COMPONENT ONE OF GOSPEL IN CONTEXT
This essay will endeavour to give a contextual description of the culture of a congregation being explored. The essay will use semiotics such as signs, symbols and idioms as levels from which the culture of the congregation is identified and described. There will be a discussion of how the church is better understood and how dialogue between the community and the church can be facilitated. As a way of understanding the context a bit more the essay will revisit ethnography, paying attention to the core values, quantitative and qualitative research of the environment and touching on approaches of Christian apologetics.
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Before delving deeper into the discussion, the essay will revisit ethnography of the church. Revisiting ethnography, a year later is crucial and essential as further revelations have unravelled, through further observations and interactions with the congregation. The revisiting of ethnography aligns with Pritchard’s experience of living among the people he was studying, thus building relationships with them. It is therefore acknowledged that living and interacting with the congregation brought more revelations and deeper understanding of the context.
As a minister in the context there was and is still more immersion going on either voluntarily or involuntarily. Moschella defined ethnography as way of allowing oneself to be fully involved in a setting for the purposes of learning about a group of people’s lifestyle and culture. The learning of the context a year on is continuously perplexing, interesting, disturbing and at times frustrating. It is perplexing to see how the congregation seem to be so fixated in identity protection rather than focusing on missional work. The rigidity and resistance are detrimental to mission and church growth.
Identity issues are evident through usage of signs and language such as “this is us and this is how we used to do it and this is how we do it”. There are constant reminders about not upsetting the routine as it was there for a long time. The congregation’s culture and identify which have developed over time are observed in language. Hopewell echoes the observation by suggesting that congregations have their own ways of relating to religion thus creating indicators of who they are. Hopewell continues to suggest that it is only through these ways that the congregation can reveal their own identity.
The language could be perceived as inductive in theory but deductive in practice. The inductiveness is evidenced in an incident that happened last year upon my arrival. There was misunderstanding about “deductive” language used on a signage on the walls of the church. Tempers flared because of usage of “unchurched” language which read “any car parked without permission will be clamped”
Upon reflection the members cried foul to the phraseology claiming it was a defamation of the church’s identity which is inclusiveness. Bosch defines inclusiveness as a way of including and paying attention to the world around us. Bosch bases his definition on the story of God’s covenant with the children of Israel and further touches on the birth, death and resurrection of Christ. The incarnation story was God’s way of communicating with the whole world not just individuals or groups of people. Therefore, when talking about mission, church should not be self-centred but should pay attention to the environment and world around it.
Therefore, the usage of “clamp” was perceived as an abomination of a loving and caring church which is not hostile to its neighbours and community as a whole. Upon reflection the outcry could be perceived as justification and endorsement of what church is about, in the face of adversity. It is acknowledged that Christianity like any other religions are being challenged and at times rebuked. Graham in the introduction of her book talks about debates which perceive religion as deep-rooted, old fashioned and that there is fear of talking about God publicly. Therefore, the congregation’s behaviour demonstrates its willingness to protect and justify a faith under attack.
The congregation just like Wesley’s journal entry on the 1st April 1939, are grappling with the fierce criticism of talking about God publicly and fear of offending non-believers. In his journal John Wesley struggled whether to preach in the fields or not but was encouraged by an illustration of the sermon on the mount. Likewise, the congregation seems to struggle to publicly preach to the wider community but seeks to proclaim the gospel through writings on the wall. On the same note the congregation should be inspired by James’s encouragement of contemporary open-air preaching of action and not words. (James 2:14-16).
James questions what good is it to say words to a physically needy person. Therefore, it is about how the congregation express their faith, it is not about talk. Being apologetic is not about repackaging theology but relooking at theology. What does the scripture say about adapting to the environment and times? Tabitha identified the needs of the community and was revived back to life because of her works (Acts 9:36-42). In a way Tabitha publicly proclaimed the gospel by her works. She was showing the community God’s love by providing for their needs in a manner possible to her.
