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					                            What’s The Big Idea ?
       Gospel and Culture: Rethinking mission in the 21st century as truth
                                   seeking
                                               Peter Evans

                 A paper for presentation at the Australian Missiology Conference,
                               Melbourne, 26 to 30 September 2005

Three years ago I retired after 35 years in pastoral ministry among Baptist churches in
Victoria, Tasmania and New Zealand. One of the many abiding questions on my mind then
and since has been, “To what extent do our efforts to promote the Gospel and to evangelise
our communities help to introduce people to the living God or are we merely promoting our
own particular religious and social sub culture?” It is, of course, impossible to convey the
Gospel apart from the culture. Both the proclaimer and the hearer are conditioned by the
language and the context of their own cultures and for genuine communication to take place
there needs to be a meeting between the two. The problem arises when one or both parties
forget or ignore this reality and confuse the culture with the message being conveyed.

The Medium Is Not The Message

When Marshal McLuhan gave us the phrase “The Medium is the Message” he was sounding
a warning to all engaged in the processes of communication that the subliminal messages
arising from the context in which communication was taking place might be more persuasive
than the message itself. The promoter offering the latest get rich quick scheme needs to have
an Armani suit, Gucci shoes and drive something like a BMW if I am to be convinced that he
has something to offer me. The fact that he has these trappings of his trade does not actually
indicate that the scheme really works: it may, of course, only indicate the extent of his hope
that it works or the size of his mortgage.

What McLuhan warned us about was a reality and in response the Church has made many
changes to its image over the intervening time. Worship styles, buildings, programmes etc
have changed radically as churches have endeavoured to cross the cultural divide between the
insiders and those who might never think of looking to the Church for a personal belief
system or for eternal security. These changes were necessary, in fact perhaps long overdue,
however we need to face the problem of the relationship between the culture, both the one we
left behind and the one we created, and the message we have to proclaim.

In his PhD thesis1 Garry Deverell drew my attention to a distinction between Idol and Icon
that I have found helpful. To put it simply one looks at an idol and through an icon. The
function of an icon is to draw ones gaze beyond what is seen to what is unseen. When we
look at a work of art our gaze is directed by the artists use of perspective. Usually there is a
point beyond the picture that is the focal point of the scene. With an icon the normal practice
of perspective is reversed. The point is the eye of the viewer and the line of sight expands
through the portrayal of the icon and on towards infinity. That is the theory but it is easy to
mistake the icon for an idol; to place our trust in the instrument of communication instead of
that to which it points. This is a perennial problem and one has only to point to the history of
the Temple in Israel or to the words of John 5: 39ff for biblical examples.

1
    The Bonds of Freedom. Garry John Deverell 2004(Unpublished Thesis)
                                                      2



Most of the attempts by the Church to provide culturally appropriate communication of the
Gospel have been made sincerely and with the intention to create iconic expressions of the
faith rather than idolatrous ones. Experience, however, teaches us that, all too often, we
retreat from the openness of the icon preferring the solidarity of the idol. In doing so we
transfer our trust from the God to whom Church, Bible, Theological definition and Ritual
expression point, focussing instead on those things themselves. In short we replace the
openness of a living relationship with God with the closed parameters of some particular
cultural expression of belief in God. In all our attempts to communicate the Gospel we need
to be aware that the vehicle is only a means to an end and no matter how effective or how
meaningful it has been to us it is not sacred and sacrosanct of itself: the medium is not the
message. We need to be aware of the “Big Idea” that stands behind all our attempts to
communicate the Gospel to others and we need the humility to admit that even our best
efforts cannot fully do it justice. The danger is that by substituting the medium for the
message we may end up peddling a placebo instead of the real thing; creating feelings of
wellbeing rather than wellbeing itself.


A Word About Context

Through the past 50 years I have been privileged to observe at close quarters the very
significant changes which have taken place in the church in particular and religion in general
within our society. There has been a distinct loss of political and social power for the church.
Where once it was respected as a voice in society and a social hub within local communities,
it no longer occupies that position. Where once it was expected that basic morality and ethics
would be guided by our historic Christian tradition and principles, it is so no longer. Fifty
years ago few within the church were aware of the corrosive impact of the disillusionment
brought about by our inability to live together peacefully within our world as evidenced by
the two World Wars, the continuing Cold War with its nuclear threat and the inability to
resolve so many international issues without military intervention. Nor were we prepared for
the questions that would be raised by all aspects of globalisation and our exposure to other
cultures and faiths. In addition few were aware of the time bomb that was waiting to be
exploded as a result of the advances of biblical scholarship that would further fragment the
church throughout this period. These understandings had in fact been available for some time
in the academic world, but at the level of the local church and parish level they seemed too
hard to deal with. This was one of the key issues behind J.A.T. Robinsons book “Honest To
God” first published in 19632. The great uncertainty of the times has caused many to seek for
more immediate and effective systems of belief as a basis for life. There has also been the
corrosive effect of our seeming inability to deal with our own weaknesses and outright
failures with honesty and compassion

