When Christian missionaries go to a foreign country I assume they would want to prepare by studying all the information available to them about the people they hope to minister to. They must master the language of the people if there is to be any chance of nuanced communication between them. If the Bible is not available in that language, they may need to translate it, and that requires training in many fields of study. Some missionaries seek to share the gospel with people who do not yet even have a written language, so a written form must be developed before the Bible can even be translated. Mastering the skills needed for this kind of work takes years of investment. The lifestyle requires dramatic life changes.
It’s common for American Christians to think of missionaries as a separate category or class of Christian along with martyrs. The stereotype is that the extreme commitment and sacrifice required is far removed from the typical Christian experience, and so is the sense of excitement and adventure associated with this common conception of mission work. Missionaries, especially ones commemorated in biographies like that of Jim and Elizabeth Elliot or those written by John piper, are almost mythic characters, like the Catholic Saints. Like the figures in the Bible they almost seem like demi-gods to us; their experience seems so unlike our daily lives.
Whether or not this was ever an acceptable distinction, or merely an indication that we have lost our way and become too comfortable and apathetic (or that we glorifying mission work in a naive and unhelpful an way), are topics for other discussions).
But we now find ourselves in a time in American history when we may need to start living like foreign missionaries in our own country.
The events of the last few years, and the abrupt cultural shifts since 9/11, have highlighted several distinct sub-cultures within America which appear to have irreconcilable perspectives and goals. The divisions are complex, running along political lines, generational lines, socio-economic lines, etc.
Differences of opinion can be correlated with different preferences in music, media and entertainment. Individuals who identify with this or that sub-culture create and consume entertainment, art, and media that represent something of their experience of life, what it feels like to be them, and how they are interpreting their experiences.
Within secular academic camps (such as gender studies, feminism and queer theory) mini-tribes are dividing within tribes, and there is vigorous discussion about how to present a united front in the midst of the seemingly never-ending fragmentation often attributed to post-modernism.
It would be great to be able to say Christians are demonstrating an alternative of harmonious Trinitarian diversity in unity, but unfortunately, we are known for having splintered into thousands of branches and denominations, starting with the Great Schism of 1054 and continuing with the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century and all the denominational splits since. What’s worse, we seem to have developed a bad case of collective, amnesia about how we got to where we are today.
It is concerning that many people in various American church cultures have retreated into small “safe-spaces” and are protecting their spaces from contamination from without. If the average American church-goer is afraid to be exposed to other cultures and belief systems including the beliefs of other Christians, and refues to to learn enough about the beliefs of others (enough, let’s say, to paraphrase a person’s view back to them accurately), something has gone horribly wrong. Christians can’t be light to a hurting world, can’t communicate well with people who come into the church from the outside cultures, and can’t begin to address the situation of division in the church if they are terrified that exposure to other views or questions they can’t answer may overthrow their own faith or threaten their wellbeing.
The Apostle Paul was not afraid to call himself a debtor to both the Greeks and barbarians, wise and unwise (Romans 1:14), but Christians have burdened themselves with the idea that they have nothing to learn from people outside the church.
There are many people who consider themselves Christians who would indeed have to face a period of uncertainty, anxiety, even dark night of the soul and crises of faith when confronted with questions they cannot answer and situations they do not understand. Interacting with viewpoints and lifestyles we don’t agree with works like a mirror (see Romans 2) to bring us us face to face with our own sins, doubts, and weaknesses and limitations, but that’s the position where God can show himself strong on behalf of believers.
It requires actual faith to step out in the world, like Abraham, not knowing where we are going. And yes there is real spiritual danger involved, but to huddle together because of the risk is to show that we may actually be spiritually dead already (Numbers 13:33). Many Christians do not recognize the source of temptation is our own hearts (Matthew 15:19, James 1:24), or if they do realize it, may still think the solution is to avoid exposure to things that make them uncomfortable, not realizing there is plenty of fodder for sin and sickness to feed on present in the church-approved books, media and theology we prefer (Titus 1:15).
We should be wise and prepared in our interactions, not taking unecessary or reckless risks (Matthew 10:16), but we should not let fear stop us, as though God is not strong enough to withstand the darkest evil let alone competing worldviews. The Gospel is certainly strong enough and Scripture and the Holy Spirit can equip those who love God’s word and seek to obey (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
The approach to culture that this video series will lay out can be considered a form of Incarnational evangelism. God did not and does not expect us to come up to him in his transcendent perfection. Instead, God through Christ made the world as a form of self communication, he sent us his word in the form of the scriptures though historical people, written in human language; he created us with the faculties to interact with these forms of self-revelation. Christ, the word made flesh came down to us, he took on our nature, “became sin on our behalf” fulfilling that bizarre and frightening Old Testament foreshadowing: the bronze serpent Moses lifted up on a pole in the wilderness (how many Christians would recognize that as symbol of redemption if they saw it hanging on someone’s wall or on a bumper sticker?).
