This is the third part of a series expanding on a short post about the contextualisation of the Gospel. You can find the original piece here.
Christian communities very rapidly confuse their own cultural expression of Christianity with the Biblical pattern…
In my earlier posts in this series, I started off with the image of the Gospel as being homeless and then said that when the Gospel moves into a culture it is not a comfortable guest and starts to move things around. Stretching the image almost to breaking point, I’d like to suggest that, sadly, that when the Gospel moves in to a home, it very quickly becomes a piece of the furniture – or at least gets confused with the furniture.
It is part of the genius of the Christian faith that it does not belong to any one culture and can be expressed in any language or culture. At its crudest this means that a church service in Africa is different from a service in Asia which is different from a service in England and so on. But, and herein lies a problem, Christians very quickly cease to distinguish between the heart of the Gospel itself and their own cultural expressions of the faith. For the most part, where Christians are not crossing cultures, this is not a huge problem. It tends to make churches far too conservative (if you confuse the way you do things, with the core of the faith, it is very difficult to change anything).
However, when people taking the faith to other cultural contexts fail to distinguish adequately between the Gospel and their cultural expression of the Gospel it can cause huge problems. Examples such as African choirs sweating in heavy robes which were far more suitable for a winter evensong in England are the tip of the iceberg. Far more dangerous is the way in which underlying cultural values are transmitted. Missionaries from the rational West have often gone out of their way to convince Africans that there is no such thing as witchcraft and bush spirits. However, the Africans lived in a world where these things were very real, and though they might be Christians, they would still be forced to seek help from traditional religion when faced by the spirit world. Because missionaries often brought western rationalism alongside the Christian Gospel, they disempowered the Christian message in the face of the realities of African life. And let’s face it, the Gospels have a fair bit to say about the conflict of spiritual powers.
To push this a bit further, what missionaries to other cultures are often very quick to attack what they see as cultural failings in others; while being blind to their own issues. It is easy to point the finger at superstition or corruption in another culture while ignoring the rampant growth of materialism and greed in the west.
This whole question becomes an important issue in British society now because we are at a point where the culture in the UK is undergoing a seismic shift. The terms modernism and post-modernism are bandied around too easily (including by me) but the bottom line is that there is very little connection or comprehension between the values of my parents’ generation and the culture of my children. This means that if the church is to be effective in reaching the rising generation it needs to rethink some of the cultural trappings that have become associated with the Gospel. There isn’t space to go into this in detail, but can I suggest that the idea of church as a performance, where people sit in rows and watch the professionals do their stuff at the front is a cultural expression which may no longer be appropriate.
Just a couple of things in closing. Because makes itself at home in cultures, it can be very difficult to distinguish between core issues and cultural ones. Ian Pitt raises this in a comment here. I’ll return to this later, but I don’t promise to have all the answers. When looking at cultural expressions of Christianity we are not thinking (normally) in terms of good or bad. There is nothing inherently better (or worse) about a group sitting round a table discussing the Scriptures over a meal compared to a traditional hymn-sandwich service. The question is one of appropriateness to a context. When the context changes we must change what we do.