May the Force be with you…

Episode 7 official poster (Source: www.starwars.com)

Episode 7 official poster (Source: www.starwars.com)

Star Wars is back!  This week the eagerly anticipated resumption of the epic double-trilogy starts with episode 7 –  Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which is widely expected to become the biggest-grossing film of all time.

Since the ground-breaking arrival of the first film in 1977, Christians have argued over the content and symbolism.  Those in favour will claim that the Force represents the power of the Holy Spirit, Obi Wan Kenobi’s self-sacrifice and apparent survival beyond death (kinda) is a significant nod to Jesus, and Darth Vader is a clear manifestation of everything we think of as evil, from his character to his stereotypical dark clothing, and even he can be redeemed.  Others will argue that the Force can be used for good or evil, which is not part of a Christian cosmology.  There is no clear redeemer figure and no communication of the love of God or the depravity of humanity.

But the real issue is not whether the films reflect a Christian message or not, but the fact that they reflect a postmodern worldview which Generation X and Millenials have bought into in a way that an older generation can’t comprehend.  Millenials in particular think in a way that is in line with the underlying assumptions of the Star Wars galaxy, for example:

  • There is a spiritual aspect to life which we do not understand but we can tap into if we choose
  • Trade corporations are inherently evil and not to be trusted
  • Most politicians are selfish and will easily turn to the dark side
  • I have the ability to achieve much more than simply being a cog in the system

Contrary to popular belief, millennials are not antagonistic to Christianity (as long as it not prejudiced and bullying).  They are suspicious of organised religion but open to personal spirituality, and are open to following Jesus if he is presented to them appropriately.  The success of many vibrant, new church networks is partly due to numbers of millenials attracted to a warmer, livelier, less-structured style of church that helps them feel that they belong and are significant.  These movements often intentionally plant (or re-plant) churches that look in very different ways to tradition ones.

The problem is that most millenials have not heard of Jesus.  Unlike previous generations they were not taken to church or Sunday school as children, religious assemblies in school are discouraged, with the result that this generation is the least evangelised European generation for 1500 years.

Some of us may be aghast at that thought.  But the flipside of it is that they are also the least prejudiced.  They haven’t been bored to death by stories of Noah’s Ark and Goliath.  They haven’t been made to follow a lot of life-crushing rules.  They come to Jesus with a completely clean sheet and no preconceptions.  They don’t have problems with the existence of an unseen world or a benevolent force pervading the universe.  Ironically, this is probably the generation most open to the gospel in over a millennium.

May the Force be with you as you tell them the good news.

More burnout?

Battery Charge IconA retired mission worker was discussing with me recently that he’d noticed that people now in their 30s and 40s seem a lot more likely to suffer from burnout than people of his generation.  He gave two significant reasons: lack of preparation and lack of integration.

In these days when there are still 3-year residential courses at Bible Colleges preparing people for mission, studying such modules as missiology, contextualisation and linguistics, we would think we are well-prepared.  But my friend was referring to the selection process of the agency.

In his day, there would have been a protracted conversation which would have climaxed in a month’s preparation before departure, six weeks’ more training on a ship (yes he’s that old!) and finally three months’ orientation in the field.  That would have given him and the agency a lot more time together to get to know each other and understand the culture that they would be sharing for the next few decades.  Long timescales and long distances made sure everybody took preparation seriously because there was no easy way back.

Unlike today, when we spend much less time growing to understand each other, and recognise that if it doesn’t work out, there’s another flight home tomorrow morning.  Preparation is much shorter, and orientation may be as little as a couple of weeks.

So with a shorter lead time, how do agencies effectively communicate their vision and values, not just in theory, but helping people think about what that would look like in practice?  Agencies need to think not merely as an employer when selecting their mission partners.  There is more to selection than skills and abilities.  People have to cope with cross-cultural changes and fit into teams where there is already a strong prevailing ethos.  This is not always thought about: we might consider whether people buy into the agency’s values, but will they fit in temperamentally with the team they’re destined to join?  And how effectively will we support them through that transition?

How do we get to know them quickly?  By encouraging them to walk with us before they go long-term is significant: going short-term, acting as a homeside volunteer, going to conferences and prayer meetings, researching our history, reading our website, talking with our mission workers on home assignment.  This of course takes time and effort which many agencies no longer have, so we need also to rely on our partnership with their sending church to help us work out if they will be a good fit.  A visit to the place they are going to serve is recommended, to meet the team and see how the team operates.  And of course, much time spent in prayer by everybody, to determine what we understand to be God’s will in this situation.

We’ve already addressed the challenges of not integrating in an earlier blog, where we looked at how technology has made it so easy for us to stay in touch with our family and friends that we may never really leave, which means we may never fully integrate in our destination culture.  It takes time and effort to fully immerse ourselves in a different culture to the point where our language is fluent and we can discern those small cultural nuances and unspoken assumptions that allow us to be fully at home, and we may be facing a more globalised era in which that level of integration is no longer necessary, or even possible as a postmodern generation thinks not in terms of a life spent in the field but in a life lived missionally in a wide variety of ways and contexts.

But if my retired friend is right, ensuring that new mission partners are a good fit in their teams, and helping them to thrive in their host culture are two practical things that agencies can do to help prevent the build-up of stress which can lead to burnout and attrition.

Do we really need to learn the language?

keyboardI recently ran into a mission worker (let’s call him Bill, which is not his real name) who had been a mission worker in a foreign country for a couple of years, together with his wife.

Since the language of that country is somewhat complicated, I asked how he was getting on with learning it.  His reply was one I have never before heard:

We didn’t bother with language lessons; we have a full-time interpreter.  If we want to phone out for a pizza, it’s easier to get her to do it.

Many of you will be involuntarily cringing at the very thought of this.  Honestly, it happened.  Bill had been in country for two years and couldn’t even order a pizza.  Do you think that’s right?

At Syzygy we think learning the language serves a number of purposes:

  • it shows respect for the people we have come to serve
  • it opens up communication with those who don’t speak English
  • it helps us understand their culture better
  • it creates missional opportunitiess as we practice
  • it equips us to read road signs, magazines and books and understand TV and radio
  • it helps us share the gospel with everyone around us
Pick a language!

Pick a language!

Yet many independent mission workers don’t take language learning seriously, if they bother at all.  Most agencies require their mission partners to make a significant effort, and it’s not uncommon to do a year of full time language study, gradually reducing that as ministry takes over.  But even with discipline, it can take many years to achieve fluency, and many of us settle for adequacy.

