Sunday, April 01, 2007

the missional switch

Are you a good person?

If you were to die tonight, do you know where you would spend eternity?

What is your purpose in the world?

Christians for the past three decades have been trained to use these questions in their strategies to evangelize their communities. However, in a recent study conducted by the Center for Missional Research, 44% of people polled stated that they never think about their place in eternity. One out of four said that it never occurs to them to wonder about their purpose. (1) Is it possible that it is time to re-evaluate our presentation of the gospel?

Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, may agree that there was a time and place in which such tactical questions were helpful. In his Confessions of a Reformission Rev., Driscoll points out that traditionally the church has preached the gospel of forgiveness to a culture that understood sin and was familiar with the life and death of Jesus Christ. The church today, however, has shifted from preaching forgiveness to embracing a message of fulfillment, essentially ignoring missio Dei in place of having God join their own personal mission. Driscoll rejects this self-fulfilling gospel and believes that the church that is now emerging needs to re-evaluate its presentation of the message in light of the culture that is emerging. And what this culture needs, according to Driscoll, is freedom. At the fall, man destroyed his perfect relationship with God through his rebellion. Since then, he has been enslaved to sin and self-destruction. The gospel of freedom reveals that it is only through Christ that man can “be brought back into [God’s] original intentions for us: worshiping God instead of ourselves, serving the common good, making culture, and through his grace, helping to right what has been made wrong through sin.” (pp. 23-25) This is the biblical truth that speaks to today’s generation that is biblically-illiterate and tired of the self-absorbed lifestyle of their parents.

The church must be aware of the culture around them, engaging it, loving those in it, finding ways to be relevant in it. Ed Stetzer, of Acts 29 and the Center for Missional Research, answers the title of his article “Why Is Cultural Relevance a Big Deal?” with “If we [are not relevant], the message of the gospel gets confused with the cultures of old. The unchurched think that Christianity is a retrograde culture rather than a living faith." The church, instead of removing all stumbling blocks but the cross of Christ, has itself become a stumbling block to an understanding of the gospel. (1 Corinthians 1:23)

How can the church begin to adjust its promotion of the message of redemption without sacrificing biblical integrity? Stetzer suggests in another article titled “Beginning a Conversation about Christ” that the church must start with being where people are, understanding them, listening to them, relating to them, letting the gospel of freedom permeate every action and deed, walking beside the lost, leading them to the “a bloody cross and an empty tomb.”

Driscoll’s reformission concept as laid out in his book The Radical Reformission requires the church to forsake its focus on self and turn to community of true faith in Christ. Within this community, unbelievers are welcomed in relationship with those whose lives have been transformed by the work of Christ. “Reformission insists that evangelism is more about a lifestyle for all of God’s people than just a ministry program or department for some of God’s people, and that the gospel is made clearest by honest words and open lives of those who have been transformed by grace." (p. 74)

This radical shift in engaging the lost in relationship rather than grasping to old methods or gimmicks of evangelism is essential for the church to reach the surrounding culture. Many churches foolishly cling to their traditions and programs, repelling the lost rather than relating to them as Christ related to the tax collectors, the adulterous women, and the untouchable with truth and compassion and relationship. Let the church’s example be Paul who entered Athens and took in his surroundings, observing the culture, engaging it in a way that they would understand.

Today’s culture yearns for relationship not pamphlets or strangers approaching them with questions they view as irrelevant. It is reeling in the pain of its bondage to sin in the midst of broken families and broken lives. Today’s churches must enter God’s mission for redeeming the lost for his glory by purposefully entering their communities with the intention of showing the truth of God’s salvation through their everyday lives and conversations. This is a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-dirty faith. It is a lifestyle free from bondage and free to glorify God that the church offers the world. Let the church live that lifestyle before others in everything they do. Let that be the church’s evangelism, rather than a few culturally irrelevant questions.

28 comments:

John Dekker said...

