Category Archives: Culture
If you’re a preacher or a regular afflictee of sermons, you’ll know what exegesis is. It’s the practice of very careful reading of the text, so as to truly hear what it actually says. Not what we want it to say, not what we’ve always assumed it says, but to receive it as it is actually given to us. Good exegesis yields remarkable insights, but it takes time. You can’t skim read a text deeply.
Effective sacred agents do this well, always coming back to the gospel, looking over and into it, constantly exploring its depths. It almost goes without saying – a messenger needs to know the message well.
Experts in mission also talk about cultural exegesis - the need for sacred agents to immerse themselves in the culture where God has placed them, to understand its rhythm and language and how it ticks. That’s good mission but it takes time. And like Biblical exegesis, it’s a skill that you acquire and sharpen. You learn how to look.
So sacred agents are messengers, ambassadors, priests. We need to know the message well and the recipients well to be able to convey the message effectively.
But let’s take this even further. As sacred agents we are sent not just to a culture, but to individual people. If we know a person’s culture well but don’t take the time to know them individually we will make assumptions of what they are probably like, and quite probably miss the mark in reaching them personally. So let’s practice personal exegesis. We might be familiar with a person, but do we really know them? As biblical exegetes know, familiarity leads to skim reading.
What might result in our making a deliberate choice to take time to really read the individuals we are sent to and familiar with? To take time to ask better, deeper questions and to learn how to pay attention to their answers? To learn how to really observe? And in doing so, to constantly consider ‘What is God’s message to this particular person?’
It takes time. And it takes lots of us. With a microphone we can speak to 10,000 people at a time. But we can still only listen to one at a time.
I remember learning this song in primary school choir, do you know it?
O soldier, soldier, won’t you marry me
With your musket fife and drum?
O no sweet maid I cannot marry you
For I have no coat to put on.
So up she went to her grandfather’s chest
And she got him a coat of the very, very best
And the soldier put it on.
The next three verses are the same, but it’s hat, gloves and boots instead of coat. Then comes the final verse…
O soldier, soldier, won’t you marry me
With your musket fife and drum?
O no sweet maid I cannot marry you…
…For I have for I have a wife of my own!
I’ve no idea why that song has stuck with me as opposed to more important parts of my education. But it keeps coming back to me as I reflect on our mission as sacred agents. What a sucker that sweet maid is! And what a cad the soldier!
It reminds me of a danger of what I call ‘generosity evangelism’. We lavish people with favour/s wanting to demonstrate the grace of God. And people are happy to receive them. Churches that stretch their resources to offer community programmes see it all the time. People are very happy to receive what’s offered, and often come back regularly, but don’t, at the end of the day, come to join the church and the One who loves them the most. You see, they are already wedded to someone else.
In the Soldier song, the sweet maid clearly hadn’t had a rather necessary talk with the soldier. At least, she hadn’t drawn out much of his story, had she? She just hoped that gifts would say and do it all. She’s left not only heart-broken, but empty-handed!
I wonder whether our tendency to attempt evangelism predominantly without words (the famous but mythical quote of Francis of Assisi comes to mind) leads us up the same naïve path? Discuss!
The headlines screamed “Australia Loses Faith”. But is that what the recent census data really tells us? I had a conversation with Sacred Agent Eric Love, a brilliant statistician, to get at the story behind the numbers. Here’s what I found out…
- The number of Australians identifying themselves as Christians has increased by 500,000. Only 9,000 of that increase has been in SA.
- This growth has, however, not kept pace with population growth. percentage of Australians identifying themselves as Christians has continued a long steady decline, now down to 61%. That’s still a strong majority of Australians. If one of our political parties won an election with that proportion of the vote, they’d declare it a major mandate.
- The decline of the proportion of people self-identifying as Christian is not merely due to aging population. It is seen in nearly every age bracket, with a particularly sharp fall in my generation (35-44).
- Bucking the trend, however is the 15-24 age-bracket, which saw an increase in the percentage who identified themselves as Christian. Bravo, children’s and youth workers and those who support them!
- It’s obvious that only a fraction of those who identify themselves in the census as a Christian are active believers – only about 9-10% of Australians attend church. It is almost certain that we are not seeing a wave of people giving up on active faith. We are, it seems, seeing nominal Christians giving up the façade. Which is probably a helpful thing. This dynamic is most starkly noticeable in Tasmania.
- So what about the active Christians? How are we doing? Well, it’s hard to tell definitively without better church statistics. But there are very positive signs: The group of protestant denominations that are more evangelical than traditional (including we Baptists) has seen significant increase. 200,000 more Australians identified themselves with these churches over the last 5 years – an increase of 19%. Yes, nineteen. Allowing for population growth, it’s still a 9% increase – from less than 5.5% of Australians to more than 6.1%, in the last 5 years.
Australia increasingly abandoning Christianity? It’s a myth, probably reinforced by we Christians as much as anyone. Chins up, agents!