The British by and large have a poor reputation for language learning, and we are fortunate that the global prominence of our transatlantic cousins means we often don’t need to bother, but most of us feel it’s important to make an effort.

I frequently hear Brits say that they’re not very good at languages, but when they have to haggle for a chicken, or negotiate their way through the visa office, their need focusses their attention and they do a pretty good job.  Their attention is focussed even more effectively when their mission agency requires them to speak the language to a certain standard within a given time, and threatens to send them home if they don’t achieve it.

But how much effort is really necessary?  Is it appropriate to rely on interpreters all the time?  Or just hope that there’ll always be somebody around who speaks English?  While such attitudes may have overtones of neo-colonial arrogance, we seem to be entering a postmodern era world where many mission workers will only stay a few years in the field before moving on.  If that is true, do we really have time to invest a year in language learning?  Do we really need to strive for proficiency like the old-time lifelong mission workers did?

These days, there is little excuse not to try to learn at least a little of the language.  With online courses and dvds so cheap, and even online translation apps available, it’s possible to pick up a few words easily, and lay a good foundation even before you get on the plane.  It doesn’t really take a lot of effort to make a good start, and once you are in the field being able to speak just a few sentences in your target language will generate such goodwill in your community that people will be much more willing to listen to the message you’re trying to communicate, whichever language you end up using.

A new spring?

WP_000678Spring is a beautiful time of year in northern Europe.  Its early signs come well before its culmination in all its vibrant colours.  Snowdrops peep out of the frozen ground, followed by crocuses, daffodils, primroses and bluebells.  Deciduous trees grow bright new leaves and the dull grey clouds break apart to allow patches of blue sky and bright sunshine.  A wide variety of shrubs and flowers burst into blossom.  The days lengthen and the air grows warmer.

This season lifts the spirits of those of us who have toiled through a long, dark winter, and the joy is expressed in ancient festivities which have become Easter and Whitsun (Pentecost).  The drama of this transition embedded itself deep in the psyche of the Europeans who have recycled it in art, literature and religion.  C S Lewis used it to good effect in describing the change on the landscape that came when the frozen winter kingdom of the White Witch thawed into the realm of Aslan.

Statue of Aidan at Lindisfarne

Statue of Aidan at Lindisfarne

We even use this imagery in our history – The Dark Ages is the name we give to the period following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, when the pagan winter engulfed ‘Christian civilisation’.  Areas we now know as France, Italy, Spain and Britain were occupied by Franks, Goths, Vandals and Saxons – the names of some of them passing into posterity as those hostile to ‘civilisation’.  The so-called Christian empire was overrun, leaving just a few isolated monastic communities to keep the light of faith burning in the sea of darkness.  But those communities did not retreat into their bunkers and look inwards; they went out to their hostile neighbours and spread the word of God, often paying with their lives.  Men like Boniface, Aidan and Columbanus ensured not merely the survival of Christianity, but its dominance, as pagan Europe turned into Christendom.

A thousand years later, the process was repeated.  Christendom, already a decaying empire, fell to the ‘barbarian’ hordes.  Humanists, secularists, nihilists and many other tribes overran it, leaving the population confused and vulnerable.  By the 20th century many had consigned Christianity to history.  It was just another primitive civilisation which had collapsed.  Yet the faithful continued to keep the flame burning brightly.

The 21st century is a second missionary era, when the saints once more are called to go to the postmodern ‘barbarians’ and take the message of God to them.  People come from across the world to bring us the truth that so many have forgotten.  All across Europe missionary endeavour is bringing enlightenment to the lost.  Many churches are experiencing significant growth.  People are turning to God in numbers not seen for centuries.  A new spring is upon us.

In memoriam

WW1

Troops in the trenches

Exactly 100 years ago today, Britain entered the First World War.  All year there have been documentaries, dramatisations and memorials, and no doubt these will continue.  Much has been reported about the military, political and social consequences of the war, but few commentators will have discussed the theological outcomes.

The outbreak of war brought to a close an unprecedented period of peace in western Europe – La Belle Epoque – and was the first pan-European war since the end of the Napoleonic wars 99 years earlier.  During the 19th century a belief in universal progress had emerged.  People prospered, and science, technology, medicine and industry advanced.  This high point of modernism fostered a belief that given enough time and money all humanity’s problems would ultimately be solved.

War gravesWorld War I blew a Dreadnought-sized hole in this optimistic outlook.  As the realisation began to dawn that the old world had been blown away by the war, and that killing millions of brave people in battle was not a glorious sacrifice but a tragic mistake, people began to realise that all technology had brought them was a way to kill each other more rapidly and effectively.  During the war, 8 million people died and 37 million were injured making it one of history’s worst conflicts.  Small wonder then that the 20th century turned out to be the bloodiest in human history – so far.

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)

This crisis of belief took hold first in artistic and philosophical circles.  War poets became celebrated as contemporary prophets rather than vilified for their lack of patriotism.  Within a decade of the end of the war, Martin Heidegger was teaching nihilism in German universities.  A generation later existentialism emerged.  God was, in philosophical terms, well and truly dead.  It takes a few generations for new ideas to permeate society, so the soldiers who had endured so much trauma and suffering during the war did not immediately stop attending church services, though privately their trust in God may have been shattered.  But their grandchildren, in the 60s, led the exodus from churches.  Established religion began to lose its grip on society as people abandoned any pretence of a belief in God.  Churches closed down, and their buildings were converted into bars, apartments and gurdwaras.  People believed Christianity was finished.

Ironically, the children of that generation took a different approach.  Many of them realised that in abandoning organised religion, their parents had also surrendered any belief in spirituality.  Recognising that humanity has spiritual needs, some of them began searching for meaning in esoteric religions, paganism and New Age beliefs.  Turning their backs on the discredited scientific materialism of their forebears, they were free to embrace belief.

Young people at the Christian festival Soul Survivor

Young people at the Christian festival Soul Survivor

Their children, Generation Y, has become western Europe’s first largely unchurched generation since the start of the Dark Ages.  They are the first European generation in 1500 years who have absolutely no understanding of Christianity, no knowledge of biblical stories, and no awareness of the Lord’s Prayer or the Ten Commandments.  Paradoxically they are also history’s most open generation to Christianity.  With none of the disillusion of their parents and grandparents, or the preconceptions of their forebearss who thought Christianity had failed, they are willing to explore faith, spirituality and belief.  To them, Christianity is one facet of that exploration, and they have no prejudices against it.  Small wonder then that the church once again is starting to grow, as a new generation turns to Jesus in increasing numbers.