The further I go on, the more blasé I become towards cultural relevance. Of course, the Bible doesn't ask any of the questions at the top of the post, but the questions it does ask are all going to be eternally relevant and eternally irrelevant, depending on one's perspective. But it's not that Scripture asks us questions, so much as issuing us commands.

the church that is now emerging needs to re-evaluate its message in light of the culture that is emerging

Yes and no. In one sense we can acknowledge that no theological system gives us the whole picture. Reformed theology must be always reforming. For example, it's important to have multiple theories of the atonement - Jesus didn't die only as a substitute, but also as a conquering king. Yet in nuancing our atonement theology we're not re-evaluating it in light of the culture, but re-aligning it with Scripture.

No, the message is not affected by the culture at all. We preach the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:3, we pass on that which we receive - without tampering, without making it more palatable, without making it more relevant.

Yes, people today need to hear of the freedom available in Christ. But people of every age needed to hear that as well.

Chris said...

It's funny, but I think I'd go farther than Driscoll and say that those questions - "where would you go if you died tomorrow" - were never as relevant as people thought they were. The questions asked by the early church were much the same as are asked today, but are also the same as have been asked throughout history - just in different ways. We have always yearned for freedom, but have expressed it differently. We have always yearned for community, for comfort, but at different times in history we have had varying degrees of those things and so express our questions and yearnings for those things we lack; Luther asked questions about legalism because the church was legalistic, but he didn't have to ask about community because small villages in Germany were excellent places of community life.

And John, I'm sorry, but culture is HUGE; scripture cannot be interpreted WITHOUT an understanding of culture. The Jesus we see in light of an understanding of Hebrew culture is vastly different than if we were to interpret him in light of a European Enlightenment tradition or perhaps a medieval Christology. Our assumptions about the nature of the text have to be revealed and understood if we are to read the text that was intended. Jesus the revolutionary, a man who talked with samaritan women and asked for a drink - both were forbidden, but we need to understand hebrew culture to understand that. Scripture is not a rulebook, it's a story - the story of history told from the perspective of different people. Yes, inspired by the holy spirit, but God doesn't make robots out of us, he asks for our creative input - four gospels, four perspectives on Jesus that we cannot discount. You can't read Luke the same way you read Mark, because they are intended for different audiences.

The message itself may not be affected by the culture but the culture HEARS the same words in vastly different ways than another culture. Go to Papua New Guinea and you'll find a vastly different understanding of "community" or "redemption" than you'll find in America or Australia. Look into "cargo cults" and why they are such a problem for missionaries who tried to present the gospel from the 'culturally neutral' perspective you talk about. You'll find that it's not neutral at all, that each of us brings our entire base of assumptions and our own histories into our reading of scripture, interpreting based on what we've learned as much as what we see, and in order to speak to different cultures - and by extension, to different people (for we are ALL unique in our language and history) - we must be willing to forego our assumptions and learn the culture of another person so we can effectively communicate what is truely important.

John Dekker said...

Chris, I didn't breathe a word about presenting the gospel from a culturally neutral perspective.

The Jesus we see in light of an understanding of Hebrew culture is vastly different than if we were to interpret him in light of a European Enlightenment tradition or perhaps a medieval Christology.

Yes, but how do we come to an understanding of Hebrew culture? We read the Bible. Whatever we find out from archaeology, etc. can illuminate our understanding, but it cannot determine exegesis. The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture, is the Scripture itself.

Yes, we all come to Scripture with our own presuppositions and cultural assumptions. Our task is to submit them to God's Word, which challenges and transforms them.

Bron said...

We've been preparing to go on 'college mission' lately. In some of the material we've been given to read, there is an incredible lack of understanding of our culture it makes me angry at times. I kept saying to Nick "this is so 1950s!"

I haven't really engaged much with the whole emerging issue (I use that expression very broadly here), and I know there are concerns etc (would love to get your thoughts sometime in person Christine) But when I read sentences such as these:

"This radical shift in engaging the lost in relationship rather than grasping to old methods or gimmicks of evangelism is essential for the church to reach the surrounding culture."

"Today's culture yearns for relationship not pamphlets or strangers approaching them with questions they view as irrelevant. It is reeling in pain of its bondage to sin in the midst of broken families and broken lives"

I say amen!

(and that this isn't something new, but rather the way it's always been)

Christine, I'd also love to chat to you sometime about John Dickson's book 'Promoting the Gospel' - have you read it?

Anonymous said...

