In seeking to communicate my faith I have had two defining experiences – one of them 20 years ago, one of them a few weeks ago.
Twenty years ago in a Southern Irish village I met an evangelist who was preaching. He had been coming to Southern Ireland year after year for over two decades. His commitment and passion were deeply moving, but when he spoke, he talked about being ‘washed in the blood of the lamb’. He used a string of metaphors and words that left the people of this Southern Irish village looking extremely confused. What was this man saying? Recently, as I walked along Oxford Street I heard a man preaching. Once again the words and the metaphors that he used to communicate the gospel – sin, repent, born again, being a winner and not a sinner – were metaphors and words that the shoppers in Oxford Street would have found deeply puzzling.
?Our world has changed. People growing up in the 1940s and 1950s lived in a very Christian culture. They probably went to Sunday School so words like ‘sin’ and ‘repent’ and ‘born again’ may have had some meaning for them. The successful mission of Billy Graham in 1953 proved this – the words and the manner of their delivery resonated in many hearts. But this is 2007. The UK is no longer a nation that is sitting on its Christian moral foundation. Now it’s a postmodern nation, a nation where less than four per cent of the population go to Sunday School, where words like ‘sin’ and ‘repent’ mean very little; they are foreign words, code words, secret words – this leaves you and me with a tremendous challenge.
Missionaries call this challenge contextualisation. This is the process where a missionary seeks to present the Christian message in words and pictures that make sense to the people they are talking to, metaphors that resonate. This process can take many years. I spoke to a lovely missionary lady who had been living with a small tribe in the Amazon jungle for ten years. In that time no-one made a Christian commitment. She said to me, “Laurence, I can speak the language, I understand the culture but I can’t quite bring together the words and the pictures that will communicate Jesus to these people.” Three years later I met her again and she was wearing a broad grin. During those three years she had understood how to do this and she had had the great privilege of seeing three quarters of this tribe come to faith.
A relevant message?
One of the heroes of the church is St Patrick. He is said to be the first person outside of the New Testament who thought through what it is to develop church in a non-Roman culture. Patrick asked himself, ‘How do I reach these Celtic Irish people, what language, what metaphors will work?’ In preaching his message to the Irish Patrick did three interesting things. He knew that to be a hero in Celtic culture you had to die sword in hand, smashing someone’s brains out. So when he preached the gospel he gave the Celts an aspiration: be a martyr, lay your life down for God, die not sword in hand, but the Word of God in hand. The Celtic people were a martyr people and he gave them a whole new way of being a martyr, a whole new aspiration.
This raises a question for us: what metaphor, what picture, what words, can we give to the British people that will give them an aspiration, something to live for, that comes from the gospel?
Secondly, Patrick dealt with their fears. The Celts were troubled by the forests; they had a sense that there was deep evil in the hidden places. He told them it was fine; God had made the world and they didn’t have to be afraid. He dealt with their fears. What fears are there in our culture? How can we present the message of the gospel so that it not only inspires people but also deals with their fears? Their fear of loneliness, of self or of rejection.
Lastly, Patrick dealt with selfishness. At times, the Irish people sacrificed babies to deal with their sin; they felt that they had to give of their best to deal with their sin. Patrick told them that there was indeed a selfishness problem, a sin problem if you like, but he told them that Jesus had died once for all. No more babies had to die.
They could deal with their selfishness and sin by talking to Jesus – he would give them a new heart and a new life. So, here is the challenge for us: to communicate the gospel in a way that inspires people, gives them aspirations, deals with their fears and, importantly, deals with our selfishness.?
But this still leaves us with some problems – what words can we use? We not only need creativity to think of metaphors that will touch people but the very words to describe what we believe. I have included a list (see over) of the words that we often use to communicate different aspects of the gospel. Beside each word I have suggested a new word, one that is in greater usage today, a word that people might understand. My list does not have to be your list but perhaps it will start us thinking. For example, instead of using the word ‘sin’, I use the word ‘selfishness’. In other words, behind the concept of sin lies the principle of self-rule.
In the Garden of Eden there are two trees; the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:17). The tree of life symbolises God at the centre and our surrender to his ways. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil symbolises mankind at the centre and choosing for ourselves what is right and wrong; this is the principle of self-rule. Even though most people do not understand the word sin, they do understand selfishness – they understand that they have been hurt by it, that we have an epidemic in our world of personal and corporate selfishness and, if they are honest, they understand that not only have they been hurt by selfishness but they too have been selfish. So selfishness gives us a way of communicating a sense of lostness to people and, hopefully, it’s a way they can relate to.
A metaphor is a word picture that conveys meaning. ‘Behold I stand at the door and knock,’ (taken from Rev 3:20) is a phrase that was used by preachers of old. What metaphors would work for us today? What entry points can we have into society? Society has changed. The generations of the ’50s and ’60s grew up with moral certainties; that’s why the ’60s was a time of rebellion – you can’t rebel unless there is something to rebel against.
Therefore when preachers preached in the ’50s and ’60s, forgiveness was an important part of the message. There was a sense that people had done wrong. They had someunderlying knowledge of biblical principles and morality and so the message of forgiveness was the right message at the right time.
Finding the right approach ?Today, there is no sense of right and wrong so what can we use as an entry point? The apostle Paul had the same issue in a pagan culture. They had little sense of right and wrong and in 2 Corinthians 5:15, Paul says, ‘He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.’ In other words, he realised people were living for themselves. It has been said that our post-modern society, where we all choose what is right and wrong, is one of the most live-for-yourself societies the world has ever seen. So this could give us a new entry point which will help people to see that they are living for themselves and that the antidote is surrender – we don’t live for ourselves but for Jesus and we put Christ at the centre. A forgivenessbased approach was fantastic in its day but perhaps today we need a surrenderbased approach.
So let us be missionaries to our own nation and people in this changing world. Let’s ask the Holy Spirit to help us contextualise, to be creative, to find the words, the metaphors, the messages that make sense and places the challenge of the Christian gospel – that our society so desperately needs – in a way that people can understand and relate to.