A century on from the most destructive conflict in European history, the European church is just beginning to recover.

Protestant Work Ethic

Max Weber (1864-1920)

Max Weber (1864-1920)

Early in the 1900s, the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) was pondering why some European countries had evolved into industrial powerhouses while others still had largely agrarian economies.  He realised that the former group were the Protestant countries of northern Europe, while the latter group largely comprised the Mediterranean and Balkan countries where the predominant denomination was either Roman Catholic or Orthodox.  He concluded that some aspect of Protestantism must be responsible for industrialisation, and the idea of the Protestant Work Ethic was born.  Weber concluded that the teaching of the protestant reformers, reinforced by later writers like Benjamin “time is money” Franklin, placed an ethical value on hard work, diligence and frugality as the outward evidence of salvation.  The negative value Protestants placed on ostentation meant that many of those who had wealth, particularly the non-conformists, re-invested it rather than spent it, resulting in the build up of capital and the start of capitalism.

Much discussed and frequently discredited, particularly with the decline of organised religion in Europe (see next week’s blog), the PWE has been nevertheless an interesting indicator of an economic dividing line across Europe which continues to this day.  As a current example, what do the countries which suffered most in the Eurozone crisis have in common?  They’re all in the non-protestant group: Ireland, Portugal, Italy, Spain, Cyprus and Greece.  Or, as a more irreverent commentator put it, they’re countries where people work for less than 20 hours a week.

(with acknowledgements to Rob Cottingham)

(with acknowledgements to Rob Cottingham)

That commentator’s corollary was that in the Protestant countries, we live for less than 20 hours a week.  And that is a perceptive observation.  Because the PWE means that people in the protestant countries, even those who are not active believers, unwittingly subscribe to the view that work is a moral imperative, that one ought to work, and work hard, to use the gifts that God has given us wisely.  We have even interpreted the parable of the talents to reinforce this view, and we will comment on that in a blog in two weeks’ time.

The PWE is still alive and kicking in the western church in the form of hard work and responsibility.  It seems that Christians today in the west, while on one level fully buying into the idea that our salvation is a free gift of grace which we can do nothing to earn, spend the rest of their lives working hard for God to pay off the loan which they’ve taken out.  This creates in us the drive to continue serving even when overwork is squeezing the life out of us.

Souce: (www.sxc.hu)

Souce: (www.sxc.hu)

Mission workers often typify this situation.  Overworked into a joyless drudgery, they continue to drive themselves dutifully while drying up on the inside.  They call it ‘laying down their lives’.  But it is in many situations an unnecessary and unrequired sacrifice.  Syzygy believes that the PWE has contributed significantly to the overwork and stress that cripples mission workers, leading to burnout.  They carry the weight of their responsibility heavily, and feel guilty if they stop to enjoy themselves.

One of the questions that we at Syzygy frequently ask mission workers is:

Would God love you any less if you never did anything for God again?

The answer, of course, is always no.  So why do we live our lives as if our salvation depended on our works alone?  Max Weber knows.

Other blogs in our mini-series on the Protestant Work Ethic cover issues such as:

Avatar: a metaphor for Generation Y?

avatarThe movie Avatar which came out a few years ago was a milestone in cinema history, not merely for the technology developed specially to produce the effects, but because it was one of the first blockbusters to reflect a postmodern view of the world.  We’ve blogged before about Generation Y, the first postmodern generation, but following a recent conference at which I addressed these issues I thought it would be good to revisit how Generation Y is entering the mission field and impacting their agencies, and to do it using a suitably postmodern metaphor.  To refresh your memories, Baby Boomer represents people born from about 1945-64, Generation X: 1965-1979, and Generation Y those born from 1980-2000.  Obviously, these are extreme generalisations and individuals each have their own personality and giftings which may not collate precisely with these generalisations.

Avatar, if you haven’t seen James Cameron’s epic film, is based around two groups of people, one a tribe – the Na’vi – living on their traditional lands, and group of human invaders who prize the mineral wealth beneath the land.  Its central characters have the vision to reach out to each other across the divide.  While this story has been filleted already for its postcolonial, anti-racist, pantheistic and environmentalist metaphors, it can also be seen as a representation of the potential conflict between Baby Boomer leaders and Gen Y recruits as Gen Y start to enter the mission field in significant numbers.

Gen Y, is this your leader?

Gen Y, is this your leader?

Who do the characters represent?  The humans, particularly their leader Colonel Quaritch, represent Baby Boomer senior management, supported by their Gen X workers.  Their lack of compromise in their pursuit of results and their willingness to ignore the needs both of their own people and particularly of others in order to achieve results can represent the uncompromising approach of certain types of mission leaders, fixated on an end goal.  The Na’vi, on the other hand, represent Gen Y, and have many typical Gen Y traits: they value community, are connected not only with each other but with other lifeforms and the planet they live in a harmonious relationship with.  They are clearly spiritual and have a desire to work things through rather than fight things out.  The hero of the movie, Jake Sully, represents an old-style leader who has the courage to change and learn new things, and his love-match Neytiri represents Gen Y who don’t simply give up on old ways but collaborate with Baby Boomers to create a better future.

Gen Y: feeling a bit out of place in their agencies?

Gen Y: feeling a bit out of place in their agencies?

What is the outcome?  The humans are defeated and driven from the planet, not merely because the Na’vi unite and fight back, but because the planet itself turns against them.  This is a metaphor for the unsustainability of the old way of life, but we know the humans will be back.  Whether they will come with more troops or a trade agreement is not made clear – the future is left deliberately uncertain so that we can decide it for ourselves.

What does this mean for us?  In the mission world the situation is reversed – Gen Y is invading (peaceably) the world of the Baby Boomers.  They may well receive an uncompromising welcome, and be told “Things have always been done this way.  Deal with it.”  Their likely response will be not to deal with it but to move on to a more adaptable agency.  This is bad news for the first agency:

any agency unable to welcome significant quantities of Gen Y is ultimately doomed to being unable to recruit new workers.

Jake Sully represents the Baby Boomer/Gen X leader who has the courage to realise that the organisation’s values and processes need to be adapted if they are going to welcome Gen Y.  This means recognising that values different to their own are valid, and that Gen Y can quickly make a significant contribution to the agency’s mission if they are welcomed, listened to, mentored, and allowed to learn and grown through their experiences.

