Donovan and the context of the gospel

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?’

cropped-37953_481431182068_6629277_n2.jpgThis 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.’


Football, loneliness and toxic masculinity…

footballIt’s not really that I have anything against the England football team.  I wish them well, and I hope the fans get their hopes realised.  However, I won’t be watching the football.  I wouldn’t even be watching the games if Scotland were involved.  I seem to have something of an inbuilt resistance to football that goes beyond just not liking it or being interested in it.

For me, even the sound of a football match produces an adverse reaction because of its associated connections to my childhood, and to the toxic masculinity that accompanied it in my early life.

There was always money for a season ticket, but not for some of the very basics the family needed.   I watched closely an emotionally detached man express his only feelings in the context of a football game and not towards his children or family.  And, there was the excessive alcohol, the aggressive behaviours beyond and behind closed doors, and the rejection of my own peers for just not being good at it, in spite of trying.   I watched my own son struggle to be interested in playing/being knowledgable about football in order to ‘fit in’ until he realised it just wasn’t worth it.  He and I are in solidarity that its just not that important.

The sense of ‘not fitting’ is difficult for any child, and when added to other factors going on for me at that stage of my life, it is no wonder I sense a distance from ‘the beautiful game’.  Even as an adult I’ve worked in communities where the divide between teams and sectarian values that go with it have been so very detrimental to the healing of communities, especially in Glasgow or Newcastle, where the game is elevated to the extreme.  Very little by way of friendly football banter.  There was football bolstering a sharply divided community along sectarian lines in the West of Scotland.

I imagine that, if I were interested, I may even enjoy watching a game at home, or with good friends.  But I’m just not interested, and for me I guess it is important to say that I refuse to be made feel somewhat weird or less of a man for taking no interest in football.  I also choose not to dredge up negative memories associated with it and the difficulties it caused at home.  I just simply stand my small piece of non-football ground, and I’m not interested in being a convert.

I’m by no means suggesting that every football fan perpetrates this behaviour, of course not.  Don’t get me wrong.  I am sure, too, that the aspiration, team work and sportsmanship that football can build in young people can be really valuable.  We do, however, need to recognise that there are other ways to do this for young people who don’t access the football vibe.

I’ve especially appreciated reading about England manager, Gareth Southgate, displaying healthy, caring, nurturing and fatherly approach to leading the team – a sign of mature and wholesome masculinity, no doubt born out of his own challenges in the game.  A brilliant role model for young men.

It’s just not for me.

So, good luck to England.  Good luck to Croatia and France.




Donovan and The End of Christendom

grayscale photo of chapel

As I read more of Donovan’s ‘Christianity Rediscovered’ I am amazed at how much he had an early grasp on the fact that the end of Christendom was approaching fast.  In 2018, many Christians don’t even understand the implications of that.

Christendom was a social/religious/geographical arrangement created by nation states and the church in cahoots.  They each scratched each other’s backs for close to 1600 years.  The cracks in the system were very clear for Donovan in the late 1960s.

He said, with regards to the preacher/missionary’s job,

‘‘I think, rather, the missionary’s job is to preach, not the church, but Christ. If he preaches Christ and the message of Christianity, the church may well result, may well appear, but it might not be the church he had in mind.’

For too long conceptions about church have got in the way of the message of Jesus.  Don’t hear me wrong, and don’t hear Donovan wrong: When you preach Jesus you pretty much always get the church.  When you make disciples, Alan Hirsch says, you get the church.  However, if you plant a church you don’t always get disciples, and you don’t often get a Jesus culture.  The focus of all we do always begins and ends with Christ.

Throughout the 1600 years of the Christendom experiment, there were always those on the fringes of the church who said ‘we’ve got this wrong’.  Consider the desert monks of the 3rd – 5th century, the Dominicans, the Fransiscans, the Benedictines, the Anabaptists…who, down through the ages were a prophetic witness to the church more concerned with matters of state than the Kingdom of God and got the two confused in the process.  We are in need of a movement today.  Where are the non-conformists of our age who will recognise that all the things we call Christian have become ‘the moon’ instead of fingers simply ‘pointing to the moon.’  That was Thomas Merton’s analogy.

What Donovan discovered first of all, was that he had to find ways to communicate Jesus afresh in a way his hearers could understand.  Brilliantly, in my view, he taught about Jesus through the only framework the Masai knew…as a clansman in the tribe of Israel, who was born in the line of a Great Warrior Leader, and who served many years as a young warrior in the background learning his way in the world, before being initiated into his eldership after his desert trial to become one who offered all the spittle of forgiveness, before becoming the Great Herdsman preparing a new land for those he had spat upon.

That all might sound crazy to you, but this is Jesus in the idioms of the Masai.

