by Frank Stoootman
Interact Magazine 2000
Volume 11 Number 2
A number of years ago bishop Lesslie Newbigin in the UK produced a short film by this title in which he raised the need for Christians to communicate in a culturally effective way. Connecting to our culture requires an understanding of the assumptions that drive it. These are not the same as those of the 18th and 19th centuries and if we fail to understand this then our proclamation of the good news is indeed just shouting louder to an audience which is increasingly alienated from our message. As Francis Schaeffer would say, lack of cultural relevance in proclaiming the gospel is like fighting a battle on a hill where there is no enemy.
The problem is exacerbated for the pastor of a church because many of his congregation live daily inside the culture and so a lack of sensitivity in understanding what his congregation is immersed in will weaken the application part of his expository preaching. This promotes a kind of dichotomy in which his flock have their minds set on eternity but are unable to contextualise this in their daily lives or in their professions. The latter leads to a bunker mentality in which life is endured and Christian things are the only ‘real thing’. Moreover, it leads to a weakness in applying Christian world view principles in the workplace and in decision making. And finally, it emasculates opportunities for evangelism in daily life because what is believed in the heart can find no culturally relevant expression.
We have been given a great commission by Jesus to ‘go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (Matt 28:19). This passion is to transcend all boundaries. Paul was ‘obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish’ (Rom 1:14). In so doing he nevertheless made his message relevant. In Acts 17 and 22 we see, respectively, a speech to the Gentiles and to the Jews. In both cases Paul started speaking from where his audience was. The context was meaningful and therefore engaging. This was also the driving force behind his being ‘all things to all men’ (1Cor 9:19ff) and when he wrote ‘we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ’ (2 Cor 10:5). We need to take his example seriously and I want in this article and the next to open the door to Christian world view thinking as a better paradigm to communicate good news to our culture.
Let’s take a culture thermometer to where we are then. Once we appreciate some of the forces and the consequences of these forces, we can then begin to formulate how we might engage our culture. Let me say immediately that not every person is equally exposed to the forces. Yet each of us is affected to some degree and for those who are pastors, such are the parishioners who sit in the pews on Sunday in most churches. The good news that Jesus is saviour and Lord needs to connect not only with the heart but also with the cultural context which is part of the day-to-day fabric of our complex society.
Firstly, we are living in an Information Technology (IT) revolution as significant, if not more significant, than the Industrial Revolution.
The latter, starting in England in the 1770s, produced mechanisation which can be summarised as an extension of human muscle. Today’s IT revolution, which began in the late 1940s with the modern electronic computer, can be summarised as an extension of the human mind. The heart of the matter is the miniaturisation of the electronic switch. Today we put several million of these in very small packages.
Why is this generic development so important? In short, it has led to all of the following: digital telephones, faxes, mobile telephones, email, the web, pocket beepers, palm pilots, modems, local area networks, video conferencing, satellites, global contact and interconnectivity, fibre optics, magnetic storage technology, modern financial systems, company records, shopping preferences, email shopping, direct mailing, stored information, security checks, medi-care, credit cards, train and bus ticket dispensers, ATMs, the cashless society, distributed computing systems, appliance electronics, numerical control of lathes, mills, and machining processes, computer-aided manufacture, computer-aided design, just in time manufacturing, digital signal processing, helical scan technology, digital cameras, DVD, CDROM, complex sound processing and image processing.
The list is not meant to be exhaustive but indicates immediately the far-reaching effects of IT. The important question is: how does this affect us? What kind of society has it produced? The answer is complex. You have to couple the IT revolution to the loss of the notion of absolute metaphysical truth and to the growth of postmodernism with its emphasis on the relativity of truth to particular ethno-centric frameworks only. Put postmodern cynicism and suspicion of all pretensions to truth together with the image culture and its diversion created by IT and you begin to see some of the forces. We demand autonomy in choice of design and goods and the modern IT revolution has responded with manufacturing processes that allow for these trends. We want ease and convenience and modern IT technology has responded with control and automation. We want to communicate everywhere and be in instant contact with anyone we choose and again IT serves this desire. Thus you can talk to people and at the same time continue with what you are doing – productive and yet alien from face to face contact.
Information in countless databases give control, security and marketing solutions to selling and controlling our products in the cacophony of the market place. Though we have no answers to final truth, we nevertheless have endless access to knowledge. There are literally 3.5 million references on the web to the key word ‘Christian’. Diversion and preoccupation using IT are the central marks of our lost culture. We have frenetic diversity and a frenetic pace in corporate life in which there is no rest. We are endlessly productive and yet burnt out 35. We are globally connected yet insular behind ‘aliases’ in chat rooms on the web.
