Don’t presume you really know what’s going on.
A few years ago I ran and organized a conference called St. Paul Goes to the Movies. The idea was to help Christians learn how to share faith from within diverse cultural settings in Western contexts. My advice to all Christians is this: In order to take mission seriously, you have to take culture seriously. There is no dodging this aspect. You simply have to assume that, in Western contexts, all communication of the gospel, let alone church planting and mission, is now cross-cultural. Don’t presume you really know what’s going on. The reality is that most Christians don’t really know what goes on in the lives of non-Christian people. Research indicates that the majority of Christians have no significant relationships with people beyond their church community. To move out (get missional) and to move in (get incarnational), this must change.
If you find yourself called to a certain urban tribe, whoever they might be, then it is critical to take their culture—in effect, their meaning system—seriously. Go to movies with friends and talk about the themes. Read the books they are likely to read (good demographical information about lifestyle preferences and people groups abound in books). Browse magazine racks and blogs as to what people are talking about and interested in. If people see a movie more than once, make sure you see it and try to work out what they seemed to resonate with. Then you can get to see how the Good News relates to the issues.
A missionary is essentially a messenger obligated to deliver the message somehow in a way it can be received. This means we have to be able to speak meaningfully into a culture, but to do that, we have to examine a given culture seriously for clues to what God is doing among a people. One of the best ways to start this “listening process” is to go to your tribe. Standing where they stand and having explored the dynamics of their search, simply ask yourself this question: “What is good news for this people?” What is going to make them throw a party and invite their friends? This is exactly what Matthew did (Matt. 9:9–13). This will mean trying to delve into the existential issues a people or cultural group deals with. It means searching for signs of the quest for meaning and therefore for God. Just like Paul in Athens (Acts 17), it will also mean a study of the religion, art, and literature of the group.
Watch Paul the missionary in Athens; he is very sensitive to their religion, poetry, and philosophy (Acts 17). In this context Paul exegetes the culture, allowing the biblical story to inform and guide him—but he starts with the culture and ends with the gospel. In Jerusalem it’s a different story; he whips out his big black King James (or equivalent), and he begins with Scripture and proceeds to culture. The more and more America slips into the encroaching post-Christian experience, the more and more we have to take an Athenian approach to engaging it.
To represent Jesus meaningfully, we must also understand and adopt the language forms of the people we love and serve. Tim Keller, one of the elder statesmen of the missional church world, encourages us to enter and retell the culture’s stories with the gospel rather than the other way around. (Much of what follows is taken from an article by Keller on Missional Church.) For instance, in church circles a certain insider language exists—a common worldview that allows us simply to exhort Christianized people with little or no real engagement, listening, or persuasion. In a missional setting, communication should always assume the presence of skeptical people and should engage their stories, not simply talk the church’s insider story and language. This requires sensitivity to story and language and how these inform identity and community.
The older culture’s story was to be a good person, a good father/mother, son/daughter, to live a decent, merciful, good life. Now the culture’s story is—(a) to be free and self-created and authentic (theme of freedom from oppression), and (b) to make the world safe for everyone else to be the same (theme of inclusion of the “other”; justice). To “re-tell” means to show how only in Christ can we have freedom without slavery and embracing of the “other” without injustice. (Keller)
Once we have named the existential issues our adopted tribe faces, our task will then turn to developing communities. (That’s what good mission aims at—a community of Jesus’ disciples.) At this point it might simply mean asking the question, “What is church going to look like for this particular tribe of people?” To answer this will require you to examine the social patterning of the group. Follow the ant trails, and they will lead you to the “nest.” Where do they meet? Why do they meet? What is the cultural dynamic of the group? Once you have done this, try to articulate what an authentic expression of church might look like within that cultural setting. If it’s a tribe that meets regularly at the local pub, then it’s pretty easy. If it’s a group of mountain bikers, it might be a bit more difficult—but you can be sure they meet somewhere. The aim will be to incarnate the gospel in the place by first planting the gospel (Jesus) and then allowing a local and indigenous expression of community to grow out of that encounter.
For example, I know of a group of believers who simply loved bush-walking: trekking through the mountains and hills around Melbourne. Problem was, the only free day they had was Sunday, so they decided to make that their church. They would trek out into the bush, taking in the glories of God’s creation and good comradeship along the way. At a certain point they would stop, have a meal and communion together, share around Scripture, take an offering, pray for people, and then continue bush-walking for the rest of the day. About forty percent of the group were non-Christians deeply interested in the mix of nature and spirituality The Earth Club provided.
The church Jesus built doesn’t need all the institutional paraphernalia we have been scripted to think it does. You carry it with you everywhere you go.
To be effective at communicating the good news of Jesus, Christians must learn to behave like culturally-tuned missionaries. We must learn the culture and language of our tribe. We need to be attentive, to listen to the culture’s stories. Then we can love, serve, and speak of Jesus in a way that makes sense—that is truly good news to them.