«Reestablishing roots and learning to fly: Kazakh church planting between contextualization and globalization. by Dean Frederick Sieberhagen submitted ...»
If globalization will have an increasing influence on the future of Kazakhstan then should its blending effect be incorporated into the church? If ethno-linguistic cultures are constantly changing at an exponentially rapid pace, where does that leave an ethno-historical viewpoint when it comes to church planting, especially regarding the younger generation? In one of Kazakhstan's major urban settings (Almaty) there is a church that uses Russian as its main language and whose members, including the leadership, come from a variety of ethnicities. 45 Expatriate attendees are few and in the background, and most people are students and younger families. They are very much a church for the Moderns, have significant number of Kazakhs, and seem very appropriate to their context. To try to force a Kazakh-only identity on them would be disasterous.
Van Der Ven (1993:40) proposes a core identity that is very applicable to the Kazakh church. He sees the church as a community of believers. God is the origin and aim of this community and as such the believers exist as children of God, brothers and sisters who allow each other to freely worship God whilst at the same time making a deep commitment to each other. It is from this position that the church can then turn towards a world in need.
Community is essential to Kazakhs as a whole and for the church to have this at the core of its identity resonates across the continuum from Traditional to Russified. Kazakh community This is a first generation church that was started by the author’s team members in 1999. In 2003/4 leadership was fully handed over to national leaders.
begins with the home and a person's extended family and then builds from there to include friends and acquaintances. Martin Goldsmith (1976:317) points out that the expatriate church planter usually comes from a society that has had the presence of globalization and individualism which causes them to underestimate how deeply a person from a Muslim culture feels part of their community. Becoming a believer has strong social implications, from immediate family through to distant relatives and friends.
This is why for some Kazakhs their experience of salvation lines up with the soteriology expressed in Romans 10:9 where there is a public confessing of Jesus with the mouth and an inward believing with the heart. Akzhol (2009, pers. interview, 24 March) in explaining how strongly his family and community rejected his conversion to Christianity indicates how the belief in the heart often precedes the verbal confession due to the stress of how to explain it to the family. A traditional Christian understanding of verse nine is that these two aspects are inseparable and happen together. For some of the Kazakh believers there was a belief in Jesus prior to the saying of a salvation prayer, suggesting that their salvation was a process rather than a moment in time, with ultimately only God knowing the exact point of salvation. There is a cost to be counted in becoming a believer so that significant consideration goes into the decision. This also gives insight into why believers are willing to face so much opposition from family, friends and society as a whole The House Church model is proving very effective in providing community for believers, especially where they have been rejected by family and friends because of their faith. A once a week meeting is not enough for them and they desire the intimacy that meeting in a home brings. Glenn Wagner (2002:150) picks up on this idea in describing the church as a place of safe pasture. It exists as a place where believers can find a home and prepare for a life amongst unbelievers, not as a scared and timid minority, but having been spiritually encouraged and enabled to bear a witness for God. The focus is not on doing and results, but rather on being and living out a love relationship with God. His love lived out in a community has been and will be one of the strongest arguments for the Christian faith amongst the Kazakhs. Academic and theological arguments may have some degree of success in sharing with Kazakhs, but an identity that reveals a genuine outpouring of God's love helps in breaking down opposition. As mentioned, on becoming a believer, Akzhol (2009, pers. interview, 24 March) was rejected by his family to the point of being disowned by his father. He responded by continually loving his family and after a number of years three of his siblings and his father have become believers. They could not deny the change in Akzhol's life and the character of Jesus Christ that he showed towards them.
Community is not exclusively for the House Church model, but is necessary for all the models of church. Those who seek to start a more traditional model of church can do so with small groups being part of their blueprint so that even if it seems that the Sunday meeting and full-time leadership are what the church is about, the members see church as much more, they live out being community with each other. The biggest challenge is for the traditional churches who have not emphasized community as part of their existence and now need to introduce a new paradigm to their members.
Globalization appears to work against the idea of community as it can cause the Kazakh church to form an identity that focuses on results and short term success. The focus is then on what the believers can do rather than who they are. As John Tomlinson (1999:7) explains, globalization creates proximity, but this can be merely a functional proximity for the sake of economics without a cultural element. Cultural proximity occurs where globalization is not merely embraced uncritically but rather evaluated in the light of the local context so that glocalization begins to occur. For Kazakhs this context will depend on whether we are dealing with Traditional, Modern, or Russified Kazakhs. Glocalization comes about then where cultural proximity leads to higher levels of synchronization and syncretization so that what seemed at first to be foreign now seems to fit in. If the idea of glocalization is to inform church planting then community must replace proximity and syncretism must not go unchecked so that the resulting churches remain Biblical.
Globalization also tends towards individualism which in and of itself undermines the belief that God has created humans with a need and desire to be in close relationship with others. Especially in an urban setting a Modern Kazakh tends to segment their relationships according to the roles that they live out each day. This takes a lot of effort and so it is difficult to go deep in any particular relationship outside of a spouse. They believe then that in order to survive there needs to be some distance rather than intimacy which ends up leaving the person without a real sense of belonging. This is dangerous for the church as it leads to a lack of spiritual depth and as Samuel Escobar (2003:60) points out it sees individuals as units of success rather than a valued person. Van Der Ven (1993:236) describes this as an abstract solidarity that is based on functionality. Relationships are much looser than in a traditional community and their value is found in achievement. Emotions and feelings are kept in check.
