‘Culture is good’, so I was told recently. ‘Cultural diversity is part of God’s wonderful many faceted creation. You occasionally hear people claim that it’s a result of the Fall and Pentecost signalled a reversal of Babel. No, diversity is good. Those who heard the Gospel at Pentecost heard it in their own languages.’
The context of the discussion was one of missiology, chastened by criticisms of imperialism, applied to the Western situation of a shrinking church.
What we are to be, so the methodology goes, is incarnational. We neither impose our culture nor compromise the Gospel message but rather seek to inculturate it and so allow the Gospel to engage and challenge the culture from within. This is fine, of course.
A couple of points sprang to mind when listening to this. Firstly, to describe issue in terms of the problems of imperialism or syncretism works for simplicity’s sake but strikes me as potentially quite conservative, and not in a good way. It risks being conservative in an unhelpful way if it’s accompanied by an assumption that ecclesiology are necessarily culturally bound and therefore have to be set aside. Of course, everything we do is culturally bound but there is an implication here that the ‘Gospel’ is somehow more free than our ecclesiologies. Is this really the case? You could respond to this by setting aside the Gospel in the name of inculturation, but alternatively one could recognise that the Gospel cannot be separated from ecclesiology. This is not a plea for those within whom we mission to sing Wesleyian hymns or use Hillsong resources (although I don’t think an emergent form of Christianity should be expected to remain ‘pure’, untainted by ‘foreign’ Christian tradition but rather to make the case that the ‘Gospel’ has greater implications for ecclesiological form than is being given credit.
Christian practices, such as Baptism and the Lord’s Supper and the use of the Lord’s Prayer transmit to us the outlines of an ecclesial form and practice, I would want to argue. They also come to us within the context of the culture of first century Palestine. Perhaps what it is I want to say is that the Gospel is not mere words and if nothing else, the sacraments point us to this. The big challenge is not just to find a form of words, but a way of life.
And, briefly, this brings me to a second issue that I think needs to be embraced by this discussion. When we talk of inculturation and incarnation these are not trivial matters. Those engaged in these matters can’t dabble. This isn’t a hobby. And, if we’re talking of applying these matters to the West and particularly the UK, I’m tempted to say the biggest divides we face are socio-economic and class based. If all we’re actually talking about is ministering to the sub-cultures of the consumerist middle-class (Is this the case? I fear that exceptions may prove the rule), then it will be all the more important for these ecclesial forms to fleshed out. Criticism without personal engagement in alternative forms will just be heard as bare words.
We need ecclesial forms that challenge our culture and we should expect this to involve major life commitment.