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Into the Future: Some Notes on the Cultural Context of Mission & Gospel Hope

By Andrew Walker.

The loss of religious meanings

There is a religious advert in the London Underground that stands out like a sore thumb: it wonders why young people are not attending a certain 'tabernacle' to hear the gospel. On the one hand the presentation is modern and multi-cultural. The brief story-line is told in comic strip form with pictures of young people from different ethnic backgrounds; one snapshot is of a teenager on a motor bike. On the other hand there is no attempt to deconstruct the term gospel or explain the meaning of a tabernacle. What, we might think, will a teenager make of a tabernacle? We can be certain that in a rave culture the innocent evangelical argot, 'Tab', will be translated into an altogether more exotic concoction! Will 'hearing the gospel' be read as listening to a new rap band?

On further reflection the comic-strip style itself, for those of us in the know, is squeaky-clean evangelical, echoing the clean-cut lines of The Eagle and Girl comics of the 1950's. There is no graphical connection with the youth culture of the 'fanzine', or the gothic realism of Judge Dredd. There is not a hint of Japanese Manga extravaganza or a smattering of postmodern style.

There is no doubt that the poster is an honest and principled attempt to communicate a message of hope in a despairing world, but with respect it suffers from the in-bred habit of assuming people know what we are talking about. Sadly we think we are missioning when often we are only playing to the gallery like American televangelists who preach the gospel to the already convinced. Or, as so often happens at our evangelical celebrations, we mistake in-house entertainment to the faithful as signs of revival for those who have not yet found any faith.

The relative failure, a few years back, of the multi-million advertising campaign, JIM (Jesus In Me) was, I suspect, quite simply a failure of communication. 'Jesus in me' as a gospel slogan echoes its Pentecostal lineage: 'Since Jesus came into my heart', 'In my heart there rings a melody', 'He lives within my heart'. This was never particularly mainstream Christian language at the best of times, but now in a culturally pluralistic world, where less than 10% of our populations attend church, it is positively confusing. 'How can Jesus be in me?', 'Who is Jesus anyway?'.

In our society where the general populace are unfamiliar with the Scriptures, where even our university students cannot pick up biblical allusions in lectures, where 'Daniel in the lions' den' sounds like a tabloid headline for yet another child injured in the zoo, enigmatic advertising campaigns are suicidal missions.

We Christians live in ghettos where our nomenclature is hallowed by common usage. When our slogans 'hit the streets' they no longer ring with truth as they do back home because they are decontextualised. The phrase 'born again', for example, has been hijacked by secular usage and is likely to be understood more in connection with German cars than religion. Even in the 1960's the satirical posters of 'Jesus Saves' (either of a miser putting pennies in a money box, or as a Middle Eastern peasant standing in as a goal keeper) worked only because they played-off residual religious memory. Would the kids of the 1990's be able to get the joke?

In the First World War when the troops in the pubs sang 'The old rugged Cross' its pietism struck a chord in many a heart that had been weaned on gospel stories in the Board Schools, Salvation Army songs on the streets, and Victorian sentimentality at home. As late as the Second World War American and British people could follow Roosevelt and Churchill in leading prayers for the nation. CS Lewis in his apologetical works in the 1940's and early 1950's could rightly assume that there were vestigial remains of 'mere Christianity' in public life and common morality.

Today, and into the future, we can take none of these things for granted. Institutional Christianity has either voluntarily decamped or been forcefully removed from the public arena of politics, welfare, and education. Modern governments, with their bureaucracies, rational methodologies, and technological marvels, do not need religion in order to go about their business. Religion, in short, has been relegated to the leisure industry - it is what we do in the spare time allocated to us in the spaces left over from the public world of work. Religion, like everything else these days, has been privatised.

No wonder when we march the streets hailing King Jesus, or wear fishes on our car bumpers - signifying, well fish, presumably - people are agog with indifference or amusement. The world, outside our churches, is usually characterised by us as enemy territory but in reality we experience it more as a no-man's-land populated by the merely curious and the congenitally bored.

The privatisation of religion in Western culture has co-incided with the spectacular growth of cultural pluralism where our relatively homogenous cultures have become heterogeneous. The forces of this pluralism have been legion: the emergence of the class system in early capitalism, the move from rural to urban centres, geographical and social mobility, mass immigration, and more recently consumerism and mass media.

