Culturally Relevant Evangelism

Culturally Relevant Evangelism

A church you know is putting on an event with classical music, poetry recitals and then offering cheese and wine (non alcoholic of course!) afterward as a way to reach unbelievers? What is our reaction to this? Another church, in an attempt to attract unbelievers, puts on a karaoke style event with a chip supper? What is our reaction to this? The temptation, depending on the cultural divide, is for both parties to look upon the other in scorn (and snobbery – which works both ways) and dismiss each other out of hand. The reality may be that each group is being relevant to its particular cultural context.

What works in one place would not work in another. The problem comes when our evangelistic endeavours are driven by cultural preferences rather than by cultural observation. So, we end up putting on events ‘we’ would like and feel comfortable with rather than ones which are culturally relevant to the people we are trying to reach. This is particularly true in the UK in a church with middle class sensibilities as the majority (pretty much all of them then!). I have seen members here turn their nose up at our ‘karaoke’ event as something ‘common’ and a bit ‘chavvy’ and look incredulous when we have attracted hundreds from the community. Why has it proved so attractive? Largely, because of careful observation and dialogue with local people.

I wrote an earlier blog asking how well we listen in church circles. I wonder how well many of us observe at the same time? Why are so many churches struggling evangelistically in what I feel is one of the most spiritually open times in recent memory.There are examples, praise the Lord, of churches bucking this trend, but by and large evangelical churches in the UK struggle to attract, evangelise and disciple unchurched people. Indeed, much church growth these days seems to come from transfers and many baptisms from the children of believers or people who have been around church a long time. Of course this is a generalisation, but it is not far off the truth. How many conservative, evangelical churches in the UK do you know seeing completely unchurched people coming to faith on a regular basis? (When I say ‘unchurched’ I mean those who have had no previous connection to a community of believers whatsoever). Even the growth we have seen in Niddrie has come from a combination of transfers, people moving into the area and a handful of genuine converts. We’re not exactly rocking with revival. So I write these words in the spirit of humility and generating thought rather than any superior sense of ‘doing it right’.

If many of us look back to the heady days of our conversions we were well up for sharing our faith with people at any opportunity (or maybe not!). Some observers have noticed that new Christians stop sharing their faith over a period of time because they just copy what they see many in the church doing. So, they begin to spend less time with their ‘unchurched’ friends and more time in ‘meetings’ with church people. They become isolated from the ‘world’ and operate within a Christian bubble of life and ministries. In the end they become comfortable with their new lifestyle and just settle in. Why is this? I think for a number of reasons.

1. We struggle to cope with unsaved people behaving in unsaved ways. The man who swears every other word, or the woman with the filthy jokes or the constant drinking and leeriness. Yet, how should we expect them to be acting? Like believers? That is unrealistic and many Christians struggle with this and therefore prefer to avoid ‘worldly’ people for too long, instead preferring the ‘smash and grab’ approach of the odd evangelistic event before retreating back into Christian land again for a breather.

2. I think we pastors are largely to blame as well. We are poor at equipping our people well for the challenges of the Twenty-First Century world. For too long we have focused on ‘event driven’ strategy for evangelism. I am not saying it is wrong because we still run regular events at Niddrie, but this hit and run approach is only one way to do it, not THE way as has been sold in the past. I am great at getting the conversation around to Jesus and getting to the point quickly but what about the 98% of my members who aren’t? It’s not my job to berate them for being ‘bottlers’ (although some of them obviously are) but to try and encourage them to reach their friends and neighbours for Christ in ways which suit their personalities.

Guilting our people into stuff like ‘door knocking’ (cringe) or ‘evangelistic carol singing’ (double cringe) isn’t the way forward for a culture like ours. We want people to share their faith in Jesus out of a love for God and a heartfelt concern for the lost, not driven by a guilt complex because they will look like ‘bad Christians’ in front of the church. If you want to go carol singing around the streets then do it, don’t make it some sort of biblical mandate and the litmus test of a person’s true love for Jesus. The same with door knocking. I think it is a waste of time and I am sick of hearing the ‘urban legend’ stories of that person who had their head in the oven and got saved by that one time somebody knocked on the door and gave them a 15 point tract on the good news. Good for you if door knocking is your thing. Good for you if you can get a group of friends to do it with you. But remember it is only A way not THE way of getting the good news out there.

3. We are misunderstanding what is going on with our world from a biblical perspective. There is a danger with lots of these ‘missional’ buzzwords right now of thinking that everybody is on a ‘spiritual journey’ (a la a sort of spiritual x-factor), but this thinking is a bit muddled. As I have posted before, people are not seeking after God, they are seeking to suppress the truth about Him. They are seeking to deny Him at every opportunity. Yes, people are open to ‘spiritual things’ today, but notice how quickly that precludes the Christian faith as soon we start to explain it. We must have a more realistic, long-term approach to our evangelism. Sometimes it hits the spot but most often it is a slow burner thing over a number of years (4 in my personal case).

I think a combination of these things wear young believers down. They certainly wear young pastors down! They see little fruit and lots of half-hearted evangelism and I think it rubs off after a while. I read a report recently that suggested that the problem with our evangelism is that we are too focused on the hereafter whereas the postmodern mindset is more focused on the here and now. Again, this is a huge cultural assumption. I am not saying it has no merit, but in Niddrie, for instance, 90% of the time the question is about the hereafter. The problem is that they like the sound of that but have little stomach for a life of obedience in the here and now!

The gospel must never change but we must constantly be asking our selves the cultural questions. Am I understanding the people whom I am trying to reach? What have I observed about those around me? Where are the ‘gospel bridges’ that will allow me to cross over into their culture with the good news? Are there any approaches to outreach that I need to re-evaluate? We want people to come to salvation. We want them to hear the terror of their spiritual predicament outside of Jesus Christ and repentance and faith in Him. But we live in a culture that doesn’t share the moral/biblical ideals of 50 years ago. We have to dig back a bit deeper now. It’s not just a question of getting people to believe in Jesus and what He did but seeking to engage with them in all of the questions that they have regarding issues like ‘church’, ‘religion’, ‘God’, ‘the Bible’ and thank the Lord that within each local church we have all sorts of people with all sorts of contacts and all sorts of gifts who can bring the good news to bear in all sorts of ways for the glory of God.