Friday, January 27, 2017

Cultural "relevance" and evangelisation

A great deal is said these days about the need for the Church to become more relevant to the world in which we live. We are often encouraged to embrace totally the culture around us in order to make ourselves attractive, especially to young people. We are told that more will then accept the Gospel message and become worshippers. At the very least, we are told that we will be spared the ridicule of our culture!

Now, it is obviously important for clergy and laity alike to connect with people around us in real friendship and genuine respect if we are to be of any use at all in loving the world back to God. At the same time, it is not possible to read the New Testament and avoid what the Lord himself said about the world (sometimes) hating his followers just as it hated him. This is surely part of what St Paul meant when he spoke of sharing in the fellowship of the Lord’s sufferings (Philippians 3:10 & Colossians 1:24). (Of course, I know that here’s no excuse for Christians, when in a minority, becoming bitter, twisted and hateful when the same Lord also told us to love our enemies and pray for them - a command conspicuously obeyed by countless generations of Christian martyrs at the very point of their death.)

There are times in history when this or that culture has been heavily influenced by the Gospel and the faith, and sometimes even solidly based on it. Don’t we all long for that to have been true for our time! Commenting on this, Fr Gavin Ashenden has recently been pointing out in the media how very powerful both secular humanism and militant Islam have become. Given the strength of each, Fr Ashenden chided the Anglican establishment for adapting itself to the role of chaplain to a decadent hedonistic culture, rather than taking a stand against the culture when required, in order to be faithful to the Lord and truly loving to those around us.

I think that there will always be some large churches. And what we have known for hundreds of years as a parish church may well continue into the future. But the nucleus of the church in this or that neighbourhood - whether meeting in an old church building or in somebody's house - is likely to be a smallish almost monastic like community of people who love the Lord and each other, who seek to build each other up for the challenge simply of worshipping, living and witnessing in the world, sanctifying their own little bit of it with their prayers. (Some readers will remember that Pope Benedict, when he was a young priest, spoke about that particular development in the West, and how it would make us all depend much more on the grace of God and not artificial "props". He also said that the Church will get through that period, writing in way similar to T.S. Eliot's words quoted in the previous blog post.)

For many years I have been interested in the writings of Robert Louis Wilken. Originally a Lutheran, he became a Roman Catholic in 1994. When he was Professor of History at the University of Virginia, he gave an interview about the lessons we can learn from the way in which the early Church impacted on the culture of the Mediterranean world. Dr Wilken challenges many of the cherished opinions of those who for decades have formulated church policies, including some still trying to adapt the Church to the 1960’s, as well as others who think the Church should conform its moral teaching to that of today’s secular West. 

Specifically, in Roman Redux in Christian History Vol. LVII, No.1, because Wilken views today’s evangelistic challenge as not very different to the one that faced the early Church, he asks whether the example of the early Church has anything to teach us in our witness to Christ in a post-Christian culture.
In the interview, Wilken talks about the role of apologetics, martyrdoms, and “everyday evangelism.” He then considers the ecclesial dimension of early Christianity - the tightly knit sense of loving community Christians shared together, and the strong leadership of the bishop as priest and teacher, the one who presided over the life of the community, assisted by his deacons and presbyters, with bishops of different regions working with one another, organising themselves across the Empire. Wilken points out that there are no real parallels to this among any other people in the ancient world.

Then, says Wilken, there were the Scriptures, which grounded the Christian gospel not in myth but in history. This was especially true with regard to the community’s central belief in the Resurrection of Jesus. The ancient world had stories of gods coming back to life and miraculous happenings. But to talk about such things as if they happened in real history was unparallelled. This is what set Christ and the Church apart. It was a belief Christians were willing to die for. And it was a belief Christians didn’t soft peddle. Furthermore, we know that those who tried to adapt the Gospel message to movements of thought inimical to Incarnational Christianity got short shrift from the Church as a whole. 

Wilken draws some fascinating lessons from the early Church for our consideration today. He points out that “witnessing” to the culture (and even “apologetics”) was basically an explanation of what Christians believed and practised. Justin Martyr, for example, simply gave an account of Christian worship, and talked about baptism. Wilken thinks that modern Christians should do the same: familiarise people with the Christian story, and talk about the things that make Christianity distinctive, on account of many people today being both unaware of the basics of the Christian Faith, and more curious than we give them credit for.

