Indonesia: World Mission Policy

by Rev. Sularso Sopater

Rev. Sularso Sopater, Th.M., D.Th., is General Chairman of the Communion of Churches in Indonesia.

This paper was presented to the Conference on World Mission and the Role of Korean Churches, held during November 1995 in Seoul, Korea.


The emergence of indigenous churches in Indonesia is producing a new phenomenon, a mixture of elements: particularly western Christianity and indigenous ethnicity, which then result in various types of new churches in a very wide spectrum. Thus in practical life, the meeting of Gospel and Culture is an ongoing problem in the lives of the younger churches in Indonesia. This phenomenon is perhaps not only Indonesian, but also the phenomenon in the whole Third World generally.

An Indonesian Contribution for Discussion

I. How to Understand Mission

Generally in our Christian tradition we can observe different understanding of mission. First: traditional understanding, which is seemingly closer to the literal meaning of the word, i.e., proclamation of the Biblical good news (=euanggelion), witnessing, soul-winning, bringing people to Christ, propagation of Christian faith, and thus church planting (Matt. 28:18-20).

Second: comprehensive understanding, i.e., proclamation of the good news of the Kingdom of God with broader meaning (cf. Luke 4:16-21), erecting signs of the Kingdom of God in this temporal world, inspired by God's Word, pointing to the eventual human salvation and the second coming of Christ the Savior.

In Indonesia both understandings have their adherents, and the inter-group conversation on the differences of emphasis is in progress, without creating sharp polarization as in other places. The "Evangelicals" in Indonesia begin to adopt practical comprehensive approaches, to make oral witness clearer, by visual demonstration of good services. The "Ecumenicals" are busy in welcoming new converts as well as church planting. In Indonesia the price of being extremely polarized and divided is regarded as too "expensive" and thus irrelevant, since the practical context as minority demands stronger and operational unity.

II. In the Era of Globalization

As we enter the era of globalization by the end of this century, we observe many changes. Because of the so called revolution in communication, brought about by the newest technological discoveries, distances relatively become closer, borders become more porous, interrelations become more dynamic, isolationism is replaced by openness, nations seek new ways to develop more positive and meaningful co-existence, and thus the awareness of the plurality of the world becomes more apparent. This new understanding influences the populace of the world, and thus in turn changes their attitude and way of viewing world problems. Churches from the "Third World" try to discover their meaningful existence in the big family of the world church, which is to some extent still dominated by the western churches with their Judeo & Graeco-Roman cultural background and financial superiority.

We may observe the liberation process (in the broad sense) as the aftermath of the decolonization process mainly after the Second World War, which is still in operation, not only in the socio-political and economic fields, but also in the cultural field. If this is true, the process of seeking self-identity among younger churches, should be regarded as a natural process. They want to understand and define their own existence in their cultural context authentically, not as usually understood and defined by others from another context. The New Delhi WCC Assembly (1961) rightly observed about culture within the pluralistic context: The assumption that Western culture is the central culture, and that therefore "Christian Culture" is necessarily identified with the customs and traditions of Western civilizations, is a hindrance to the spread of the gospel and a stumbling block to those of other traditions. (The New Delhi Report - The Third Assembly of the WCC, London, SCM, 1962, p.98)

III. Indonesian Situation, as Background of Observation

A. Societal Background

The Indonesian proclamation of independence on August 17, 1945, right after the Second World War, was followed by the 5-year war of liberation against the Dutch Colonial Regime which colonized Indonesia for more than three and a half centuries. Through this war of liberation, and the preparatory modern nationalistic movement beforehand, a new Indonesian society was created, which has been pluralistic in character. Moslems, Christians, Hindus and Buddhists joined hands and fought the war of liberation side by side as compatriots. Primordialities were set aside to give room for national unity as the first priority. Thus Indonesia, which consists of more than 17,000 islands, more than 350 spoken languages, dialects and groupings, succeeded in becoming one nation, speaking in one national language, and maintaining national unity.

This has been made possible by the adoption of the Pancasila State Ideology, which consists of five principles : Belief in God, Humanity, National Unity, Democracy and Social Justice. Thus Indonesia is neither a religious nor a secular state. Religious tolerance is accepted, and the government assists the five recognized religions to develop in societal harmony. A national council of religious leaders was called into being to become a forum of communication and consultation on inter religious issues and enhance their participation in national development. Islam is the religion of the majority. Christianity (both Protestants and Roman Catholics), Hinduism and Buddhism have smaller number of adherents.

B. Christian Community

In the year 1995 Indonesia has 195 million population. The Protestant Christian community, as stated in the formal statistic, is about 6%. Within this small group there exist 256 church organizations and 278 Christian foundations. These figures tell how extremely divided this group is.

Church groupings follow the traditional denominational pattern of the western churches, brought in by the missionaries from the west, bringing their respective persuasions. Not only that, the newly planted younger churches have also absorbed ethnic factors, such as language, dialect, custom, habit, tradition, life attitude, thought pattern, way of thinking, music, dance, visual art, etc.