Today, we have the triple challenge (at least).  Like Donovan, we have to come to terms with the end of Christendom.  Firstly, we have to recognise it’s over, mourn it, and lay it to rest.  Secondly, we have to rejoice that we can be free from its many disadvantages, as far as socio-political-religious systems go and dream a new future.  Donovan would never have moved in the way he did if he hadn’t dealt with his attachment to the institution.  But, thirdly, we need to learn to talk about Jesus in the language of the people.

If you’re training a missionary to go overseas, you want to teach them the language, the culture, the customs, the traditions, and the worldview the people share.  It is in that context your message has to make sense.  Why do we think we need anything less than that today in our age?

Here is the telling point for Donovan:  after encouraging the Masai to leave beyond their local, parochial views of ‘God’ in order to search for the High God who loved everyone, offers the spittle of forgiveness to everyone, and who is preparing a place for them, they ask Donovan if his people have found this High God.

After a few moments reflection, Donovan says, surprisingly to himself, ‘No…we too need to search.’  In that moment he remembered his war-mongering, narrowly nationalistic home nation and concluded that they, too, were as heathen as the Masai and that they too had to leave behind the tribal God of Christendom in search of a greater vision.

Is our God too small?
Too parochial?
Too manufactured after our own likeness?
Are we allowing God to be free?  If he is not, is he God at all?


Christianity Rediscovered in Hertford?

C6D6W0 Parliament Square, Hertford Town Centre
Parliament Square – Hertford

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.’

Spot on.

Will Christianity be Rediscovered in Hertford?  I very much hope so.

Fiddlers on the Church Roof….

fiddlerAlmost every Christian community I’ve served in has had a preoccupation with

  • what we do over who we are;
  • what we say rather than how we live;
  • what we prefer rather than what is essential to our call as God’s people;
  • how church fits into our lives more than how to be missional disciples called to the places we find ourselves
  • getting people in as opposed to being sent
  • institution rather than movement
  • human safety over Kingdom risk
  • preservation over giving ourselves away

Our churches often have such a strong gravitational pull, not always because they’re so attractive and healthy, but because they are a demanding black hole of the time, money and effort needed to sustain such an institution.

As a leader, I confess to continually being sucked into the whirling vortex of maintenance over mission, programme over people, role over relationships, planning over prayer – all in the name of keeping the ship afloat.  Ironically, it is these positions that may need to shift most if the ship is to stay on the water at all and not in some breakers yard.

Most churches invest significant amounts of energy, focus and resource into the one hour Sunday special in particular.  Don’t get me wrong – it is important for the church to gather.  However, the quality of the church is only as good as the quality of its disciples. If the Sunday morning show is high on entertainment or even top-shelf religious education, but low on the transformative challenge that provokes an engaged discipleship for the rest of the waking week, it is but a noisy gong or clanging cymbal.

I have friends all over the ecclesiastical spectrum.  Everyone from high anglo-catholic to disestablished wanderers for Christ working it out ‘in the desert’ of the post-Christendom west, and I love them all.  I see value in what they’re all doing.  Yet, I also sense a great deal of confusion about what we actually discern as our fundamental reason d’etré.  I see the battle both to be released from the shackles of the Christendom-shaped church and on the other end, those who’ve struggled free but who now are spinning out of orbit.  I see people trying to cooperate on the tight-rope between the two extremes but losing the balance – like ‘Fiddlers on the Roof’.

And so I find myself in my thinking times, reflective times, and prayer times, sitting before God like a teenager with a math’s equation that’s beyond his grade seeking to discern what of the stuff he’s learned so far helps him begin to tackle the problem.   Actually, the fundamental problem is more acute than that.  The convictions within are often beyond the scope of possibility in communities where there is an acceleration of learning required to respond faithfully to the missional challenge.  That there is what I see as being my responsibility – to accelerate the focussed learning for the task at hand.

And so, it seems to me that the path with most integrity is the one that ultimately serves, tries to ask the pertinent questions, and seeks to model an alternative future with a certainty that looks convincing along with the necessary ‘heretical imperative’ to continually re-evaluate and maintain the pioneering edge.

In simple language:  we’re somehow broken and in need of the Healer; frantic and in need of the Comforter; lost and in need of the Saviour; confused and in need of a Guide.  Good job we’re not left to do it on our own.  Come, Lord Jesus.

Our Narratives

freedom-bell2_rdax_65We all have stories that we tell about ourselves –  our lives, our families, our past, our present, and maybe even about our future.  These stories shape our behaviours in the present moment and are, without a doubt, shaping the course of our lives.

As someone who not too long ago invested significant hours of therapy working through inherited responses and behaviours in relation to particular stresses, I now have the rich insight through the help of a skilled and thoroughly Christ-focussed counsellor into some of those key areas that shape and provoke me in certain ways.