Large sections of the working (20-50 year olds) community are affected by the above forces. The diversion is real, apparently fulfilling, and the context in which we proclaim our good news. We ignore this to our peril. We live in a society in which postmodernism has produced political correctness, in which scientific materialism has convinced us that we are but complex machines produced by a relentless natural selection process of time plus contingent chance only. In universities, there is no respect for God in the intellectual arena and Christianity is not considered to be a persuasive option in metaphysical discussion. Again, we live in a society in which the yearning for cosmic significance expresses itself in new age spirituality, therapy, pop psychology, and motivational thinking. On the downside is our preoccupation with our place in the sun by an emphasis on I, me and myself. My rights and my victimhood status are ultimately a cry from the heart for recognition. Finally, sexuality and its personal fulfilment have become the central issue in our society. Intimacy is what we yearn for in any way we can get it. We as Christians have so much to say here that is good news but we are not being heard because we are not connecting with these forces and understanding them.
It seems obvious that believing that there is no God and being left to make sense out of existence leads to the plethora of escapism offered to us by IT. Equally obvious is that drugs, hopelessness, suicide rates and cynicism are the consequences. In the same breath, if you have no basis for final arbitration of value in a transcendent God who loves beauty and redeemed culture then you must inevitably move toward process thinking and economic rationalism. Today, in many government instrumentalities, it’s a numbers game and quality is judged by the quality of the production of a document and not on its content. There is much wisdom which could flow into our culture if Christians would take what they believe into the context of day-to-day work.
Before we try and offer a solution (in the next article) to connecting into the culture more effectively we need, as Christians, to be a little self-critical about how culture has affected our evangelism. We might summarise a large amount of what the church does into three categories. Firstly there is the bunker mentality in which participants set up their own subculture and avoid contact with things of the world as much as possible. Secondly, there is a group, perhaps arguably in the first category, but now of enormous strength, who want to use Christian pop artistry as a means of gospel discourse. If evangelical at all, the hope is that by juxtaposing their experience of God through music using similar sounds to music drawn from the general entertainment industry, somehow people outside Christianity will be drawn in. This technique is very postmodern. The third group embodies synchronism and compromise.
All three groups have their failings. The first group is running away from reality and not working at being salt and light on the inside of the culture – out on the hustings, so to speak. Only those who come to the bunker or are willing to appropriate the values of the bunker are welcomed. The second group fails to see that discourse is a necessary part of the gospel. Experience, although evocative, is limited in bringing people to a relationship with Jesus. This latter is based on content. The third group is represented by Bishop Spong and others like him. Their desire to attract new converts is done at the cost of not having hard content with a cutting edge which stands opposed to human sinfulness and with which we have to reckon.
Continuing the self-critical evaluation, let’s also examine our impact on the culture. Suppose you walked down the street of your local town and asked ten people at random what value it might be to them to become Christians. Do you think their answer would be positive? I believe the average person would be decidedly negative about Christianity bringing them any value. Why? I can give no better answer than that given by Dick keys, a fellow L’Abri worker, who heads Boston L’Abri in the States. In his book Chameleon Christianity (published by Baker Books, 1999) he tell us what non-Christians think about us. These views have been expressed by students who have come to his door over the years. Thus Christianity is seen as:
- the enemy of pleasure, enjoyment, and fulfilment. It stands for inhibition, prohibition, insecurity and self-righteousness;
- the enemy of democracy and civility. Conservative Christians want political power to create a theocracy with places in leadership only for those who agree with them;
- the enemy of women. From the early history of the church, leaders established the inferior status of women in the church and society and have resisted attempts to reform over since;
- the enemy of gay people, as can be seen in the bumper sticker of a few years ago, ‘Kill a gay for Jesus’;
- the enemy of cultural diversity – an ethnocentric moral police force;
- the enemy of non-white races. This has been evident from theological defence of race-based slavery to the starting of Christian schools as a way to avoid integration with the public school system;
- the enemy of the environment. The biblical notion of dominion over the earth is at the root of our abuse of the natural world;
- the enemy of the arts. Christians have scorned the world of the arts as either satanic or trivial and have produced nothing of artistic value for a hundred and fifty years;
- the enemy of science, education, and the advance of knowledge;
- the enemy of economic justice. It is a good religion for the fat cats who can interpret the Bible to legitimise their wealth and privilege.
The question I leave you to ponder until the next article is this: Whose fault is it that the community has such perceptions? Surely the answer is, our own! It is easy to dismiss our failure here. We can readily cite evidence to show that Christians throughout time have been persecuted and misunderstood. For my part I don’t think it is that easy in this case. I suspect that far too many of us are simply culturally irrelevant because of the attitude we have taken towards being salt and light in the culture.
Until next time,
Dr Frank Stootman is a physicist and Senior Lecturer at UWSM and is Director of L’Abri fellowship in Australia.
© Frank Stootman (1 July 2000)