Have you ever thought about the sheer strangeness of the church? As an institution it has so many particularities: the way its customs are practised, the terminology that is used, the many assumptions made about all sorts of things, from the beliefs one must have to the way furniture is placed. While these things are food for the souls of many regular churchgoers, to those visiting for the first time they might seem, well, just plain weird.
Pioneers wrestling with trying to breach the gap between church practice and common cultural experience tend to use the language of “unlearning”. However, as one Hug Cullompton volunteer pointed out, “You don’t want to unlearn everything you believe. What you need to decide are those things on which you won’t compromise, then stick to them. Everything else becomes open to discussion.”
Existing missionally in the gap between a clearly defined set of Christian doctrines and the experience of people who have no knowledge of, or background in, the church, has had interesting ramifications for me. To be open to encounters with people outside the church, and managing not to not baffle them with Christian language or concepts, requires a level of generosity in hearing – not only people’s faith stories, but also their attempts to articulate their beliefs.
As I have listened to, and conversed with, people in the community who have no historical association with the Christian faith, I have realised two things.
- Many of their beliefs are similar to mine, but they either have no language to articulate them them or do so in terminology that might be described as ‘folk superstition’ or ‘alternative spirituality’.
- For people to sense that I value their beliefs, they have to feel I respect them, whether I agree with them or not.
I therefore decided on a personal policy of never telling anyone they were wrong. I could disagree with them if I felt it would be helpful, but I couldn’t disrespect them.
People experience the divine in different ways, and have profound questions about the meaning of life. But often they struggle to articulate these thoughts and experiences, and feel as though there is nowhere they can safely explore them. For many with whom I have walked this journey, the story of Jesus is as foreign as the Greek Classics, and the last place they would look to find meaning is the church. Some consider it a bigoted and outdated institution, others have had negative childhood church experiences, some reject the church because of the way it is portrayed by the media; but mainly, they just see Church as an irrelevance that has nothing to do with them. To turn the tide requires walking, not only into today’s culture as it is, but trying to do so whilst looking at the church through the eyes of someone else.
A fascinating reflection on speaking of Christ into a foreign culture is Vincent Donovan’s Christianity Rediscovered (1970, 2nd ed. 2001). Donavan was an American Roman Catholic priest, sent as a missionary to the Masai Mara in Kenya. He arrived at the church compound, with its huge church, hospital and school, all virtually empty. “Where is everyone?” he asked. “They don’t come,” was the reply. Disconsolate, Donovan tried to work out why the Masai didn’t want free education or hospital treatment, and why they didn’t come to church. Eventually he decided the only way to find out was to ask them.
Donovan bought an old truck and headed out into the desert. When he located the Masai, a nomadic people who existed using centuries old practices, he joined them. Over a period of time they told him about their god, ‘Engai’. Donovan heard elements of his own faith reflected in these descriptions, and gradually he was able to begin speaking about Jesus. He told them about God made human, a God present with them there in the desert, a God who is love. Donovan’s ministry did eventually result in the emergence of a Masai church community. But they never did develop the habit of visiting the compound. The European culture they experienced there was just too foreign to them.
Donovan’s is obviously an extreme example of inculturating church into a culture utterly different from his own experience. However, what he learns about meeting people where they’re at, and communicating the gospel in a way they can understand, provides a useful reflective tool for those wishing to work with people who have never ‘been to church’. Where we go, how we live and the way we speak all have implications – and unless we can speak into our culture in a way those we want to hear can understand, the prospect of success is always going to be limited.
So how do we go about equipping ourselves to take on the task? There are all sorts of resources: books, websites, training courses. Here are a few:
- The London Institute of Christianity has a huge number of free resources for those wishing to start thinking about sharing their faith in the community.
- The URC’s Walking The Way initiative has lots of helpful suggestions of how to develop a whole-life sense of discipleship, including sharing one’s faith.
- The Church Mission Society publishes a variety of devotional texts and courses on the theme of mission and discipleship.
- Robin Greenwood’s book, Sharing God’s Blessing: How to Renew the Local Church, has great advice for churches.
- Aimed particularly at those working with young people, but which is just as relevant to anyone wanting to communicate Christianity to those with no church background, is the excellent Here be Dragons by Richard and Lori Passmore.
- If you’re looking for a good survey of a number of well known resources try Mike Booker and Mark Ireland’s Making New Disciples: Exploring the Paradoxes of Evangelism.
- For inspiration you could try Brian McLaren’s The Great Spiritual Migration.
- If you’re only going to read one thing to challenge and inspire you, do read Vincent Donovan”s Christianity Rediscovered. You won’t regret it!
It is my belief, however, that you can’t ‘learn’ talking into a culture from a book, however good and worthy that book is. The only way to do it is by getting stuck in: go out into the world, listen to what people are talking about, and respond. For those not used to explaining their faith it might sound really difficult – and to start with it probably will be. But I promise, it does get easier.
A few weeks ago I was conversing with a deeply committed Christian who wasn’t used to speaking about her faith. She asked how she might do it.
My response was, “Practice. I assume you are here (at church) because it makes a positive difference to your life.” she nodded. “I assume you’d like others to experience it.” She nodded again. “Well, they’ll never know that unless you share it with them. So why not just be honest and tell them what it is about being a Christian that’s so great?”
I haven’t seen her since. I wonder how she’s getting on!