Christianity no longer reflects a common culture for there is no longer a common culture to reflect. Religion is now a lifestyle in a mass market of competing ideologies and designer sub-cultures. Each sub-culture has a niche in the consumer market, for lifestyles have themselves become commodities. New Age sells its alternative religion along with its crystals and beads. Christianity sells its old time religion along with its videos, and audio tapes. New Age at least can reach those parts of modern culture that Christianity can not reach, for people these days like religiosity without dogma or commitment. This is the age of aromatherapy, tarot cards, and the X Files: what sells is not 'mere Christianity' but the merely strange. Walk into a Dillon's or Waterstone's book store and you will find that Christian theology is outsold ten to one by New Age books .

It took perhaps twenty years after the Second World War for Britain to accept that it was no longer a world power, no longer a great empire, but it would seem that we have not yet really grasped that we are no longer a Christian nation. Even at the level of world faiths, Anglicans and Catholics find that in the United Kingdom they number no more than Muslims. More significantly, as we have already noted, Christianity has been privatised virtually to the point of disappearance. The de-regulation of religion means that common symbols of faith, rite, and canon have ceased to have public meaning for they have been relegated to the ghetto for private consumption only.

Paying attention to the cultural context of mission

Lack of familiarity with our culture inevitably means an inability to communicate with people where they are. I recall a seminary presentation in the American stateof Georgia by a children's missionary who still used the technology of the flannelgraph. This method had been used by the missioner all his life (he was in his sixties) - but the world of today's children is the world of 32 bit games machines, interactive television, the PC. It is surely a strange idea to present the gospel as good news, as hope for a dying world, in a format which belongs in a museum.

The relative failure of mission in the First World is primarily a failure to recognise one of the fundamentals of missionary method: mission presupposes familiarity with the culture. If we mission in the Third World we take it for granted that we will learn the language - not just the correct grammar but the speech idioms. We discover for ourselves how the culture works, what the religious sensibilities are, how taboos operate, what customs are sacrosanct, which customs are merely conventions. And yet in our own culture because we talk the natural language of the land (in our case English) we wrongly assume we have entry to the culture. What culture does this mean? Bangladeshi culture in the East End of London? Pakistani culture in Bradford?

And this is not just a question of natural languages; it is also a matter of familiarity with the nomenclature of sub cultures. Do we know New Age argot? Are we familiar with the in-house jargon of rave culture, the linguistic turns of the many youth sub-cultures, the myriad specialised worlds of the fanzines? Are we sufficiently plugged in to the popular culture created by the marriage of consumerism and mass media in order to converse in the language of easy speak and tabloid journalese? Are we immersed deeply enough in the signs and symbols of this televised consumer age to be able to read, decipher, and communicate with these signs and symbols?

Our 'multi-lingual' problems are compounded by the heterogeneous nature of our societies. None of us can have entry to all aspects of modern culture because it is so diverse, so bewildering, so kaleidoscopic. This is why apologetics stays on the back burner of mission these days. Our lamentable failure in this area is not because we cannot find another CS Lewis, but because even another CS Lewis would be able to speak into only a small corner of modern culture. In the future apologetics will either have to be the province of the cultural polyglot or settle for small-scale and multi-varied approaches. When audiences are legion not merely in number but in self-understanding a 'flat' or uniformed approach simply will not do.

We might also ask ourselves whether our essentially word based mission programmes are really appropriate for an electronic culture which is increasingly post literate. This is the age of drama and profane icons, of mystery and hype, of narcissistic joy. To speak into this culture we need drama and icons of our own, numinous wonder, and real joy. Paradoxically what we need for successful mission in the future may have to be dredged up from our past, from our discarded liturgies. This may sound an odd strategy but it is in keeping with postmodern trends. Postmodernism encourages pastiche but it does recognise the right of the past to flourish in the present in a way which modernism never did.

Paying attention to the gospel content of mission.

Until now I have been arguing that if we are inattentive to our culture we will not be able to communicate within it and to it. But now I want to argue, even more forcefully, that if we allow mission itself to be determined by cultural context the gospel will not be inculturated in contemporary society, it will be domesticated by it. As Christians we are not here to pander to the culture but to transform it with the life giving power of the gospel. Mission, in short, should always be determined by the content of the gospel otherwise we will capitulate to our culture rather than transfigure it.

