Friday, January 06, 2006

Church as Gay Bar: Coming to Grips with Cultural Distance

Imagine coming home one evening to find a flyer for an exciting new program for your family held in a new building in your neighborhood. You've been looking for something new to get your family involved in, and you are initially excited about the prospects. Then your eyes scan to the bottom of the flyer where you read about the organization sponsoring the program. It just happens to be the owners of a gay bar, and the program will bring you into the gay community. As a conservative evangelical, are you still interested in participating? Of course you aren't. But your lack of interest, perhaps even distaste, for participation in a program in a new building sponsored by a community you have issues with, illustrates a serious problem with the contemporary church in America and the West. A little background on where I got this illustration is in order. (For clarification, I do not believe evangelicals should view or treat homosexuals disparagingly. I cite this illustration as a means of making a point about the gap between church and culture using a community that usually brings a strong and visceral reaction from evangelicals.)

In 2004 I had an opportunity to attend an American Society of Church Growth Conference at Fuller Seminary which was looking at the topic of emerging church. For me, the most beneficial and thought provoking presentation was "The Emerging Church and Donald McGavran in Conversation," presented by Ryan Bolger, a missiologist at Fuller whom I have mentioned before. His presentation looked at Donald McGavran's experience as a missionary in India as discussed in his book Bridges of God: A Study in the Strategy of Missions (Wipf & Stock, 2005), originally published 1954. Bolger discussed McGavran's recognition of both the positive and negative aspects of Western missionary efforts in India. On the positive side, Western missionary efforts resulted in new believers, and great social works in India, such as care for the poor and hospitals. On the negative side, the cultural expressions of church, or mission stations as McGavran called them, were Western enclaves that had little to nothing to do with the surrounding culture. As a result, the cultural distance or gap between the church and the culture was immense. Unless an Indian was interested in leaving their culture and becoming reinculturated in the foreign religion of the white Westerner, the gap between church and culture would not be crossed. The church was foreign to the culture, and as a result it was unable to engage in significant spiritual reproduction.

While we might recognize this problem of cultural distance in the overseas missionary context, we do not recognize it in our own Western missions context, and this is where the illustration from the gay bar is helpful. In his presentation, Bolger mentioned a comment by Steve Collins who heads up an emerging church called Grace in the U.K. Collins has said that church culture is so foreign to the way of life and spirituality of people in the U.K. that people don't visit churches as spiritual seekers any more than an evangelical would visit a gay bar. While large numbers of people are increasingly interested in spirituality in the U.K., only 5-10% attend church because the church community and forms of expression are culturally foreign to contemporary spirituality seekers. So no matter how many programs or new buildings the church may offer, the seeker will not enter the church due to the cultural distance (not to mention hostility to Christendom), just as an evangelical would not enter a gay bar due to cultural distance and differences with this community. While the situation for Christianity is generally more positive in the U.S. than the U.K., nevertheless, increasing numbers of people are likewise finding the church irrelevant to a contemporary spiritual quest.

Enough of the illustration and critique. What might we consider as an alternative? McGavran suggested that instead of mission station churches that engage in extraction evangelism, where individual converts are extracted from their culture and reinculturated in foreign forms of community and church, that we move from mission stations to people movements. That is, instead of practicing institutional church as usual in the Christendom attractional mode (including many of our church plants that clone this model) we should strive to create missional people movements that incarnate the gospel within various subcultures and express the faith in indigenous forms that draw upon the culture of the converts.

The point to remember is that our churches in America and the West are as foreign to increasing numbers of people as gay bars are to evangelicals. Missions teaches us an important lesson here that we need to consider. For further consideration of this and related ideas I highly recommend contacting the American Society of Church Growth to order a copy of Bolger's presentation on audio CD.


jpu said...

The seeker sensitive model was trying to be all things to all cultures too. So what is the difference in your thinking? Is it only about jettisoning steeples and staff and amplified guitars? Is it a call to friendship evangelism? There's nothing new under the sun. It's all about love. People who are created with eternity in their hearts are looking for love, mostly in the wrong places, and the place that should consistently offerit to them drops the ball all too often. You should go to a gay bar sometime. I've been to a couple. and there is an interesting article at the Ooze,, about someone's experience there. I don't agree with his conclusion, dropping the conversation for now, but at least he's been there. Also, your article and that one have provoked my thoughts at my blog.

John W. Morehead said...

I'm glad I was at least thought provoking! Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. But, I think you don't understand the difference between seeker sensitive approaches to church and missional church concepts. The seeker sensitive approach is based upon a Christendom attractional approach, whereby the church still has some cultural currency, and uses this positive influence to create services that are non-offensive and attractive to seekers that they seek to bring into the church to encounter the gospel and Christian community. By contrast, missional church is outward focused, and recognizes that increasing numbers of people in the West have rejected the church. Thus, the church must move outside of its campus and worship services to incarnate in relevant ways amidst the subcultures of a given community. This entails more of a people movement approach that is missional than an institutional approach which focuses on wooing people to a church campus. This is significantly different from the seeker approach. I'd recommend you read Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come (Hendrickson/Strand, 2004) for more discussion of this.

I agree that people need love, but we must go far beyond this. Love and relationships must be tied to our missional efforts of deed and word that incarate the gospel and live out the Kingdom in keeping with the missio Dei.

Matt Stone said...

Love is concretely shown in being prepared to step outside your cultural comfort zone for the sake of the institutionally alienated.

Making acceptance of Christendom subculture a pre-requisite for Christian discipleship adds to the gospel and thus dilutes the message of love