Mission post-collapse 3: Getting Traction

Posted: July 20, 2014 by J in Bible, Mission

Here’s the second of the five realities of church life and mission after the collapse (see previous posts):

2. Much of our traditional message seems to have become meaningless to ordinary Aussies.

Blank looks on faces of Scripture-class kids. Blank looks on faces of unchurched visitors at Easter and Christmas. Blank looks on faces of people door to door. And we know what those blank faces mean. They mean “What the heck are you guys talking about??”

This is perhaps the issue, out of the five, that’s hardest for us to talk about. Because the content of our message is a matter so core to our own identity and sense of who we are and of what really matters. It’s a touchy one for us to address. We might not be able to avoid offending or scandalising some. Shrug. It’s time we faced the problem, so we’ll just have to all cope.

Here goes. The message that is so dear to us, that we offer the world, tends to be a message about justification. This answers this question, “how can I find a gracious God and have my sins forgiven?” Or to put it more crudely, ‘How can I get to heaven?’ At this point in our society’s history, people in general are not asking these questions.Screen Shot 2014-07-20 at 7.58.45 PM

But it’s more than just they’re not asking. They’re not really able to ask these questions. Think about it like this: our message of justification is about something that happens ‘up there’ in the heavenly realm. It’s up there that we are in trouble before God, and its up there that God sorts it out – declares us righteous and forgiven. The whole thing seems to take place in another world, abstracted far from our world. And then the results are largely experienced after death, also in another world. Heaven and hell.

Here’s the problem: our society is materialist. We Aussies have only a very dim sense of the reality of any world other than the one we can see. And we don’t really believe in souls going to heaven and hell any more. It all sounds like fairy tales, stories told to frighten children into being good.

What we’re talking about is a world view disjunct. The message we’re selling only makes sense, only means something, from within a particular world view. Our society has moved on, and has a fairly different world view. The one we’re working in sounds, to ordinary Aussies, pretty medieval. And from the materialist worldview, justification simply isn’t very meaningful.

So our message fails to get traction. It just can’t jump the world-view gap.

So we are potentially faced with the challenge of trying to sell not just the good news of justification by faith, but actually the entire world view within which that message is meaningful. That’s quite a sales target! I don’t know how many people’s world views you’ve managed to transform lately, but it’s normally considered a big ask.

Meanwhile, any lesser effort to just talk ‘getting right with God’ or ‘assurance of going to heaven’ is like water off a duck’s back. We are offering a remedy for an illness they are not aware of, and can hardly understand. We find ourselves trying to sell both the malady and the cure, but we get little traction with that either. Aussies have many concerns that trouble their minds – but it is hard for ‘justification’ to rise up into their top ten.

Well, that’s all a bit discouraging! What can we do about it?

Actually I don’t think it need be discouraging for long. This is a problem that missionaries have wrestled with forever – how to convey the gospel message in a way that means something to the ‘target culture’. They call it contextualising. Once we accept that our culture has moved away from Christian faith and we are operating in a new and foreign culture, we can just get on with the job of mission – i.e. with contextualising the gospel.

Contextualising sounds a bit scary, but every good missio does this. They take the story of the bible, and in particular of Jesus, on the one hand. They take the ‘story’ of the target culture on the other hand. What are the hopes and dreams and challenges and hurts and troubles of that people group? What makes them tick. What issues are hot potatoes? Then the missio tries to bring these two stories together. She asks, ‘How does the story of Jesus speak into this story? How does it address their concerns? Confront their assumptions? Answer their deepest questions? How does Jesus get under their skin?’

Once we face the fact that we are operating post-collapse in a non-Christian culture with a changed world-view, we will be able to start asking these questions too.

The great thing about contextualising is it forces missios to get back to Jesus – rather than relying on any abstract set of ideas or principles they thought was the message. They have to start right back at the source – the person of Jesus – and work outwards from there. Ultimately the thing that gets traction with any culture is Jesus.

What missios – good missios – don’t do is try to import their whole world-view, challenge or undermine all the cultural reference points of their audience. The point of contextualising is you don’t try to bust up the target culture – you work with it.

In other words, instead of expecting your neighbours to cross the worldview gap before they can learn about Jesus, you cross it for them, take Jesus to them right where they are, and start there.

bridge-the-culture-gapIt’s no good us trying to sell the whole medieval worldview back to our culture. That’s a lost cause right there, that is. Once we accept that harsh reality, we will be able to start on the real mission task: contextualising. We can start thinking how to speak Jesus into our Western materialist culture.

And that will hopefully enable us to speak with a new voice, a voice that gets traction.

What would that look like? Let’s do a little bit of contextualising right here and now. What is the ‘story’ of our own Aussie culture? What makes us tick? What things keep us awake at night? What do we long for? What puts a fire in our belly? Here’s some suggestions.

Community. People feel overwhelmed by living in a sea of strangers. They belong to no tribe and they miss it. Their families are fragmenting and they don’t know how to stop it.

Justice. People feel concerned about the imbalance and abuse of power in the world. Especially how the poor and children and refugees are treated. There are 50 million displaced people in the world today, and hundreds of millions affected by violence. The gap between rich and poor keeps widening. People are confronted with this every day and it deeply troubles them.

Sex. Many many people feel unhappy about the role of sex in their lives. So many of the protective boundaries got smashed in the 1960s and sex has become more destructive than ever. Think one parent families. Think teen sex. Think porn. Sexualisation of children. Child abuse. It’s out of control, and we’re really worried.

Spirituality and beauty. People feel shallow and materialist. They want something deeper and richer. But how to find it?

