Monday, April 4, 2011

Church and Culture (Part 2)

Recently, I reread George G. Hunter’s The Celtic Way of Evangelism (Abingdon Press). This may be the most thought provoking book I have read on how the church can/should minister in the post-modern world. To help us understand how to reach the contemporary world, Hunter takes us back to the days of St. Patrick. [Let me add a disclaimer. Just because I like a book, that does not mean I agree with everything in the book or even all of its conclusions.]

Most people think of Patrick as Irish and, one might argue, that he became Irish. However, he was born a Briton. Patrick was born in Britain in the year 387. When he was 16 years old, he was kidnapped by the wild people of Ireland and forced to live as a slave. However, six years later, he escaped and (eventually) returned to Britain. Upon his return, he entered the priesthood. After a few years, he believed the Lord was calling him to return to Ireland as a missionary. So, he petitioned the church to send him there. However, the church was reluctant to do so because the church at that time did not believe the Irish could ever become Christians. Why? Because the Irish were barbarians. Hunter notes that, “The perspective of the ancient Roman Christian leaders can be baldly stated in two sentences: (1) Roman Christian leaders assumed that a population had to be civilized "enough" already to be Christianized, that is, that some degree of civilization was a prerequisite to Christianization. (2) Once a sufficiently civilized population became Christian, they were expected in time to read and speak Latin, to adopt other Roman customs, and to do church ‘the Roman way.’”

Still, Patrick went and his ministry was hugely successful. He planted 700 churches and ordained 1000 of these wild Irish “barbarians” to the priesthood. Within his lifetime, estimates are that 30-40 of Irelands 150 tribes became substantially Christian. Furthermore, the Irish then sent missionaries back to the barbarian tribes of Europe. Following Patrick’s model of ministry, they too saw huge success where other missionaries had failed.

You would think that the church in Rome would have celebrated Patrick’s success and the success of his followers among the Germanic peoples. Instead, the church powers of the day were highly critical. The reason was that Patrick and the church movement that he birthed did not do church in “the Roman way.” This all came to a head in 664 at the Synod of Whitby. The two major issues were 1) that the Celtic churches celebrated Easter on a different date than Rome prescribed (they used an earlier dating method than Rome) and 2) the Celtic priests and monks wore their hair differently than the Roman priests and monks. The Roman church wanted all churches to do things exactly the way they did it. They wanted cultural uniformity and insisted that the all others adapt to their culture. The church could not be indigenous to its location. The result of the Synod of Whitby was that Christianity could not longer be indigenous, but must be “Roman.” Within two centuries of Whitby, the missionary movement of the church was effectively squashed. It would not be until the Reformation that the church would recapture its missionary vision in any significant way.

The Roman Church insisted that churches be Roman in their practices. Of course, there was no biblical basis for this. The early church in Jerusalem did not dress Roman, it did not speak Latin primarily. It did not look “Roman.” It looked Jewish in its cultural forms. Yet, within 400 years, the early church had gone from insisting on Jewish cultural forms to Roman cultural forms.

The same issue presents itself today. The western church today looks very different from both the Roman church of Patrick’s day and the Jewish church of the Apostle Paul’s day. The Christians of the early church (and Patrick’s church) would have found many of our church practices shocking. Our music--even in the most traditional of our churches--would have been strange to them. The formality of our dress would have been foreign to them. Yet, just like the Romans of Patrick’s day, many Christians, even Christian leaders, insist that the only right cultural form for doing church is that which was established 400 years ago. However, we must recognize that something is terribly wrong when we insist that “the right way” of doing things is a cultural form that would have been completely foreign to both Jesus and the Apostle Paul.

There are some valuable lessons that we can, and should, learn from Patrick. One is, if the gospel is going to take root in a culture and bring real transformation, it must be indigenous. That is why the church in Colorado Springs can and should look different from a church in Haiti. Of course, there are biblical norms that transcend culture. If one studies Scripture (and even church history), one can discern those norms. When it comes to how to “do church,” the church must insist on Sola Scriptura, the Bible alone must be our only rule for faith and practice. We cannot make our own cultural practices normative for all people.

This is a problem in my own denomination. Years ago, I was at General Assembly (the national gathering of the leaders of our denomination) and in the public discussion, a minister stated that the church should be like McDonald’s. That is, you should be able to go to any Presbyterian Church in America any place in the country and it should be exactly like all the others. Not only that, this same minister insisted that we should use only the Psalter in worship. As if that were not bad enough, he insisted that we should sing the Scottish Psalter to the old Scottish tunes. This minister is a highly intelligent, educated man, far more so than I. Yet, where in the Bible does it canonize Scottish music? Must every American become a Scot in order to be a Christian? Sadly, some would say “yes.”

Yet, we must take seriously the Apostle Paul's declaration "I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some." (1 Corinthians 9:22, NASB). Paul never compromised the gospel. He never engaged or advocated sinful practices or bad theology. However, he did adapt in culturally appropriate ways in order to take the gospel to the world. We must do the same.

Hunter begins his book with an obvious statement followed by a rather provocative one. His obvious statement is “The Church, in the Western world, faces populations who are increasingly "secular"-people with no Christian memory, who don't know what we Christians are talking about.” That is, the culture is undergoing a dramatic shift. His provocative statement is “In the face of this changing Western culture, many Western Church leaders are in denial; they plan and do church as though next year will be 1957.”

This raises some important questions: Which is more important to us: our culture and comfort or God’s mission? Are we willing to adapt, in biblically appropriate ways, in order to achieve God’s mission, or are we, like the Roman’s of Patrick’s day, going to insist that our culture adapt to us? Do we view the mission of God as a nuisance or is it central to who we are as the people of God?

No comments: