May 31, 2016 13 Comments
Over at my blog, there was been some spring cleaning going on – so perhaps this post should be preceded by a trigger warning (no, I think conservatives are tough enough to take it)? As my new job brings me into the front line of evangelism in a big city, although God does not change, my sense of what we need to be doing for him does. I have spent most of my life in monolingual, white, middle class communities. Christianity became inculturated there long ago, but on the whole the culture has moved on and we haven’t. The net result is what any marketing exec could tell you – those who have always bought your product still do so, but it lacks mass appeal. If you have no experience, as was my case, of what it is to live in a multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-racial community, two options seem common – go all defensive or all enthusiastic. But if you stand back and do neither, so you see things, things about which I think the USA has much to teach us.
Sure, it’s multi-cultural and multi-racial, but the middle class people live in one area, and the working classes in another, and as the goods on the shelves of the corner shops (Mom and Pop stores) show, ethnic communities tend to congregate together. If you are a city or national government, how do you make sure you talk to all those communities – and listen to them? The old way was to insist that people adopted your customs and languages, but across time, that modified those older customs and languages, and you got something like a melting pot effect. It was never a perfect ‘blend’, because people tend to be attached to their own kind and customs, but it offered a chance for people from different places to become ‘Americans’.
Sometimes I read things which say that what went wrong was not insisting that everyone conformed to one model, but I wonder if that notion was wrong? Christianity spread not by insisting that everyone became Jewish – although the ‘men from James’ seem to have thought that would be a good method of evangelisation – but by a process we call ‘inculturation’ – and the USA is a really good example of that. Sure, you can try to spread the Gospel by insisting that African-Americans have church services like white middle class Episcopalians, or that you speak to Spanish-speaking communities only in English, but if you expect any of that to work, you’re on a loser. Being supreme pragmatists, Americans have tended not to do these things. You can point, rightly, to racial tensions and inter and intra-community problems, but these things, like the poor, are always with us, and at least Americans aren’t trying to pretend that these problems don’t exist.
Building communities, like evangelism, is a work in progress. If you want a comfort zone, stay away from such endeavours and criticise those who do – the Monday morning quarterback always plays the best football after all. It is easy, in pessimism, to point at what seems wrong and miss the efforts that go into making a nation out of divided and separated communities. America has been unique in doing this, and I’m less inclined to criticise than to learn – and often we learn most from things which don’t quite work – or even by getting in wrong and trying something that does. If you act, you risk getting it wrong, if you don’t act, you will definitely atrophy – for me the American way suggests positivity is better than negativity.
However much we’re all inclined to throw up our hands and despair, we know for sure that if the Apostles had taken that course, we’d be damned for eternity.