Chris was still reeling from the fallout from a simple question he had asked of his line manager in the mission agency’s Personnel Department. In his usual open and frank manner, he had asked John (his superior) about John’s decision to assign one of their new missionaries to a posting where he knew there were important unresolved problems which could subject them to unnecessary risk and frustration. He felt he couldn’t just sit back and watch his friend being put at unnecessary risk and taken advantage of. However, as soon as he raised the matter, it was clear that there was no opportunity for dialogue with John, who believed that Chris had overstepped the mark. In asking questions about assignments, Chris had strayed into territory that was none of his business.
Hoping to clear the air, Chris decided to try to build bridges with his colleague, desiring to be transparent and accountable but without minimising the problem. For him, restoring the relationship was of supreme importance. But Chris’ attempts at reconciliation were met with a mixed response. On one hand, it was agreed that they had to restore a good working relationship, but on the other hand John made it clear that this restoration was conditional on Chris accepting John’s terms, including not questioning his decisions in any way.
This outcome hurt Chris more than perhaps a completely honest rejection of him would. Whereas Chris had expected a warm response to his attempt to restore fellowship, he was met with a lukewarm pseudo-reconciliation on John’s terms. Moreover, the whole issue was ignored by the head of personnel who didn’t want to appear to be taking sides, and so left them to sort it out between themselves. When this proved impossible, Chris was taken aside and warned not to disrespect those ‘above him in the Lord’. Faced with conflict between his conscience and the mission agency’s leadership ethos, Chris started to mentally compose his letter of resignation...
Most of us are (sadly) too familiar with relationship difficulties between Christians. We may even have experienced these conflicts ourselves. But perhaps it surprises you that it even happens among missionaries, who are after all perceived by many (but not by missionaries themselves) as the superholy.
Accepting that relationship conflicts occur between Christian leaders, and between those who work in Christian organisations, may be hard enough for our rose-tinted worldview. But does it make any difference, I wonder, if you were told that in the above story, Chris was 27 and John was 48? Maybe now it’s not just about differences of opinion; it’s about the generation gap.
The generation gap is nothing new, of course. Back in the 1960s, the newly adult Baby Boomers were telling everyone “don’t trust anyone over 30”.
We’re very familiar with the need to adapt our churches to the needs of younger generations, if only to try to prevent them from deserting our pews in droves. Youth cells, youth congregations, emerging church; these terms in our vocabulary help us to give expression to a widely-held recognition of just such a need for change.
But surely this problem doesn’t apply to mission agencies, does it? After all, the highly committed Christians who work in them must be so dedicated to their vocation that they don’t have time for disagreements. The importance of reaching the world for Christ, binding up the wounds of a hurting world, feeding the hungry and restoring sight to the blind, don’t allow them the luxury of falling out with each other.
And yet the story of Chris and John is all too common. Different generational outlooks can often be found to be at the root of such disagreements. Why is this happening, and what can be done about it?
Postmodern and Christian?
In 2001, 17 Generation X leaders in mission agencies from the UK, Canada, USA, New Zealand and Sweden, met together at the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, off the Northumbria coast, for five days of discussion, conversation, worship, prayer and planning. They gave expression to the tensions and frustrations felt not just by them, but also by many of their peers, and resolved to do what they could to raise awareness of these issues and to seek solutions to them. The ‘postmission’ movement has coalesced around a book ‘Postmission’ and a website (not surprisingly, www.postmission.com).
They have articulated their goals around a single slogan, “world mission by a postmodern generation”.
Now maybe this raises questions in your mind; maybe it also raises the eyebrows on your face. After all, isn’t postmodernity a threat and a challenge to the Christian faith? Doesn’t pluralistic postmodern thinking undermine any commitment we may have to the uniqueness of Jesus Christ? How can these people claim to be postmodern and yet committed to world mission? Even more, how can they claim to be both postmodern and Christian at the same time?
It’s now fairly common to hear youth leaders talk about changing their communication and ministry approaches to adapt to the needs of postmodern youth. Younger generations are often those most influenced by cultural shifts, and Generation X (now hardly ‘young’, since they’re mainly aged 20-40) has been described as “the first generation to be significantly shaped by postmodernity”. But are we sometimes fooling ourselves by thinking that the goal is to help postmodern young people to be less postmodern and more Christian? To follow Christ may mean that we leave behind all that we have to follow him, but it also means bringing all that we are into his service. Postmodernity isn’t so much a belief to be repented of, as a worldview and culture to be inhabited and transformed by Christ, and this is a work that can only be done by those who see themselves as both postmodern and Christian at the same time.
We don’t live on the Starship Enterprise
Culture has been defined as the sum of all resources, whether material, intellectual, emotional or spiritual, that people draw upon to give meaning to their lives. All human beings are cultural people. It’s part of what it means to be human. And we don’t leave our cultures behind us when we become Christians. We bring them with us, baggage and all, and much of the struggle of learning what it means to follow Christ is about understanding what about us needs to change, but also what it is that we can bring of ourselves (including our culture) to offer in service to him. We don’t leave Planet Earth to boldly go elsewhere on some spaceship; we stay here and work to see our families, our communities and our nation transformed by Jesus Christ working through us.