This, I believe, was the fatal flaw of liberalism from Schleiermacher to Troeltsch, and from Baur to Bultmann. Motivated by the genuine desire to allow the gospel to speak into the modern world, liberal theologians tinkered with the content of the gospel so that it could be seen to be believable and thus relevant to modernity. They failed to recognise that ancient truth does not cease to be true over time even though archaic re-presentations of that truth may need reassessing. CS Lewis was convinced that the modern mind was awash with what he called chronological snobbism - as if ancient things always entailed primitive values, or as if old meant out of date or 'old hat'. Lewis correctly saw a progressivist ideology underlying such a view: modernism by definition discards the past in favour of the present and the future.

Missionaries can not discard the gospel by virtue of its age, because Christianity is essentially an historical faith once delivered to the saints and handed on in the form of a story to be appropriated by each generation. Cultural translation is necessary if the gospel is to be heard, understood, and believed, but translation must not be at the expense of loss of content or a fundamental alteration of the story-line. The Christian gospel is a gospel of hope precisely and only because it is God's rescue plan for the world.

Indeed the greatest barrier to successful mission in the future will not be the advent of postmodernity, or the increasingly pluralistic and fragmented nature of our societies: it will be the failure of the mainline churches and academic theology to recover the gospel. Lesslie Newbigin, among others, has argued that Christians have become timid in the face of modern beliefs and secular thought forms. We have been so overawed with the complexities and sophistication of contemporary scholarship and scientific certainties that we have been led either to a loss of heart or a loss of faith. It is no good learning to speak the languages of our pluralistic world if we have nothing to say to it. Merely to familiarise ourselves with the culture so that we can pass as native speakers is to become part of the problem of that culture not part of the solution to it. Familiarity is a necessity to cultural communication but too much familiarity can lead to what Walter Brueggemann has called 'gospel amnesia'. We are not citizens of the earthly city but resident aliens from the heavenly city. If we feel at home in the world the chances are that we have gone beyond linguistic competence: we have gone native.

Form and content: some issues for future discussion

Missioners from evangelical backgrounds, unlike gospel amnesiacs, do not need convincing that mission needs to be driven by the gospel. Neither do they, on the whole, need to be reminded that appropriate cultural forms need to be adopted in order for the gospel to be successfully communicated. What remains problematic is the relationship between form and content, between message and its medium, between gospel and its packaging.

This might seem to be simply a question of pragmatism rather than principle: perhaps we should use whatever method of communication works. Judged by pragmatic criteria alone it is by no means certain that up-to-date methods of mission, just because they are contemporary, always do work. Sometimes this is just a question of sloppiness or unprofessionalism. Why should young people, for example, listen to second rate Christian rock bands, or third rate poets, when they can follow far superior artists in the secular world? 'Saltmine' and 'Riding Lights' theatre companies by contrast have been successful because they have been good theatre as well as good Christianity. When the Christian group 'Oxford Circus' were fully operational they were genuinely funny because they were truly talented and knew how to make people laugh.

But pragmatic criteria alone are not sufficient to judge the legitimacy and efficacy of gospel communication. No doubt the 'flirty fishing' of the Children of God was successful but we could hardly argue that such religious prostitution was good in itself! A more pervasive and subtle problem arises with those evangelistic enterprises that preach the gospel and sell the video and audio recordings of the event along with various appeals for money. This is particularly apposite to televangelists for their mission field is not a nation, a congregation, or a church: it is an aggregate of viewers - a niche market for selling merchandise, lifestyles, and stories. Third World missionaries have long been criticised for promoting western culture and capitalism as well as Christianity. Is this so very different in principle from the Religious Right selling political and conservative cultural values to First World audiences on TV?

It is probably television that best exemplifies the problematic relationship of form and gospel content. Neil Postman has argued in Amusing Ourselves To Death (Methuen, London 1987) that television as a medium trivialises religion because it forces it into an entertainment format. He wonders whether the audience thinks the message is the medium - the packaging - in which it is presented. Certainly the form can taint the content, distort it, or downright falsify it. I recall the attractive blond singer, cleavage showing, going down on one knee and singing, 'He did it His way', whereas her body language gave an altogether different message. On the same bill an American religious rock star sang to us with his shirt literally open to his navel. The lyrics were about looking to Jesus but the 'presentation of self' said to us loud and clear: 'look at me'.