In the power vacuum created by the declining influence of the Church in our society other
faiths, both ancient and modern, began to draw greater interest and exposure to these other
faiths and cultures has moved religion back onto the public agenda. This was much heralded
as the New Age movement of the late 60s and 70s. This more pluralistic attitude has,
however, moved faith from being a community centred reality and one that has to do with
external reality to being a basically personal experience and “Works for me” has become one
of the main criteria by which any particular expression of faith or religious belief will be

2
    Honest to God John, A.T. Robinson, S.C.M. Press Ltd 1963
                                                3


judged. While at one level this has meant that we may talk more freely about our beliefs, the
idea of an authoritative or definitive position or dogma has lost its power. This has also meant
that proselytization for any belief system is, in general, more difficult and in many situations,
both local and international, is regarded as very bad form. Perversely these same movements
within our world have led to the predominant appeal of more simplistic and fundamentalist
forms of religion.

Another impact of pluralism has been to link religion to cultural identity. Many years ago
now I watched a TV programme on the Greek Orthodox Church in Australia and one of my
memories of that was the comment that the church here in Australia was far more
conservative than that in the homeland of its members. Their church was not only the
expression of their faith it had also become an expression of their “greekness”. In a similar
way there is a debate in New Zealand among Maori as to the place of their traditional beliefs
and practices. There are those who suggest that a return to those traditions, values and
practices will resolve many of the issues of identity and morale among Maori. This was one
of the main messages of the film “Once Were Warriors”. On the other hand there are those
who argue that, while the traditions of the past are to be respected for what they are, to
depend exclusively on them for identity and a sense of value in the present is to condemn the
indigenous part of New Zealand society to becoming museum artefacts. I sense that in many
ways this same debate is actually taking place within the Christian church at this moment in
its history. There are those who want to keep the faith alive in a living dialogue with the
prevailing culture, supporting that which is good and criticising that which is bad. On the
other hand there are those who see the church and what it stood for in society in some
idealised form and want to preserve it as a barrier to change with which they are not
comfortable. For non-christians this is merely anachronistic. For Christians it can easily
become idolatry of an institution within which God may or may not be present. Another
serious possibility is that the forms of Christianity can be used simply as a badge of cultural
identity, for example, is the use of the symbol of the cross in jewellery, a practice which has
become so common over the last fifty years, an expression of personal faith or is it an
expression of belonging to the so called Christian West. If the latter it is merely a sign of
cultural identity? Perhaps even more powerfully the role religion is being made to play in
conflicts in the Middle East is evidence of the abuse of religion in the pursuit of national
ideological and cultural ambitions rather than making genuine faith accessible.

This argument is being aided and abetted by other forces within secular society. In the face of
apparent breakdown within our communities politicians and social engineers will, of recent
times at least, make appeal to the cohesive power of religious belief as a useful tool for the
achieving of their social goals. Religion is seen as a utility, as performing some useful
function that aids social evolution. Evolutionary biologists and anthropologists suggest that
there may be a survival advantage which religion gives to a human community; i.e. while it
doesn’t matter whether God exists or not, belief in a god certainly does matter and we may
even be genetically programmed for it. The church itself is at risk of contributing to this
effect in that it may make use of social action to validate its faith claims or to use its social
contribution to make possible its proselytising activity. There is a great but often
unrecognised difference between genuine incarnational lifestyle and the use of second agenda
smokescreens to allow or justify the “preaching of the Gospel”.

A brief survey of evangelistic methods is illuminating The simplicity of the four spiritual
laws gave way to the complexity of the Evangelism Explosion. However the basic thrust
remained the same; to be “saved” meant coming to believe certain facts about God or Jesus or
                                                4


the Bible or The Church. This approach ended up being largely cerebral and was useful for
those who were able to believe six impossible things before breakfast. The church’s role as a
focus for community developed in a similar manner leading to the recovery of some sense of
social justice and action to make this effective. However for many being part of the church
became a goal in itself; a means of meeting ones own social needs or working to meet the
needs of others. I remember one young person who seemed to have embraced the faith in
every way who then drifted away. When questioned later he commented that it was really a
matter of who your friends were at the time. Since that experience I have encountered many
who could take up with the church on social grounds or equally walk away and leave it as and
when it suited them. The church is always vulnerable to this kind of misunderstanding and
clearly it was so for Jesus himself. The problem, however, lies not with those who
misunderstand but with the fact that so often we, the church, do little to challenge such
misunderstanding as for instance Jesus did in his responses to those who approached him as
would-be disciples (Luke 9: 57ff).


