One of the most challenging tasks of sacred agents is contextualization. (Oh the irony, I’ve used a 19-letter word and a 17-letter word already.) Contextualization is the challenge of translating the great news of God’s Kingdom, which reaches across all time, places and cultures, into a specific time, place and culture so that it can be understood. If you’ve ever looked at someone, scratched your head, and thought “how can I possibly put this wonderful hope in a way that you’ll be able to grasp?” then you’ve wrestled with contextualization. It’s tricky.
And of all of the trickiness, there’s the danger that it makes us tricky. It’s good for us to keep our finger on the pulse of societal trends and communication methods. In our dealing with the world we are to be as wise as serpents. But we’re also meant to be as innocent as doves.
If we follow too closely the PR approach to mission, never wanting to offend or repel anyone, loudly proclaiming the “upside” of following Jesus and fudging on the cost, we can end up being quite unlike Jesus in our efforts to represent him. There is a wonderful straightforwardness to Jesus, speaking the truth lovingly but also directly and clearly, and being up-front about the cost of discipleship.
(Selling Christianity as a lifestyle choice by highlighting how its benefits far outweighs its costs has problems in itself in leading to consumer Christianity where people “select” Jesus for his usefulness rather than submit and entrust themselves to him, but let’s discuss that later.)
Another form of trickiness comes when we make reconciliation to God an over-complicated process. When a person is 1,000 miles from God’s kingdom, sometimes we try to influence them towards a place just 990 miles from God. Nudge them a little bit closer, and feel that we’ve done some mission. But a person 1,000 miles from God is actually only one step away (hallelujah!), and we see many such people in the Gospels coming to Jesus and being wonderfully transformed. Do we inch people along the garden path sometimes instead of inviting them to come right on in?
What might it mean for us to be clear and straightforward as agents of the Kingdom? More wise and yet less sophisticated? Might it not be both truer to the gospel and refreshing and appealing to many in our time and culture?
Have you ever attempted the Coke-Can Challenge? The idea is to hold a full can of Coke (or indeed any other beverage that is willing to sponsor this blog) out in front of you at full arm’s length, for as long as possible. The can doesn’t weigh much, but (if you’re like me) you’ll find you’re in agony after a couple of minutes. But if it’s close to your body, you could carry it all day.
Surely the challenge of God’s mission is like that. The further you are from people, the harder and more painful it is. The closer you are to the people you’re sent to, the easier it is to connect meaningfully. Missionaries who live and move among a people group learn so much more about how to speak to them, and gain far more credibility to be heard. It’s Missiology 101. We see it in Christ himself: “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood.” (John 1:14, The Message)
Our family has learned what a powerful and natural thing local witness is. Moving to West Beach church has meant moving home and changing school across town, but I think we would have done it even if called just down the road to Parkside, simply because of the difference proximity makes to mission.
But it’s not just about where we live. What does it mean to really draw near not just to residential neighbours but also to our neighbours at our work, school or club? Our message that “the Kingdom of God is near” has an existential truth in that we as agents of the Kingdom embody it. Who can think God is distant when one of His ‘angels’ is giving them a visitation? We do the gospel when we practice hospitality to invite people into our space. And we do the gospel when, like Jesus, we are not ashamed to eat and drink in the space of those far from God. Far until we arrive!
When church is over here and life is over there, mission too easily ends up being neither here nor there. It’s too hard, we think. But is the coke can really too heavy? Or just too distant?
There are deep, strong, and many connections between evangelism and hospitality – far more than I can go into here. One of the most poignant images of the gospel is the embrace of the prodigal son by the Father. God’s deep longing for prodigals to be reconciled to Him means always looking out and always ready to welcome in.
If you want to come to my house you can probably find the front door and the doorbell, but the experience for you is vastly different if the light is on and my kids are peeping out the front windows eager for your arrival. In the same way, at my home church we feel we have some renovations to do. There are four doors at the front of our buildings, and none of them obviously presents as the entrance. If you really want to come, you can definitely figure it out, but it’s something short of hospitality.
But enough about buildings, what about the actual church? Does yours have a clear and warm point of entry? Do those without church experience get strong signals saying “Welcome! Start here”? Or do they get the feeling that this church is for regulars, not irregulars?
One church that welcomes well is Rostrevor Baptist. Banners all along their street frontage make quite clear that that church is geared up to help beginners, and the Alpha Course is the place to start. We can learn from them. Is there somewhere obvious on your church’s website where beginners can click? Is there a ministry clearly aimed at ushering people from curiosity to membership?
Many churches seem to have ministries that usher people from the Outer Hebrides to the Inner Hebrides (hostility to openness), but not ministries to welcome people ashore and settle them on the mainland. We move people from Pluto to Neptune and call it mission, but do we really want Martians here on Earth?
So our church is looking at a new entrance. But even more urgently, we’re looking at a weekly Sunday breakfast for enquirers where people can ask anything, begin just where they are, and discover all it means to belong in God’s family. Mission isn’t just running down the road, mission is bringing the prodigal home!