The reason that the relationship between form and content is so important for the future is that we are on the verge of a dramatic new growth in alternative worship services where both evangelical and liberal groups have got the message that we have moved on from a literary culture to an electronic one. New liturgies dip in and out of older Catholic ones, ruminate in Celtic spirituality, flirt with Matthew Fox pantheism, or appropriate the chants of Taize. Add to this the use of video and film, the appropriation of symbols old and new, and you have a rich and intoxicating brew.

I have mixed feelings about the new enterprises. I have recently argued ('Telling The Story: gospel, mission and culture': SPCK, London 1996) that liturgical renewal is a vital tool for mission in the future. In a world which wearies of texts and delights in images and drama it makes sense to promote worship which incorporates body language, icons, lights, and encounter. But not any form of encounter, body language, and icons. Liturgy is a sacred vehicle for telling the story of Jesus. In order to be faithful to the gospel story we need to be very careful what symbols and pictures are chosen and how they are mixed and presented. Musical television (MTV) offers its viewers a pick'n'mix presentation but the images are lurid and wild, raunchy and arousing. This form is seen to be appropriate to its message which is to sell Rock'n'Roll. What are appropriate images of the gospel for mission in the modern world? My own view, gleaned from the Orthodox tradition, is that music and art, body language and light, should reflect the dogmatic tradition of the faith as much as the words of Scripture and the rhetoric of preaching. To assume that a pure gospel will remain unadulterated by its communication medium is naïve, for it fails to realise that in reality form can not be divorced from content.

Even the flannelgraph, though archaic and dull, was a harmless or neutral medium for presenting the gospel. The worst thing you could say about it today is that it is boring. Electric excitement and exotic drama on the other hand may arrest our attention in a culture where attention spans seem to be shortening, but will they enhance the message or mask it, heighten the content of the story or distract us from it? By all means let us experiment and be bold for the gospel but with at least the awareness that messages come through their media and the two may be in conflict.

Conclusion: mission and the breathing of the Spirit.

It is of course a truism that the Holy Spirit often overrides our poor efforts at mission: people do turn to Christ in response to terrible sermons, trashy tracts, or confused liturgies. I have not the slightest doubt that people have read the advert of the London tabernacle in the Underground stations and felt led to go along. This should not, however, lead us into the lazy habit of mind that imagines that grace is what God does when we fail to do our part. Grace is the natural outflowing of God Himself and our response to it is to pay attention to what God is saying to us. In earlier times we would have called this ascecis. Asceticism is not about mortifying the flesh but learning, through prayer and fasting, to pay attention to what God is saying and then taking the trouble, through prayerful imagination, to apply his message in the language that our culture is speaking.

If we learn to pay attention to what God is saying we can avoid the pitfall of that other more subtle variation of the 'mission needs to be determined by cultural context' school of thought: this variation suggests that we establish a new programme for mission based on apparently sound cultural analyses. Most analyses, by virtue of their shifting reliability, turn out on further examination to have greater paucity than we thought possible. Tex Sample has written a useful book on cultural analysis in America (U.S. Lifestyles and Mainline Churches. Westminster/John Knox Press. 1990) but spoils it with his claim that such an analysis is a key to reaching people in the 90's. Keys, systems, and programmes are to be avoided as solutions to problems. That is why Church Growth methodologies despite their sophisticated demographics and psychometrics do not in themselves further the kingdom of God. Such methods are about programmes not pneumatology, growth not gospel, demography not discipleship, homogeneity not holiness. Indeed the homogenous principle of mission is based on the idea that you can build a successful church by creating a congregation of people with common cultural indices of income, personality, and lifestyle. Such a notion breeds a club mentality, class based identities, a laos with an ideologically common mind which fails to reflect that we are the people of God. We are to follow Christ's commands to reach out to the downtrodden and poor as well as the in-crowd. We are not here to invite outsiders to become people like us but people like God.

To ignore our culture when we attempt to mission to it is not only myopia it is also one of the deadly sins - sloth. But to be committed to the gospel as the source of our mission is to allow the Holy Spirit to breathe-out the life of God on our work. Or more exactly the Spirit blows where he will and we become caught up in the wind of grace that alone sweeps people into the kingdom.


Dr Andrew Walker is Senior Lecturer in Theological Education at King's College, London, and the Director of Gospel and Culture.

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You are reading Into the Future: Some Notes on the Cultural Context of Mission and Gospel Hope by Andrew Walker, part of Issue 8 of Ministry Today, published in October 1996.

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