The same applies to the congregation it should challenge itself on how best can God be seen and felt in a socially deprived area with a slightly higher crime rate. It is worrying how theological narrative is being presented in postmodernity. Stackhouse, echoes Graham’s perception on challenges faced by modern Christianity. In his book “Humble Apologetics” Stackhouse says modernity characteristics hold guiding hope, that given time and opportunity the hope may lead the church to answers of way forward. Amidst the negative vibes about religion, the congregation has many ways of presenting God to a broken world. There are indicators and triggers in the community that the church can apply gospel into. The community has people who are lonely and anxious, who have no interaction with the community, the church can tap into that and organise day activities inviting community inhabitants to participate.
The area is rich with young people. A research revealed that 40% is aged between 30-44 an age range scarce in our churches. Therefore, activation of the word through action of engaging this age range would immensely benefit and revive a fast-declining congregation with a membership of 50, 95% of whom are past working age.
The congregation as mentioned earlier presents inductive language in words but not in action, the actions are deductive. Though it could be difficult to identify the deductive tendencies but the signs and symptoms are evident in the resistance to new ideas to attract new members. As a minister I suggested the introduction of praise and worship group which includes locals with passion, skills, gifts and experience in music but the idea was met with fierce resistance under the pretext of safeguarding. There is supposedly fear of attracting “unwanted” and “unexpected” elements of the community who might upset the normalcy of the church.
Such justifications defeat the whole concept of being an inclusive church. The fears and concerns of the congregation align with how Cameron perceives church language to be deductive presenting salvation to the chosen few. Cameron’s sentiments are echoed by Paul who talks about the exclusion of women from church business without talking to the women (1 Corinthians 14:35-36). The church talks about the community not to the community or involve the community.
As a leader who is people oriented, suggesting the idea of praise and worship group was a way of facilitating dialogue between the church and the wider community. It was a way of trying to overcome the demarcations and differences between church and wider community. Loughlin suggests that it is important to value the way the church facilitates conversations of the scripture and the world around it by bring the word to life. It is only when the fire is lit that the world sees it. Moses did not know that God was talking to him until when he saw the burning bush (Exodus 3:17).
The mission of the church should therefore be visible for the world to draw closer to it and hear what God is saying. It is about relooking at theology that the church speaks inductive language. Hull suggests that the church is a bridge between the world and God by defining it as an instrument or an agent. The church should be able to win souls for the Kingdom of God through its mission. The introduction of the praise and worship group was about drawing attention of the wider community acknowledging their skills and talents and welcoming them into the church despite their belief. It is about involving the inhabitants to hear the word of God through music and by being hospitable to the people that they might want to be members of the church.
Craddock suggests that induction movement of material should enable the hearer to participate in what is being said and to be able to make their own judgment of what is being said. It is disturbing and sad to suggest that the welcome and friendliness of the congregation is in theory and not in practice. As a church of God which is seeking to fulfil its mission it should be more focused on accepting change and allow those who need healing come to God. Paul was not a believer until he had an encounter with God (Acts 9:1-7). It is not for the church to stereotype inhabitants of the community but to make them feel welcome.
Jesus discouraged exclusion upon his resurrection by commanding his disciples to go yeah out there and make disciples of all nations, he did not make exceptions (Matthew 28:16-20). Jesus did not warn his disciples to be careful about opening the doors of heaven to “unwanted” and “unexpected” elements of nations. Paul reverberates Jesus’ command by saying there is no longer Jew or gentile, male or female, slave or master in Christ creation is equal (Galatians 3:28). The church’s mission should embrace all by extending hand to those who are yet to experience the grace and love of God.
It is therefore the responsibility of the church to talk and do inclusive. As a minister in the situation, I keep interrogating myself as to whether I am a referee on a football pitch, a player or observer as sometimes it feels like a tug of war. The orientation project essay portrayed the context as a football pitch and as a minister was endeavouring to understand who I was on the pitch. I was struck by a comment from the feedback that I got from the tutor questioning how far I could stretch the analogy of referee and minister. I was challenged to delve deeper on the comparison of the role of a referee and that of a minister.