It’s a tricky game we’re in. As agents for God’s great resistance movement, just mentioning the movement is frowned upon by the cultural police, let alone openly recruiting for it! How can we possibly get away with it? Psst, just pretend like you’re reading a blog and let’s talk about it.
One of the problems with an underground movement like ours is paranoia – you come to believe that everyone else is against you. When we focus on our difficulty to speak out in a Christophobic society, we forget that there are others, too, who regret the Great Forced Silence: the sympathetic enquirers. They are open, even wanting to be recruited. They want to join the resistance, but they don’t know where to apply.
(You might think it obvious – apply at a church, speak to a pastor – but some are concerned not to expose themselves so obviously (think of those who like Nicodemus approached Jesus at night), and some are not even sure that any given church will connect them with the real movement.)
Such people want to ask their questions, they thirst for a spiritual D&M, but they are not sure where it’s safe to get it. Which leads to my point: Do the people around you know that you’re a safe person to have a spiritual conversation with? How can you hint that you are?
If you keep your Christianity privatised and use no hint or symbol in your everyday space, people will not be likely to approach you for the inside word. On the other hand, if you’re over-the-top in your continual gush about Jesus people may not consider you safe, either. I know people that I dare not ask about fishing without running the risk of losing the rest of the day lost in tackle-talk and spot-speak!
So even when we’re not in a position to make the first move, are there ways we can hint that we’re pro-resistance and safe to approach? I know some who keep a Bible in view at their work-station. Others wear a cross, or have a Bible verse on display in their home. And which verse? Or what other ways might be ideal signals for your setting? Discuss…
I came across someone this week who was talking about the kind of evangelism needed to reach “a deaf culture”. That phrase really got me thinking.
Imagine you’re talking to someone, and they’re clearly just not getting what you’re trying to say. It’s just a blank stare. If you assume that it’s because they’re a bit deaf, the tempting thing might be to repeat yourself, but a bit louder. And louder again, if needed. Can you picture it?
How embarrassing it would be to find out that they’re not deaf at all, it’s just that they don’t understand English! (More to the point, the problem is that you don’t speak their language.) Getting louder and louder is just making yourself look like an obnoxious fool.
I wonder if we sacred agents can be a bit like that in our endeavours to express the gospel to those to whom we’re sent. If we’re not connecting, it’s easy to put the blame on them. THEY’RE just not interested, we might tell ourselves and others. Or THEY just don’t get it. THEY’RE closed. THEY’RE deaf. But the truth might be that WE just haven’t done the missionary work of learning their language.
Could it be that we are the deaf ones – not taking enough time to listen to people to understand their world-view, their way of thinking, their language? It’s fascinating to me that God’s approach from the beginning (in the Garden of Eden) and Jesus’ approach to so many was not to open with “Have I got news for you” but rather with questions, drawing people out and being prepared to begin by listening.
I’m not convinced that our culture is deaf, or completely closed to God. It might be deafened by the incredible multitude of voices and messages that bombard it daily. In that case, raising our voices louder and increasing the din isn’t really a good answer. What if we found ways to give quality time to really listen with interest to people, all the while asking God’s Spirit for insight into just how His great news can best be communicated to them?
Evangelism does involve speaking. We do need to find our voice. But we need to find it in their language.
When we think about what the gospel is, quite often we get fixated on the details of how people can be saved. How to get into the kingdom. The trouble is, there’s no point in telling people how to enter a place they don’t want to go. What’s the point in hailing down cars telling them how to get to the airport, when they don’t want to go there?
The how is important – it’s worth knowing and getting right. But we could, I think, swing more of our efforts to telling people the WHO and the WHAT of God’s kingdom – and they may well then ask us how to enter.
Many people seem to have the idea that God’s big dream is that everyone would behave themselves and attend church – a club, they think, where everyone is very careful to conform and pretend to be good, a club where the rules are explained over and over and the game is never played. Have we contributed to that impression? Do we continue to in ways?
God is so much more than a cosmic referee with whistle in mouth looking for people who are breaking the rules. His dream is not that people would stop sinning, but that they would be explosively transformed. Not merely that thieves would “stop thieving” – but become givers! Not merely that cursers would “stop cursing” – but become encouragers (Eph 3:28-29)! Our message is not merely that empty people can come and “be filled” – but come and be turned into fountains (John 7:38)! It’s a message of radical and good transformation! (Yes, for those fixated on how, not by our own efforts but by God’s grace and empowering).
Our message is not merely “Come follow Jesus” but also “…and he will make you fishers for people. He will enlist you in his incredible re-creative plot. He will transform you, and through you, the world!” Now that’s explosive.
The gospel of behavioural conformity has its roots as much in new-world-settler-western-imperialism as it does in Scripture. It’s an emasculating message that defuses people down to worker-bees. The biblical gospel, on the other hand, is explosive in releasing people as carriers of a viral goodness that will supplant the empires. One saps, the other inspires – which one are we conveying?