Jesus spent time in the homes of the sinners of his generation who would never set foot in a synagogue and wouldn’t be welcome even if they wanted to. It confused and horrified the scribes and pharisees that he ate and drank with such people and placed his hands on the very infirmities that made them “unclean”. They accused him of being a glutton and drunkard. They said he had a demon. Jesus assured us we will be accused of the same things he was accused of if we truely follow in his footsteps (Matthew 10:25).
Jesus told weird stories and used creative metaphors. Large crowds were delighted to listen to him. He took examples from the daily experiences of his audience, and used odd hyperbole that doesn’t fit neatly into theology (it’s worth nothing how often we feel have to qualify Jesus’s quotes from the Gospels.) He was comfortable with paradox, after all his own 2 natures, human and divine, and his relationship in the Trinity are the paradoxes that form the basis for all of reality. He was fully human, which means he studied as preparation to teach and answer his opponents as we see when he was a child in the temple (Luke 2:46). He learned obedience by the things he suffered (Hebrews 5:8). The Son of God learned. He was a man with a subjective human experience as well as being fully God.
All Jesus did, he did within the context of a particular historical setting. He interacted with the people of a particular generation and location, and addressed the needs and questions they had in a language they could understand. Anything they couldn’t understand was due to spiritual blindness or rejection of truth, not to Jesus being out of touch with his audience and the culture of his day.
His Church is called to follow this example by being his representatives in specific times and places that God has chosen to place us in. Like Jesus and Paul, we are to remove every barrier between the people we minister to and the Gospel except for the offense of the Cross. This requires a real investment on our part to learn how best to communicate with the people in our spheres of influence (1 Corinthians 14:9, 1 Corinthians 9:21) , but this I believe is exactly what we are called to. It is a demonstration of love to make the effort to do this. Do we want people to take time to understand what we believe and why? Do we expect them to listen to us and care what we have to say? Then we must be willing to do for others as we would have them do to us. Really.
Rather than churches hoping to attract people who “fit in” to what they already have going on, perhaps we should be ever seeking to learn more about people from the demographics that seem foreign to us or would be least likely to feel comfortable in our church and try to understand what barriers other than the Cross might prevent them from feeling welcome and included? What is the offense of the Cross, anyway? Specifically. I won’t attempt to explore that here, but that’s a pretty important question.
I assume there are some of God’s children (Romans 8:19), God’s elect (2nd Timothy 2:10) hidden within every demographic (Revelation 7:9), and these are the ones the shepherd in Jesus parable left the 99 sheep to go in search of (Matthew 18:12).
I say the elect are “hidden within” human cultures or demographics because, while we are seeking to understand sub-cultures, ideologies, and belief-systems of our environment, we should keep in mind that understanding a culture does not mean we know or really understand the individuals from that culture. It’s just a start; a step toward knowing them. Ultimately, we interact with individual people, each with their own experiences and opinions. Each with their own take on their tradition. Each much more complex than just the set of “beliefs” they verbally affirm.
I love the idea of a church congregation made up of representatives from many backgrounds and cultural influences. What a beautiful and healthy microcosm of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:14) made up of many different parts, as it is described in scripture. That would be a real demonstration of the reconciling and redemptive power of the gospel of Christ.
A way to work toward removing barriers to the gospel is to ensure as much as possible that we are not attempting to convert people to just another sub-culture when we do evangelism. We shouldn’t confuse our tradition of Christianity with the ultimate version. We won’t know what the ultimate version looks like until all the members of the body of Christ are accounted for and united in love at the end of history. There are people yet to be saved and perhaps even yet to be born who have contributions to make. (Hebrews 11:40, Ephesians 4:12-13, 1 John 3:2).
This is why successive generations cannot ride on the coattails of the understandings of their predecessors, but have a vital and indispensable role that is so much more than just reiterating or regurgitating the past. It’s much more challenging, much scarier, and so much more thrilling.