In a close community there is a sense of belonging so that people share feelings and emotions, and are more willing to forgive each other and work through differences, committing to raising up the weak. Globalization can cause a trampling on the weak and a raising up of the strong. If Kazakh society's identity as a whole takes on this aspect of globalization then the church may need to have a counter-cultural aspect to its identity. As much as the church may want to reflect its culture, there are times when it has to stick out and Paul Pierson (2004:3) argues that the church has been at its most dynamic when it has been on the periphery rather than in the mainstream of society. If the church is to be light in a dark world then it must stick out. Being on the periphery can result in being seen as a Sect, but on the positive side it allows for flexibility and creativity and avoids the burdens and pitfalls of religious tradition.
The Kazakh church must continually find a balance between fitting in with the mainstream culture and yet taking a stand against those systems, beliefs, and activities that contradict its Biblical identity as a community of believers. Informed by the Praxis model of contextual theology, this must include standing up for human rights. This has particular application in the Kazakh context to the marginalized, the status of women, and freedom of religion. Whilst officially a secular government, Kazakhstan's leaders continually favor what they define as valid expressions of Islam and Christianity, and denounce anything outside of this. This narrow definition leaves people of other forms of Christianity and Islam feeling rejected and opposed, not to mention other religions. The Kazakh church must support freedom of religion for all, even Islam. It must support the individual's right to choose what they believe, even if this choice is not to believe in Jesus Christ. Additionally, the church must be counter-cultural in showing that women and men are of equal value. Officially Kazakh society would say that men and women are equal, but in life the male point of view dominates. The church must continue to show that in the eyes of God as well as lived out in community, men and women stand as one.
The Kazakh church must stand up for the marginalized. Mainstream Kazakh society tends to pretend that they do not exist.46 They lack dignity and self worth, and have no real sense of belonging. An example would be the large number of orphans, many of which are on their own at age seventeen and end up in very difficult situations such as prostitution for girls and gang membership for boys. The Kazakh church needs to embrace what some are doing by going to orphanages and other places where the marginalized live, showing the love of Christ in such a way that these marginalized find self worth in a God who created and loves them.
The author is a director of an organization that works with orphans, the village poor, and in the prison system.
Related to this Manning Nash (1989:10) would add a shared value system in maintaining a strong identity. For the Kazakh church this would be the truths found in the Bible so that for example the church places a high value on faith, hope and love. Van Der Ven refers to these as the higher charismata without which “the church would simply cease to exist” (1993:313). Specifically for the Kazakhs this would also include a high value being placed on hospitality. Of secondary importance would be markers such as how people dress, what music style is used, and even which language is used. What the church looks like outwardly shapes its identity, but even more significantly is its character. The so-called higher charismata.
5.2 Character As Post-Soviet Kazakh society navigates its future people are striving for a life that sees things as progressing and becoming more positive. As a result they have needs that the church can position itself to meet. The meeting of three specific felt needs will be significant and they are a need for hope, heroes and pioneers, and a work ethic.
5.2.1 Hope Kazakhs want to know that life is getting better and their children’s future is secure. Even though there may be cycles of feast and famine, the road ahead generally needs to be one of hope. The church needs to lead the way in this on two levels. Firstly, the believers themselves must have hope that the Kazakh church is here to stay and that despite bumps in the road it has a blessed future. The authorities may pass restrictive laws and persecution may cause some believers and churches to seem to disappear, but overall the church holds solidly to the promise that God has a desire and purpose to build a church amongst the Kazakhs. Secondly, the church must live out this hope in society so that believers infect others with an attitude of joy and optimism, especially in a time of famine. The church must clearly display a character of hope.
5.2.2 Heroes and Pioneers Kazakhs look to strong leaders who will blaze a trail for them to follow. Historically, they had amongst others the poet/ philosopher Abai and the other leaders of the Alash movement until communism tried to replace them with leaders outside of their culture. But whilst the statues and street names of Abai and the Alash leaders remain, the communist ones have been removed, showing that they never were true heroes and pioneers for the Kazakhs. This is the challenge facing the current president, Nazarbaev, and opinions are divided as to his legacy.
The Kazakh church is at a pivotal time where it needs heroes and pioneers that are indigenous and not expatriate. The crucial difference is that these need to have character that is based on the model of Christ and the teachings in the Bible. Unlike the secular titles of mayor and president which carry a leadership that sets these leaders above the people, the heroes and pioneers in the church must lead from below as servants. They need to show a depth of character that points to the ultimate hero and pioneer of the Kazakh church, Jesus Christ.
The importance of stories and testimonies in evangelism means that the church must find ways to tell the stories of believers as well as those of the Bible. The church needs to be given its own heroes and pioneers. In a modern world this must make use of various means such as video, audio, and web-based technology.