It has taken me more years than reasonable to get round to reading ‘Christianity Rediscovered’ by Vincent Donovan. I first remember hearing about it back in the 90s. A Salvationist friend of mine had read it and it had profoundly affected him. I wasn’t in the place (as a teen still on the ‘basics’) to understand why it was so significant. And, to be honest, it may have put me off a little. With years of reflection, I can see how what he may have said in response to the book may have been too much beyond where I was at the time – as a signed up card-carrying member of a religious institution with a very strong religious culture, way of thinking and way of acting in the world, especially with regards to how it defined its mission.
The basic premise, and I’ve only just started the book, is that Vincent Donovan grows suspicious of a century or so of mission endeavour in Africa carried out not only by his own Roman Catholic church, but by protestant and other missions. All very much characterised by the ‘we bring you education, health, teaching, wisdom, social aid – your job is just to accept the gospel.’ In response to this, he asks his bishop permission to go to the Masai people not to take them programmes or offer anything else other than to have conversation about Christianity. When Donovan goes, he discovers there is no sufficient language to communicate concepts, little common ground of cultures to share, and a deep seated tradition amongst a proud people group which would prove difficult to shift. I’ve yet to read how he moves from this initial huge missiological leap into what follows, but I’m struck straight away. Early on, he says that if he had the foresight about the extent of the challenge, he may never have taken the path.
When he goes to the Masai and declares his intentions to talk about this important thing, ‘Christianity’, the people ask ‘if it is so important, why has it taken you so long to talk to us about it?’ Therein lies a pertinant question!
I’m reading this book because I’m sitting on a suspicion. In fact, I’d say its more of an educated hunch than a suspicion (and neither of them are particularly comfortable). I reflect on the life of the church I’m part of leading: our life, our mission, our programmes, our agenda, our methods, our people, our gathered culture, our language, our way of being, our traditions, our ways, and our sense of who we are. I also reflect on my many lunchtime experiences over this last year: watching, listening, observing and on a small level attempting communication with local Hertfordians. I’m immediatley personally aware of my own cultural distance – I do continually talk to God about being a Scotsman in the Home Counties.
But more than that, I’m aware of how entirely alien the church/religious message of Hertford Baptist Church is from the life of ‘normal’ Hertfordians. What becoming a part of Hertford Baptist Church involves for the vast majority of our local people amounts to a mile long hurdles race that we expect people to join in and jump over before they’d get a real chance to get to the very heart of what we think is right at the centre of who we are: The gospel message of Jesus Christ and his Kingdom. It is the proverbial pearl buried in a very large field surrounded by many a barbed-wire fence. Our gospel is cloaked in our heavy church culture: religious and social. The gospel should never be disembodied from the church – but church culture is a very different thing from the theological reality which is the church, the body of Christ which sits beyond our institutional representations of it.
No doubt our town is very diverse when you narrow down who makes it up. But in a general sense, these Hertfordians are a ‘people group’ who, whilst having expressions of church amongst them, are relatively untouched. Their experience of church may be youth groups, clubs, local community services or even weddings, funerals or ‘Christenings’, but these are things which seem to do little to see a significant missional difference.
So, what people do all over – because the whole nation has a similar picture – is blame the culture. We are amazed that we put things on and people (including some of our own) don’t come. We are surprised that we can put stuff on, and even when we do get people coming, marvel at how difficult it is to establish relationships.
We’re still in the same world as Donovan. Our people aren’t Masai, they’re the upper-working/middle-class English. Our programmes aren’t schools or hospitals, but services, lunches, kids programmes and the like. We’re not in the Roman Catholic mission of the 19770s, but we’re an evangelical baptist church in the late 2010s coming to terms with how unfruitful our fruitful gospel is with missional methodology that may not have changed that much since the 1970s.
I have every confidence that our church community here in Hertford can learn about the missional challenge of our day. I am confident that many have the capacity to respond to it and act out an alternative future. There’s a journey ahead, but it begins with the first step of asking
a) what do we really know about our local culture? about their language, beliefs, culture and outlook? What are there hopes, espirations? How do those match with the vision of the Kingdom, and how do they differ? What does the Gospel to the Hertfordians sound like?
b) what do we really understand about the Great Commission, the call to be missional, and what it takes to navigate that journey in this time and place? Are we aware of what it might take to reach a community? Are we willing to count the cost of doing so? Is our vision of Christianity so bound up in our heritage and way of being that the system will be defended over the transformational message at the heart?
A young American 20-something said to me recently: ‘we need to talk about relevance…not about how we make the Jesus and the gospel relevant, because Jesus is always relevant. What we need to talk about is how our local culture is relevant to the church because our understanding can shape what our church needs to be for them.’
Will Christianity be Rediscovered in Hertford? I very much hope so.