24 January 2009

Don't lose the plot

Two things are on my mind and my plate this morning...

One is a reply I made to a pastor friend regarding the "new low literacy of the Bible" among Americans and the other (which is actually the same thing... (smile)) is rereading The Open Secret.

Years ago (probably around 2001), my friend and neighbor Jim Tebbe was moving back to the US.  So in cleaning out his books, he gave me a copy of Lesslie Newbigin's The Open Secret.  It was originally published in 1978.

I had read his Foolishness to the Greeks prior to going overseas and found it intriguing, but somehow had missed The Open Secret.  But I read it with relish and came away amazed that Newbigin had such prophetic insight!

Well I picked it up again this morning and I want to share a couple of quotes (keep in mind he wrote this in 1978):

"...We are forced to do something that the Western churches have never had to do since the days of their own birth -- to discover the form and substance of a missionary church that are valid in a world that has rejected the power and influence of the Western nations.  Missions will no longer work along the stream of expanding Western power.  They have to learn how to go against the stream.  And in this situation we shall find that the New Testament speaks to us much more directly thank does the nineteenth century as we learn afresh what it means to bear witness to the gospel from a position not of strength but of weakness..."  (p.5)

"...All thinking about the world mission of the church today must thankfully and joyfully take account of the fact that the 'home base' of missions is now nothing less than the worldwide community, and every proposed expression of the church's missionary outreach must be tested by asking whether it can be accepted by the whole ecumenical family as an authentic expression of the gospel."  (p. 7)

In essence, he's saying what we need to hear: it's about God's church on mission reflected both in form and substance and we cannot rely on "home field advantage" -- people thinking and assuming like us...

After returning to the US after so many years abroad, it seems to me that the Church has lost the “home field advantage” (HFA).  The HFA we as the church enjoyed in the USA (and especially in the South) is just over.  And instead of being angry and nostalgic about the “good old days,” we need to learn to play on any field.

Christianity has been the de facto “favored religion” and something of biblical knowledge was a part of the American culture.  Historically witnesses in court and Presidents were sworn in on a Bible, etc. so there was a sense of biblical authority.  And many people had a sense of the Bible stories.  “Walking on water,” David and Goliath, antichrist – all became part of Western/American vocabulary.

But the sense of biblical literacy that has existed in previous generations is just gone – as evidenced by the Google search.

Not long ago, I wrote this…

So, we have to drop back and regroup:

  • Lose the language… We have to get rid of the default Christian-ese language and shorthand that we always used.  In the past even unchurched people understood what it meant when we preached and used Christian shorthand.  If you said “get saved” the unchurched knew what you meant.  Not now.  So we have to find new ways of communicating.
  • Find the mystery… We have to emphasize the mystery of the Trinity and the reality of God’s presence in the world today…  it’s okay not to be able to explain everything in a linear 2+2 formula.
  • Keep the plot… We have to major on the important things in Scripture while being very tolerant of those who disagree.
  • Focus on Jesus – the real Jesus… We have to talk about Jesus – who he is, what he did, why it was important.  For many in our world Jesus Christ is a curse word.  Really.  So we need to again explain who he is, over and over again.
  • Define which God… Everybody believes in god – we have to continually reemphasize the characteristics of the true God.  We can’t just reference “god” we have to be specific.
  • Tell the story; tell it well and tell it often...  We need to tell The Story as well as other stories that engage the imagination, not just as illustrations.
  • Make following Jesus spiritual, not religious… There is a genuine desire for spirituality and community among the biblically illiterate.  But they pick up on negativity and intolerance.

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