My youngest son started secondary school a few years ago. The thought of going to ‘big school’ was causing him some concern. Not in a small way because his brother (my middle child) had convinced him that every new arrival in ‘big school’ had to go through something called ‘swirlies’. It seems the traditions continue from generation to generation but we simply change the names. ‘Swirlies’ meant that the big boys would be dipping his head in the toilet and pulling the chain in his first week. I assured him that this wouldn’t happen. But he believed his big brother because he was at the school already … despite my mentioning his brother’s reputation for telling him all sorts of made up stories.
Then he started his new school. And at the end of the first week he came to find me because he was feeling upset. ‘Swirlies’ hadn’t happened and he wanted to know if the big boys didn’t like him? He’d concluded that all the other boys must have had ‘swirlies’ done to them and he hadn’t! Secondary school was a strange world. A new culture. Nothing felt the same as the safe single classroom, single teacher of primary school. For the first few months he carried around every text book he’d been given in case he miss a subject. His bag was beyond heavy. He was adapting to a new culture. A new way of operating. But curiously, he had stumbled on the key to engaging with any new culture. Even this brave new 21st century world.
The Apostle Paul had gone through a similar process in his missionary journeys. He’s arrived in Corinth and it was very clear that there were already a range of factors at play, sociological, economical, religious. Corinth was a combination of numerous cultures that had come together to form a new hybrid culture. It was a mixture of rich and poor. Merchants making their wealth through relatively newly opened trade routes, freedmen (freed slaves) who had left Rome and were industrious in carving out a living. Rome was of course dominant, but Rome of itself was a sponge in terms of culture, soaking up everything it encountered and making it part of itself. Therefore Corinth was home to Roman and Greek gods, Mystery religions that had migrated from the East and of course Jewish synagogues as the Jewish nation began to spread out. Temples emerged to numerous gods. And the people of Corinth had no issue with engaging with whichever deity they felt could give them a response in their present circumstances. When Paul entered Corinth, it had 26 different temples. So what do you do? A new world to engage with. Where do you begin. Let’s see if we can find a few keys. Firstly, we must understand the mission, it’s straight forward enough. Go into all the world and preach the gospel, baptise them and help them become mature followers of Jesus. Secondly, don’t fall into the trap of thinking people are not spiritual. They are hugely spiritual. GK Chesterton said that when we stop believing in God we don’t believe in nothing, we begin to believe in everything. James Fowler wrote a book called Stages of Faith. It needs careful critique, but what he gets right again and again is people are still spiritual. One of his interview candidates was 4½year old Sally. Sally had been kept away from all forms of organised religion by her parents. But yet under interview she still had a deeply spiritual view of the world and understanding of God. 30 years in children’s ministry in a variety of countries has taught me this clearly:
All children are deeply spiritual and want to connect with God.
But how do you do that in a foreign culture. Paul new the pattern for Jews. There was much in common. Monotheistic religion (One God), the same moral code (based on Torah and ten commandments) and an easily identifiable place of worship, the synagogue. And of course Paul was a very well educated Jew. He entered the synagogue and presented his argument explaining that Jesus was the fulfilment of the Old Testament law. And that has worked for us for a while by the way. For many centuries the UK had a residual understanding of Christianity that you and I could work with. People visited churches, vicars and ministers were common place. But not so in the years of decline in the 21st century where there are now some homes where four or five generations in some families who have never been to church. That alongside the influx of other religions and belief systems.
So what do you do? Children and families don’t readily wander in to the church. Let me firstly point out something interesting. Paul is trying to work it out too. We think he’s got it all together. We think he is the super evangelist. Weeks before walking into Corinth he has stood in Athens and seeing the inscription “to the unknown god” starts where the people are at and preaches from there. He is trying to work it out and as a result a few people become followers of Jesus. Not Pentecost. But not a bad first attempt. But it gives us our first clue as to what you have to do in an unknown culture. You have to get experimental. It’s the Robert Raikes pattern from the last chapter. We simply don’t know what will work so we have to try lots and lots of different things. Some will work and some will fail and you will see this statement a few times in this book:
Failure is completely over rated
So when Paul arrives in Corinth he has solution number one pinned down:
You must experiment
It has been this way centuries. Kenyan John Mbiti says that, “Christianity is always the beggar at the door looking how it might present itself to each new culture.” The wrist bands WWJD are exactly the response. No blueprint, but the application of revealed truth into the new situation we face. What would Jesus do?
But Paul also learns a few new things to add to that. In Corinth he doesn’t arrive, preach and leave. He arrives, sets up home among them and begins to learn their culture. He immerses himself in their world. Not the knight in shining armour who rides in, saves the damsel and departs. That doesn’t work.
This is the incarnational ministry of Jesus. He comes and lives there.