I envision as God’s word is introduced into various cultures and subcultures and to each new generation, for that matter, the power of God will transform each culture from within, in a unique spontaneous unfolding of God’s design (Ephesians 2:10). Nothing good will be lost from any tradition. It will all be redeemed (Colossians 1:20, John 12:3). The the Spirit of God will transform individuals who put their faith in Christ into unique works of God’s craftmanship (Ephesians 2:10) who will be able to be salt and light for their specific environments in ways no one else could.
What scripture means when it says we walk by faith and not by sight is that we know an ideal for humanity exists – Jesus exists and is reigning – but we do not yet see the ideal clearly. As the apostle John says in 1 John 3:2 -“Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is.” This doesn’t mean we have nothing to share with others. We have the Scriptures, and we have what we have believed enough to implement ourselves. We have a tentative ideal. There’s no question we need something to aim for. But we ought not cherish our own vision of perfection too dearly, because reality will correct us. More specifically, God will use our experiences to correct and refine our vision as we continue to ask, seek, knock, trust and obey.
We cannot reasonably expect to go into cultures or subcultures that are unfamiliar to us and dogmatically tell them specifically what is valuable or expendable within their own culture. Foriegn cultures are full of alien and frightening symbols and artifacts, but that has more to do with how we, as people, are naturally on the defensive in new environments, precisely because we don’t yet know what form danger might take. First impressions or critiques made from a distance are hardly valid analysis of a culture itself.
Instead of this counter-productive micro-managerial approach, I think our task lies more along the lines of showing how we personally go about testing all things and holding on to the good, sorting out the good and useful from what is sinful and harmful in our own lives and the sub-cultures we identify ourselves with (Hebrews 5:14, Ezekiel 22:26) and remaining open to learning new cultures from the people who know them best. In other words, living our lives as Christians; incarnating what we claim to believe, and in so far as we have learned to apply God’s word to ourselves, we will be demonstrations God’s power in our lives who inspire others. We will perhaps have something to say in the way of advice that will be useful and well received after we have taken the time to understand cultural contexts and the people they help to shape.
Otherwise, at best we will accurately recite the scriptures, the letter of the law, all the while undermining them with our behavior and demonstrating that we do not really understand or believe what we preach. The first approach is incarnational, the second is hypocritical, and name of God is blasphemed among the gentiles because of hypocrisy, as it says in Romans 2. Yes, God’s word will still accomplish what he intended (Philippians 1:18, Daniel 4:3); our hypocrisy won’t stop the plans of God, but we will not have had a positive role in his work (2 Timothy 2:21).
Our specifically Western Christian traditions are worth learning about and preserving even more carefully than most of us have been doing lately. As Douglas Wilson put it, learning about and respecting your own cultural heritage and traditions is a form of honoring your father and mother. And besides all that, we can’t escape our own heritage even if we try; it thoroughly informs who we are and our current understanding of revelation and the world. That’s part of what it means to be human and finite, existing in time and space.
We can, however, be more consciously aware of our tradition in an attempt to keep undue dogmatism and bias in check; in an attempt not to go beyond the word of God and teach as doctrine the commands of men, and to remind us to be more quick to hear others out on why they think or live the way they do. This lesson is a valuable take-away from post-modernism.
Responding to the Holy Spirit’s guidance, we sincerely, subjectively, and imperfectly appropriate God’s revelation, and we can only do that because Christ reunited the objective and subjective by entering creation as a man. Christ is the Truth. The Father, the absolute, is inaccessible to us apart from Christ the God-man. Kierkegaard called my attention to this wild paradoxical concept, and it has been endlessly helpful to me in navigating the postmodern landscape with its emphasis on individual and cultural perspectives (aka. personal truths and cultural relativism).
At first this may all sound very strange or even heretical to Christian ears because we are so used to hearing that the Truth is objective and absolute – not up for debate, not a matter of opinion. But that’s only half the picture. Think about it – it is the incarnate Christ who called himself the “way, the truth and the life”. And with just a little more thought or Bible study we can find many verses that affirm the subjective element of our relationship to Truth. 1 Corinthians 8:2-4 for example says, “If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.” And that’s in reference to people who think they “know” “absolute truths” with regard to food sacrificed to idols, which is pertinent to our situation in ways I can’t delve into here.
It’s interesting to note that when Christians frame the argument with the Absolute nature of truth pitted against personal and relative truths, insisting on the former over against the later they fall into Christ-denying heresy as often as the radical leftist relativists who insist on the the latter kind of truth without acknowledging the former. Many Christians and conservatives are alarmed by these ideas, even though there are popular Christian phrases like “personal relationship with Jesus” and “personal Savior” that include or imply the same things. Sometimes it’s a matter of putting 2 and 2 together.
