We’re all baking in a bit of a heatwave. I ‘d love to be sitting by the sea with a cool breeze washing over me, just enjoying the moment. Refreshing, cooling, and relief from the hot intensity of the weather.
Finishing reading Donovan last evening was a little like that. In the complexity and confusion of the church in post-Christendom, his voice is yet another which emits a cool freshness over his context. What is amazing is that he’s writing before the time of my birth and, in my view, grasping important things ahead of the crowd – things we’re only just starting to realise in our own contexts but that he notices first in the mission to the Masai people in the 1970s.
Much of the last 50% of Donovan’s work in ‘Christianity Rediscovered’ is about what the missiologists call contextualisation. His firm conviction in his work with the Masai is that it was NOT a Western culture he was imparting, not a way of doing things, not a churchy pattern or system, but the gospel at its most fundamental. There were glimmers of beauty shining out of the book where the reader just starts to get a glimpse of how this new message takes a completely different shape in that culture simply because of the careful faithfulness of the missioner. Donovan has the grace and foresight to allow prayer, communion, baptism, teaching, preaching, learning, community life, engagement in social justice and so many other things flow from the Masai’s understanding of the gospel…how it made sense to their culture.
And then, emulating the footsteps of the apostle Paul, Donovan gets on the plane and looks wistfully over the Serengeti plains and over Mount Kilimanjaro never to return to the region ever again. Why? Because his conviction is that his prolonged staying would lead to passing on culture more than gospel.
This is a difficult concept for us to grasp in the context of our mission here in the United Kingdom. You see, we think that what we do here in the UK is the way that the UK need to express and understand the gospel. The reality is that much of our church culture is imported from the legacy of the Roman mission, albeit tweaked with our reformation ideas. The UK is very much in the shadow of the socio-religious political system which was Christendom. And we really do believe that the way we do church is ‘British’…in the same way that many of Donovan’s compatriots would have believed the form of church expressed in the mission compounds was ‘African.’ No.
Much of my MA study was exploring the contextual application of Christianity through Ireland, Iona in Scotland and Lindisfarne in Northumbria and its spread from the north deep into English soil – a movement which also took very seriously gospel contextualisation in a way that the Roman method which was established by Augustine in Kent didn’t. The ‘Celts’ sought to meet the local people where they were at – the Augustinians, by and large, imposed Roman cultural Christianity on Britain, and even eventually over the careful contextualisation of the Celts. This is not a new story.
The bigger question for me (one which I’ve been seeking to address in my studies) is, ‘are we still really just doing the same now?’ How seriously do we think about what we share with the populace around us? How much of what we understand to be Christianity is nothing short of a cultural style and preference?
You can tell where you’re at with this, I guess, if you have a group of ‘non-church’ people come to one of your services. Do we speak their language? Can they access what we’re on about? Is the gospel shared in such a way that it makes sense to them? Does it meet their narrative in such a way as they leave thinking:
‘I really got that…I totally understood that…I can see how that story fits or challenges my life…that felt like a place that I feel comfortable in…I felt at home there…they spoke my language.’
Even a very recent experience of mine shouts at me: EMPHATICALLY NO! We cloak the gospel in our own Christian subculture, with our own in-house language, our own in-house practices shaped by our sub-cultural forms of Christianity, and more than anything else, we think that’s ok.
And I suppose it is…if you’re content simply to remain in the coccoon of a Christian subculture, however diminishing, flying the Christendom flag with the hope that revival will come and we can forget all this cultural context nonsense…and hope that God will just zap our nation, cause the people to flock to the churches, the nation will be saved, and Jesus will come back. Or, at least make sure the church exists for me in the way I’ve aways liked it until they put me in a box and bury me in the ground.
Or, rather, perhaps we can sit with the very difficult question which says ‘what does the gospel look like for these people?’ Let me talk about my own context: ‘what does the gospel look like when it is fully embraced, understood, lived and expressed by people whose culture is not Christianese, but just very white, very English, very straight-forward, direct, no-nonsense Hertfordian?’
This morning, I stood outside our church building whilst communion was taking place inside and watched the cars, the people, the cyclists, the shoppers and the walkers of Hertford pass by.
I wondered what gospel they’ve heard. I wondered what gospel has disinterested them or repelled them. I wonder if they’ve actually ever considered or heard a gospel that takes seriously their story, their lives, their perspective, their culture, or whether the version of the Christian story they reject is one that we, too, should be rejecting.
My sense is that we are not asking this contextualisation question fully in our post-Christendom UK. I’m not sure in many places we understand that this is a question at all. For me it is the starting place for local mission. For the church, the starting place is often in tweaking the received pattern out of some sense that it must surely be God’s preferential way. And that is when we know that our inherited Christian culture is stronger and more important to us than our gospel.
I’m thankful to Donovan for such courageous work and for asking such courageous questions. I’m glad he then put his money where his mouth is and took the hard road of gospel contextualisation among the Masai…and then had the boldness to walk away when the task was done and the people could take the mantle on themselves. These are not just questions for ‘foreign missions overseas’ but are as real and pertinent for ‘mission across the road.’