Category Archives: Culture
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!
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.