Hi, green lady -

this whole issue of reaching people where they are and listening to their pains is making me a little uneasy. Coppenger said in his analysis of Blue Like Jazz, "everyone has bruises, wanna look at mine?". I do not think that letting people unload is the way to go - it makes them wallow in their hurt and pride (nobody can understand ME ).

I personally am very thankful to hear my pastor preach on Sunday morning, "If you do not think you are an evil person, you do not understand the Gospel, and are probably not a Christian". Based on your entry, should we also re-evaluate making friends with our neighbors and inviting them to come to church with us so that they can hear that they are evil persons and are going to hell? How can you preach repentance to a person who has been unloading their burdens on you - how do you tell him "you may not believe it, but all this pain is not the result of your mother refusing to breast-feed you when you were a child, it is not the result of your next door buddy cheating when you were playing marbles; you are a sinner following idols and worshipping created things (incl. self) rather than the Creator.

These arguments about embracing community stink of new perspective on Paul. I am thankful for every man and woman Acts 29 people reach for Christ, but I say be cautious that you do not only finish with the Cross - we should start with the Cross as well.

Jiri

ckhnat said...

czech dude,

are you actually responding to something within the post ... or are you just venting? i "hear" that Coppenger and Miller go on family vacations together now. (that's what he said ...)

;)

(if any of you thought that question was harsh, sorry ... jiri's like a brother who i decorated a birthday cake for.)

but honestly, cd, is that what you think i was saying ... listen to people whine, pat them on the back, give them a hug, say "there there", and wipe a tear from their eye, and think to yourself, "Yup, I just did evangelism."

nup, that's not what i'm promoting at all.

Mike and I were talking last night about two extremes we often see in evangelism. One is the walk-up ... you approach a random stranger on the street, present them with the Gospel, and walk off to the next pedestrian to do the same. Where's the discipleship?!

"Go and make disciples ..."

The other extreme are the people who say, "Yup, I've got non-Christian friends. We hang out, talk, do stuff together. I'm being a real witness by being their friend."

Really ... does the cross of Christ permeate your speach? are you living Christ to the extent that your non-Christian friends "see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven"? Are you an example of Christian living?

Walk-up evangelism's weakness is lack of discipleship. Friendship evangelism's weakness is lack of speaking the truth of the cross of Christ.

Driscoll remarks that today's postmodern generation does "not appreciate being pushed to make an immediate decision to reject sin and accept Jesus because they DON'T KNOW WHAT SIN IS or WHO JESUS IS until we have taken the time to inform their understanding, which may take months or years in friendship." (emphasis mine) (Driscoll, CRR, 23-24.)

You come from a secular background, Jiri. You didn't grow up attending multiple Bible clubs every summer. Your grandmother never took you to Sunday School each week. Neither did many in this generation.

How did you come to understand sin and Christ?

Anonymous said...

from cd:

a friend gave be the Bible and said: "Read this as if everything it says was true". Luke and half of John later, I understood that I have a problem I can't fix.

ckhnat said...

Sounds like your friend was being missional. He became your friend and you had obviously established a mutual respect for each other that you actually considered his request.

Anonymous said...

It was a combination of a lot of things, but it had less to do with respect and relationship and more to do with my seeing my worldview did not work.

I am not dismissing the importance of relationship building - but your entry suggested that unless we abandon the traditional programs, we will not reach the lost. My point is - the old ways of reaching the lost were the proclamation of the gospel, among otehr things. Not all programs are bad - our churches better not be consisting of twenty-somethings that have no relationships with anybody who's over 50 years old.

Moreover - evangelism is not the sole purpose of the church. It is important - but not the only one. You see over and overe the importance of strengthening the church members in their faith as an essential function of the church, to say just one...

ckhnat said...

well, sure it was more complex than that, Jiri. I was merely interested in your friend's role in your coming to understand the flawed worldview you espoused.

My problem is with churches that attempt to reach their communities in ways that are irrelevant. There are some cultures where knocking on a stranger's door is unacceptable. Whereas, in other cultures, strangers are welcomed into homes with welcome arms.

A lecture on a young earth view on Creation may do well for one community, whereas, a display of artwork portraying stations of the cross at a church-sponsored art gallery accompanied by a talk may resonate with another culture within that same community.