Why is it that on some road trips, time slows down and you think you’ll never ever arrive, and on others you seem to blink and you’re already there? Perhaps it’s the company you have. Reading is like that for me, and I’m happy to say that I just blinked and arrived at the end of Mark Sayers’ new book The Road Trip That Changed the World.
And thanks to Mark, one lucky sacred agent will win a free copy of his book. Read on…
Sayers is a brilliant cultural exegete – one who effectively explains our culture to us. Just like when you listen to a preacher who is skilled in exegesis, you have a lot of “Aha!” light-bulb moments, when you see clearly things that are so obviously right in front of you but you’d somehow missed before.
This is a short but important book that’s worth your time. You will come away with a clearer window into our culture, and that is gold to any sacred agent. To describe our own culture takes real skill and clever tricks. It’s not sufficient to simply hold up a mirror to ourselves – all we will see is more of what we already see. So it is with the increasing amount of data and statistics we consume. They’re useful, they tell us what’s happening. But they don’t tell us why.
You won’t see charts and stats on the pages of Road Trip. It reads more like poetry, actually. Sayers weaves story and insight and personal experiences in a way that combines deep and thorough research with remarkable leaps of intuition. Very occasionally his insights seemed a long bow to draw. On the whole, however, he is on the money.
His apparent thesis – that one novel by one author 60 years ago has steadily ruined us – is, he openly admits, an over-simplification. But this is the trick of the exegete: He uses it as a very effective lens to focus us on not merely a snap-shot of our culture, but a trajectory – to makes sense not only of where we are, but how we got here. And that is more than convincing.
Anyone who tries to paint a picture must choose a point of perspective. This is a further key value of the book. Sayers unashamedly writes about Western culture from the perspective of mature Christian discipleship. This meant quite a lot of mental ‘Yay!’s from this sacred agent as I read along, and some moments too to pause and re-evaluate my own journey.
Thank you Mark Sayers for a significant and timely book.
Now about winning that free copy: Let’s practice some cultural exegesis, amateurs though we be. To enter, leave a comment on this post, naming a single book, movie or historical event that you think has influenced Australian culture. And, briefly, what that influence has been. It doesn’t have to be amazing – it’s just practice! The winner will be chosen at random on July 16th from those (any!) who simply have had a go.
Here’s an easy little diagram I’m finding useful when trying to explain the kingdom of God – you might too…
That is how many people view the universe (once there was nothing, eventually the sun will run out of gas and we’ll return to nothing, life’s what’s in between). It’s how many people view the world (think peak oil, or world population, or non-renewable resources – we’ve developed as much as we can but it all looks downhill from here). And it’s how many people see their own lives (coming from chance, heading for oblivion, time’s running out so let’s make hay while the sun shines, maximize our experiences and enjoyment – let’s eat and drink, for tomorrow we die).
It’s not good news. Kids point out to me that it is the shape of a sad mouth. How apt. But there is a different story, a different path…
This green line is the shape of the kingdom of God. It’s the path Jesus took and invites us onto (See Philippians 2:5-11). It’s a path of servanthood, suffering, self-denial – and great, great expectation. It’s good news, and yes, a happy face. This is nothing more than the diagram of Jesus’ saying “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Have a play with it – a very simple diagram from which conversations can spring about life, death, our world, the environment, hedonism, Jesus, the cross, the resurrection, the ascension, origins, eternity, conversion and discipleship. Ruin someone’s serviette and make their eternity.
Evangelism – articulating the gospel – might not the biggest part of our mission (remember 90% of success is showing up), but it’s certainly a critical part. ‘Reeling in’ may only be one percent of fishing, but it’s a pretty important one percent! Worth getting good at.
Some forms of evangelism focus mainly on the facts – what God has done for us in Christ, and what it means. Such evangelism comes across as a lecture or course, which is both a strength and weakness. People in our culture understand ‘courses’ and how to access information. The downside of laying-down-the-facts evangelism, however, is the risk of the gospel becoming a list of doctrines for people to agree with. The facts are vital, but there’s more to evangelism than the facts.
Other forms of evangelism focus mainly on the challenge. Think of the street-preachers. How awkward when this element is over-emphasized, too in-your-face with “If you were to die tonight” and “You’re under God’s wrath.” But there’s no denying that the personal challenge or invitation is an important part of evangelism. God is calling, appealing, proposing to people he loves, and through us!
But how do we go about informing the facts-resistant and challenging the action-resistant? Talk about daunting! Well, consider the brilliant tool used by Jesus and so many effective evangelists since: Story. Stories are incredibly powerful-yet-subtle carriers of both facts and challenge. The Gospels show Jesus as a master storyteller, and he said that (we) gospel-tellers are “like a rich man who brings out of his storehouse both new treasures as well as old.”
In our culture the most skillful story-tellers are in Hollywood. With semi-interested people, you can do much worse than to watch Les Miserables or The Matrix (or something more recent!) and draw out from them the incredible gospel parallels. I knew a church that had a regular movie afternoon and never failed, off the back of it, to have a great, deep, gospel conversations. They called it “Popcorn Theology.” Love it. What movies would you choose?