If you are a professing Christian who subscribes to orthodox theology, do you meditate on the mysteries of the paradoxes of the Incarnation and Trinity and what they mean for us today? This what tends to happen when I consciously seek application for the paradoxes of the Christian godhead to life: walls I thought were secure begin to become pourous, and new paths and connections appear where there didn’t seem to be anything before. That’s what happened when Christ broke down the wall between Jew and gentile to make in himself one new man, thus making peace. That’s the power the gospel has. (Ephesians 2:14, Galatians 3:28)
I hope I have been begun to illustrate ways it can be helpful for Christians in this time to learn or re-examine foundations of traditional Christian faith and find new applications to life- for example how to apply early Church theology summarized in the early eccumenical creeds- to issues of today’s society. The Church Fathers of the first few centuries after Christ painstakingly and prayerfully worked out and hashed out in the first seven ecumenical councils creeds to answer the heresies of their day which can help us answer error now. The Church was still united in those days, “One Holy Catholic (universal) and Apostolic Church” and the decisions they came to on the most fundamental matters of the Christian faith are accepted by all orthodox Christians. Many Christians likely do not even see any purpose in learning these things or would be understandably overwhelmed if they wanted to try. This is the state of American Christianty, and yet we lament that America is post-Christian and point the finger at unbelievers. We have our work cut out for us.
We can both honor our Christian history and heritage and at the same time acknowledge the fact there is an outcry right now against the abuses and hypocrisies of our Western Christian tradition, and I believe we as the church are called to take that seriously and do what we can to set right the harm that has been done.
The average American church-goer may be proud for example of the “Christian origins of this nation”, and yet when it comes right down to it be pretty ignorant (often willfully so) about the messy details even of their own branch or denomination of Christianity. We should be literate in our own heritage, but not in a rose-colored way. God hates unequal weights and measures. A just balance is his delight. (Proverbs 20:23). We are judged by the same standard we use on others (Matthew 7:2). (Does anyone else pick up on the personal/individual element here? “By the standard YOU use”? This is important and we will return to explore it again and again.) Double standards and half-truths tilted in our favor are a no-go. In His own inspired word, God did not choose to sugar-coat (another term for lie-about) the history of his people or downplay the shortcomings of even his great saints in order to save face or dodge criticism. That’s something really worth thinking about. The way God tells stories and records history is pretty different than the approach we are known for.
I advocated at the beginning of the article taking a particular kind of missionary approach to evangelism, but there is one imporant way in which our situation is nothing like missionaries to unreached people groups. I have often heard Christians talking about evangelism as though they are going to have to explain basics of Christianity to people who have never heard about it. That’s rarely the case. Our society is saturated with Christian references, the majority of people have had extensive exposure to Christian teaching and church in some form, there are representations of Christians all throughout entertainment and pop-culture. Even more than that, we are in the Western world and everything around us is informed by 2000 years of judeo-christian influence. The secular movements that have emerged are not the same as pre-christian paganism, rather are reactions against Christianity and christian influence.
The complication comes in, because it is not always easy to sort out wheather someone is reacting against the truth presented in the Bible or merely against perversions of the gospel, abuses of power and blatant and often tramatizing misrepresentation of Christ, all done in His name. A real problem is the words of scripture have been over-used by people who don’t practice what they preach. Our reputation precedes us, the gospel has been undermined, and now what is required is damage control that begins with a lot of listening and a lot of learning.
One of the biblical models I find helpful for understanding the present situation of American Christianity is Jerusalem in the years between when Christ came and the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. Because the religious leaders appointed by God to feed and care for his flock had chosen instead to feed on God’s flock like wolves for personal benefit, or in other cases were simply too timid and unbelieving to call out corruption in their own camp (Joshua 7:13, John 12:42), Jesus himself came to gather his scattered sheep. God’s own people called by His name “considered themselves unworthy of eternal life” (Acts 13:46), so the Gospel went out to the gentiles. To begin to see the extent of the similarities between our situation as Christians today and the Jews in the time of Jesus is to undergo a major paradigm shift from the narratives popular in American cultural Christianity. For me it has been hugely helpful to make this shift, but it’s no light matter.
For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? (1 Peter 4:17)
if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. -1 Corinthians 11:31-32
I will end by quoting a part of the prayer that is the preface to Soren Kierkegaard’s Work’s of Love:
“How could love be rightly discussed if You were forgotten, O God of Love, source of all love in heaven and on earth, You who spared nothing but gave all in love, You who are love, so that one who loves is what he is only by being in You!”