Generation Y are by nature collaborative.  But they too are uncompromising.  They will not wait around to earn the right to participate in the decision-making process.  If the prevailing culture excludes them, they’re not going to wait 20 years till they’re senior enough to change it.  They’re going to start something new.  Some of the newer mission agencies will be inherently more adaptable, while older ones may have more resistance to change.  We have already seens some exciting mergers between old and new (e.g. AWM and Pioneers), and this may be the way forward for other agencies too.  Some form of change is inevitable.

The mission leaders who want to lead their agency into a fruitful future will be bold enough to make room for Generation Y now, before somebody else does.

Jesus rescues us from God?

rob-bellOne of the attention-grabbing statements in Rob Bell’s book Love Wins, published a couple of years ago, was the statement that ‘Jesus rescues us from God’.  Bell loves these potentially controversial yet thought-provoking sayings, and while this may on the surface sound ridiculous, put into the context of the surrounding paragraph, it might superficially seem to make sense:

Many have heard the gospel framed in terms of rescue.  God has to punish sinners, because God is holy, but Jesus has paid the price for our sin, and so we can have eternal life.  However true or untrue that is technically or theologically, what it can do is subtly teach us that Jesus rescues us from God.

But in doing so, Bell has revealed his lack of Trinitarian thinking.  Steve Chalke did the same a few years ago, when an evangelical storm in a teacup blew up around his suggestion that God might have been guilty of cosmic child abuse by beating up his own son on the cross.  Neither of them intended to communicate that they really believed what they said, but they both inadvertently ignited some controversy.

Trinitarian or tritheistic?

Trinitarian or tritheistic?

What these two, and countless other Christians in recent years have started to do, is think of the Father (aka God), Jesus and the Holy Spirit as separate people.  This is understandable given that we classically formulate the Trinity as ‘God in three persons’.  But a person today is an individual, whereas 1700 years ago when the word ‘person’ was first used in this context, identity was far more rooted in community, family and relationship than individuality.

That means that the Christian Fathers who thrashed out the orthodox definition of Trinity were thinking more of three ‘persons’ in relationship, in community, together, rather than three individuals.  But in our individualistic culture the imagery of the Trinity is stretched almost to breaking point, as we find it hard to conceive of three ‘persons’ in one being, unless it is evidence of a personality disorder.  The postmodern church has become functionally tritheistic, simply because it is, on the surface, easier to reconcile.

But Bell is wrong: Jesus does not rescue us from God because Jesus is God.  Chalke is wrong: God did not beat up Jesus; God took the beating personally on the cross.

Trinitarian believers need to learn to see God in Jesus as much as we see Jesus in us.  Jesus had a very high Christology: He who has seen me has seen the Father (John 14:9).  I am in the Father and the Father is in me. (John 14:11).  I am the Father are one (John 10:30).  In this latter verse the Greek implies one thing or one substance, rather than the more metaphorical being of one heart and mind.

Jesus handNot only did Jesus self-identify with the Father, he co-acted with the Father  – The Son can do nothing by himself… Whatever the Father does, the Son also does the same (John 5:20) and he co-spoke with the Father – I do not speak on my own initiative… I speak what the Father told me (John 12:49-50).

Even more radically, he then goes on to include to include us in this relationship of being and acting – I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you (John 14:20).  Remain in me, and I will remain in you (John 15:4).

And his missional mandate includes us too: God seeking the lost in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:9) becomes Jesus seeking and saving the lost (Luke 19:10) becomes our mandate in the Father and the Son: As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you (John 20:21), empowered by the Holy Spirit, who abides with you, and will be in you (John 15:17).

When we see ourselves as part of this Trinitarian missio dei – God’s outreach to the world – we will find ourselves truly commissioned, sent, indwelt and inspired by the living God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Reconciliation

A gesture of reconciliation? (Source: sxc.hu)

A gesture of reconciliation? (Source: sxc.hu)

On a long flight recently, I watched three movies.  Although they were in different genres and from different studios, they all shared a common theme – healing broken relationships.  In fact, this could even said to be the real plot of all three films, though not necessarily the headline one.  And if you think about it, there have been so many films recently which address this issue, that it may even be a reflection of a deep need within society.  Art mirrors life, not the other way round.

In the UK, where only 25% of children are brought up by both their biological parents, and the number of single adult households outnumbers the couples, there is clearly a lot of relational damage.  Add to that the fact that during the 20th century many people consciously broke traditional ties to family, community and hometown to assert their individualism and independence, and we are left with a world which is desperately in need of healed relationships.  Many other cultures share these challenges, together with other deep fissures in their society resulting from race, class, tribal, religious and political divides.  Not surprisingly, the three films I watched featured three different generations looking for that reconciliation.  All of them, of course, were successful.  Only in Hollywood do they all live happily ever after!

Jesus hand

Source: www.captivatedbychrist.org

Reconciliation is a key biblical theme.  It could even be described as the main one – God looking to restore the damaged relationship with humanity.  It starts with God’s first question ‘Where are you?’ (Genesis 3:9), via the mission of Jesus to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:9) and ends with the ultimate reconciliation – a wedding (Revelation 19:9).  As Paul writes, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

A careful study of Paul’s writing about what Jesus accomplished on the cross reveals that he uses the concept of reconciliation more frequently than other terms such as salvation, atonement, healing or redemption.  Restoring a damaged relationship is essential to God’s mission, and deep inside, even the lost crave reconciliation, a sense of oneness, of belonging.

Once reconciled with God, we have the ability to become reconciled to the rest of humanity.  We have been forgiven, so we can forgive.  We have been reached out to, so we can reach out.  We have received peace, so we can give it.  This is a message the world is crying out for, yet we are still timid to share it.

Souce: www.gdwm.org

Souce: www.gdwm.org

Not only do we hang onto this message for ourselves, but often we fail to apply it.  The church is riven with division, between denominations, differing styles of worship or methodology, and individuals who have fallen out with each other over issues of belief or practice.  We often cite our own ethics or convictions as reasons for maintaining a rift with an ‘unrepentant’ Christian – but does that mask an unwillingness to engage with someone who really just holds a different opinion?  Are we really so different from those believers of an earlier generation who burned each other at the stake?

True reconciliation means not that we overlook matters of faith or style, but that we recognise that what unites us in Christ is greater than what divides us in the flesh.  It requires grace, and generosity of spirit to acknowledge that Christians who have markedly different practices from us are also loved and forgiven by God.  Let us have the humility to walk barefoot across the gap between us and ask forgiveness for our judgementalism on those for whom Christ also died.

The wounded hands of Jesus have reached out to us in reconciliation.  Why do we find it so hard to reach out ours to others?