Wilken goes on to talk about the essence of evangelism and conversion:

“Apologetics then and now must speak what is true, but finally the appeal must be made to the heart, not the mind. We’re really leading people to change their love. To love something different. Love is what draws and holds people.”

This leads to the whole question of the tightly knit early Christian community of love:

“How did the early church build their community? It built a way of life. The Church was not something that spoke to its culture; it was itself a culture and created a new Christian culture. There were appointed times when the community came together. There was a distinctive calendar, and each year the community rehearsed key Christian beliefs at certain times. There was church-wide charity to the surrounding community. There was clarity, and church discipline regarding moral issues. All these things made up a wholesome community.”

In speaking of the community’s worship Wilken says:

“Did the church strive to be ‘user-friendly’? Not at all - in fact, just the opposite. One thing that made early Christian community especially strong was its stress on ritual. That there was something unique about Christian liturgy, especially the Eucharist. It was different from anything pagans had experienced, architecturally, and in terms of the various ingredients of the worship. Worship was something that baptism gave one the right to enter into. Prayers and hymns were taken out of the Bible, a book foreign to pagans. And then there was a sermon, an unusual feature in itself, with historically grounded talk of a dying and rising God. Pagans entered a wholly different world than they were used to. Furthermore, it was difficult to join the early church. Besides the social and cultural hurdles: the process for becoming a member took two years.”

Now, this runs counter to what many so-called experts tell us today. In fact, Wilken thinks that modern “user friendly” churches have a completely wrong strategy:

“A person who comes into a Christian church for the first time SHOULD feel out of place. He should feel this community engages in practices so important they take time to learn. The best thing we can do for “seekers” is to create an environment where newcomers feel they are missing something vital, that one has to be inculcated into this, and that it’s a discipline. Few people grasp that today. But the early church grasped it very well.”

This is an important point. So many churches expect every aspect of their worship to be intelligible to those showing up for the first time, when we would never expect to understand the cricket the first time we go to a match, or a code of football different to our own. But that doesn't stop the constant flow of new people becoming fans.  

All of that is very interesting. It certainly squares with my experience over nearly 40 years of ordained ministry. Genuine friendship and love in a parish community, together with clergy and laity alike being brave enough to bear personal witness to Christ at home and in the work place, draws people to the Lord. And I know that this happens even in some “traditional” parishes which, from the point of view of many modern “experts”, ought not be attracting newcomers at all! 

Long term readers of this blog know that I refrain from criticising other Christian traditions (except, maybe, on occasion, hopeless liberals!). So, I sincerely say “praise the Lord” for every person who is converted to Christ through “seeker friendly” services, “emergent” churches, “church plants”, evangelistic outreaches, “cafe churches”, Gospel rock music, or any other means. God uses all sorts of things to attract our attention. But the cogency of Dr Wilken’s argument remains. We should not be dumbing down worship and teaching, thinking that by doing so we will make it easier for people to believe (when very often it is those genuinely seeking God who we turn away!) Nor (as Fr Ashenden has pointed out) do we make ourselves or the Gospel more attractive or convincing by embracing the ethics (and bioethics!) or the relativity mindset of a culture that has discarded the Christian revelation. 

I finish today with an extract from a later article of Dr Wilken:

“At this moment in the Church’s history in this country (and in the West more generally) it is less urgent to convince the alternative culture in which we live of the truth of Christ than it is for the Church to tell itself its own story and to nurture its own life, the culture of the city of God, the Christian republic. This is not going to happen without a rebirth of moral and spiritual discipline and a resolute effort on the part of Christians to comprehend and to defend the remnants of Christian culture. The unhappy fact is that the society in which we live is no longer neutral about Christianity. The United States would be a much less hospitable environment for the practice of the faith if all the marks of Christian culture were stripped from our public life and Christian behavior were tolerated only in restricted situations.

“If Christian culture is to be renewed, habits are more vital than revivals, rituals more edifying than spiritual highs, the creed more penetrating than theological insight, and the celebration of saints’ days more uplifting than the observance of Mother’s Day. There is great wisdom in the maligned phrase ex opere operato, the effect is in the doing. Intention is like a reed blowing in the wind. It is the doing that counts, and if we do something for God, in the doing God does something for us.”


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