A Different Jesus Model

In the Gospel of Mark, and after him Matthew and Luke, Jesus appears as a colossus figure.
People are amazed at his miracles, his teaching, his lifestyle, his reinterpretation of the
tradition etc. The disciples are forever struggling to keep up physically, mentally and above
all spiritually; who this person is, is always throwing them off balance. Jesus is Lord of wind
and wave, of words and the Word, of diseases and daemons. Such an understanding of Jesus
is very attractive to many in the present church scene and even to many beyond it. In the
confusing times in which we live as in the days of his earthly life such a figure may seem to
offer hope and minister to the underlying fears of our contemporaries. Such an interpretation
of him is also basically simple. “Believe in Jesus and all will be well”, “Jesus is all you
need”, “What would Jesus do?” can easily become the catchcry’s of a generation. Such an
understanding of Jesus leads to an essentially dualistic approach and view of life. Things are
seen as black and white. You are either for or against him and therefore also for or against
those who follow him. Moral and ethical decisions are seen to be either right or wrong with
little or no middle ground. Strong attitudes of insiders and outsiders tend to develop leading
to the dismissal of difference or the patronising of the different. This simplicity, however,
belies the complexity of life and for many it leads to disillusionment or more subtly to a
compartmentalisation of life into sacred and secular spheres. On the one hand there is the
world of work, family, entertainment, politics etc and on the other there is the world of
church; its worship life, its missions activity its sense of community with its own subculture.
One of my observations of recent times is that Christians often make an unconscious decision
to live predominantly in one or the other. For those who choose to live predominantly in the
world of church, the world of work etc is regarded as a necessary evil and they derive their
sense of identity and well being from the work they do and the positions they hold within the
world of Church. Such people are found in the leadership of churches, on committees, at
working bees and fundraisers and are essentially committed to the programme of at least the
congregation in which they participate and often in a more broad way through other
denominational structures and agencies. For those Christians who make the choice to live
predominantly in the world beyond the church the practice of church going tends to become a
kind of insurance policy, its nice to know it’s there but it does not effect day to day living in
any significant way. Their participation is fairly passive and they are prepared to allow those
in leadership to make the running. They are often not particularly turned on by what happens
Sunday by Sunday but regard it as the premium they must pay to maintain the currency of
                                                 5


their policy. This sounds pretty cynical but there is a welter of discussion about the
meaningfulness of the forms of worship the church practices in all traditions which suggests
that a great many church goers are not enamoured of what they experience week by week and
there are a great many whose attendance has become intermittent or has ceased altogether.

A parallel observation is that it is very difficult to get a good debate going. While it is true
that a great many people are involved in some kind of formal biblical and theological
education and that there are a great many books available for those who wish to read them.
There are an even greater number who are fad readers or who will take up with some
supposed authority and become dependant on them and once the choice is made it can be
very difficult indeed to initiate discussion of the merit of what is accepted in this way or to
introduce ideas that may seem to differ with the accepted point of view. Fifty or so years ago
it was possible and people split off into groups and parties to promote their particular
interests but in today’s climate the difference is likely to be noted, tolerated and otherwise
ignored. The bitter debates might have been less edifying than the deafening silence but in
reality both are undesirable. When there is debate it is often more in the sense of a friendly
football match in which, while it may be played with some intensity on the field, we are all
good mates afterward and no one is expected to change sides as a result of the outcome.

In John’s gospel there is a somewhat different emphasis. In this account Jesus is seen to be an
intermediary between God and ourselves. He is always pointing beyond himself to the Father
hence his statements about the work he does and the words he speaks. In his final prayer for
his disciples he passes them back to the Father. His task is to make the link, to reignite the
hope of a relationship that we have lost. He is the one who in his earthly life is the bearer of
the Spirit and by his death, resurrection and ascension is the one who will send the Spirit so
that we, the disciples, will no longer have to be alone but will be able to enter into life, the
life of the ages, as he did. The person of Jesus in this gospel is not an end in itself but rather a
means to the end that God desires for himself and for us.