Contextualisation

Contextualisation?  A 19th century church building in Malawi  (Source: Wikipedia)

Contextualisation? A 19th century church building in Malawi (Source: Wikipedia)

Most of us have heard stories of how mission workers of the past often took their native culture with them in the well-meant but misguided view that it was ‘Christian’ to wear clothes, worship in a certain style or meet in a building whose architecture reflected the mission workers’ culture more than the local one.  Sadly today we often make similar mistakes, although there is generally a greater awareness of the need to contextualise.

Contextualisation is the word we give to how we adapt our presentation of the gospel so that it is culturally relevant to the people we are talking to.  It involves understanding their location and culture so that we don’t say things they won’t understand or even worse be put off by.  So there’s no point in using the verse “Though your sins are scarlet they will be white as snow” in the tropics, where people haven’t seen snow.  Better to replace snow with cotton.  And don’t tell a Buddhist she must be born again – that’s the very thing she’s fed up with doing!

The early apostles – particularly Paul – used contextualisation in preaching the gospel.  When addressing Jews, Paul quoted extensively from Jewish scripture and tradition (e.g. Acts 13:16-41), yet in his famous address to the ruling council in Athens (Acts 17:22-31) he made no mention of either, but argued with them out of their own culture and tradition.  Yet at the same time he was committed to the unadulterated truth of the gospel – “we preach Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23).

Contextualisation or blasphemy?

Contextualisation or blasphemy?

In recent years there has been an ongoing debate over what is optional and what is non-negotiable, as with the recent high-profile controversy about references to Father and Son when talking to people of a Moslem background.  Contextualisation affects our language, as in the case of one English church which has stopped using the word Father to describe God, since that word has such negative connotions in the minds of local non-christians.  It also affects cultural and self-identification issues: should a Moslem who comes to faith be called a Christian?  Or a Moslem-background believer?  A follower of Isa-al-Massi?  Should he be encouraged to leave the mosque and be part of a church?  Or continue being part of his community as a secret believer?

Challenges such as these affect mission to people of other beliefs, particularly in Asia where we come into contact with people of radically different worldviews, and in post-Christian Europe where many are ignorant of even the most basic Christian terminology like ‘sin’ and ‘redemption’.  Which is why many evangelists now use terms like ‘Do you want God to help you?’ in preference to the less accessible ‘You must repent!’

The European Evangelical Mission Association is holding a conference in September (in Majorca!) to discuss these issues.  Representatives of denominations and mission agencies will be there to debate the limits of contextualisation, the future of the insider movement and the relevance of the C1-C6 model.  The speakers will be renowned exponents on these topics: Rose Dowsett, Beat Jost, and John Travis.  To find out more go to http://www.europeanema.org/conference-2013/.  It promises to be a challenging debate!

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

In the early 6th century BC, the small, independent kingdom of Judah was crushed by the power of Babylon, a huge global superpower.  The king was executed, the nobles abducted, the temple burned to the ground, and many of the population were forcibly relocated to a new home deep into enemy territory, where they were surrounded by people with different customs, religions and languages.

Psalm 137 (which made a brief but infamous appearance in the British charts in 1978 at the hands of Boney M) is a lamentation about this experience of going into exile.  It refers to pain, a desire to go back, and a lust for revenge.  Their mocking captors had asked them to sing one of their folk songs to entertain them, but this just reminded them of the home that they couldn’t return to.  ‘How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land’ becomes a shorthand reference to the challenge of living as an insignificant minority in a hostile culture, where there are multiple religious beliefs, a variety of practices which the faithful may be forced to participate in, and a complete lack of tolerance for their previous national customs.

This is a situation not unlike western Europe today, as Christians struggle to come to terms with the fact that Christendom is no more.  Christianity no longer provides a moral compass even if David Cameron himself claims that Britain is a Christian country.  There are too many competing voices now for that to be completely true.  There are Christian elements to our world, and a huge Christian heritage shaping much of our public practice and principle, but effectively now we are a post-Christian country.  Like the exiled Jews, we need to come to terms with it.

In fact, throughout most of history God’s faithful have been in the minority.  In Genesis, just eight people made it onto the ark, and the Abrahamic covenant was made with just one family among many tribes.  Throughout the rest of the Pentateuch they were just twelve tribes among the Egyptian oppressors, or wandering through the wilderness among hostile neighbours.  Under the judges they were just one nation amongst many.  Under the kings, they were battling with external threats and against internal apostasy.  Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel had to deal with the challenge of being subjects of a huge multinational empire and the whole of the New Testament takes place against the backdrop of the oppressive might of Rome.  Subsequently Christianity spread around the world but often had to deal with suffering and persecution at the hands of others – particularly in communist or modern Islamic countries.

For only one significant period of history has there been an exception to this rule: the bizarre 15 or so centuries when Christendom thrived in Europe in an alliance between church and state that ‘christianised’ nations and ‘authorised’ church.  But today Christendom is crumbling.  People of other faiths (and no faith) have a voice.  Christians are losing ours.  We are going into exile and we don’t like it.  Old familiarities are changing, old paradigms are failing.  People stronger than us have taken us into exile.  Now our challenge is to work out how to live alongside others on their terms, not on ours.

Some of the issues that face us include: keeping Sunday special, ethical issues surrounding the beginning and end of life, accommodating other faiths, the possibilities of witness in the workplace, and the church’s attitude to those who sexual and gender preferences are different to those traditionally sanctioned by the church.  When we are not Biblically literate, we struggle to determine our response to these issues.  But we can rely on different precedents to indicate how we might approach these situations, which range from opposition to compliance.

Daniel (Chapter 6) chose to react with open defiance when ordered to pray only to the king.  When Jesus (Mt 22:15-22) was given the opportunity to encourage people to revolt against paying taxes to an illegal occupying force, he chose to focus on our devotion to God.  Paul (1C10:31) would have felt it was ok for Christians to eat halal or kosher meat as long as they felt they could do it with a clean conscience.  Nehemiah (Neh 13:23) clearly thought it was wrong to marry an unbeliever while Paul said that if you’ve already done it, you should not divorce them (1C7:12).

What each of them is doing (in their own context) is determining which issues are worth fighting over, and which we can safely going along with.  Each of us, together in our church contexts, and not in isolation, needs to work this through too.  Sometimes the church fights on the wrong ground, making a stand on things that could comfortably compromised over, or giving way easily over massively significant issues.  Some guidelines to help us extrapolate biblical teaching into contemporary contexts may include asking ourselves the following questions:

Would our compliance contravene the 10 commandments (Exodus 20:1-17), or any other clear scriptural injunction?

