I have recently come across Andrew Walls’ “Pilgrim & Indigenous Principle” and have found it a very helpful guide for how Christians can faithfully live in their culture. Justin Taylor has written an excellent and far more in-depth take on Wall’s principle than I intend to provide here: “Two Essential Gospel Impulses: The Indigenizing Principle and the Pilgrim Principle.”
I’ve written on this issue before by referring to what’s been labeled “Cave Dwellers & Feflon Christians.” “Cave Dwellers” take the stance that we should reject culture completely in order to prevent it from having a negative influence on us. “Teflon Christians” are those who deny that culture even has an influence on them, and so they just do/watch/listen to/consume whatever they want while believing it makes no impact on their faith. I’m going off on a limb and am going to make a very general statement saying that most American Christians fall more into the Teflon Christian camp… at least that’s how it seems when we look around.
Pilgrims are simply men and women who are traveling through a country in order to get somewhere else. They are not residents of the country where they are presently, rather, they consider themselves as citizens of their homeland. The “Pilgrim Principle” has to do with what makes us Christian. Paul tells us “Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world” (Romans 12:2) and Scripture reaffirms this teaching that we must not squeeze ourselves into the mold of the world/culture around us. Rather, we must proclaim Christ Jesus and obey the Lord. Christians should be different from everyone else… if you are a Christian and people can’t tell there’s anything different between you and your non-Christian neighbor then there’s a problem. It’s good to revisit 1 Corinthians 8 and to remember Paul’s warnings about the strong leading the weak into sin by exercising their freedom.
“Indigenous” means that something has to do with culture in which it is found. A great example is folktales: every culture has its own folktales that are well known by the people of that culture, but it makes no sense to those outside the culture (try dressing up like Johnny Appleseed in Beijing and ask people who you look like!). So the “Indigenizing Principle” teaches that there are aspects of culture that are entirely appropriate for Christians and the Church to embrace. For instance, unless you read the Bible in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek then your church has adopted the Indigenizing Principle to some degree, because you read the Bible in the language of your culture! Jesus prayed, “I ask that you do not take them out of the world, but that you keep them free from the evil one” (John 17:15). Ultimately, God himself embraced this principle by sending God the Son to take on flesh, to live in our world in order to redeem it (Remember, “Emmanuel” means “God with us!”). We also see the Apostle Paul embracing this in Acts 17 while in Athens.
So what does this mean for us as Christians as we seek to go about our days, praying and seeking to faithfully honor Jesus Christ in all that we do so that the lost might receive the Word of Life and be given the gift of faith and eternal life? I believe we must hold these two principles in tension: Be a Pilgrim (don’t conform to the pattern of this world) and Be Indigenous (be all things to all people so that some might come to know Christ).
Most importantly of all: Focus on Christ. As soon as we shift our focus onto being “relevant” we’re missing the point. We do not work to make Scripture relevant, we work in order to demonstrate that it already is! As we give our lives to Christ each day, focus on Him and pray for those around you…