A Change of Clothes: Making the Good News Relevant

When Allan and Caulene Bussard moved from Canada to Yugoslavia in 1975, it was during the heyday of the Soviet Union and tensions between the West and East were in a fine-feathered frenzy. In the midst of this they began working with university students and so launched a Navigator presence in Eastern Europe. After establishing their work in the region, Allan became the Navigator Regional Director for Central and Eastern Europe from 1985 to 1995, when he transitioned into his current role of director for the Integra Foundation, which he helped to co-found.

Throughout the time he has been in Europe, Allan says a significant area they had to focus on was separating the Gospel from its cultural dressing. “Many Christians in Canada would say that a Sunday morning church experience is an integral part of the Gospel,” he says. “As we know from history and as we know from various other cultures, it’s typically a modern expression but not something that is mandated.” Having come from Canada himself, he says being able to contextualize the message of the Gospel was crucial. “Contextualization means stripping the Gospel down to its essential core message and then letting it take on new clothing from the culture into which it’s entering.”

Allan says an example of this can be found in the early work they did in pioneering the student ministry in Yugoslavia. When they were relating to the students and other people during that time, “contextualization meant showing just the right amount of respect for Catholicism without being seen as having bought the whole thing.”

Nevsky Cathedral
The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, located in Sofia, Bulgaria, is one of the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world. Cathedrals and churches such as this dot the landscape of Eastern Europe, many of which are over 100 years old. Photo taken by Jorge Làscar

The reason for this, as in all other contexts, is history. “In Europe, especially in Central Europe where I live, there’s a long history of religious wars. War was waged in the places where I’m sitting right now. That kind of thing leaves a memory because it’s passed down from generation to generation, and even though it was a few centuries ago, the mark is still there. The Church, because of those kinds of behaviors, became seen as a necessary element of society, but to be avoided if possible. You have to live with it, but you don’t want to get too close. It’s not news because every old town in Europe has old churches, so it’s been around here for a long time. What could possibly be new about this message that’s been here for a millennium?” In the work they did, the Bussards had to learn to look at the Gospel through Eastern European eyes.

When they first arrived, the dominant context they worked in was communism. Due to state repression on the church, Allan says “people were quite interested in belief because the state had said you can’t.” However, when communism fell and Eastern Europe opened up, “it [the Gospel] became boring.” Now, the major obstacles are not state repression and surveillance, but rather the more classic European obstacles of secularism, modernism, post-modernism and the effect it has on the way people relate and believe.

“In what way is the Gospel relevant?”

To become relevant to the Eastern Europeans they were interacting with, Allan says they had to depart from the standard structure that the Navigators had at the time and find ways to communicate the Gospel that translated well into the local culture and wouldn’t trigger defensive reactions among the people. As well, the history of where they are and the prevailing European attitude toward God has placed the Bussards in a situation where “being on Navigator staff was an obstacle in and of itself,” Allan says. “You’re seen as someone who is paid to change people, and they don’t want to be changed.”

The approach they’ve had to take instead is best embodied in Marshall McLuhan’s famous statement, ‘the medium is the message.’ “If you don’t look like me or seem to be like me,” Allan says, speaking from the perspective of another person, “then no matter what you say, it’s not possible to be believed.” The other side of the contextualization coin, in addition to making the message applicable, is having messengers who are authentic to the people they are bringing the Gospel to.

Allan says a critical component of contextualizing the Gospel is demonstrating through action how the Gospel is a ‘whole person’ message, not simply one for people interested in spiritual topics. “It touches all of life; it touches justice, it touches poverty, it touches our physical being, it touches every subject we might want to read about. The Gospel is the light we observe all of life with, not a distinct category of information. In fact, you probably won’t get very far in communicating the Gospel if all you’re doing is reading the Bible because there’s no connection with life and therefore it’s not relevant. Maybe we’re studying like it’s worth studying Socrates, but whoever gets around to reading Socrates?”

Putting the phenomenon first

One of the ways people can make the Gospel active is by doing something together. “If you’re doing something together, almost anything can be influenced by the Gospel,” Allan says. “It flavours what’s happening together and I think anything that people are doing together can be a stronger expression of the Gospel than just what someone is doing on their own. An individual testimony can have great impact, but it’s amplified if people see more people living like that.”

In their work, Allan says that telling people about Jesus, asking people to read the Bible with you and having meetings to tell people about Jesus doesn’t seem to work because it’s all in a void without context. He points to the life of Jesus, saying that in communicating the Gospel to people, the explanation needs to come after the phenomenon. “There’d be a miracle, there’d be a feeding, there’d be something, and people would say ‘what is this?’ and Jesus would explain it. It’s when the explanation precedes the phenomenon that the Gospel isn’t understood. When the Gospel is the explanation of what people have observed, then it seems to work better.”

Jura and Gordana
Jura Belkovic (left) and his wife Gordana (right) sit down for a bite to eat in a cafeteria. For the past 40 years they’ve been working in the music industry, influencing the lives of the musicians they interact with and those of their families. Photo courtesy of Allan Bussard

When Allan was first starting his work in Eastern Europe with the student ministry in the mid-70s, he had the opportunity to invest in a young student named Jura Belkovic, who eventually became a Christian. Now, he and his wife Gordana operate a music shop in Croatia, as well as a rock band Jura has maintained on the side. “All the big bands, they hang out at his music shop and he’s been incredibly faithful over the last 40 years at testifying within that context,” Allan says. As a result, there’s been a discernable impact on the lives of those who are involved with rock music in Croatia. “Families are coming back together,” Allan says, “drug use has declined and playing for charities has become a thing to do, all under his influence.” This influence has begun to extend to the kids of the rock musicians he’s interacted with. “There’s a second generation of people who are coming to this guy for advice for things like ‘should I get married?’ or ‘how should I live?’”

As the Bussards have worked to contextualize the Gospel for Eastern Europeans so they understand it as a “whole person” message, it led to the creation of the Integra Foundation, which Allan helped co-found in 1995. Integra is an NGO at work across Eastern Europe, as well as Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan. The work they do is focused around education for children and sustainable business ventures in Africa, such as the TenSenses fairtrade co-operatives, the development of which Allan has been leading since 2003.

Integra logo

The Integra Foundation is an example of a platform, an initiative the Bussards have been working on for the past 10 years with key leaders in various areas of Slovakian society. The purpose of a platform is to address a visible need while simultaneously accelerating the movement of the Gospel. “The businesses, the schools, the NGOs, that’s where the people are coming to Christ,” Allan says. “It’s any collective or community thing, a collection or sum of all the individual encounters that people have within that. All the times over coffee, all the discussions, and then it’s amplified and illustrated by the way the community is together.”

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