If your surrounding culture is even a little Biblically literate and understands sin because everyone in your community has been to VBS at some stage and has memorized the definition of sin and is familiar with the concept of heaven and hell ... asking a question like "If you were to die tonight ... ?" ... that could be relevant.

But to ask that question of someone completely unaware of his own sinful state, having no knowledge of the man Jesus Christ, and no concept of eternity ... relying on an evangelism strategy that requires you to ask the "If you were to die tonight" questiion ... well, you've got a lot of work ahead of you.

Missionaries serving unreached people groups often start at Genesis. While a church member of First Baptist Church in Bible Belt, USA, might be able to start with John 3:36 when sharing with their co-worker.

The point is ... know the culture you find yourself in and bring the Gospel to it.

YES evangelism is not the church's only purpose. I recommend bringing our relationships into the church community so that they may be surrounded with Gospel truth and flawed-but-being-sanctified people glorifying God in their worship and lives.

Chris said...

"The point is ... know the culture you find yourself in and bring the Gospel to it."

Definitely, and if I may, I'd add that we should also find the gospel IN it. Paul was very careful to make sure that he found common ground among the people he ... shall we say, 'incarnated' among. For example, his speech about the statue to the unknown god, he finds a point of commonality and explains to them that the god they wanted to know so badly was actually the ONLY God; he found some of the gospel in the culture and used their own language to explain it to them. It's easy to chalk this up to Paul being really amazing, but consider that he'd have had to spend time with the people in order to notice the statue. In missiology circles it's called "contextualization," to find something within the local context/culture/language and show the people how God is already working in their midst.

Anonymous said...

While agreeing that the we need to be careful to find common ground in evangelism... should the incarnation be our model evangelism?

Ben said...

How powerful. Treating our Christianity like icing on the cake of our lives - how shameful of us. I am encouraged to do my best to live out my days for Christ.

Chris said...

of COURSE the incarnation should be our model. Ephesians 5 is a good place to start, but it's all through the new testement that Jesus is the image upon which we model our entire life. Jesus was - is - the ultimate servant. And it sort of depends on what you mean by "evangelism," but I prefer the term he used in the great commission - "discipleship," which encompasses evangelism. It's broader, more befitting the call he's put on our whole life.

mike jolly said...

I'd agree with you that Jesus is the person on which we model our lives. But I'm very cautious of using the term "incarnation".

When it comes to evangelism (and mission etc) surely it's the gospel, the death and resurrection of Jesus himself that is the model.

Eph 5 is an example of this (not the incarnation). Here we are called to imitate Jesus in the "giving up of self" and "sacrifice" to God.

Dani said...

He found some of the gospel in the culture and used their own language to explain it to them. It's easy to chalk this up to Paul being really amazing, but consider that he'd have had to spend time with the people in order to notice the statue.

I'm not sure I understand how finding an idolatrous statue is finding 'some of the gospel' in the Athenian culture or that Paul wandered around Athens trying to find a point of commonality to show how God was working in their midst.

We read in Acts 17:16 that "Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols."

It doesn't seem to me that Paul was out to look for a good culturally relevant segue into an evangelistic sermon for the Athenians. The following verses tell us that he reasoned with the Athenians in the marketplace because he was provoked by their idolatry. The marketplace, where the altar to the unknown God was located, was absolutely chock full of idolatrous temples, altars and statues. It was for this very reason that Paul joined the throngs there who met to discuss philosophy and the like.

As such I don't see how we can say that his critique, provoked and protracted as it was, was about him finding commonality with the Athenians. If anything he was bluntly critiquing their culture rather than immersing himself in it so as to reach them more effectively.

mike jolly said...

Even though Paul was distressed he made every effort to find an evangelistic bridge between the gospel and the Athenian culture.

He did this by, "as I walked around carefully I noticed..." then later "as some of your own poets have written..."

Paul wasn't so much trying to find commonality or make the gospel culturally relevant rather he engaged with the Athenian culture and sort to bring the gospel to bear on it.

Dani said...

Hi Mike,

Yes I would agree that he engaged with the Athenian culture (or used an evangelistic bridge) - but he did so in order to critique it.