Does resistance prevent us keeping the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:32-40)?

Does compromise help us to fulfil the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20)?

Often, Christians who make a stand on an issue can easily alienate and offend the very people we hope to reach out to with the love of God.  So we need to be careful in how we express ourselves.  We need to remember that in a post-Christian, multi-cultural world it can be evangelistically counter-productive and morally dubious to force non-believers to comply with our views, even if we believe we are right.

Jeremiah wrote a letter to the Jewish exiles .  He wasn’t popular for it, but it was good advice from God.  He said:

‘Build houses and live in them, and plant gardens and eat their produce… Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare your will have welfare’.  (Jeremiah 29:5-7)

In other words, get used to it.  Don’t live in a dream world; don’t carry on complaining that this is wrong.  Get over it.  Adapt and thrive.

Working with Generation Y

While many of us are still coming to terms with Generation X, Generation Y sneaks up on us unawares!  Leaders in missions will be starting to encounter this generation, and they’ll be starting to realise that Ys aren’t quite what they expected.  People working in short-term have been dealing with Ys for quite a while now, so will be coming to terms with the fact that they do things differently to previous generations, but these people are now coming through into doing long-term where their differences will be rubbing their leaders up the wrong way.

Generation Y is the unimaginative name given to the generation following on from Generation X, and consists of those born (roughly) from 1980 to 2000.  They’re also called Generation Next or Millennials, but I’ll stick to Y as it’s easier to spell.  These people grew up connected, having mobile phones and computers from their youngest days.  Their families may have been broken, leading to a highly important need to belong, but their parents will have invested heavily in them so they are used to getting feedback and encouragement.  They also grew up after the end of the cold war, so they were promised peace, but now find that their lives overshadowed by the war on terror.  This can lead them to distrust authority and value honesty, authenticity and integrity.

What are these people going to be like as your co-workers? Their workplace expectations are not that different from those of previous generations, but they are far more reluctant to toe the line in the way their parents or grandparents might have done.  Older people might think of them as lazy, uncommitted, overconfident, disrespectful and impatient, but those are the flip side of great strengths:

Lazy?  These people are digital natives.  Because they grew up in a multi-media world they are able to surf Facebook, send text messages, listen to music and get on with their work at the same time.  But they don’t live to work.  They’re flexible and will be more concerned about getting the overall task done than by being at their desk at the right time.  They might be working at home at 10pm, not because they’re workaholics, but just because it works better for them.

Uncommitted?  Well, they’re not committed to things just because you think they ought to be.  Duty is not a word that features frequently in their vocabulary.  But they will be highly committed to things they believe in, even though it may not look like it to older generations.  Their desire for authenticity leads them to reject much that is latently hypocritical, but when they find something genuine, they will embrace it.

Overconfident?  Because they’ve had a lot of positive parenting, Ys believe in themselves, and because they’ve seen through authority structures, they won’t tolerate spending ten years doing the filing before they’re allowed to have an opinion.  They believe they have a contribution and they don’t understand why they can’t make it now.

Disrespectful?  They respect people, not positions, so if you aren’t confident as a leader and hide behind your position, they’ll see through you.  They respect people who show that they care, make wise decisions, and don’t try to give them corporate flannel.  If they speak out of turn, it’s only because they can see a problem and haven’t had a good answer for it.

Impatient?   Ys were born connected.  They get the answers they want off the internet in seconds.  They instant message their friends.  They just want to get on with things without being held up.

So as Ys become your partners in mission, how do you need to treat them?

Teamwork.  Their whole life is made up of connections, so the idea of working alone doesn’t exist.  They’ll share problems, bring in specialists, and network with anyone they need to.  So create a flexible team structure in which they can thrive and don’t tell them they can’t talk to someone in another office just because you have a territory dispute with another manager.

Managing.  Top-down hierarchies don’t work.  These people have had positive parenting.  Create for them an environment in which they can learn and develop skills.  Feedback to them regularly.  Don’t impose rules, explain reasons.  Don’t manage the process, mentor the person.

Communication.  Give them all the facts and explain why you’ve made a decision.  They need to know the reasons before they can believe.  Your answer doesn’t have to be 100% logical; you can bring in emotions as well.  Let them ask challenging questions.  When they see you communicate openly and honestly, and allow them to be part of the solution, they will trust you and become committed.

Fulfilment.  In the secular workplace, Generation Y is more concerned to find a job they can believe in than one that pays well (although they expect to be fairly remunerated!).  This is true in the Christian world as well.  You need to ensure that they believe in what they’re doing in order to get the best out of them, and try to make sure they feel they’ve been treated fairly.

Obviously, these are huge generalisations, and individual personalities differ greatly, but this information may help to explain to you why people under 30 seem to think and act strangely at times.  These generational characteristics may not be so pronounced in Christians, since they have also been subject to the unique influences of Christian discipleship and training in church, community and possibly Bible College.  However, they grew up in the same conditions as non-Christians, were educated together with them, and used the same media, so will demonstrate similar generational characteristics.  Get to know them better, and you’ll all end up working better together.

 

City to City Conference

Last week Syzygy was at the City to City Conference in Berlin, where the headline speaker was pastor Tim Keller from the US, supported by a number of well-known church-planting specialists from a variety of European countries.  It was great to hear so many practical success stories and to meet so many young people all enthusiastically involved in church planting across the continent.  25 different countries were represented, and although some of their contingents were small, it was good to hear positive feedback from people from Ireland, Portugal, Greece and Russia, not countries normally associated with church-planting success.

Tim Keller was eloquent, thought-provoking and provided significant insights into a traditional-style church plant.  He has clearly thought through what he has done at Redeemer in New York and gave some detailed but necessarily condensed tips, particularly about understanding and engaging with city dwellers as opposed to suburbanites.  The most significant one was also one of the most obvious: if you do not really love the city you’re called to, the locals will see through you and not respond.

City to City Europe is a network growing out of Redeemer City to City, the international ministry of Keller and others, and has a vision for planting churches in city centre communities rather than the suburbs.  Their style is fairly traditional although their methodology is not, and if you are looking to plant an urban church anywhere in the world, you will find resources and networking opportunities through them.  They have on board people who know what they are doing, and to demonstrate it they have put on youtube some good quality videos about their churches in several European cities. Click to see the Dublin one.  I chose this partly because it’s in English, but also because I spent some time talking to Rob Jones at the conference and heard a lot more about his work, which sounds really good.

Although this conference was all about Europe, Redeemer City to City is active in some major cities of other continents and may well be of interest to those already at work in an urban context.

