We are going through some changes at our sending church right now. They are pretty big and there’s been some big controversy over some of the issues. We are trying to reach the post-modern culture in America and we want to reach young people and children. To do so means lots and lots of changes, to the building and to the ministry focus. I wrote this during CIT and didn’t want to post it at the time, but I thought it was appropriate. So..here ya go. The American Missionary.
When we hear people talk about “cultures” or “cultural training,” we automatically assume it’s about another country. As if somehow, America is exempt from having a culture. America is always portrayed as the norm and everyone else has a culture and is different. Yet, in reality, America is its own culture and is full of diverse sub-cultures, just like everywhere else in this world.
One of these sub-cultures is church. Of course, within church culture, you have an even greater number of more sub-cultures! Churches are all different – different denominations, worship styles, preaching styles, age groups, ministries – the list could go on and on.
Now, if all cultures naturally change over a period of time, are churches exempt from that change? Some would argue that yes, they are. The methods of worship and evangelism worked well 50 years ago – they should work fine now. Others would say no- in order to be affective, a church must change over time, with the larger culture it’s a part of, and look vastly different from generation to generation. Are either of these views correct? Let’s take a look.
If a church remains the same for years and years, it almost reminds me of a museum. Museums preserve things very well. But, it can be generations before new things are added that can be considered “history.” The tour is the same, the displays are the same. The information is important and the presentation is pristine, but, let’s be honest, it can get old after awhile. Only true devotees of history frequent the same museums regularly. It’s great to visit, see what’s there, maybe learn something new, but not normally is it a place for “repeat offenders.”
On the other hand, if a church decides to change completely with the times and throw out all of the old in order to appease everyone, it can appear quite syncretistic. How far do churches go to fit in and draw a crowd? Some have likened churches like this to amusement parks: there’s something for everyone. The message itself gets watered down in attempts to make it inoffensive, tolerant, and appealing.
So, where’s the balance? In dealing with any culture, the balance is in proper contextualization. I say “proper” because even here, the balance is quite delicate. Like a trapeze artist over Niagara Falls, one wrong move and it’s all over. The balance is precarious, but crucial. How do you avoid staying a museum without becoming an amusement park? The same way a missionary would in any other culture.
As much as most of us hate to admit it, and even fewer of us will admit it out loud, the methods of evangelism that worked 75, or even 25, years ago just simply do not work anymore. Our culture is shifting from being very scientific (modern) to very emotional (post-modern)…in a nutshell. Appealing to the senses is crucial in reaching this generation and possibly even the generations to come. Now, most believers will argue – and rightly so – that true faith is not purely emotions. While that is completely true, remember that God does manifest Himself in very real heart-emotions: love, joy, peace, contentment, hope, etc. The post-modern person needs to hear about a God Who is here for him today. He doesn’t necessarily need to be convinced God exists – he probably already knows that. He needs to know God is real for him now.
But, if we only appeal to the emotions and focus on giving them an emotional experience with God, we are not giving them the whole truth. Just giving them what they want to hear and what we know will draw them to Christ is not enough. Emotions always wear off. We must blend fact in with the emotion (the old with the new) in order to sustain their true faith. We also have to keep in mind that our culture is in the process of changing. Not everyone is emotionally driven, therefore, one method of evangelism and church just will not reach everyone.
Another thing that is even harder to admit is that our method of worship has changed. This doesn’t just mean music. The entire service has changed over the years- everywhere from how people dress to types of instruments played to length and style of sermons. There is something to be said about having some kind of structure, but ultimately, “worship” is not constrained or defined by any of these things. Style of music, length of sermons, types of instruments, and length of the service are not worship. They are merely to assist people in personal worship of the Lord. If you only worship on Sundays, then the meaning of “living a life of worship” has not gotten a hold of you yet. But, ultimately, does our “worship service” look like a museum tour that never changes or an amusement park that tries so hard to please everyone that no one enjoys it and someone always ends up sun burned?
Years ago, missionaries went to a new country and brought with them their way of doing things. This is why the most widely sung music in churches all over the world are English and American songs. Church, in many countries, looks shockingly similar to church in America. The buildings have steeples, the people dress up, and they sing from hymnals translated from English.
Now that missionaries are spending more time learning about the culture they are going into, they are drastically changing their methods of reaching people in other countries. People are writing their own music and worshiping the Lord in styles familiar to them. Their styles of “church dress” reflect their own nationality. Fewer foreign pastors are preaching; more merely participate and offer guidance when asked. Church buildings don’t always have steeples anymore and some, to the American mind, wouldn’t even look like a church…or even a building for that matter.
We no longer expect a missionary to change the people group he’s ministering to in order to reflect his own home culture. We expect missionaries to adapt and help form indigenous churches so people can come to know and worship God in their own way. We do, however, expect the missionary to help guide the people in Godly truth.
We define a “missionary” as someone who tells others the Gospel, correct? We also stress in America that we “don’t need to go overseas” in order to be a missionary, right? If we are all truly missionaries, then we need to do what all missionaries do:
1. Step back and observe the (new!) culture around us.
2. Develop a strategy to best meet this culture where they’re at.
3. Set aside our own preconceived ideas of church as we know it and try something new.
4. Be wary of straying from the truth and accepting things into the church that are not from the Lord, as outlined clearly in Scripture, being careful not to interpret Scripture through our own cultural viewpoint.
A museum, amusement park, or God-glorifying church? The choice is yours…as the American missionary.