(This post first appeared in Missio Alliance)
One thing that I am usually wrestling with as a pastor of a suburban church in Sydney, is how the church can embody the narrative of the Kingdom of God story in a culture which displays so many false narratives. In a culture of pragmatism, to what extent do we ‘market’ the church? In a society which displays such narcissism how do I make sure I am not preaching a merely therapeutic gospel? In a context where busyness and distraction dominate how do I explain the complexities of the gospel and foster a reflective community? In a city which is defined by consumerism, how do I cultivate a value of commitment to the local church? These questions and more continually swirl in my mind as I lead my church in a post Christendom context in Australia.
Today perhaps more than ever, the local church pastor needs to be a competent cultural exegete in order to equip her congregation to embody the gospel faithfully and join God on his mission to restore our world.
James Davison Hunter in his book To Change the World helpfully summarizes the dominate postures that Christians have adopted in order to attempt to faithfully live out the gospel in the midst of our culture. Firstly, Christians have been ‘Defensive against’ the culture. In an attempt to retain the distinctiveness of the Christian faith, Christians who adopt this posture take strategies such as building alternate Christian institutions to counter the ‘assault’ from secularization. Secondly, some Christians engage in a ‘Relevance to’ position in order to accommodate to the culture in which the church exists. Hunter says that this posture stems from a deep anxiety within Christianity of an increasing irrelevance as perceived by society. Thirdly, a ‘Purity from’ position has been accepted by some Christians who feel that the best strategy for the church in society is to withdraw from the world thereby preserving its faithful witness.
You can see that there are obvious problems with all of these postures. The first and last advocate a retreat from the world thus leading to irrelevance and the second adopts an attitude which can lead to a lack of effectiveness due to syncretism. So what is the solution? Hunter says that the church must take the attitude of being a ‘faithful presence within’ our culture. There are some aspects to Hunter’s view of faithful presence within that I find too passive and too reflective of a quietism, however, essentially this perspective is very helpful to show how we as Christians can be faithful to God as we embody the gospel in our contexts.
‘Faithful presence within’ phrased simply, means to allow the word of God, which is love, to become embodied in us so that we act this love out to the world and therefore become a witness to God through our presence.
I think this is a simple yet challenging contribution to the question of how we as God’s people faithfully practice being true to the gospel within our culture. However, how do we become practitioners of the posture; ‘faithful presence within’?
Discerning ‘Babylon’ Within
By the time we reach the book of Revelation, the name ‘Babylon’ in Scripture becomes a metaphor for all that is oppressive, corrupt, narcissist and unjust in our world. Babylon ‘is no longer just a place, and it is even more than a system; it is the towering project of humanity challenging the heavens, seeking to be the authors of our own creation… Babylon is everywhere’ (1). We see this false narrative running through our culture as people insist on their independence from God. The stark reality however, if we are willing to admit it, is that the people of God have, to varying degrees, become captive to this false narrative. Too long we have complacently projected Babylon as something external to us but how do we detect if we carry Babylon within us? Walter Brueggemann in The Prophetic Imagination challenged us to reject our culture’s dominant script, wake up from our amnesia then welcome and live out the narrative that we see in Scripture. However to do this we need to be able to discern between the two ‘scripts’. Moreover we need to disentangle ourselves from any false narratives that we have become captive to. Tim Foster in a new book called The Suburban Captivity of the Church describes his experience of moving from the suburbs to the inner city in Sydney and says, ‘One of the more important things I noticed was that the evangelical Christianity I had long been a part of had been profoundly influenced by suburban values. That is, the way we had come to understand the gospel, church and the Christian life as well as our values and aspirations as Christians, was not simply a product of the Bible, but of a spirituality that was shaped, more than anything, by a life in the suburbs. Far from being culturally neutral, the gospel that we evangelicals proclaimed was loaded with the cultural baggage of suburbia.'(2) This is a frightening thought really. To be a faithful presence in our culture, we need to discern the Babylon within us before we can truly discern any false narratives in our culture.
Practice ‘reverse prophetism’
‘Reverse prophetism’ is a term used by Paul Tillich to describe the manner in which our culture can sometimes speak a word of truth into our lives. This is something that we need to pay attention to as the people of God and allow this listening to affect our attitudes and practices. If we have a solid theology of creation and we know that every human carries the image of God, marred as it is, then we will be listeners of any truth and wisdom which our culture speaks into the people of God. If we know that ‘all things’ were created through Christ (Colossians 1:16-17), then logically we will be able to hear truth through many avenues in our world. This counters the tendency of the Christian community toward withdrawal from a world which does in fact carry detrimental worldviews. Naturally, we remain critical discerners of any truth we hear no matter where it emerges from, yet we do not reject truth if it comes from outside the church.
Engage in Missional Spiritual Practices
One way that we can better discern the differences between false narratives and the kingdom of God narrative is by engaging in missional spiritual practices so that formation occurs towards being people who embody the gospel. If we are going to be a people who are a faithful presence in our culture then we will need to be different from the culture around us, we will need to be a holy community. Holiness unfortunately has come to be equated with withdrawal from the world, yet this does not need to be the case. If we engage in regular practices which form us then we will be better witnesses to our world so that we can welcome them to join with us in living the story of the kingdom. The Benedictine monastic community cultivated ‘habits’ which ranged from Scripture reading to meditation in order to weave spirituality into daily life. Indeed, this spirituality is nothing less than essential for our discipleship. These habits can also take on a missional perspective so that Christians engage in practices of withdrawal and engagement seeing both as valuable for transformation into Christ-likeness. These habits or practices form us and help counter our temptations to syncretism with the deeply embedded hope-stealing worldviews of our Western culture, worldviews such as consumerism, individualism, hedonism and pragmatism.
Practice Differentiation Creatively
We must be holy and different to our culture, after all the gospel is good news and this implies hope, fresh perspective and new life breaking through the status quo. However, we need to practice our differentiation creatively. To say that contextualization requires a mere acceptance or rejection of the culture is too simplistic. We must wisely and with discernment exegete our culture and then accept, reject, transform, subvert or engage with the relevant aspects in our contexts.
What does it mean for you as a church leader to practice being a good cultural exegete in your context so that the people of God practice a faithful presence as you embody the gospel in your culture?
2. Tim Foster, The Suburban Captivity of the Church (Moreland: Acorn Press, 2014)