All Christians are influenced by their culture. This is part of the genius of the gospel. Past missionaries have been accused of being cultural imperialists, destroying cultures and replacing them with their own. Yet many times, nothing could be further from the truth. Missionaries, and the churches they have started, have helped to preserve cultures and languages from disappearance. By translating the Bible, languages that would have otherwise fallen into misuse have been learned, written down, and kept in daily use. After all, if you find out that God speaks your language, and not just Hebrew, Greek, Arabic or English, then it must be worth keeping on using it. And where languages are preserved, cultures remain living and vital realities. As Scottish poet Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh has observed, “God leads the jailbreak. For freedom Christ has set us free, free to seek God while he may be found and where he may be found (though he is not far from any one of us). And each language is a searchlight with which to seek him. A fissure, a hole punched in the wall of silence”.
In Divine Mosaic (recently re-issued as God’s Global Mosaic), Paul Gordon Chandler writes, ‘As God created each beautiful human face differently, it is safe to assume that he enjoys variety. There is one Christian faith, but many cultures. The gospel is one, but it finds expression in a variety of cultural forms as each individual’s culture shapes both his or her response to Christ and understanding of the gospel’. And this is not just a reality that we should acknowledge and live with. It also helps us to reach new and deeper understandings of the gospel. Chandler again; ‘our own Christian life is made more complete by learning from other cultural expressions of the Christian faith. These different expressions of the Christian faith must be in conversation with one another – for no one is closer to Jesus Christ than any other.’
Andrew Walls, at the Centre for the Study of Christianity in the Non- Western World, at the University of Edinburgh, has noted that when the gospel enters new cultures, it opens up new understandings that had been hitherto overlooked, and this has happened time and again throughout history.
Writing about the spread of Christianity in Europe during the Middle Ages, he comments, ‘Western European Christians demonstrated more interested in the doctrine of the atonement than early Christian writers had thought necessary. It made sense in the categories of traditional Germanic law; it also makes sense in terms of Roman law. It would probably not have occurred to a Greek thinker at all. It is an answer made from Western materials to a question made by Western conditions. It nonetheless helped to open up a new area of understanding of the significance of Christ’s work.’ World mission by a postmodern generation Returning to the issues around Chris and John, I hope that you can see now why I think it is possible to be both postmodern and Christian, and that this is more of an opportunity than it is a threat. However, as the story shows, recognising the value of different cultural perspectives doesn’t automatically guarantee that Christians with different outlooks will automatically get along. In fact, it seems to make it more likely that they will not get along. So how do we deal with different generational cultures, or any other cultures, within the church? One way of dealing with this challenge is to try to keep the different generations apart as much as possible. This emphasis on homogeneity, or to put it more simply, making sure that birds of a feather flock together, doesn’t so much solve the problem as try to find a way of ignoring it, on the basis that if you don’t pick a scab, it heals more quickly. We have turned to this solution frequently through the creation of youth cells, youth congregations and youth churches. This nichemarketing approach works well, allows different groups to co-exist side by side, and doesn’t worry too much about trying to integrate them. But it also worries a lot of people, who believe that somehow the church’s unity is important, and that in Christ our differences can be overcome. Churches and Christian organisations that try to be diverse and inclusive of different generational and national cultures can fall into another trap, however – that of hegemony. In such organisations, one group exercises most of the power and control, but in ways that are often invisible or at least unacknowledged. Those who feel disenfranchised and excluded find that their voices are not heard, and either lapse into silent and sullen resistance, or vote with their feet and leave.
It is the latter that is happening in many Christian mission agencies at the moment, as younger generations struggle to find a place within them. The homogeneity approach hasn’t been tried much. There are few if any mission agencies that have been started by and for Generation Xers. And the hegemony issues are such that the kinds of conflict that started this article are becoming more and more common, and many Generations Xers are dropping out of missionary involvement.
So is this an issue that is exclusive only to mission agencies, or does it affect the church more widely? If it is the latter, why should it have come to light within mission agencies first?
I think it is an issue that is affecting the church more widely than the mission agencies, perhaps the reason that it has come to light there first is that crosscultural living, with the added pressures of adjustment, homesickness, loss of identity and security, means they rise to the surface more frequently than in other contexts. This is why missionary training includes a strong emphasis on dealing with past issues before getting to a mission situation. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that these conflicts have emerged here first. And the solution is not that these ‘postmodern Christians’ should become more like the older generations of Christians. It’s unlikely that it would happen anyway, and as we have seen, there is real value in having different cultural perspectives within the church.
Those who are different to us help us to see our own blind spots, so together we can grow more deeply in our understanding of Jesus Christ, what it means to know him, and what it means to serve him in the world today.
Postmission: World Mission by a Postmodern Generation by Richard Tiplady is published by Paternoster Press, an imprint of Authentic Media. £8.99 ISBN 18422 71652