2009 Photo by Lambert Wolterbeek Muller, flickr

Naked Gospel

Okay, before you assume I wrote only a title to lure you in…this is the question raised by the late Father Vincent Donovan, author of Christianity Rediscovered. Father Donovan spent nearly 2 decades evangelizing the Masai in Tanzania. First published in 1978 and republished in 2003, the book explores the challenge of mission, of bringing the Gospel to another culture. His goal with the book is to, “[describe] an attempt to empower a particular people with the freedom and total responsibility of that gospel.” His goal is not to evangelize the Masai into Western models of Christianity but to bring the bare Gospel and to allow the people to form their own expression of worship, church, community, etc.

Some Context:

To introduce his challenge, Fr. Donovan describes 100 years of missionary endeavor in East Africa. Missionaries came to East Africa during the time of active slave trade. Their plan included buying as many slaves as possible, baptizing them, settling them in mission plantations and arranging marriages. This created dependency on largely white clerics and did not result in a large, growing indigenous Christian population. After the turn of the twentieth century, the missionary movement turned its attention to education and the building of hospitals. The focus was so entirely on these matters that one church leader said, “Where it is impossible for you to carry on both the immediate task of evangelization and your educational work, neglect your churches to perfect your schools.” (p. 7)

A Good Result or a Perversion?

Fr. Donovan notes that at the time of Tanzania’s independence, 70% of all schools were church schools. A good many of the country’s leaders were products of these schools. And yet, religion was taught only like any other subject. And the Christianity espoused seemed quite Western—“an inward-turned, individual-salvation-oriented unadapted Christianity” (p. 8) creating a dependent people without local leadership. As Donovan sees it, the distortion of mission concluded with giving up the message of the Gospel for a development and aide model.

He calls this model of missionary work a perverted one—“to bring freedom or knowledge or health or prosperity to a people in order that they become Christians.” (p. 10) [Note: he does NOT say that aide and development are bad things, they are just not missionary work proper.]

A Radical Decision

Fr. Donovan then decided to depart this model, to leave the mission compound, and to go to the Masai with NOTHING but the message of the Gospel. He did not bring medical supplies, food, materials or secular education. He came and taught villages about the story of God and of Jesus. Throughout the book he details his attempts, his understanding of their culture, his mistakes, learnings, and the development of believing communities. The trouble Fr. Donovan found was not so much with the Masai but with his own enculturation.

Going back to visit and speak [to the Masai] week after week, we necessarily had come into conflict, not with them, but with the church that sent us. There were several things wrong with the neat format our church and its theologians had set up for us. (p. 41)

Some of these conflicts included,

  • Preaching the church instead of salvation
  • Assuming “civilizing” the natives was necessary first before evangelizing
  • Assuming the necessity of convicting the Masai of sin so they would feel the need for redemption (the Masai needed to know first of forgiveness, they already knew about sin)
  • That faith means to believe or to agree. (The Masai likened this form of assent as incomplete. Rather, faith must be whole bodied.)
  • Over-focus on Jesus’ divinity and failing to emphasize his humanity
  • Treating faith as individual and/or organizational in nature
  • Assumptions with the nature and appearance of “church” and leaders

So What is the Naked Gospel?

The Naked Gospel when preached is simple. “Repent, believe, be baptized, witness to Christ in the Spirit until He comes again.” By the way, the last item, witness, is the truest sign of Christian community and the heart of the church. The response to this call, going out, is the church. It likely will not look like the organized, structured church of the West.

So, What Formed?

  1. Communal faith. Fr. Donovan came to the time of baptism (after a year of instruction) and wanted to single out those he thought were not ready. Consider an elder’s response: “Padri, why are you trying to break us up and separate us? …We have talked about these things when you were not here, at night around the fire. Yes, there have been lazy ones in this community. But they have been helped by those with much energy. There are stupid ones…but they have been helped by those who are intelligent…. Now, on this day one year later, I can declare for them and for all this community, that we have reached the step in our lives where we can say, ‘We believe.” (p. 70). Is this more in line with the image of conversion seen in Acts?
  2. Changed culture. While much of the Masai form of Christianity was rooted in their existing way of life (e.g., baptism with sheep fat and water), the act of the Eucharist brought a moment of crisis. Men did not ever eat in the presence of women. Fr Donovan explained that the Masai were free to accept or reject the Gospel, but if they accepted, they would have to accept that there would be no difference between men and women at communion. They accepted. Sometime later, some of the women let him know how this was “really good news for them.”
  3. Challenges to “church” culture. The Masai wondered why they couldn’t break bread together when the priest was not there. Fr. Donovan realized that it wasn’t Scripture that hindered them but an outside culture of church that did so. “…the gospel is the affair of the missionary, and the interpretation of the gospel is the affair of the people who hear the gospel.” (p. 122).

If you want to re-think the nature of the Gospel, the role of your own culture, the meaning of church, I encourage you to read this short but captivating book. While there are many books that question current church dogma and the meaning of the Gospel, few do it with such practical and pastoral examples. Fewer still do it with such a clear love for others and with no apology for the Cross of Jesus Christ.

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