Having said that I don't really see how Christians have not being doing exactly that in their evangelism until now - that is, finding an 'evangelistic bridge'. For example, even cold turkey evangelism (which Paul himself does here in Acts 17) takes into account the type of culture of the individual whose door is being knocked on or who is being approached on the street. I'm all for cultural sensitivity but it's not like conversations that take place on those occasions are culturally irrelevant (and that’s because the gospel is always relevant)

(As an aside, I sincerely doubt that any christian is going to do walk up evangelism, tell the gospel to someone and then just ignore the necessity to follow-up, encourage and/or disciple someone who responds with anything but a 'go away'. It feels like a bit of a straw man argument to say that cold-turkey evangelism doesn't disciple people).

The evangelistic bridge exists because the gospel is always relevant and always the same regardless of our culture and will always have something to say in critique of our culture. A launch question like 'Where would you go if you died tonight' is always going to be relevant (though not always prescriptive for evangelism) because the reality is that regardless of our culture, death will find us because of sin. In turn, sin’s definition does not change dependening on our culture - it is always rebellion against God (and it is here that I agree with Jiri- part of this discussion does make me uncomfortable because it seems to be heading down a New Perspective path).

Sure some people don't know who Jesus is or what sin is. But that's no different to people of past generations. Even many who walked and talked with him didn't know how he was or just how sinful they were. The gospel has always been an alien and unintelligible concept to a fallen, selfish, foolish, and godless humanity which is devoid of the Holy Spirit. We only have to read Romans to see that our 21st century society is really not that different from 1st century society.

My concern is also that the emphasis on having to work out how to reach people in a particular and specific cultural way before they will understand the truth of the gospel (or elements of the gospel) leaves little room for the transforming, convicting and all-powerful work of the Spirit in the lives of the elect. Whilst we might speak the words (or paint the paintings, or sing the songs, or pen the poems, or walk the walk) it is only the spirit which makes anything we say or do effective and which changes people… and the Spirit’s work is not limited or restricted by us or our culture. By placing such an emphasis on 'learn the culture of another person so we can effectively communicate what is truely important' places far too much worth and importance on us and far too little on the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing about God's purposes.

mike said...

I agree whole heartedly (with a loud amen) that the gospel is eternally relevant, sin is sin.

However I think perhaps a helpful distinction might be between the gospel itself (always relevant) and our presentation of the gospel (which relies on cultural understandings in order to communicate it in a meaningful way.

Dani said...

As I mentioned before I'm all for cultural sensitivity, and I do understand the distinction you are articulating above- however, I am still uncomfortable with saying that our presentation of the gospel relies on cultural understandings in order to communicate it in a meaningful way.

The gospel does not derive it's meaning from culture, and whilst I'm fairly sure that is not what you are wanting to say, I do think we need to be careful what we do say on this issue, and how we say it... because it could very easily lead us down the garden path.

mike said...

I catch your drift.

But at the same time we can swing back the other way and use the fact that "It's God who saves people..." "The Holy spirit does the work" to continue to preach the gospel in an irrelevant and sloppy way full of cultural stumbling blocks.

This doesn't do us, or the gospel justice.

Chris said...

I think God also asks us to use our brains as much as to rely on Him. I mean, He GAVE us the gifts of reason, of intellect, so that we could USE them.

Dani, you say "My concern is also that the emphasis on having to work out how to reach people in a particular and specific cultural way before they will understand the truth of the gospel (or elements of the gospel) leaves little room for the transforming, convicting and all-powerful work of the Spirit in the lives of the elect. Whilst we might speak the words (or paint the paintings, or sing the songs, or pen the poems, or walk the walk) it is only the spirit which makes anything we say or do effective and which changes people… and the Spirit’s work is not limited or restricted by us or our culture."

I do not disagree that the spirit works across cultures, but I do think that it also works through us IN our culture. A person's assumptions govern his beliefs, whether he knows it or not; the person grew up in a specific culture speaking a specific language living in a specific climate and doing specific things. A simple example is the way the word "love" is derived from FOUR different words in Greek; they are not equivalent, only roughly close in translation. Or a mundane example; in some places in the southern US people have one word for falling frozen water - "snow" - whereas in upstate NY where I grew up we have twenty or so different words each with qualifications; the southerner comes up and calls it all snow, but we call it lots of different things because we see it far more often. Our cultures are different.