What’s The Big Idea

This observation leads me to ask the question. “What really is the Big Idea? If I ask that
question against the background of what I have experienced over the last fifty years I come to
two connected ideas. Firstly I must “believe in Jesus” so that my sin, including my sins, will
be forgiven. In this way I can live at peace with God, my world and also with myself.
Secondly, with the ever present threat of death and questions concerning the afterlife, there is
a preoccupation with Heaven and the famous (or infamous) question from the Evangelism
Explosion programme, “When you die are you sure that you will get to Heaven?” According
to this version of the big idea to be certain of my welcome I must have, at some time in my
earthly life decided to “believe in Jesus”. Only in this way can my ticketed reservation and
my welcome on arrival be assured.

In the present context of the Church’s mission these responses to the question raise many
issues especially because for many the concepts of Sin and Heaven have little connection
with their common experience or intellectual understanding of the world.

There is a third dominant theme that centres on the concept of power. As the church has lost
its status within western society there has been a renewed emphasis on the power of the Spirit
and on the invocation of God as a powerful manipulator operating in human affairs. Belief in
Jesus is seen as a key to unlock this power both through prayer and through the operation of
                                                       6


the Spirit in personal and community life. Evidence for this is readily available, a couple of
examples might be the “Change the World School of Prayer’” movement in the eighties and
more recently the rise of conservative Christian political parties here and overseas. In general
the rise of many Pentecostal and charismatic denominations in recent times are part of this
thrust.

The problem with this third response is that in the face of a community disaster like the
Boxing Day Tsunami or more personally the impact of sudden and incurable disease it is
unable to provide adequate answers and assurances about its claims. This is the underlying
reality behind the revolving door syndrome being experienced by many Pentecostal and
charismatic churches.

While each of these responses has some basis in Scripture and will always be part of the
larger picture I want to suggest that there is a bigger idea that waits to take centre stage and
that is the idea that far from being opposites and enemies the world of human affairs and the
world of the Spirit belong together; that this was the way God created our world and that the
work of Jesus was to show us that this was still possible. Far from being “supernatural” our
relationship with God and the experience of life “in the Spirit” was meant to be and can be
the most natural thing in the world.

In the two creation stories this is expressed quite clearly. In the first (Genesis 1: 1 – 2: 3) God
says “Let us make mankind …. like us.” There is no blasphemy in believing that I am “like
God” and that God is “Like me”. Inevitably we have to explore this likeness and recognise
the limitations of time and space our creature hood places on us. We also have to be realistic
about the distance that has come between us because in making our choices we have not
always chosen to honour the potential for relationship with God we have been offered. These
considerations, however, do not obliterate the “image of God” given to us in our creation. In
the second account (Genesis 2:4 - 24) God is described as forming a creature of the earth and
then breathing into that creature his own life-giving spirit. This is clearly something more
than simply a biological energy we call life as has sometimes been understood. This we hold
in common with all living things. Rather it is a representation of the possibility that the
essence of God’s divine nature could be expressed in our material bodies and through them in
our world. Clearly in these stories Spirit and Flesh are not necessarily alien to each other but
together are essential to our humanity.

The story from that point on is one where we live out our lives making choices either to
honour that relationship or to disregard it. A sentence or two from one of Bultmann’s smaller
works3 has stayed with me. Commenting on the idea that we might make one life-changing
decision about Jesus he suggested that in fact while there might be a first time in which we
make such a positive decision about Jesus, the reality is that every moment of every day we
are making and remaking that decision and that sometimes we will make a positive choice
and sometimes not. Having grown up in an atmosphere of “once saved, always saved”, I
found this much more realistic and much more Biblical. The story of our journey told in the
Scripture is of this kind; of great moments of faith and of equally serious times of unbelief,
but all the time God is seeking ways to recall us to the belief that we can live in an
harmonious and joyous relationship with him. To me this is the promise Jesus holds out to us
and to believe in this promise and to be committed to seeking it in every moment as best we
3
 I think it was “Jesus and The Word” but have been unable to check this. Re “Once saved Always saved” this
notion of eternal preservation needs to be balanced against scriptures such as Ezekiel 18: 1 – 32 and Hebrews 6:
1 – 8.
                                                    7


may with the help of the Spirit is what it means to “believe “ in Jesus. This is not the
“believing” of dogma or tradition, however well founded, but it is the exploration of
possibilities which, while we may be able to see and describe the horizon from where we are,
is always leading us beyond our present understanding of both God and ourselves. The
former inevitably leads to the cultural captivity of the believers and the fear of moving away
from the known. The latter is, I believe, the true Freedom of which Paul writes in Romans 8.
Robert Van De Weyer in his book “The Call To Heresy”4 notes that, like history, orthodoxy
is written by victors. It is a tool of power. He shows, however, that the great heresies of the
early church still have the power to challenge orthodoxy and the powerful cultures it
represents. His book is a plea for a more open attitude and a recovering of the growing edge
ministries of the prophet, the charismatic and the mystic in our journey of faith.