I recognise that I firstly had to articulate my ‘story’ before I could start to see an alternative vision.  It is easy to write about now, but it consisted of several years of very deliberate and hard work to get here.  In fact, one of the things my counsellor said to me in my last session with her was the admiration she had about how dilligent, focussed and intentional I was in working through the things at hand.  This was not a rushed process, but it was deliberate.


Ultimately because I knew that if I was to be true to the calling upon my life to be a minister of the gospel and in church leadership, I had to accept and tend to the things that needed attention.  Not areas of huge sin or failure, but woundedness, pain, hurt and exhaustion of continually seeking to keep on keeping on when all my energies were escaping through trying to stay afloat with the extra emotional baggage of earlier hurt.

I am telling this particular story today because I know there are people out there who try to limp along with the emotional equivalent of a tonne weight on the back of their minds.  I am telling it again because people need to know that there is freedom.  I’m also telling it because, in my experience, God doesn’t just take these things away.  Rather, it is in going into the wounds that we find the healing Christ.

It is a bit like the kids book, ‘We’re going on a Bear Hunt’ – you can’t go over it, you can’t go round it, you can’t go under it….you have to go through it.  Our freedom has already been won.  But as Paul reminds us in Galatians 5:1, we need to remain free in Christ and not take on our burdens again.

Why don’t you talk to someone about ‘that thing’ and begin the journey deep into your freedom?

Commander of the Lord’s army…

joshua commanderTwice in 18 years of my ministry, I’ve had a powerful ‘encounter’ with Christ in a very particular way.  Both times, it has been reminiscent of an Old Testament ‘appearance’ of Christ to Joshua – a ‘Christophony’.  I’ve only recently had a similar ‘vision’, yet again – recurring theme!

In Joshua 5, as Joshua is preparing to head towards Jericho to take possession of it, to move forward in his mission God called him to, we read that ‘the commander of the Lord’s army’ stands before Joshua with his sword drawn (Josh 5:13).  Joshua’s response is understandable:  are you for me or against me?  ‘Neither’, the figure replies…and he tells Joshua who he is.  Joshua falls down in reverence and asks the figure for the message.  The Commander says ‘Take off your shoes, for the place you are standing is holy’ (Joshua 5: 15).  He has to consecrate himself for what the Lord is about to do in him and through him.

In both of these times, the churches I was leading were about to embark on significant periods of their life together.  In both situations, I’ve been led to the passage to pray it through and someone, unaware of my thinking/leading, has come to reinforce the message.  In fact, one time, I remember one of our church members running up the stairs to the office with a message:  ‘you have to come down and hear this!’  A Christian passing by the church had a vision of an ‘angelic presence’ high in the rafters of the church with a sword drawn.  I had been waiting for him, praying, as a sign to act.

I’ve had a very strong sense of God’s presence with me in my prayer in recent weeks – a heavy sense of expectancy.  One of our church members said ‘I really think you should look at Joshua’…I’d already been reading, praying, waiting…and had already mentioned Joshua in a recent preach.

Here’s what has happened to me in these two previous situations, and that is likely to be significant now:

  1. There is a sense of, firstly, personal awakening…a rousing up.  Like a trumpet call – which is particularly fitting seeing as what Joshua was about – a rallying, a call to a particular response.  In other words, God is preparing to do something.  And so I pick up my shofar, my ram’s horn trumpet, and give it a mighty blast.  Awakens the senses, I tell you!
  2. Secondly, there is the call to get on my face and on my knees before the Lord and to call people whose hearts are similarly fashioned to do the same.  A call to consecration…like a blessing and purifying before entering the spiritual battlefield where the expectancy is that the enemy’s work will take a significant blow.
  3. Thirdly – hard work.  Always.  We pray like mad, we seek the Lord, and then we put our boots on and get to it.  And we return to praying, seeking, working, and the cycle continues until the ‘walls come down’.

In one place, it was in advance of a specific significant aspect of the mission.  In another, it was about a strategic restructuring of how we operate.  And here in Hertford, we have a major transition ahead of the church at this time.

In lots of ways, God speaks to us in ways that we can comprehend and understand.  This is a way that he has chosen to speak to me in the past, and now, although no guarantees that it will ever continue like that, suffice to say.

In one sense, it is perhaps easy to respond in fear like Joshua – ‘what’s the story here?!’ But, I’ve learned that when it’s the commander of the army of the Lord in charge, there is no need to fear.  It is HE who has the sword drawn…it is his battle.  Our response is to consecrate ourselves, to fall before him in reverence, and then do as we’re bloomin’ told.

And so, we are ever reminded that we are always in that spiritual battle.  Our weapons?

Here’s what Paul says:

“For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” 2 Cor 10: 3 – 5

So, I’m off to take my shoes off…commander’s orders.  If you’re minded to pray, would appreciate your prayers!