And when you live there, all sorts of things change. But fundamentally the way that we communicate. There is a radical change in Paul. Paul is didactic, he likes systematic, logical presentation of truth. He is big on cognition; he preaches to the mind. But in Corinth all those principles go out of the window. Here it is in 1 Corinthians 2:
6 Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. 7 But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
The habitants of the 1st century Greek World liked to talk. They liked information. They liked to communicate information. In fact, they would have been really at home in our information based world over the last 50 years. Our news services are almost instantaneous. You can Google™ anything! When I typed in Corinthians to Google it gave 18 million hits in .43 seconds. And that information is accessible all the time because we walk around with our phones. We have become purveyors of information but without depth. We know very little about a lot. We became superficial. It was the 18th century evangelist George Whitfield who said that God would not pour out his spirit on a superficial generation. We can split atoms, look into space, have conversations with people all over the world. We have so much accessibility to so much information, we thought that in the information world he who controls the information controls the world.
Information. Logically presented, systematically stated, with exceptional communication skills is the key to communicating Jesus. Paul new it. In Athens he climbed on to a raised area and talked to them of the unknown God. He reasoned with them. He presented. And a few people came. We’ve trusted that approach for over a century. It’s what courses like Alpha are based on. The approach goes, “if I can present and prove this then I can change this life.” Not a criticism. It worked and it continues to work. But Paul walks into Corinth and knows that he had better change tact immediately. Same gospel, different approach. This is a hybrid community and this approach logical, systematic, sequential presentation of truth will not work here. And will shortly stop working in the 21st century.
Let me illustrate it to you. I give my most brilliant talk on who is Jesus. And you all nod and you get it. And I talk to you about why did Jesus die. And the presentation alone will cause you to say. I get it. I understand it. I will commit to it. There will undoubtedly be many who became followers of Jesus as a result of a great Alpha talk. But the response in Corinth would have been very different, and is become the response today. We explain who Jesus is. And people get it. I explain why he died and they get that too. Therefore, why are they not on their knees giving their lives to Jesus? In an information age we just gave them more information and so they added it to what they already knew, but there was no transformation. It never moved beyond their heads. In Corinth, Paul is not trying to convince anyone. He does something so wonderfully brilliant. If I was there I promise you I would have applauded. He shouts loudly:
“This doesn’t make sense you cannot get it.”
“Of course I can.” Comes response, “This is the information age. I can get anything.”
“Not this you can’t. This particular miracle is complete foolishness.”
Complete foolishness! You wouldn’t make a religion like this, Buddha died at 80, surrounded by a host of followers, Mohammed died at 62, leader of a united Arabia, in the arms of his favourite wife, Jesus dies aged 33 with the might of the world, religious and political, hurling itself against a solitary figure. And in dying moments proclaims, ‘it is finished’. CS Lewis nailed it for us when he said, “You cannot reduce the actions of Christ on the cross to simple explanation, it might give an idea, but not the reality. And that’s ok right, a person can eat their dinner without understanding how it nourishes them, and a person can accept what Christ has done without understanding it.”
Stop chasing heads. The world moved. It’s time to become a heart hunter. Stop sucking the life out of the cross by trying to explain it.
We’re called to preach awe, wonder and
mystery. The age of information is passing !
And the really cool part is that is exactly what the school curriculum says are the hallmarks of a good school assembly. Wonder and awe. No I do not know all the answers. I have spent 6 years in theological colleges and the best I can do is explain very articulately how much I don’t know! But I do know that I am a passionate follower of Jesus and I know that He loves me unconditionally.
I was in Slough not so long ago and speaking at a homeless unit – lots of self contained flats. It was Christmas and I’d been asked to come and explain what Christianity was all about. It was certainly a hostile crowd. The residents had been told that to get Christmas Dinner they first of all had to listen to the talks. The priest from the Sikh Temple, the Muslim Iman were also there along with a man talking about Buddhism. The three other gentlemen went first and give brilliant expositions of their belief systems. I told a story. A story of a little girl giving her dad a box of kisses for Christmas. I told them that God gave them a box of love as well. A gift names Jesus. No long explanations. But I know I won the day! And of course it’s a competition.
You and I are called to preach awe, wonder and mystery. The age of information is passing. We have to learn to experiment. We must learn not to be afraid of failure as we communicate into our deeply spiritual world.
Jesus cannot be explained. He cannot be neatly packaged. He cannot be summarised in a page on Wikipedia. But he does love you and he does love your community. And he can be encountered. He’s not hiding. It’s a mystery everybody. Embrace it.
Vincent Donavan was a missionary to the Massai. He wrote Christianity Rediscovered. In his introduction to the second edition he wrote this advice regarding evangelism into our brave new world:
Do not try and call them back to where they were and do not try and call them to where you are as beautiful as that place may be to you. You must have the courage to with them to that place where neither you nor they have ever been to before.