I grew up in a church which often sang the hymn which begins “What purpose burns within
our hearts, that we together here should stand…, and answers, “To seek the truth what ere it
be, to follow it where ere it leads, To turn to facts our dreams of good and coin our lives in
loving deeds. Such a “Creed” is a far cry from the bitter arguments and party pride that
marked the church at the beginning of the last half-century. And it is just as far from the
stance of the many fundamentalists today regardless of the religious or secular belief system
they may represent.

To adopt such a Big Idea, that the material world and the spiritual world belong together,
would have major impact on the way we do mission.

Because this is a creation centred idea we would become partners with all who were
committed to the discovery and understanding of this relationship. We would honour
exploration, and experimentation. We would, like those at the frontier of an ideal scientific
world, be always ready to share our information and always ready to hear the contribution of
others. As with science where in one sense all ideas are equal but some are more equal than
others in our theologies we would acknowledge that all our experience of God is partial and
as “seen through a glass darkly” and that we are working at the fringes of language making
our definitions somewhat fuzzy around the edges. This does not mean that there is no “reality
to be described; simply that we have difficulty in both seeing it and in finding the words to
adequately convey what we have seen. This humility is lacking from so many conservative
and fundamentalist models of mission today. I their book “The Shaping of Things to Come”5
Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch attempt to outline something of what such mission might look
like, and more importantly, feel like. Towards the end they draw attention to a movement
among Jewish people known as Messianic Judaism in which people remain Jewish and
follow Jesus. In the same vein they make reference to the possibility of Messianic Muslims,
people who remain Muslim and who follow Jesus. Robert Van De Weyer tells of his own
personal rediscovery of Christ through the encouragement of Hindus and their connection
with Jesus.6

In addition such a big idea would lead us to mission that was truly incarnational and
ecological. The current models of conservative and fundamentalist mission are too limited,
otherworldly and self-serving to meet the challenge of global mission today. Again because
this big idea is creation centred the distinction between sacred and secular would find little

4
  The Call to Heresy; Robert Van de Weyer; Lamp Press, Marshal Morgan & Scott 1989
5
  The Shaping Of Things To Come; Michael Frost & Alan Hirsch; Hendrickson Publishers Inc / Strand
Publishing 2003
6
  The Call To Heresy; Robert Van De Weyer, Lamp Press, Marshall Morgan & Scott 1989 P1-2
                                                8


place. The material world would be given the respect it deserves and mindless exploitation
just because it is there would be unacceptable. The spiritual aspect of life could not be
divorced from the material and the practical or held over for the two hour time slot each
Sunday or he occasional retreat weekend. The hierarchical distinction between clergy and lay
would be lost not because the functions of those we call clergy would not be valued but
because we would learn that the callings of all those who serve their fellow human beings are
of equal spiritual value. We so easily forget that the first divine appointment noted in the
Bible was a gardener not a priest. Spirituality would no longer be judged by the level of
participation in cultic and institutional rituals but by the steady commitment to seek and to
hold the spiritual as of equal value with the material and vice versa.

As I read the opening verses of Isaiah 46 I picture the prophet watching this stream of people
leaving the city. Most likely they were refugees leaving the city after it was taken by the
Persian general Cyrus, although it is possible that they were people who, like the Jews, had
been sent back to their original homelands to rebuild them. In either case, in either fear or joy,
the long line of people and their beasts of burden were seen to be carrying not only the goods
and chattels of ordinary life but also the family and national gods. In a moment of insight the
prophet recognises the irony of all this. These symbols made of wood, metal or stone have no
power in them they have not been able to save the people but are burdens the people must
pack and carry. Israel’s God, he sees, is not like that but rather he is the one who carries his
people.

Whenever our religion becomes a sub-culture we are committed to maintain, be that a
subculture of ideas or theology, of ritual or moral and ethical demands, of social convention
or national or institutional identity it might as well be wood metal or stone and when the
world asks for bread are these all we have to offer them.

What they need is to know that it takes both Spirit and flesh to make us human and that the
two are not alien to each other or enemies of each other. They need to rediscover as Adam
once knew that it was possible to come to “the cool of the evening” and to meet with God
unafraid, to sit side by side on a log, chew a blade of grass, talk about the day past, and share
the dreams for tomorrow.

Peter H Evans
Monday, 6 June 2005

Ordained in 1968, Peter Evans pastored churches in Victoria, Tasmania and New Zealand
before settling in Adelaide, South Australia, where he and his wife Merle are renovating their
retirement home and participating in a recently formed alternative church network.

				
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