So go into a culture and then try to explain "sin" when their culture is honor-system based (for example, China or Japan) rather than individual-guilt based (western culture), and you'll get a completely different reaction (usually one of incomprehension). Our western assumptions preclude us from understanding the honor-shame system because we don't comprehend community or family the same way as the Asians do. Thus we have to consciously adjust the way we speak of it in their cultural system. Have you considered that perhaps the Holy Spirit helped us to figure that out as a way to help us with mission?

ckhnat said...

would you agree, then, chris, that ministering in your example of an honor-shame culture that you DO NOT completely set aside the biblical truth of sin (personal and collective), but rather you take the time to teach them this concept (discipleship) rather than assume they already understand?

Dani said...

Christine pre-empted me with the exact same question I was going to ask.

Sin is not akin to an honor-system. It's about personal rebellion against God. I take your point that going to somewhere like Japan means you should not presume that they will have an innate understanding of the latter. But neither do I think that we then should be explaining the concept of sin (and subsequently things like guilt, repentance, redemption and atonement) in a way that tries to reshape it to fit with their honor-system.

If 'adjusting it' (as you say) means that we take the time to teach them that the bible talks about sin in a particular way which is foreign to them and not going in like a bull at a gate assuming they have the same cultural baggage as us then I'm all for that (it's what I would call cultural sensitivity). On the other hand if 'adjusting it' means reshaping and massaging the reality of how the Bible talks about sin into a different cultural system then I have grave concerns.

Chris said...

Christine - yes, I'd agree with that, but I'd also say that the honor/shame categories have an interesting take on the matter that in some form actually interprets biblical concepts such as community more closely than our own individualized western culture.

The thing about the honor/shame system is that when someone deviates from what is considered acceptable behavior, it's not just them and only them that are affected: their whole family is affected by the actions of one person. That's why you don't get much rebellion in honor/shame societies, because they're taught the interconnectedness of their actions with the greater whole; something western culture is not, and hence we have much more rebellion. It's got its flaws as well as any other system, but frankly I think we could learn from them :)

You bring a good point with the word "assume" ... I think that's the problem with the way we've been thinking about missions thus far, because the enlightenment model "assumes" that everybody is on a level playing field, rather than understanding that people have backgrounds that are different and thus they understand the world through very different eyes. Simple example: ten witnesses to a crime will give you ten conflicting stories because they see parts of what happened and their assumptions fill in the gaps. Oddly enough it doesn't make them all wrong, but it's why we have to piece together what actually happened both from the external evidence AND from every story that's told. Same with the gospels - there are four perspectives given for a reason, and none of them are wrong, but each one puts a different spin on it. Some scriptures are better starting points in certain cultures than others, and while ultimately discipleship must encompass the WHOLE of scripture, I've found that often we focus on one thing or another (both in missions AND in our home churches) rather than the bigger picture.

Dani, I am not saying that we avoid topics or change the way they ultimately are understood, but we also have to have the humility to know when OUR interpretation might be misguided. I think that sometimes other cultures can help us understand where we might not get it so easily. Other times it just involves taking concepts and language that the culture understands and then using that language to explain OUR concepts to them. That's contextualization.

Chris said...

Oh, and when you said "personal rebellion against God," that's sort of true. But the honor/shame system helps us understand that it's not JUST about personal rebellion but also about COMMUNAL rebellion, that we as a people have rebelled against God, not just us as individuals. It's a both/and situation, not an either/or.

An easy example of contextualization: when I was living in Melbourne, I found that the picture of the "water of life" was a lot easier to grasp. Why? Because Melbourne has been in a drought for 7 years and water is a HUGELY precious commodity. Especially int he outer suburbs, they have to conserve water like crazy. I come from upstate NY, where we are literally SURROUNDED by fresh water, and so when I read that Jesus talks about giving and receiving living water, it takes on a whole new meaning after I've lived through that drought.

ckhnat said...

One example that struck me a few years ago was how easily many cultures accept God's sovereignty and right to rule over our lives ... whereas, western democracies fight the concept claiming FREE WILL and violation of rights. (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness ... right?)

Chris said...

exactly.