Category Archives: Culture
I have worked my cat out and I’m just trusting that he’s not reading this. Whenever I call Ossie he goes in the other direction as a matter of principle. This is a simple power struggle. The only exceptions to this firm rule are if I have been away for at least 3 days, or am visibly offering ham. He has been training me for nearly three years now in understanding my place.
If I seek him outside he will head down the street. Not over a fence, not under a car, but always just out of reach. He is taking me for a walk to give me some exercise. If I seek him inside there will be ten minutes of dashing from under the table to under the stairs and back.
But, fellow humans, the revolution is beginning! I have realised that if I simply sit down on a step (inside) or in the gutter (outside) and look in a different direction, he will come and rub against me within 30 seconds. It’s simple cat whispering. The only key elements are getting down to his level and looking in a different direction. The only surprise is that it’s taken me three years to work this out.
But I wonder whether we’ve worked it out as missionaries? In Australia, talking directly about religion is a cultural taboo. People tend to withdraw, and then if we follow them they withdraw some more. But this doesn’t mean that Australian’s aren’t interested in Christianity or drawn to Jesus. It is culturally acceptable to set up spaces within our culture where religion can be discussed. For example, in a church building on a Sunday morning, Australians would be surprised if it wasn’t.
And there are other, simpler such spaces that also can be set up. A Bible study in the lunch break at work. A Christianity Explored course at someone’s house. A youth (or ex-youth) camp. If it’s not done in complete secrecy – if gentle signals are sent that enquirers are welcome to join – then you may be surprised by how many get curious about this group that is right there at their level, but looking in a different direction.
Some things are very difficult. Ranking right up there with licking your elbow and contacting a government department is this: Trying to remember a tune while listening to a different one.
Sacred agents live with a similar difficulty 24/7. If the world into which we are sent was merely cacophonous, it wouldn’t be so hard. But it tends to play a particular song of its own, while we are called to march to a different beat. If that makes you feel and look a bit unco then you’re no Robinson Crusoe. So how do we do it?
I like to think of Daniel and his amigos. Somehow they sustained that art of living with one’s feet in Babylon and heart in Jerusalem – the double-life of a sacred agent. How did they cope? By hitting Pause and hitting Play.
None of us can claim to have more responsibilities or a busier life than Daniel, yet paused three times a day to physically open his windows to face Jerusalem and pray. It was a conscious act of reorientation which he needed 21 times a week. How many quiet times can I afford not to have? Or am I stronger than him? Daniel switched off the Babylonian lullaby that constantly sought to spiritually pacify him and tuned in to Radio Jerusalem.
And they pressed Play. If they weren’t the authors of Psalm 137 then it was someone with the same heart: By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion … How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land? / If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill / May my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy. They never wanted to forget the heavenly tune of God’s kingdom. They needed to be able to whistle it even in (especially in) the direst of trouble.
What are your practices of pressing pause and play, of tuning out and tuning in?
One of the thrills of being a sacred agent is knowing that any moment may be an opportunity to represent Jesus. For me, some speaking engagements are booked well in advance and I have the luxury of careful preparation, trying to get the message ‘just so’. But other speaking opportunities arrive out of the blue, with barely any notice, and I need to be ready for them too.
“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…” 1Pe3
Indeed, I want to not just be passively ready in case it happens, but actively looking!
“Be wise in the way you act towards outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” Col4
Which has got me thinking. There are many relationships where we look for ‘just the right opening’ for a conversation about God’s kingdom. And I’ve realised that what I’ve been looking out for are moments when someone seems particularly sympathetic to, or approving of my Christianity. I’ve been imagining moments when people say, “Andrew, what is it about you that makes you just so terrific?” As you can see, I have a very good imagination!
But Jesus paints a different picture of the perfect opportunity to represent God’s kingdom.
“But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” Mt5
In fact, both Peter and Paul’s quotes above are written in the context of suffering and opposition.
So what if the ‘perfect witnessing opportunity’ is not when the people around me love me and my faith. What if it’s when they despise me and scorn it? That’s when Christ’s grace, gentleness, respect and love can really shine. But are we ready for that?
Suburbs can be tricky places for mission. Neighbours barely know neighbours. Families are securely locked up behind high fences and no one sits on their front porch to interact with passers-by. But in my suburb, all that changes on one evening each year. Families and gangs of partying kids roam the streets and dare to actually knock on doors – it’s Halloween. Ten years ago it was something we only saw on American TV, but its Australian apparition is undeniable.
For many Christians, including me, this has been an unwelcome and uncomfortable development. Do we really need more American culture? And any more celebration of death? What is a sacred agent to make of it?
On the one hand, there is the outright rejection. When the neighbourhood kids knock on the door you could refuse to open and simply yell out “I’m a Christian, I don’t do Halloween!” On the other hand, you could dress up as the Grim Reaper and join right in. I don’t think either makes for good mission. Is there a better option?