 

 

Generations divided by different approaches to church


Is this church?

When you hear the word ‘church’ what image comes to mind?  A building?  A community?  A service?  A family?  Perhaps all of these do, or perhaps only some of them.  What do you think is essential for church?  Your answers to these questions may vary significantly from those of people of a different generation to you.  They might also acquire additional significance if you’re working in a missions community where the local church may have lengthy services in uncomfortable conditions, with repetitive singing in a language you don’t fully comprehend, and loud sermons that are not aimed at your needs.  And that’s just if you’re lucky enough not to be preaching or leading the worship.

For most older mission workers, church may not be an enjoyable experience, or even a relevant one, but it’s part of the job.  You go to church, because you should.  It’s expected of Christians, particularly of mission workers who should set a good example to the local believers.  And what happens there is pretty standard: Acts 2:42 sets out the four pillars of church: teaching, fellowship (whatever that is), communion and prayer.  Though we always leave out the embarrassing bit about having all things in common and nobody being poor – that was just culturally appropriate to the Jerusalem church.

Is this church?????

Somebody I spoke to recently was completely unable to understand why young people did not want be part of an experience like that.  They’re just not committed, she complained.  I was able to explain that young people (postmoderns, Gen X) are able to be highly committed, but only to things they believe in, and not merely to things somebody else thinks they ought to be committed to.  So younger mission workers are increasingly spurning traditional ways of doing church, just like young people in Europe.  They are finding new ways of doing things, and making them work, but this doesn’t always look like church to an older generation.

Why is it not church when a group of people meet regularly together in someone’s house for prayer, or worship, or Bible study?  Because they don’t do them all at the same time?  Because it’s not Sunday?  Because there’s no leadership?  Is that really what defines church?

This conflict has its roots in a transitional phase that the western world is going through at the moment: the much-talked-about but little-understood transition from modern to postmodern.  It’s not merely an intergenerational conflict where the old don’t understand the young and vice versa; it’s a change of epoch on a scale of the fall of the Roman Empire or the rise of the Enlightenment out of the middle ages.  It involves fundamentally different worldviews and ways of doing things.  Including church.

 

Is this church?

Here in the west there are already many different ways of doing church which do not fit the traditional model.  House church led to cell church, and 50 years later there are simple church, messy church, cyber church, deconstructed church, and an awful lot of people who love God together but don’t do church at all.  While this development may not have touched the cultures of the two thirds world in the same way yet, it has had an impact on a large number of young people who have grown up among a postmodern generation who are passionate about church in a different way.  When these young people enter the mission field, they want to keep doing things in a different way, but often the older generation not only sees this as a threat to the work they’ve spent their lives establishing, but doubts the very genuineness of the young people’s relationship with God.

I write this brief introduction to a highly complex issue in the hope that older mission workers will be able to be tolerant of younger ones who want to do things differently, and that younger ones may understand why the previous generation just can’t see what they see.  This of course relates only to the church needs of the mission worker; how it impacts on the church needs of the local believers is an entirely different matter!

 

Has Rob Bell fallen from grace?

Popular inspirational speaker and church leader Rob Bell has created a storm with his latest book Love Wins in which he challenges the church’s traditional understanding of heaven and hell.  Bell, pastor of the 10,000-strong postmodern church Mars Hill in Grandville, Michigan (USA) and producer of the popular Nooma dvd series, has never been considered a theological heavyweight by evangelicals, despite the fact that he clearly makes every effort to make his teaching biblical (as he sees it) and this book is no exception.  Bell’s strength is communicating Christian truth in an entertaining and simple manner for a postmodern generation.

Bell’s favourite technique is to ask reductive rhetorical questions to help people realise the absurdity of the traditional view of heaven and hell.  Examples include:

God is loving and kind and full of grace and mercy – unless there isn’t confession and repentance and salvation in this lifetime, at which point God  punishes forever.  That’s the Christian story, right?


A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them, [will] in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormentor who will ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony.


Many have heard the gospel framed in terms of rescue.  God has to punish sinners, because God is holy, but Jesus has paid the price for our sin, and so we can have eternal life.  However true or untrue that is technically or theologically, what it can do is subtly teach us that Jesus rescues us from God.

Bell is not in fact saying anything that erudite theologians in reputable seminaries haven’t been speculating about for decades, a point which he claims in his introduction to demonstrate his ‘alternative orthodoxy’.  Where Bell is different, however, is that he does not follow the traditional liberal line of beginning with a God of love and rejecting the authority of the Bible where it contradicts love.

While he begins with the problem (which all of us, in truth, grapple with) that an ostensibly loving God will condemn billions of his own creatures to burn forever, he seeks a fully biblical solution, looking at the teaching of Jesus and all the terms used in scripture for hell.  He explains that what Jesus and his listeners would have understood by heaven and hell are not the same as the image the church has inherited, and proposes a solution drawn from the parable of the prodigal son, where the older brother is invited to the party, still has the option of going to the party, but doesn’t.

The book itself is written in Bell’s engaging and accessible style, with plenty of rhetorical questions ridiculing the point he is criticising.  However, like Velvet Elvis, it starts with a big impact but gradually fizzles out.  It’s long on argument but short on proposition, and ends up being unable to answer coherently the questions that it has raised.

Technically, it fails to tackle head on some crucial texts (e.g. Matthew 13:47-52, Mark 9:47-48, 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9, Revelation 20:10, 15) while claiming to have fully examined everything the Bible has to say about the subject.  While Bell is also quite correct by arguing that ‘everlasting’ (aionios in Greek) can be translated ‘for a time’ as validly as it can be translated ‘forever’, he doesn’t deal with how this can apply where ‘everlasting punishment’ and ‘everlasting life’ appear in the same sentence (Matthew 5:46).

Bell concludes that there is (or will be) no such place as hell, if by hell you mean a lake of fire.  He implies that he might believe in purgatory, and clearly anticipates a beautiful future for most of us, Christian or not, unless we choose to reject it.  And although he doesn’t actually say it,  there may  be a possibility making that choice after death.  And if we do reject it, the consequences won’t be hell, though it’s not clear from this book what they might be.

Whether you love or hate this book will depend on whether you are modern or postmodern.  If you are the latter you will be thrilled that someone has had the courage to recontextualise biblical imagery to create a new paradigm empowering us to live life like it really matters.  If you are modern, you will be furious that a high profile public figure will so undermine Christian tradition and challenge orthodoxy.

