Crossing Cultural Gaps
Rightly or wrongly, image is very important in today's world. Unfortunately today's church is often seen as having a quaint and - in some cases - totally irrelevant image. This would not be so bad if the world at large did not also choose to reject our message simply because we insist on being so different!
Why have Christians won all the awards for being naff and lacking the street-cred to communicate with today's culture? I know that we live in an image-obsessed society and that every kind of pitfall is out there for people who lack discernment - but fear of this is not a good enough reason for the church to pass up the enormous opportunities to reach the next generation.
I love the stories of the great missionary pioneers. When Hudson Taylor decided to don Chinese gear and eat Chinese food his decision was lauded as an important radical move to reach a different culture. Is it any different for us to want to remove unnecessary obstacles from our lifestyle if we are going to reach today's world?
I'll never forget the first time my wife Linda and I saw the World Wide Message Tribe in action. We were attending the Spring Harvest Christian gathering at Skegness in the UK where I was a member of the speaking team. Since I had booked the Tribe for a gig at a big event later that year, we thought it would be good to meet them and see what they did.
As we queued around the theatre with hundreds of teenagers, we did feel a little bit out of place. When we finally got inside and sat down in a row of seats, it was noticeable that noone sat with us. The theatre was jammed, but we were on our own. Just before the show started, a very nervous looking lady arrived with her son, who was probably thirteen, and sat beside us.
The first hint that this would be different was a warning flashed on screen that the strobe lights could damage your health. Linda said, "I think it's going to be loud". Then the sound kicked in and the Tribe exploded onto the stage.
I think the lady sitting by us dragged her son out in the first two minutes. From then on, we never sat down again. It was electrifying! "Jumping in the house, in the house, in the house, jumping in the house of God . . . !" The dancers were fantastic; the costumes outrageous; Cameron Dante back-flipped his way across the stage. The kids loved it, and all the way through the good news of the Gospel was proclaimed in a way that these young people could access.
In the summer of 2000 along with Mike Pilavachi and the Soul Survivor Team, the Tribe invaded the streets of Manchester for two weeks accompanied by an army of 20,000 young people wanting to reach their culture. Having seen them in action it is no surprise to me that they have such success.
But, while bands like the Tribe and Deliriou5?1 are reaching their culture, not all Christians are happy with this.
For many years I travelled in Scandinavia, particularly Norway, as an itinerant evangelist. I frequently visited a town on the west coast where God gave me a tremendous door of opportunity, especially as this town was an important university centre.
On one visit, even with language difficulties, I sensed that something was wrong. I got my friend and interpreter, Tore Lende, to enquire what was going on and was astounded by his discovery. The elders of the sponsoring church were unhappy with me.
Apparently, I wasn't wearing a dark suit and my hair had grown too long! The presiding elder told me in all seriousness that people in the town would not be able to receive the Gospel I preached because of how I looked. That very night, I was asked to speak at a huge music festival in the university gymnasium. Of the hundreds of young people packed into the hall, my hair was the shortest and my clothes by far the most conservative!
Why do Christians adopt attitudes like this? If you think that this is an isolated example, travel amongst the Bible-belt churches of the United States, where the dress code is often tighter than that of IBM!
I was raised this way. When all the kids wanted tight trousers, my mother insisted I have wide flares. It was so embarrassing. When I got my trousers, I had to wait a week then surreptitiously visit a tailor in town to get them altered. Nowadays, kids want the baggiest pants available and the shortest haircut, and no doubt many a Christian parent is throwing a fit about that.
Body piercing and tattoos have introduced a whole new raft of problems. It gets even more complicated if the young people start reading the Bible and discover that many of the Jewish women wore nose rings!
Apart from cultural conservatism, there is in my view a prevailing attitude in Christian society rooted in a misguided view of biblical holiness. In its extreme forms it leads to groups like the Amish community that we visited recently in Pennsylvania. Their transport is confined to horsedrawn traps and their clothing from another century. Television and radio is forbidden, and in many cases electricity also. The whole of life is deliberately seen as a separation from the world to avoid contamination.