In many cases, the emergence of indigenous churches in Indonesia is producing a new phenomenon, i.e., a mixture of elements: particularly western Cristianity and indigenous ethnicity, which then result in various types of new churches in a very wide spectrum. In practice we can see a blend of western denominational (Lutheran, Calvinist, Baptist, Mennonite, Methodist, Pentecostal, and other Free Churches) and cultural (Dutch, German, Swiss, American) varieties, blended with Indonesian ethnic varieties (Batak, Dayak, Sundanese, Javanese, Chinese, Minahasan, Torajanese, Buginese, Balinese, Sumbanese, Timorese, Moluccan, Halmaheran, Irianese, etc). The variety is as wide as the diversities in the Indonesian social life (more than 350 spoken languages/dialects, plus accompanying customs, traditions, cultures, and ancestral belief).

Thus in practical life, the meeting of Gospel and Culture is an ongoing problem in the lives of the younger churches in Indonesia. This phenomenon is perhaps not only Indonesian, but also the phenomenon in the whole Third World generally. The issue is not only discussed, but also generates practical implications and implementations, and in many cases on an experimental basis.

It can be noted that there is lively discussion and experimentation in the liturgical area, as to whether new hymns ought to be composed using the widely accepted pentatonic musical scale and indigenous musical instruments replacing the diatonic scale and western musical instruments. Lively debates are also taking place about whether dances might be used as liturgical actions, modelled upon the traditional sacred dances existing in the culture.

Succession of the church leadership is not always a smooth process. In many instances it creates a conflicting aftermath. It depends on the church structure stated in the church order, inherited from the respective western church structure. The over-centralized structure is usually prone to be a source of trouble, since becoming the head of a church is understood as occupying the most honourable and profitable position and thus becoming a point of power struggle. In some cases it has become the cause of bitter conflict and eventual split. Seemingly it has something to do with the idea of leadership in a particular culture which is not yet fully transformed by the Gospel.

In the pastoral field, similar issues are becoming dominant pastoral issues which absorb long working hours in the sessions of many local church councils. The issue mentioned in Acts 8:9-24 (Simon the Sorcerer), with somehow different gradings, is not an uncommon pastoral issue after a mass conversion into Christian religion.

The curriculum and the content of catechetical instruction and Christian religious education has always been an object of dynamic discussion, on whether it must be subjected to the continuing changes in social life. The rigid dogmatic formulation of Trinitarian belief in The One God, is a stumbling block among Moslems. The doctrine of Holy Spirit is easily accepted by the Mystics, only to be reinterpreted instantly as the human higher and authentic self. Must the great Catechisms of the 16th and 17th centuries in the West be rewritten to meet the demand for a fruitful encounter with Indonesian context of the 20th century, with an Islam, Hindu, Buddhist and ancestor worship background? How should we cope with this pressing but complicated problem?

IV. Some points to ponder

1. Christians from all over the world are members of one familia Dei. Also members of one body of which Christ is the head (Eph. 4:16). Correlation between members of the one body is very natural, and is a must in a living body.

2. Christians living in each country have their own national context, they have their own "temporal citizenships" which are different from each other. It is in their specific context that they have to perform the threefold ecclesiatical tasks: koinonia, marturia and diakonia, wholeheartedly and responsibly.

3. Correlation between churches from different countries ought to be understood as helping each other to enhance the execution of the threefold task in their respective contexts, and thus must bear a formative, cooperative and reciprocal character. All should be inspired by a similar Word and Spirit, and be subjected to the One Christ as Head.

4. No one can deny the decisive role of economy. Good economy produces prosperity and affluence in each country. Churches living in the developed countries generally have better financial resources compared to those living in the less developed and underdeveloped countries. Korea in 1994 has a per capita GDP of USD 8,483,-,( while Indonesia has USD 920,-). It is the proper time now for Korean churches to deliberate their role in the world church, in managing God's abundant blessings and entrusted financial resources, to help other members of the familia Dei to implement God's given tasks in their respective contexts, which are sometimes quite different from the Korean context.

5. For the Indonesian case, it seems better that Korean churches seek ways of cooperation with Indonesian churches, to enhance their performance as better servants and witnesses in the very dynamic pluralistic society. Creating a new "Korean Brand" of Christianity in Indonesia will surely make the situation far more complicated, and thus be detrimental to the effort to develop united Christian witness.

6. The Communion of Churches in Indonesia (CCI) is ready to cooperate for the enhancement of the work at the national level (communication: written and electronic media, formation of present and future leaders, dialog and "Tagung", research and development, evangelisation, human rights issues and advocacy, urban-industrial mission, etc.).

For those who want to cooperate with member churches bilaterally, for regional and local works with smaller scale, the CCI is ready to mediate to find proper partners.

"The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few, pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest."(Matt. 9:38)

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