have the necessary skills to recognize this, although they might mention “this is how it work in my context” a few times when talking).

If their is truth in the study in behavioral sciences, and if the behavior of a group influence the forms of church which gets created (not such a far-out assumption to make), then many of the typically American models of church created speak not only to a context which is different from the context in which I need to work, but are born from a context and speak to a context which is really on the extreme of society in the world. This might be the last place where we should look to if we were to find universal ideas on church.

This is not a total rejection of American diologue partners. I have learned a lot from American voices, but just a call that we listen to Americans as Americans. A country somewhere out there which seem to be quite strange when compared to the rest of the world. I am from South Africa, and this country is also quite strange when compared to the rest of the world. So let’s find ways of engaging our own strangeness.

I know some serious academics might find it strange that thoughts that I would hope to publish one day simply end up on a blog. But I can’t think of withholding info from anyone, so this is my presentation from the past SAMS conference I’ve been blogging about. It’s still in draft form, and some of the thoughts I have been challenged on, and wish to refine somewhat. I sincerely hope that if you read this you will provide me with your thoughts as well! Whether critique, questions, thoughts or simply continuing the conversation.

For those who have been following this blog I can give the following summary in short:

I believe we need to understand Mclaren and other voices in the emerging church as attempts at a contextualization of the gospel in there various mostly Western cultures. If we understand this, we can better be in dialogue with them, and resist being simply re-colonized by American voices who prescribe how we should be church in South Africa, but also better understand the contribution they do make to the larger conversation (if at all). What Bosch and others in missiology call interculturation is something I notice in Mclaren’s later work, and on these grounds future dialogue between Mclaren and South African theologians can continue.

SAMS 2010 – Contextualization of the gospel in the West: The emerging church and the example of Brian Mclaren

Our little community of people moved to another house over the past few days. Some from our moved away, most stayed on, and we we’re blessed (to my wee bit more evangelical friends reading this, there is no sarcasm in my tone) with a real-life philosopher. One that not only know how to pronounce Foucault’s name (already worth mentioning in the Afrikaans community), but actually know what the guy wrote as well! So if my posts become somewhat more philosophical this year, know that community is happening.

Moving has become a habit over the past few years. This is the fourth place I call home in 4 years. Looking for a place to live, and thinking about what space mean, has become a habit as well in the process. Our current home, as with the previous one, has the world of Apartheid still fixed into it. Last year I somehow just ignored is (actually considering this fact was too difficult), this year it was in my face, and easier to consider, so I’m writing about it.

South African homes in suburban areas have a small single room built outside which is/was usually used as a maid’s (a word which is much more degrading in the Afrikaans language than the English language) room. It was the place where benevolent rich suburb-dwellers gave a place to stay for poor woman who were lucky enough to get a job cleaning their home. Now don’t get me wrong. I know of many houses where there is an extremely good relationship between the domestic worker and the owners, and many who really took the trouble to build a relationship with this person over years. But still the room speaks for itself.

2.75 x 3m large, it is smaller than any of the rooms in the house, and this was supposed to be a full living unit for someone. The bathroom is simply a toilet with a shower-head about it (see picture), no washing basin, no tap whatsoever in either the room or the bathroom. Furthermore, the existence of this room is a reminder of the fact that to get a job, some woman had to leave her husband and children behind. Somewhere a child grew up without a mother, since she wasn’t allowed to live close enough to where she work, and thus had to make use of this room in the suburbs. And obviously be locked up in it after the bell sounded to mark the time when all blacks should be of the streets.

This is now my office. As I’m reading and writing about contextual theology, postcolonial theology, emerging theology, I’m doing it from the context of this room which signifies the Apartheid era. No one took the time to clean it up. The estate agents and previous renters obviously didn’t even consider the fact that a white man might want to use this room for something. And who would want to clean this room for a black domestic worker? In this room I found a small diary from 2008, written in an African language which I don’t understand. This small reminder of the Apartheid era was still used a year ago. I cannot read the diary, but I wonder whether the theology that will be written in this room will help the plight of the black woman who wrote that diary.

I’ve spent the past 2 days with some 15-20 reverends from the Dutch Reformed Church, Smith, Reggie Nel, Gert Steyn, the lecturer that taught me exegesis (although maybe he don’t want to be linked to that), and Scot McKnight. We started a discussion on the theology of Acts and what that might mean in practice for the church in South Africa today. The final reports was done by myself and three others that also blog, so we’ll be giving some thoughts on our reports. I’ll add the links as the posts come in.

Reggie Nel on Acts 21-28

Our group worked on Acts 15-20. Between 11:00 and 12:00 today, we identified the following as the most important theological thread for South Africa today:

Looking at our text, but also at the whole of Acts, we notice that Acts tell the story of boundries that was crossed. Of course, we didn’t notice this first, the scholars that introduced he discussion also pointed us to this.  However, what we believe is important is that the boundry crossing always caused the Jerusalem church to change their theology. When Peter visit Cornelius, the theology change. At the meeting in Jerusalem, the fact that boundries have been crossed changes the theology.

That we need to cross boundries is commonly accepted in South Africa today. But crossing boundries need to change the theology of those on the inside. The Dutch Reformed Church need to cross the racial and economic boundries (among others) that form our context, and this need to deeply change the theology of our church.

Missiologists call this contextualization. Contextualization should not be misunderstood as mere translation. Bosch pointed to this in Transforming Mission. I’ve written some thoughts on this about 2 years ago (check page 4 about of this document). Translation would imply a rethinking of symbols and language. Contextualization would imply a rethinking of theology, a transformation of our reflection on God and what that would mean for this day and age, within a differing context.

The core question for our church today: How would our understanding of God and the gospel be transformed when we cross the borders of our community? How would this changing reflection on God impact the practice of congregational and church life today?

Thoughts?