When it comes to contextualising Christianity and everything that entails I find it is important to recognise that there are diverse sources of diversity within contemporary society. Too often Christian missional literature focuses on culture purely in terms of nationality or ethnicity. But I find it is often just important to recognise the ways gender, age, religious background, sexual preference, employment status, educational level, personality type and other factors also contribute towards an individual’s identity with (or alienation from) given communities.
For example, consider the example of a person migrating from Iraq who is gay. Would you expect their cultural identity to be straightforward, or maybe a bit more complicated? Or what about a university professor who has been retrenched at the age of 50 and is now struggling to find work? Or what about a young adult, who grew up in Nimbin and has left her alternative lifestyle parents to pursue a professional career in the city? Could you put any of these people in a box? Would you expect God to connect with them all in the same way? Why then should churches seek to connect with them all in the same way?
When I consider my own context it is no less complicated. Yes I am an Australian, but I also identify with the global esoteric community. I have committed my life to Jesus, but I find the style of imported American megachurch Christianity that's popular within Australian evangelical scene to be considerably alienating at multiple points. In my case it would be a mistake to presume ethnic (white), gender (male) and national (western) sources of diversity are the most significant. For I would suggest that for me, religious background (Catholic, esoteric, eastern) and personality type (intuitive thinker) are equally if not more significant for what contextualised Christianity looks like for me. So I have come to the conclusion we need a more expansive understanding of cross-cultural contextualisation.
Have you ever read The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus? If you haven’t you should, as it includes ancient commentary on Christian unity and cultural diversity that is just as relevant for today as it was when it was written in the second century. Mathetes (which means disciple in ancient Greek) has this to say:
"For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred." (The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus)
Did you get that? The ancients affirmed that the culture a Christian identifies with and what clothing styles a Christian prefers should not be what marks them out as a Christian; instead, what should mark out Christians as Christians is Christ-centred commitment and Christlike character. As the old saying goes: in the essentials, unity; in the non-essentials, diversity; in all things, charity.
I recently attended a Forge workshop where Allan Hirsch spoke on cultural distance as a barrier to the sharing the good news of Jesus with the world and the inconvenient truth that 80% of the energy of most churches went into reaching the 20% of their culture that was culturally closest. And then we wonder why Christian communities are one of the last places the rest of our culture looks for Spiritual guidance!
Well I have a question. How do we know the (primarily) geographical focus of the typical smaller to medium size church isn’t part of the problem here? For it is a fact that cultural observers have long noted that many people in globalised-local cultures now connect through demographic networks every bit as much through geographic neighbourhoods, if not more so. If so, should we not at least explore the possibility that there are some, possibly many, within our neighbourhoods who are unlikely to be reached with a neighbourhood focus? Should we not be more open to more demographically focussed ways of sharing the good news of Jesus and the resurrection as well?
I think we should, but I also think we need to rethink things on a citywide basis to make the biggest difference. For the situation we have at the moment is most churches are structured geographically first, and demographically second, if at all. And even when demographically focussed ministries exist within geographically organised churches, they are typically only the largest demographics (e.g. men’s and women’s ministries) and even then, largely siloed from demographically focussed ministries in other parts of the city.
So let’s consider a smaller demographic. What about ministries to creative people? How many churches, when they come in contact with a highly creative person, are ready to help them network with other creative Christians around the city who can share the Jesus shaped life with them in a creative way? I see very few. In fact the typical experience I’ve heard is they’re merely referred to the most creative individual in the neighbourhood church, who is often isolated also, and left with that. And that particular situation has been even worse in Sydney with the demise of the Black Stump festival.
You see, up to 25% of a typical community can be expected to be creative. But do 25% of churches cater for creative people? No. You’d be fortunate to find 2.5%. And it's often even worse for smaller demographics. So, as a thought experiment, consider how different things would be if churches structured themselves the opposite way: demographic first, geographic second? Just ponder it for a moment.
Of course there would be limitations with this approach too. But I have to wonder, what if we considered things in a more two dimensional way, more grid-like, with denominational support structures for both neighbourhood organisation and demographic networking. So that, for instance, churches that found themselves in epicentres for certain cultures and subcultures were supported by the wider church in building specialised ministries and developing resources for the wider church where these subcultures were less dominant but still present. Rather than isolated individuals and micro-ministries just reinventing the wheel all the time, at best. Just a thought.
In my last post on missional spirituality I outlined (1) my understanding of the Australian context, (2) where I see some shortfalls in the Christian response, and (3) some pointers for moving forward.
In this post I would like to expand a bit more on the third point.
Missional Spirituality is more than Missional Pneumatology
One model I have found particularly helpful in the process of listening to and engaging with new religious movements and the more religiously ambivalent is Ninian Smart’s Seven Dimensions of Religion.
This model suggests that beyond theology (in this case pneumatology) we also need to consider the narrative, ritual, experiential, social, ethical and material dimensions of (1) non-Christian spiritualities we encounter in our context and (2) how we Spirituality engage with all of these missionally.
In other words, this is not just a task for theologians. It is also a task for poets, pastors, artists, activists and Misisonal churches as a whole, using all their Spiritual gifts.
This opens up a multitude of questions. Here are just a few examples:
How can activist thinking on the relationships between spiritual “powers” and transpersonal social “systems” inform our Spiritual understanding and practice? [Social Dimension]
What are we to make of the “messageless messengers” that populate postmodern folk tales in the form of angels, aliens, avatars, ghosts, gods, egregores and more? Are there alternatives to just demonizing them? [Narrative Dimension]
In what ways do spiritual gifts function beyond sacred spaces, especially where we are guests rather than hosts? Consider healings and meals of Jesus [Ritual Dimension]
Do we need to focus more on spiritual fruit, particularly the virtues of patience and humility? [Ethical Dimension]
What do we make of trance experience. Trance is mentioned in the Bible you know, by both Peter and Paul, in very missional situations (I’ve copped flak for making such comments before so I wont be surprised if I cop more now) [Experiential Dimension]
How can we visually interpret our Spirituality in more contextual but still faithful ways? [Material Dimension]