Bell has not succeeded in providing any answers, and while many Christians will be encouraged that the fate of their loved ones who have already died might not be as awful as they had previously believed, many more will be confused by this controversial and ultimately unhelpful intervention.  I can’t wait for John Piper to reply, probably by writing a book defending hell.

Many evangelical Christians will be outraged and offended by Bell’s views, but it is lamentable that they care so passionately about defending the traditional understanding of hell, yet do so little to prevent their neighbours being sent there.


Researching mission in Europe

Despite the prevalent perception that Europe considers God is dead, and that churches are in terminal decline, there is much going on in Europe for us to be excited about.  Many postmodern young Europeans have a willingness to explore their spirituality and engage with God in a way that would puzzle the preceding two generations, who have mainly felt that Christianity is increasingly irrelevant and discredited.  A new generation however, being largely unchurched, has no such reservations and is often interested in the Christian faith while being untouched by the cynicism of their predecessors.

The upshot of this is that there is a great deal of evangelism, mission and church-planting going on right across Europe.  Much of this is carried out by small mission organisations, simple churches, independent mission workers and informal networks.  Often focussed tightly at specific groups – young people, bikers, Moslem-background believers, ethnic minorities – these many, diverse operations add up to an evangelistic explosion across the continent.  While established denominations and sending agencies also see significant growth, diversity and informality have been particularly effective.  More evangelistic activity is taking place now than at any time over the last 50 years.

The result is that the picture of evangelism in Europe has become so localised and complex that no single person or organization has an overall picture of all the developments, initiatives, networks or new organizations even in an individual country, still less across Europe as a whole.   For this reason Syzygy is pleased to be co-operating with Eurochurch.net, Nova Research Centre and Springdale College: Together in Mission to undertake research that will identify the significant missional organisations and networks functioning within the nations and across the continent of Europe, and determine in what ways they can be more effective either by being part of an existing network or by tacit co-operation with other networks.

It is our conviction that this information is crucial to academics, church leaders, networks and agencies for forging strategic alliances which will facilitate the work of mission throughout the continent.  The objective is to produce a comprehensive directory of all churches, agencies and individuals involved in church planting in Europe.  That knowledge will be used to form a map of activity which will then be made widely available to denominations, churches, organisations and individuals who would find it helpful to know what it happening.

The preliminary results of our research will be presented at a seminar at Hope II in Budapest in May and there will continue to be follow-up consultations in a variety of European locations to determine with other participants how better to foster cooperation between the various agencies, individuals and groupings involved in this massive task of taking the good news back to the least reached continent.

If you are involved in any way in European missions and are willing to spend just five minutes completing an online form to help with our research, please contact me on tim@syzygy.org.uk.

Guest blog: Post-secular Europe?

This week’s guest blogger is Rev Dr Martin Robinson, Principal of Springdale College: Together in Mission.  This article first appeared on www.eurochurch.net in September 2010.


Tom Wright, the recently-retired Bishop of Durham and leading New Testament scholar, marked his retirement bygiving a significant interview to the BBC in which he reflected on the situation of the Church of England.  During that wide ranging interview he picked on the theme that we are not becoming more secular, in fact if anything we are becoming more religious.

What he described applies to Europe more widely.  In a world of ‘posts’ – post-empire, post-modern, and post-Christian – we can now add post-secular.  A number of European commentators have picked up on this theme.  Europe is increasingly post-secular.

How do we make sense of such a situation?  How can we have lost touch with the founding roots of Europe and become post-Christian and yet now be rejecting the root of that criticism, secularism itself?

The clue lies in the contrast between being ‘religious people’ and ‘spiritual people’.  The people of Europe don’t think of themselves as ‘religious’, by which they mean to identify with a particular religious organization or institution but they can think of themselves as ‘spiritual’ by which they mean interested in God, in prayer, in a sense of wonder and mystery about life.

The root of this rejection of religion lies partly in the ancient European worry about religion as embodying conflict combined with a more recent rejection of institutions of all kinds  – whether they be political, social, or even educational.  We are now radically individualistic with all the angst that such a choice produces.  More worryingly there is also a gradual severing of the relationship between the idea of spirituality and the idea of morality.  You can be a ‘spiritual’ person without having to think too deeply about a particular moral code beyond the requirement to do no harm.

The depth of this shift of sentiment helps to illustrate the painful lesson that the church has learnt these last 20 years: the answer to the question of the decline of the church does not lie in a particular programme or model of the church.   Instead we have to learn how to do mission – in our cultural context – deeply contextualized and profoundly local.

In a recent interview with a church leader in Wales, I learnt that most of the historic churches in Wales are still declining but that a few  congregations in their midst were seeing good growth.  One or two of the smaller historic denominations are beginning to turn the corner and that some of the newer and independent churches are seeing remarkable growth.  The single factor that connects these very different expressions of church is the willingness to connect with and to serve at a deep level the communities in which they are located.

One of my students who is exploring the growth of some ‘traditional’ congregations in Scotland is making the same kind of discoveries in that very different context.  The exploration of this kind of mission is precisely what Eurochurch.net as a network of practitioners and thinkers is committed to locate and debate.

Martin Robinson

Can postmoderns do long-term?

I was talking recently to a young woman who’s been serving the Lord in France for a few years.  In the course of conversation I enquired whether she’s thinking of doing missions long-term.

“Long-term!” she exclaimed, aghast.  “I’m postmodern; I don’t do long-term.”

Which raises an interesting question: how do people who don’t do long-term engage with missions that do?  Which one changes?  And how? Or can the two approaches be brought together?

The traditional missions model thinks of ‘terms’ of 3-5 years with a break in the home country in between.  I’ve heard it said that in your first term you start learning the language, in the second you start to appreciate the culture, and in the third you’re just about ready to start doing some useful work.  Add in the time you spent preparing to go, at Bible college, raising support and getting other training, and it could be nearly 15 years before you’re actually getting bedded in.  That’s the equivalent of nearly two careers for a postmodern!

It seems likely that in future, more people will do missions as a phase of their life rather than make it a long-term career choice.  This has huge implications for those organisations which stress language acquisition and cultural familiarisation.  But maybe postmoderns with their global perspective will actually integrate much more effectively than their predecessors, who may speak the language fluently but may also have a tendency to isolate themselves in homogeneous micro-communities.

We need to accept that increased turnover is a fact of life.  People come and go.  We can loathe that or we can embrace it.  It might mean that young people don’t stay with us for life, but it also means that older people can join in at a later stage in life than they might previously have done, bringing life skills with them.  The important thing is that we greet people well, and say goodbye well too.  Moving on is neither a lack of commitment or a failure.