To my fellow followers of Christ,
We are privileged to be disciples of Jesus in an unprecedented age.
We now have the power to land a spacecraft on a shooting star, and peek into the extremities of distant galaxies. Meanwhile, our communication platforms squeeze us into an ever-shrinking global neighbourhood. In the twinkling of an eye, we can celebrate far-off acts of human kindness and rage at the hunger and brutality in other continents. We are the first generation who can claim to have 8 billion neighbours and are, effectively, without excuse.
And for the first time in many centuries, we who follow Christ have come to realise that our predictable Christian cultures – on which we thought the sun would never set – are vanishing before our eyes. There is nowhere on the planet where we may now comfortably assume that others will respect what we believe. Even where the Church is growing powerfully, we are pressed by alternative beliefs, terror and persecution. In Western societies, where Christian values once shaped the world, cynicism, disbelief and disillusionment have become our audience.
Yet in the face of these many-layered challenges, I remain buoyant about what God is doing in and through his Church. Apart from the dramatic exceptions in the Middle East, I see few signs of Christians becoming an endangered species. The passion for transformed lives, communities and continents is gathering momentum. In so many ways the gospel is confronting human sinfulness and being proclaimed with confidence and compassion. This passion for change sees Christians advocating for economic justice, political engagement and a better world, at the highest levels of government.
But as someone who has been at the vanguard of transformational and prophetic talk for over 30 years, I am sensing the need for a rethink.
The idea of prophetic engagement – speaking truth to power – still gets me out of bed in the morning. But I sometimes worry whether ‘transformational’ and ‘prophetic’ talk means that we’re taking ourselves too seriously. Just occasionally, what we claim to be ‘prophetic’ looks more like venting our spiritual spleen on the ungodly – a Father Ted-style placard bearing: ‘Down with this sort of thing!’ Some of this is an understandable knee-jerk response to a ‘world gone mad’. It’s a holy rant at the secular values that seem to have stolen pole position.
What I mean by ‘taking ourselves too seriously’ is that tendency for my personal indignation with the world to overshadow God’s own heart for the world he so loves and is constantly trying to communicate with. I find I have to guard against behaving as though the world has a personal grudge against me: a mission to make me sound stupid in public places!
I see few signs of Christians becoming an endangered species
But what if the prophetic has more to do with standing in the gap rather than standing in opposition? And what if Christians are being called not so much to wield their prophetic shotguns, but to be translators to our culture?
Translating the Bible again
My latest taxi driver was a born-again Christian. Having discovered that I was a ‘Rev’ he wanted to let me know of his strong disapproval that the Bible wasn’t being taught in schools and that churches were being turned into flats. He was keen that the Church should be speaking out and asked me what I felt about this loss of holy ground. I reminded him of our claim that the ‘Church’ is not the building and that, in any case, many Christian movements are happier buying disused warehouses, which are easier to maintain.
We could see the world’s hostility as direct threats to biblical truth: or we could see it as a world scrambling manically for meaning
More importantly, he had no idea of the amazing work being done in schools and resources made available by youth organisations such as Urban Saints and Youth for Christ. He was unaware of the ways God is now working in prisons through Alpha and among the poor through CAP, or the extent to which Christian-run food banks are now a part of our social reality. He was shocked to know that prayer gatherings are regularly held in the House of Commons and that there are now more open Christians in Parliament than two decades ago as a result of the work of ministries such as CARE.
If a self-professed born-again Christian can be so oblivious to the way the Church is impacting culture, then we should find it no surprise that those outside the Church are having difficulty hearing us too.
The problem is that our culture now speaks a different language. Our theological debates about women in leadership are heard as an equalities debate in the world. Our theology of human sexuality translates as gender justice and rights. In the words of the character in the film Cool Hand Luke, ‘What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.’
Five hundred years ago, the work of Bible translation was at the centre of the Protestant Reformation. But a new work of translation is increasingly indispensable for our mission today.
Our society still wants to listen
As translators (or interpreters, to be more precise) our task is to make sure that the Church understands our world and the world begins to ‘get’ the Church. Translators do the hard work of absorbing both languages and the cultural baggage that comes with both.
A culture in rebellion is probably more open to hearing us than we suspect. In 2000, a BBC survey of religious attitudes, Soul of Britain, told us that 78% of people were keen to know what the Church thought about poverty, 75% wanted to hear from us about racism and 70% about global injustice. It’s not what some Christians would call ‘gospel’ but they are liberating issues nonetheless. That was 15 years ago, but my guess is that we’re on the same trajectory.
A new work of translation is increasingly indispensable for our mission
As far back as 1960 an early Pentecostal ambassador in Britain, Donald Gee said, ‘People are perplexed when a movement that claims to be dominated by the Spirit of God has nothing to say in reply to the questions that thoughtful men and women are asking on every hand.’
Paul’s arrival in Athens has something of this translation about it. Having just arrived from the Bible belt of Berea, Paul found himself in the perfect storm of intellectual arrogance, cynicism and idolatry at Mars Hill. His response was to act as translator (Acts 17:23).
Even though they called him a ‘babbler’ (Acts 17:18), he didn’t take it personally. Indeed, the very first recorded sermon of the early Church began with a translated word of explanation on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14ff).
My point is not to reduce the prophetic to policy advice. It’s to suggest that in our vastly complex world, the most powerful prophetic posture may be that of the unassuming but all-important translator.
Conveying God to the world
The West Wing fans will recall the strategic advice supplied by Joey as a White House consultant. Usually, she was brought in to deal with political crises. Joey was beautiful, powerful, highly intelligent, but unable to communicate. Her brilliance was communicated by a translator who knew her thinking intimately and conveyed her emotional and intellectual nuances well. But although the translator’s voice filled the TV set, it was Joey who commanded the viewer’s attention.
Good translation mediates God’s brilliance and passion from the Church to the world without our baggage getting in the way. Translation is no guarantee that people will believe, but it does open the possibility to talk about the relationship between sinfulness and human dysfunctionality while being part of the crowd.
The cultural complexities of our day present us with an overflow of challenges. We could see the world’s hostility as direct threats to biblical truth: or we could see it as a world scrambling manically for meaning. It seems to me that controversies over issues such as public services for gay couples, prayers in schools, or wearing a crucifix at work are all symptomatic of a culture in severe spiritual convulsion and cultural confusion.
We could shout back and label our yelling as ‘prophetic’, or we could reposition ourselves as courageous translators, helping people understand what God is still trying to say in the mayhem.