Most Christians would not be as extreme as this, but often foster attitudes that are not dissimilar. I believe that there are three primary reasons for this: a misunderstanding of the true nature of holiness, coupled with a flawed theology and fear.
I was greatly helped by the comments of Bishop Trevor Huddlestone in the early seventies. We were both participating at a meeting in Central London which was challenging the moral decline in our society. During the meeting the Bishop said: "True holiness is wholeness. It is being made whole in the image of God."
I have always thought that the Christians I met who talked about holiness were a bit odd! In fact some of them were: with their uncut hair, make-up-less faces and embargoes on most pleasurable activities. I suppose I had encountered an aberration of true holiness, not the wholesomeness that God had intended. I began to read the New Testament from this fresh perspective. A very powerful passage from the Apostle Peter took on a fresh meaning: "His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness."2
I had got the impression that these two qualities - life and godliness - were mutually exclusive. You could hardly enjoy life and be godly at the same time! Now I began to realise that this is what the power of the Gospel was designed to achieve in us all.
Peter goes on to say that: "he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires."3
I originally thought that this meant 'escape from the world' which is what I'm sure the Amish were trying to do. I hadn't realised that it is the corruption itself, not the world, that we must avoid. My body is God's body! The world is God's world! It doesn't really belong to the devil - he's an illegal squatter! If the world is such a bad place then Jesus set us a pretty poor example, because he seemed very much at home in it and made friends with lots of sinners.
Another passage, often thundered from pulpits, is Romans 12: 1-2 in which Paul urges us to present our bodies to God and not to conform to the world. It is easy to approach this passage from a very negative perspective.
Since I was a young man I have heard a lot of people talk about 'not conforming'. Not many of them talked about being transformed, which is at the heart of this message. The idea of being transformed - and of becoming a transformer - gave me a whole new slant on life and the possibility of healing the sickness in our society with God's wholeness.
Not only is there a very negative presentation of holiness in many evangelical and charismatic churches, but there is an almost extreme pessimism concerning human nature. Dr Jeff Simmonds, former lecturer at the Wellington branch of the Bible College of New Zealand, has written an excellent article in Reality magazine examining the theology of Eastern Orthodoxy. He says:
We inherit from Augustine . . a particular interpretation of the Fall, a doctrine (reaffirmed by the Reformers) of the "total depravity of humanity" and a negative attitude towards all things sexual . . . .
Augustine and Calvin both taught that humans are incapable of good desires and that humans lack freedom not to sin. . . . Orthodoxy, however, recognises that God did not take away free will from humanity after the Fall, and therefore that all of us have the ability to choose good . . . . Orthodoxy takes much more seriously than the West, the biblical teaching that we are made in the image of God - we are, all of us, 'icons' of God: we bear his image within us.4
I must confess I am not a Calvinist! As a young Christian I had a brush with Calvinism that almost successfully dampened my evangelistic passion. A fine bible teacher, Roger Forster, helped me rethink my faith at this critical time, and I reshaped my thinking into what I believe is a more biblical world view.
That the image of God in man has been marred because of sin is without question, but to suggest that mankind is totally depraved is manifestly not true. Just think of the people you know for starters.
Why is this important? Because so much of the creativity that we see even in this fallen world is evidence of the Creator's stamp upon humanity. The way we view our fellow human beings will inevitably affect how we treat them. It will greatly influence the vibe we give off and our ability to draw from their creative energy as well.
Had we been involved in the encounter Jesus had with the woman of Samaria in John chapter four, there might have been an entirely different outcome! Many of us would not have spoken to her in the first place. If we had chosen to speak to her, what we said would have probably come across as patronising and condescending.
Would we have dared to tackle the deeply theological issues that Jesus broached with this evidently immoral woman? Could we have spoken at all without heaping judgement and condemnation on her? Would we have coped with the censorious attitude of the disciples on their return?
Jesus, however, saw the potential in this tragic life, and in winning her, won her whole community as well.
The bottom line for so many Christians, especially those of us who are older, is fear. The reason so many parents get uptight about their children's behaviour is because they remember what they were like at their age!
