4–5 August 2023, Grace Singapore Chinese Christian Church
By Grace Tan
In 1962, Joanne Shetler went to the remote Balangao people in Northern Philippines (read her account in her book And the Word Came with Power). The Balangao were animists and bound by fear of the spirits. When someone became a new believer in Christ, he would have to consider whether he could follow his traditional practices – the practices that up to then had defined his world and his identity. From years of living with the Balangao, Jo Shetler developed a helpful method to help believers faced with traditional practices or rituals to make decisions that honour God. This eventually became the Culture Meets Scripture Workshop (CmS).
The trainers for this CmS, Lena* and Faye*, have served in a sensitive part of Asia for many years, and have run CmS many times. The 2-day workshop was a condensed version of the original which usually lasted a week. With oral learners, it could run for two or three weeks.
Rituals – how they develop
Lena and Faye used oral Bible stories, from Passover to the Lord’s Supper, to show how rituals develop and evolve, and how they reflect the worldviews of the practitioners. The five stories were:
Passover (historical event; Exodus 12:1–29)
Passover ritual (modified, and to remember the event; Deuteronomy 16:1–8)
Last Supper (repurposing of ritual to foretell an event; Luke 22: 7–20)
Crucifixion (historical event referred to in (3); Luke 23: 33-47)
Lord’s Supper (ritual to remember the Crucifixion; 1 Corinthians 11:23–26)
This was very illuminating, and also moving, especially as the workshop ended with a celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
Culture Meets Scripture – the process
The CmS participants were mostly Chinese Singaporeans, with one visitor from India. Many of the participants were already experienced in ministry, either in Singapore or overseas. In two days, we went through a five-step process of digging down through the layers of a traditional ritual:
a) Describe traditional practices
Since most of the participants were Chinese, we considered four situations that occur within Chinese culture – Chinese New Year, Qing Ming (tomb sweeping), weddings, and funerals. For each situation, we listed the actions involved, the reasons for doing them, the consequences (according to the traditional worldview) of not doing them, and asked many “why” questions to tease out the underlying assumptions and beliefs.
b) See what scriptures say
We searched the Scriptures to find biblical answers which address the underlying beliefs and assumptions (e.g., that the spirits of dead people are able to return and harm the living).
c) Transform rituals
In the light of Scriptural truth, an appropriate response could be to totally reject or accept the ritual, to modify the ritual, or to replace the traditional ritual with a newly created one. For example, rather than wishing others “prosperity” at Chinese New Year, we could use the word “blessing” instead.
d) Unite believers
Young believers who are faced with making these changes need a lot of support. Prayers or scriptural songs should be composed to reassure and strengthen them. These should express the Scriptural truths which address the cultural beliefs being rejected.
e) Create action plan
Believers are encouraged to apply this process to all cultural activities, and share their understanding of Scriptural truths with others.
By the end of the CmS workshop, every participant had experienced the process of working out a Christian way to deal with a particular traditional practice. They also gained a powerful tool for analysing any cultural situation and determining a solution that honours God. Thanks be to the Lord!
* names changed for security reasons