I long for a culturally relevant church. I don’t understand why cross-cultural missionaries attempt to understand culture to present the gospel within it, while churches in the developed world tend to simply withdraw from their own culture, often condemning its evils. Unfortunately for them, our culture is filled with people who need to see real Christianity in action — they’ve seen enough caricatures of Christianity already. Being culturally relevant in the early 21st century means understanding -gasp!- postmodernism.
So quoth I almost two weeks ago in this post, which I recommend reading if you haven’t yet. (The post has also been republished at emergingchurch.info.) This was point number five of nine, and I am continuing to elaborate on them one and another after another and another as I continue to process their meaning.
I remember the courses I took from the missions department under Dr. Jon Bonk (a rare treat) while at college. We learned a lot about Christ and culture, and learned about how missionaries must be wary of presenting our own Western culture as though it were an integral part of the gospel. Sadly, there are ample negative examples for use as illustrations, but becoming aware of it and learning to intentionally contextualize the gospel was a major theme. We learned as well about “redemptive analogies” present in many cultures where a traditional story or practise can be used as an avenue to communicate the gospel. All of these required a thorough understanding of the culture one was attempting to reach as well as a heightened awareness of the shortcomings of our own Western culture. The term ethnocentricity was tossed around to describe the feeling that one’s own culture (or ethos) was the best, correct, most enlightened, or right one. I learned a lot about cross-cultural mission in those courses, and I suppose a lot about the gospel in the process. Why are missionaries seen as being “called to” a people and those who sit in Western pews are not normally seen as being “called” at all?
One thing that never connected for me was how or why these principles of understanding and making use of culture are not applied to the church within our own culture. Well, except to the extent that we hire youth pastors who are young and in touch with that “younger generation” that most church members just don’t understand. It’s the job of the youth pastor to bridge the generation gap and get those youth to become productive members of society or of the church. Basically the unspoken job requirement is to take the youth and their wild ideas and mold them into the same type of people that the adults are. At our current juncture in history, the danger is that the youth pastor is doomed to fail at the unspoken (and undefined) expectation that he will take a group of postmodern youth and turn them into modern church members. If we ever decide to change the title of someone who accepts this role, we might consider “Director of Anachronism.”
I couldn’t begin to count the number of sermons, articles, books, and other warnings against the evils of the culture in which we live. This is true of postmodernism as well as of media culture. We’re told to be “in the world not of it” with the meaning that we shouldn’t look like everybody else or think like them. We probably shouldn’t even be able to relate to them, because if we can it proves we’re too worldly. Would a “real” Christian watch an “R” rated movie? We are fairly continually warned about our own culture, and very rarely pointed toward the opportunities our culture affords for the spread of the gospel.
I increasingly hear about people who would be or are happy to be Christians, but not happy to be part of a church that doesn’t seem relevant to them. If “church” (meaning the organization) has evolved to its perfect form at the pinnacle of modernity in the 1950s, why would we insist on camping there instead of moving into the present (and future) along with the people to whom we’re called? You know, our neighbours? Church looks increasingly out of touch with culture, the kind of place where I’d be less and less likely to want to bring someone to show them why they too might want to be a Christian. I’ve felt for some time in Church like we spent more time just talking about ourselves and all the good things we have and are rather than showing others why they’d want it too. Alan Roxburgh said it much better a few days ago:
…Alan’s call for a moratorium on talking about the church. He argued that we are talking too much about the church—and it’s a conversation not unlike that of three friends who re-united after several decades only to find that one of them finds a way to turn every conversation into a conversation about herself. So long as we keep asking church questions, Al maintains we may avoid the more challenging questions about the gospel, the Powers at work around us, real gospel involvement in the concrete realities of the immediate world around us. I heard him saying that we too often treat the gospel as a product of the church (something we control and broker) rather than the church being a product of the gospel (derived, formed, sustained, “controlled” by the gospel rather than the other way around).
Finally, I want a church that doesn’t live in fear. Fear of culture, fear of change, fear of the unknown. Fear of postmoderns. Fear of doctrinal error, fear of demons or of the Evil One, fear of not being under a “proper covering.” Fear of missing the next big thing that God does fear of missing God. They might call it vigilance, but it looks to me like a mix of uncertainty and fear. The church I long for is one which relates to God in a natural way, trusting in his ability to lead more than in their ability to follow. It’s a church that shows its concern for the world by befriending people rather than by talking about evangelism. It’s a place that holds fast to the gospel, to Jesus, and doesn’t hold fast to the past.