The planet. Most people believe the planet is in trouble, and we are the cause. Our governments seem unable to come to grips with this. We feel like we’re all walking on thin ice, and not sure how long till it breaks through.

That’s not the whole cultural story, buts it’s probably enough to be getting on with. So there’s the challenge. What does the gospel of Jesus say about these issues? How does Jesus speak into this culture’s story? Where does the message of Christ offer insights? Hope? Rebuke? Release?

That doesn’t mean we’re going to stop talking about justification. It does mean we’re going to package it differently, as part of a whole bunch of things we want to say about Jesus. We’re probably not going to end up with justification standing alone in the limelight the way we used to. That’s a bit threatening for us isn’t it. Majoring on justification just feels so right.

But we’re going to need a richer Christology to speak into these various questions. We might have to go back and read about and look at Jesus in a new way. We might find our own appreciation of him in enriched as we do this. We may be surprised to find that the Jesus of the Bible does have things to say about these issues. And as we share what we’ve found with our neighbours, we might just get some traction!

Suggested example: Tom Wright’s book Simply Christian does a good job of contextualising the message of Jesus for a modern Western audience of the tertiary-educated type.

Of the Gospels, Luke probably offers the most clues for speaking Jesus into modern Aussie culture. The way Luke contextualises Jesus for his readers just happens to touch an unusually large number of the ‘pressure points’ of our culture too. Luke’s theology of Jesus is rich enough to speak into each and every one of these issues we’ve outlined above. Thank God!

  1. Sam Anderson says:

    Very interesting post J.

    I recently lead a Christianity Explored course at a Sydney Inner West church. There were two non-Christians 20-somethings at my table and both of them had real trouble identifying themselves as “sinners”. I’m not sure if you know the course or not, but week 3 is about sin. Rico asks us how we would feel if our lives were on display as a movie on the wall for all our friends and family to see. They both responded that it wouldn’t bother them at all. That they did little things that they probably should’t do, but that in general they were good people who cared about others.

    It felt very much like what you described as trying to sell both the malady and the cure. It felt like ‘sin’ was not something they felt, and ‘hell’ was not something that they felt they needed saving from because, if there was a God, he wouldn’t send them to hell for the types of short-comings they have.

    I wondered if the gospel as ‘saving from death’ would have had more traction. We all feel the weight of death, not only just as we watch the news, or as loved ones pass away, but as our own bodies wear out little by little, relentlessly, and remind us that we too will die. And there is nothing that we can do about it.

    I surely believe in justification. Absolutely. But I wonder of the gospel is about the defeat of death, and the resulting life that doesn’t end. Now, sin is the sting in the tail of death – that is, sin is what causes death – but our problem is death. Justification is the way that sin is dealt with: it is impossibly important, but highly technical. But our justification has a result: eternal life with Christ.

    It does make us uncomfortable to even consider moving justification from the centre of what we preach, but as you say, we’ve gotta take to gospel to the people, and speak to them in words that they can hear. We’ve got to identify ‘felt needs’ and show are all our needs are met in Christ. We also need to show them our very real, but often unfelt, need for the forgiveness of our sins. So we need to show them that Jesus is the answer to all our needs: both felt and unfelt.

    I’ll certainly keep thinking on this. We all should.

    • J says:

      Great comment, Sam!
      Thanks for sharing your experience with us, it certainly illustrates what my post was trying to say.

      I’ve found that as people get to know Jesus, and hang out in the presence of God’s holiness, their consciences come alive, and sin starts to be a much more meaningful concept for them. At our church people really appreciate saying togehter a confession of sin. It means a lot to them. But it probably wasn’t what drew them to Christ initially.

      Death is certainly worth talking about in our message. The apostles seem to put resurrection right at the centre of their message, and that is surely a message of defeating death. ‘The last enemy…’ And its certainly a big deal for people, especially as they get older.

      I think also that justification and resurrection are very close concepts in Paul. So that’s worth thinking through!

      • Sophie says:

        Hi Sam and Jonathan, interesting to read these posts, very interesting. Depressing to realise THIS is why mission and evangelism is so hard in our culture!!!

        Just wanted to add my 2 cents as a GP on death. I have an 82 year old patient who has just been through a pretty bad pneumonia, is now coming out the other side. I asked her yesterday if she would like to meet with me one day when she is well to discuss “advanced care planning” – I.e. How do you want to die – in hospital or at home or whatever. The idea being you make decisions ahead of time so maybe you can die in peace dr home rather than in the hospital emergency room. Anyway, this lady expressed genuine disbelief that there was a possibility if her dying in the no too distant future! She hadn’t given her death a second thought! She’s 82 for goodness sake and getting sicker every year. If SHE doesn’t think about death what about my friends in their 30s!!! No wonder people aren’t interested in what we have to tell them!

      • J says:

        thanks for commenting Sophie!

        I hope it’s not too depressing! I think of it as a challenge for us to adapt to. And in some ways the new materialist world view is actually closer to the Hebrew mindset of the bible, so it might actually help us Christians to sort out some of our issues!

        Re. death, I think you’re dead right (!) It’s not something people want to think or talk about. Even at funerals I feel apologetic about mentioning it! It’s this fear we all have but we cannot speak its name.

        I suspect though that there might be ways to deal with it that might get behind people’s defences and touch their hearts. That’s my hope anyway! But it’s not in my top five of easy ways to get the message across to Aussies (or Kiwis!).

  2. Arthur Davis says:

    G’day J, I like the topics you guys have been covering here! I won’t say much just now but here’s something that might pique your interest: have you seen the big story? I mention it not so much as a recommendation as just a very deliberate attempt to address some of the stuff you’re talking about in this post. See what you think! Cheers from Tanzania.

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