What if we were well prepared for this terrific opportunity to interact with our neighbours? What if we had plenty of the best sorts of lollies? And to go with them, what if we printed up small ‘collectable’ cards that on the one side carried our church logo and details and said:
Did you know? Halloween began as a Christian festival – when we remember heroes who have gone before us and set great examples. This year our church Smithville Baptist is remembering Francis of Assisi – a real legend. We’ll be telling his story this Sunday.
On the other side could be a picture of St Frank himself and a brief kid-readable biography. A good quote to cap it all off might be John 10:10 “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
On Halloween, there’s no need to join the dark side, but nor is there any excuse for being dull. There’s a long Halloween tradition of using humour and ridicule to confront the power of death. “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? … Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Every church says it’s a missionary church. The mandate for outreach will be right there in the Core Aims section of the constitution. But in practice? For many it’s mainly an aspiration. It’s what we all agree is our absolute top priority … once we’ve got everything else sorted.
If we agree with Charles Spurgeon that ‘Every Christian is either a missionary or an imposter’, then it follows that every church is either a missionary church or an imposter church. How can we break out of the “mission as aspiration” pose and make real ground towards being real? Here are some practical, do-able suggestions:
1. Get Accountable: Have a set agenda item at every members meeting where you report on the church’s mission over the previous months, and outline future plans. Don’t you always have a finance report, even if (especially if!) no one’s giving? Be as specific as possible. How many people are now following, or closer to following, Jesus because of God’s work through us?
2. Look Right Under Your Nose: Yes, there are many people around who aren’t interested in Jesus. But there are people in your life and around your church who are. Make a list – yes, an actual list – of the names of the non-church people you know who are interested in Jesus. Your church leadership can keep and update that list, pray over the real names (for privacy some may be truncated e.g. “Jim F”) and remind the church how many there are. “Church, we have 37 people around us wanting to know about Jesus.” We need our eyes opened to the harvest. In aspiration churches such people are invisible.
3. Preach to the Choir: Have a “Gospel Spot” in church every Sunday, where someone is asked to share their testimony or to briefly and creatively share the gospel. Often in church there’s more than the choir present (‘invisible’ people!), and even if not, (a) it’s good practice; (b) it gives members confidence that if they invite a non-church friend, there’ll be something at their level; and (c) the gospel is the great call to worship.
4. Fill the Tub: Have regular baptism classes, perhaps every 6 months. Plan, announce and advertise them even if no-one is requesting baptism. You may be surprised. And if no one comes, turn it into a prayer meeting, and don’t lose the courage to do it all again 6 months later.
That’s four quick ones off the top of my head. Do they spark more and better ones in yours?
Imagine a room. There’s a table, there’s nearly always food, and it’s a safe, friendly place for people. There’s often laughter. It has a special purpose: It’s where Christians and inquiring non-Christians can talk together about Jesus, the Kingdom of God, and all the most important things in life. Sounds good, don’t you think?
Many such spaces exist. You’ll find them in kids’ clubs, nursing homes, Alpha courses and cafes. And it’s not too hard to open up new ones. I get to talk to people all around the country who are doing just that. And consistently, they tell me the same shocking thing.
They tell me that it’s much, much easier to get inquiring non-Christians into the room than it is to get the Christians in.
The idea that “Australians are not interested in Jesus” reverberates around churches so often and so loudly that it usually goes unquestioned. But it is a myth, and it needs to be named as such. Like all myths, it serves a purpose – to excuse ourselves from mission. We tell ourselves that evangelism is like force-feeding someone who’s already had a gutful, shoving unwanted stuff down people’s throats.
But many people who are doing evangelism say that it’s much more like trying to feed lots of hungry mouths out of one small kitchen. Over and over I hear them quote “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.”
So which is it? Is our mission in Australia weak because of low demand for the gospel, or low supply?
One thing that can blur the picture and reinforce the myth is this: We pick certain people that we want to become Christians – friends, family members, people like us that we’d quite like to have in our church. When we sense their resistance to the gospel we assume that applies generally. But there are other people, not of our choosing, who would LOVE a bite of what we’re trying to shove down our friend’s throat. Often they’re overlooked: Children, seniors, immigrants, the poor, the injured, the marginalised.
Jesus said that the work of the Kingdom is like fishing with a net, you spread it wide, and then draw it in and see what you’ve caught. Do we sometimes chase one particular fish with a spear, brushing aside many others as we go? Does Moby Dick mission blind us to what God is doing? If your line’s slack, is there someone nearby buckling under a heavy net that you could help?
It’s true that many Australians aren’t currently interested in the gospel. But there’s plenty that are! They’re entering the room where Jesus feasts with sinners. The big question is: Are we?