Ryan Bolger's blog has a current post in response to an invitation he received to speak at an International Think Tank on Mission to Western Culture, sponsored by Allelon, and to be held June 25-29 in Idaho.
Bolger's post comprises a summary of his contribution to the conference, reflections on the work of the late missiologist Lesslie Newbigin to the subject of Western missions. I have copied excerpts of Bolger's post (in italics) followed by a few reflections of my own.
Newbigin created a space for Western churches to analyze their relationship to Western culture.
While Newbigin and others may have contributed to a space for reflection, we might question the extent to which this reflection has been engaged. While important networks such as the Gospel and Our Culture Network have come about in part as a response to Newbigin's work, in my experience Western churches, particularly in America, have yet to recognize, let alone seriously consider the place of a missional identity and focus for the local church. It seems that within a post-Christendom culture many are still functioning with a Christendom mindset. An American Society of Church Growth conference I attended at Fuller a few years ago included speakers representing a diversity of approaches, from the megachurch to the missional, and it was apparent that ASCG had not developed its own opinions on these issues. If a major American society and conference has yet to think through these issues then I wonder to what extent local churches have adequately grappled with them.
Newbigin returned to a church held captive by the culture and its own church traditions.
This point was recently driven home in a recent conversation I had with a friend actively in volved in leadership with a large church. This church, like many in the U.S., has had difficulties in reaching young people, and with this demographic being one of the foci for the church's immediate future, they have begun to think about engagement strategies. As the church contemplates how it might connect with young people one of its initial ideas has been to visit large mega-churches for ideas, such as Saddleback and Graceland.
With all due respect to Rick Warren and Dan Kimball, this approach assumes that these churches are in fact successfully and appropriately engaging young people, and that they are engaging not only those with some kind of Christian experience, memory or sympathies, but also those with no Christian background as well. This approach also assumes that a programmatic approach used by mega-churches in their local contexts is appropriate, and if a local church can simply transplant the right program then young people will be reached.
What if the leadership in my friend's began not with church culture for answers, but began with a fresh theological consideration of the gospel, the Kingdom of God, and the centrality of missions for the local church? What if they then considered the cultures and subcultures that they want to reach? How might the church be transformed and strategies be implemented by beginning from these starting points rather than by looking at seeker church cultures?
The gospel can handle pluralism, provided the gospel is located at the center. The church, not the culture, sets the agenda, speaking from within the biblical narratives to the wider world.
While evangelicals frequently worry about the negative challenges posed by pluralism, I agree with Bolger and Newbigin that the church "can handle pluralism," particularly when we consider that Israel and the church's experience was often within pluralistic contexts. And while the church should indeed set the agenda in light of the gospel and mission, the agenda must be set through the biblical narrative in dialogue with culture, after careful exegesis of both the Scriptures and the local cultural contexts. Western evangelicals tend to exegetic Scripture and form strategy in light of Western modernist and Christendom assumptions, and only fresh exegesis in both the realms of Scripture and culture will address our challenges.
While I am hopeful that this international conference will indeed bring the much-needed insights of cross-cultural missionsto bear on the local church contexts of America and the West I am more than a little skeptical. In my experience through study of missional church and interactions with churches in America, whether in contemporary church, seeker church, or emerging church contexts, there has yet to be a solid recognition and implementation of missional church ideas.
As I read the description of the Allelon conference I wondered abut two aspects that will be crucial to the success of this event. First, the conference is thankfully international rather than American or Western focused. I wonder to what extent Third World theologians will be given a voice at this conference, and to what extent First World Christians will be humble enough to listen and engage their insights and experiences. Second, in our post-Christendom and pluralistic environment we must be sensitive not only to multi-culturalism, but also to the religiously plural nature of the West. I wonder whether this conference will address the importance and implications of religious pluralism for mission and the local church. Perhaps Allelon's website and Bolger's blog will share positive reports in these and other areas as a result of this conference.
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