My parents came from good Victorian stock and never breathed a word about sex. The only word my mother ever spoke to me on the subject came at a time when she suspected (correctly) that I had been masturbating. Full of fear, she said: "You mustn't touch that!"
I guess this has been the attitude of the church to sex all along, which is why there is often very little helpful teaching and counsel when it is most needed.
Fear has governed so much of our interaction with society. Maybe we fear that if we emphasise Grace - so central to New Testament teaching - perhaps everyone will take advantage of it and end up in sin. We fear that if we allow that kind of music, standards will be eroded. We fear that if people are allowed to dress like that everyone will be seduced. The list is never-ending.
I once helped a sweet old lady get free from a lifetime of pain and guilt. She had been raised in a very legalistic Holiness Church, known as 'the black stocking' church because of the long black clothes the congregation had to wear. This church had been riddled with all kinds of moral corruption, and as a young woman she had been badly abused. The notion that censorious dress codes would avert sexual misconduct was completely naive.
I'm convinced that the only antidote for such intimidating fear is to build true faith into people: "Perfect love casts out fear".5
The reality of Christ's divinity must be matched by his attractive, wholesome, humanity. Some years ago I was hosting a seminar for church leaders in Christchurch. A vicar from a local parish made a memorable contribution. Speaking in beautiful Oxford English, he explained how he had recently had some conflict with the Parish Council. They had passed a petition asking everyone to oppose the practice of topless sun-bathing on Brighton Beach in Christchurch. "I told them", he said, "that I didn't feel free to sign it, as I had been a missionary for many years in Papua New Guinea, and frankly, many of my congregation were topless, and bottomless as well!"
Not only does perfect love cast out fear, it covers a multitude of sins as well.6 To cross the cultural gaps and reach the emerging generations we need to be saturated in God's love. We need faith that tackles the real issues and refuses to get sidetracked.
A well known international Bible teacher, for whom I have the profoundest admiration, recently sent out one of his regular 'update tapes' to his supporters. Commenting on his concern over the use of Rock Music in church services he expressed the lack of peace he felt in his spirit, adding: "I know where this comes from - Pagan Africa!"
Apart from the cultural slight, this underscores what I am trying to say. It's a cultural conflict, not a spiritual one. The greatest streams of gospel music in the world have come out of 'Pagan Africa'. We mustn't allow our personal preferences to suddenly become a spiritual standard for everyone else.
I was with another great Bible teacher some years ago at a national conference in England. It was at the time when we were seeking to encourage dance as a legitimate form of worship, and this man was evidently feeling uncomfortable with it. A young woman, very gifted in dance, was enhancing the worship with her creative gifts when she accidentally backed into the tent pole of the large marquee we were meeting in.
This confirmed all this man's suspicions. He told me afterwards that this was evidence to him that God was not in the dance! I wondered in the light of this how many anointed preachers who had tripped on the platform or knocked over a glass of water, dropped their notes, left their flies undone, or faced any of the other hazards confronting preachers, would have their ministry similarly disqualified!
The problem is that these were both fine men who have had tremendous influence in the church worldwide. One word from them would effectively disqualify vast areas of creative ministry. What began as a cultural preference is now endorsed with spiritual authority, and the church takes another step backwards in terms of its contemporary relevance.
David couldn't take on Goliath wearing Saul's armour and neither can we afford to be weighed down by the restraints of a previous generation's style or a past anointing. There will be plenty of 'brothers' who will resent our getting involved in contemporary life and Goliath will do his best to ridicule our efforts - but it's time we showed Goliath that things have changed.
Peter and Linda Lyne have had a long association with New Zealand since they first arrived in 1977. They had almost three years helping to establish the Christian Fellowship in Upper Hutt, and have since had extensive periods of ministry in Auckland as well as internationally, including nearly seven years leading the New Generation Church in Sidcup, London, when Peter was a member of the Core Team for the Pioneer Network of churches led by Gerald Coates. They have now made their permanent home in Auckland. Peter is the author of Baton Change: the Next Generation, published by Sovereign World, from which this article has been adapted.