Friday, June 13, 2014

Thinking About Mission: Is Cultural Engagement Enough?

I first heard the gospel through what would be considered to be the  more 'fundamentalist' corner of the theological tapestry which is the diverse Christian church. I became a Christian through the Brethren movement (Needed Truth), I also served in outreach ministries such as Staouros, Teen Challenge and the Gospel Mission in Johnstone. I spent two or three years in those environments before I found myself  in more diverse contexts such as YMCA (think Bassetts Liquorice Allsorts), International Christian College and the contemporary charismatic and pentecostal movement.

Having spent more time in non-'fundamentalist' circles than I have in fundamentalist environments I have found myself reflecting on some of the differences between the two. There are a multitude of differences, but some key differences which I want to think about in this blog are the different approaches to culture and evangelism.

In the more traditional evangelical contexts (a less loaded term than 'fundamentalist') there was far less concern with appearing socially acceptable to the wider culture, instead there was an emphasis on seeing people 'saved'. I think one missiologist has described the competing approaches as Christ against culture versus Christ transformning culture. One group is set apart from the mainstream culture and has to reach out to bring people in. The other group sees itself, not as being set apart from the wider culture, but as being a part of the culture and seeks to influence people from within the culture. In the former approach, differences between the Christian and non-Christian are obvious and in the latter they are less discernible. In addition to this, the cost of becoming a Christian with the former group seems to involve a greater cultural leap than it does with the latter.

An interesting point to note here is the fact that some churches and organisations have moved from one approach to the other. A number of pentecostal, brethren and presbyterian churches, to name a few, have shifted from an understanding of church as being set apart from the wider community to church being at the heart of the local community.

In many ways I think this has first and foremost been a pragmatic choice rather than theological -- the churches faced the threat of extinction if they did not connect. I also think it has been good. It has given many churches a human face. Like the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us, these churches have understood the need to connect with people if they hope to see people converted to Christ. Instead of 'evangelism' involving mail-shots, cold calling door-to-door, street preaching and tract distribution, we now have the church running Food banks, Debt Services, Family Support, Youth Work and so on. This is good, and it has certainly helped evangelicalism reconnect with its responsibility to respond to people's social and physical needs and not just their spiritual needs. As a consequence of the new approach, more people are engaging (or re-engaging) with church. Some churches have seen a rise in the number of new Christians, and effective social action is taking place. Not only so, church members in former fundamentalist churches can now breathe a sigh of relief because they no longer have to sacrifice their social standing by heading out to the town centre to support the pastor's open-air service. They no longer have to be mistaken for a Mormon or Jehovah's Witness since they are no longer pressured into door-to-door evangelism. They no longer struggle with guilt because they are no longer being told from the pulpit that they need to be actively 'evangelising'-- they are simply instructed to be engaged with people -- i.e. smiling, friendly, helpful and caring. The idea being, as we live our lives naturally, gospel conversations will happen naturally, and some people may be interested in exploring Christianity for themselves.

As I said earlier, there is a lot in this approach which is commendable, essential and effective. The former fundamentalist approach was, in some quarters, 'mental'. And it is no wonder that un-believers wanted nothing to do with it. It made the church appear cultish.

However, and I'm sure you knew there was a 'however' coming -- I think many churches have lost something as they have rejected one approach and embraced the other. I fear they have rejected one imbalance and embraced another.

What is being lost?

One aspect which is being lost is the distinction between the church and the world. The Greek word for church, if memory serves me correctly,  is ekklesia-- and it means 'called out ones'. In other words, Christians are called out from captivity to Satan, sin and the world, and are set apart for God, righteousness and the Kingdom of God. Becoming a Christian and joining a church should not look like joining any other organisation. It should look like stepping from darkness to light. It should look like repentance. It should look like a drastic lifestyle change.

Another aspect which is being lost is urgency. The 'cool, calm, and quiet confidence' approach does not communicate a hint of concern for the eternal well-being of the individuals within our communities who are strangers to salvation. Evangelism should not  just look like an invitation to a party, it should look like a rescue from a burning building. If the early fundamentalist approach was too heavenly minded to be any earthly good, I fear the new cultural engagement approach is too earthly minded to be any heavenly use. It has become so focused on temporal issues such as cultural engagement, respectability, relationship and self-awareness that it has lost sight of the eternal realities of the future judgement and eternal condemnation of those who are without Christ. How many evangelical Christians have forgot (or never heard) that their statement of faith contains a belief like the following:

The personal and visible return of Jesus Christ to fulfil the purposes of God, who will raise all people to judgement, bring eternal life to the redeemed and eternal condemnation to the lost, and establish a new heaven and new earth. (EA)
 Is this uncomfortable? Yes. Can this be communicated insensitively? Without a doubt. However, if we have lost sight of this truth -- we have lost sight of the gospel. The gospel is good news-- heaven's gates are open wide and all may come, but it is also a warning-- a warning of future judgement. It is also a command -- a command to repent of our sins before the sword of just judgement falls upon our heads.

Let's avoid the popular folly of being correct in what we affirm but wrong in what we deny. May we not, like the liberals or fundamentalists present an 'either' 'or' view of the Christian faith. Let's get grounded on truth and embrace the narrow road of the 'both' 'and'. Faithful and effective evangelism must involve cultural connection and active evangelism. Perhaps then we will see deeper and more radical conversions. I fear that too many who profess Christ under the new approach do not come by the cross.

I'll finish with Tozer . . .

The new cross does not slay the sinner, it redirects him. It gears him into a cleaner and jollier way of living and saves his self-respect. To the self-assertive it says, "Come and assert yourself for Christ." To the egotist it says, "Come and do your boasting in the Lord." To the thrill seeker it says, "Come and enjoy the thrill of Christian fellowship." The Christian message is slanted in the direction of the current vogue in order to make it acceptable to the public.



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