Category Archives: Culture
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?
I had a rude awakening last week. It was the height of the December rush, work was incredibly busy, the kid’s end-of-school week was just done and renovations were underway at our house. Read: stress.
It was just as I was grappling with a kitchen installation that I saw through the window a young man striding up our driveway, clipboard under this arm.
My heart sank. I hate doorknockers. My single thought as I approached the door was “How quickly can I get rid of this guy?” And sure enough, before his opening sentence offering re-roofing was complete, I’d packed him on his way. I was firm and kind – though probably not in equal proportion.
Actually I was fuming. Who buys a roof that way?! I screamed inwardly. If I want a new roof then when I am good and ready, I will research companies on the net and in my own good time I will make the call.
And right then came an Advent moment – I realised that Jesus is a doorknocker. He comes when he is ready. He breaks into our world in his own way in his own time. (And he will again.)
Boy can he be inconvenient! When he called his first disciples on the beach, they could have said “Look mate, can’t you see we’re in the middle of a shift here?” But instead they drop their nets, and some good fish rot, and some good customers are lost – because the kingdom of God has come by.
Jesus doesn’t just come to town, he comes through town and some people drop everything and follow while others – people like me? – just can’t fit him into their schedule and agenda. Jesus never fits into anyone’s agenda. You can’t fit him into your life. But you are invited to fit into his.
“Here I am, I stand at the door and knock,” he says in Revelation 3. Will we truly receive him or send him packing? But furthermore, what does this say about our roles as sacred agents – ‘doorknockers’ on his behalf? Are we prepared to risk the irritation and ire of those who aren’t ready?
PS Doorknocker, quite possibly angel, I’m sorry! I skipped the reroof but got the reproof.
Anyone who takes seriously their role as a sacred agent – a representative of God’s Kingdom in the here and now – will know the feeling of being outnumbered and overwhelmed. The media, the government, local institutions seem to show very little regard for Christ. Compounding the pressure, we see friends, neighbours, even close family members ignoring or rejecting outright their need for Jesus.
The trap for us, who feel these pressures very acutely, is to become defensive. When we feel threatened, whether by Islam or Oprah or Dawkins, an instinct can be for us to recoil into a stance that is not Christ-like and works against our very own mission. We can be fooled into fight (pushy debating and lobbying and power plays) or flight (retreating from the world into our own little safe corner) and each of these can be to shoot ourselves in our beautiful feet that our meant to bring good news.
Fight and flight postures each keep us from being in that peaceful, joyful zone where we are open to God’s Spirit and ready for opportunities to engage creatively with the world around us in the name of Jesus. Think of Jesus himself when his opponents were actively setting traps for him. Neither fight nor flight, but brilliant thirds ways that were wonderful demonstrations of God’s kingdom.
For me, a key thought I choose to bring to mind when the world looms large is that Jesus will certainly triumph in the end. As bad as the scoreboard seems now, we know how this game ends. Like the masked man in The Princess Bride backed up in a sword fight to the edge of the cliff, we can still smile to ourselves and indeed to the world. We know a secret. We know we are perfectly safe and nothing at all can separate us from Christ’s love.
The world will give us all sorts of trouble, but we must actively take heart – Christ has overcome the world. Let’s neither pull our heads in nor thrust our chins out. Let’s walk taller – not with an arrogant swagger, but with the noble gait of those who will turn the other cheek, wash feet, and with Christ be overcomers.
Last century many Baptist churches offered two services each week – usually Sunday morning and Sunday night. The morning service was weighted towards nurturing believers (of all ages), and the evening service weighted towards evangelism (especially of youth). It balanced churches’ priorities: Get fed on Sunday morning, bring your friends Sunday night.
But with the demise of the second service the choice of nearly every church has been to retain ‘feeding the flock’ as a corporate practice, leaving evangelism as an individual one (perhaps with the exception of occasional courses such as Alpha). What would it look like if a church chose the other way?
The building up of believers would need to utilize mid-week meetings of big and/or small groups and individual spiritual disciplines to a greater extent. Believers wouldn’t be able to use Sunday services as a weekly Quiet Time!
But the big difference might be the opportunity for the church to witness corporately, bringing the whole combination of spiritual gifts of the body to the task. Jesus said “By this will everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”(John 13:35 NIV) If this is such a key aspect of our witness, why do we gather in relative privacy, and do our public witness individually? Are we hiding our lamp under a bowl?
What might it look like to open our weekly meetings to the neighbourhood and send strong signals that visitors, seekers, doubters, explorers, everyone is invited, indeed expected? On the inside this might mean more testimonies and less in-house notices, more preaching to the back row and less preaching to the choir. On the outside it might mean flags, banners, A-frame signs and the like to say “We’re here, we’re on, we’re open and we’re expecting you.” You only need to look at businesses and other public buildings to see how that is standard signalling in our culture.
There’s so much to be said for corporate witness, and churches could do worse than to experiment with this by at least designating some Sundays or a season of Sundays as evangelistic. (Although regular, ongoing witness has many advantages over the one-hit event.) It takes time for a church to learn to do it well, and for the neighbourhood to notice, but might it not strike a better balance?
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!