Category Archives: Culture
Sacred agents have a great message. The good news of God’s kingdom stirs us, Christ’s love compels us, and sometimes … our wonderful uplifting message goes down like a lead balloon. What went wrong? And what happens next?
What went wrong? Quite possibly, nothing – at least on our part. If our measure of success is that we are always well received, aren’t we attempting to be better agents than Jesus? On hearing his message, some went out and plotted how to kill him. “A servant is not greater than their master,” he reminds us. “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.” So we should expect nothing more than the mixed results that Jesus himself received.
It’s a massive mistake for us to take only those opportunities for witness that are guaranteed to be well received. There’s the obvious negative reason: It’s selling out our mission. If we filter out all the parts of the gospel that Western culture doesn’t agree with, what’s left is western culture. We will no longer be distinct in any way. We’ve lost our saltiness and should hand in our agent’s badge. “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory.” But there’s also a big positive reason: What can happen next…
What happens next? How we respond under abuse, under rejection, under fire, is perhaps THE MOST powerful form of witness we will ever get to make. History has proven again and again that Christians’ cheek-turning, extra-mile-going, blessing-the-cursers love for enemies has enormous missional impact. It’s how the west is won.
But are we willing to have enemies at all? To suffer rejection at all? And when we do, instead of departing the scene with tail between legs, beating ourselves up for “putting people off” – can we sit peacefully with the tension and respond in a Christlike way?
When we’re not well received, we should reflect on it honestly, because there is also the possibility that we were clumsy. But when mission goes pear-shaped, it just may be an early sign of really good fruit.
Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist most famous for developing his “Hierarchy of Needs.” Often presented as a pyramid, it says that our most basic needs (at the base) are for the body – food, water and shelter. Once those needs are met, we next desire safety, then love, then esteem. And once we have gotten ourselves all these, at the top we seek “self-actualisation” – to become all that we can be. It’s in this last category that many people put spirituality and religion. It’s a rookie mistake theologically, but we westerners fall for it over and over.
Scripture presents God’s kingdom as laying at the very base of our needs, and vitally connected to all the others. “Humans don’t live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from God’s mouth”, Jesus quotes Moses. “Anyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give will never thirst again”, he tells the woman at the well, whose pyramid of needs has become a pile of rubble.
Jesus is the foundation, not the decoration! God’s kingdom isn’t the icing on life’s cake – it’s the yeast that makes it rise in the first place! Yet people continue to think of Jesus as the gift for “the one who has everything,” and Christians as folks who have their lives in order and then play religion with their leftover time, energy and money. (Do we prove them right?)
If we present Jesus as “the final piece in the puzzle” to those who have tried every other form of entertainment/stimulation/inspiration and found them wanting – well, they’ll soon find him wanting too. He just won’t fit as the final piece, he won’t be chaplain to our self-actualisation. To the one who had everything, Jesus said “Go and give all your possessions to the poor; then come and follow me.” Jesus is the gift for the one who has nothing, surely.
What does this mean for sacred agents? Firstly we must denounce the distinction between spiritual and physical. “Offer your bodies as living sacrifices” says Paul. We must rediscover the all-of-real-life Jesus who works powerfully in and through the mundane.
Secondly, if Jesus is foundational, the danger of silent service is that we help people build a tower that won’t stand. Why give someone a car and then walk away with the keys in your pocket? If Christ is the real key to lasting transformation then we cannot keep this secret or leave it till last.
I remember the stares and smirks on people’s faces as we walked past. It was the middle of the day, I was about 12 years old, and we were on holidays at Penneshaw on Kangaroo Island. My friend and I were bored and decided to go fishing. We grabbed our gear and began the walk around the bay to the jetty.
Most of Penneshaw is built looking over Hog Bay and it’s always easy to know when the fish are biting: You just look out your front window and see how many people there are on the jetty. Hence the smirks and shakes of the heads as we trudged past houses on our way – the jetty was completely empty.
Still, it was something to do. We walked out along the jetty and fumbled around with our lines. I’d never liked fishing and had little idea what to do. So it was pretty surprising when, not five minutes later, we’d caught a fish! And then another. And then more – almost as fast as we could reset our lines a new fish would jump on. Within a few hours we’d caught 81 fish (81 more than we knew what to do with), and you guessed it, most of the town were out there on the jetty getting their share too.
I won’t say that I learned to fish that day. But I did learn this: If no-one’s fishing it doesn’t mean no-one’s biting.
One of the myths that holds us back from effective mission is the idea that no one’s interested in God any more. It’s just not true. But if we believe it to the point where we stop fishing for people, we’ll prove ourselves right – in a way. I guess it’s true that fish won’t bite if you give them nothing to bite on.
So I wonder are you willing to walk that “walk of shame” to the jetty, and have a go even if you’re no expert? Like my friend and I that day, you might catch fishers as well as fish!
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?
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.