On hindsight I would have suggested that a minister supports, encourages, identifies gifts, and empowers the congregation unlike a referee, who is independent and whose role is to facilitate a fair play of the game without bias. I feel that the role of the referee in this context a year later would be different from the orientation project. A deeper understanding of the context and the congregation would perceive the minister as non-partisan to God’s people. I feel that the minister would be for both church and the wider community. It is the duty of the referee to understand the football game and relate it to the players. On the same note it is the duty of the minister to understand the relationship between the congregation and the wider community thus facilitating a dialogue between the two.
Bonhoeffer suggests that it is crucial for the church and those in representative ministry to cultivate their knowledge of the world and its needs so that they may speak with authority in the name of Christ. I feel that as a minister I have developed and still developing a better understanding of the congregation and the wider community. Therefore, my role could be similar to that of a referee who seeks a level ground for the teams. The ground would be levelled by educating the church to bring to life the word of the Lord by exercising it and make others see God in what the church does.
The church and the wider community should not be seen as opponents on a football pitch but as willing partners journeying together. It is essential that the congregation understand their own stories that they are a continuation of biblical stories. Therefore, faith and action should walk hand in hand. Furthermore, it is crucial for the congregation to understand that they are part of the movement of the Holy spirit bringing the presence of God in their environment.
In conclusion it is crucial that the congregation bring information and understanding of God to the wider community. It is the duty of the church to retrieve the true gospel so that the church can spread scriptural holiness through its works. It is about understanding the “language” meaning how the community relates to others and God. As much as it sounds difficult and complicated to convince less believers about God, I feel it is much easier to demonstrate God than to talk God. The little things that we do and say should pronounce the glorious wonders of God.
Prayer and living in alignment with God’s will should enable and empower the church to convince the less believing. Jesus’s mission demonstrated his acts of compassion, he healed the sick, fed the hungry and taught the word (Matthew 12:15). Jesus identified and provided for the needs of the community. My observation from the experience I had with the congregation could be that the church has lost confidence.
Heath in her introduction acknowledges through comments from students that the church has lost its evangelical vibrancy and holistic approach. Aquinas suggests that our actions are triggered by our thinking that God is all act and that He is in our actions. Whatever we do or say should reflect the presence of God and continue to liven the word. As a minister in the context it is crucial that I remain positive and continue to drive home the importance of moving with times.
- Aquina, T. (1998) Selected Writings, edited by Mcinerny, R., (London: Penguin Group, 1998)
- Bonhoeffer, D., Life together, (SCM Press, 2015)
- Bosch, D., Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Orbis, 1991 new edition 2011)
- Cameron, H., Resourcing Mission, (SCM, 2009)
- Craddock, F., As One without Authority, Revised and with New Sermons (Chalice Press, Missouri, 2001) p. 52
- Graham, E., Apologetics without apology, (Cascade Books, Eugene, 2017)
- Heath, A., E., The Mystic Way of Evangelism: A contemplative vision for Christian Outreach, (Baker Publishing Group, 2015)
- Hull, J., M., Mission-Shaped Church, A Theological Response (SCM Press, 2015)
- The Holy Bible, John, NRV. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977
- Loughlin, Gerald, Telling God’s story, CUP, 1996
- Moschella, M. C. Ethnography as a Pastoral Practice (Pilgrim Press, 2008)
- Pritchard, E.,Kinship and Marriage Among the Nuer, (Clarendon Press, 1951, digitalised 2010)
- Revell, F., H., The Journal of John Wesley Founder of the Methodist Movement, (@John Wesley, 2016) p.59
- Stackhouse, JR, J., G., Humble Apologetics- defending faith today, (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006)
 Pritchard, E. E. ,Kinship and Marriage Among the Nuer, (Clarendon Press, 1951, digitalised 2010)
 Moschella, M. C. Ethnography as a Pastoral Practice (Pilgrim Press, 2008)
 Hopewell, J., Congregation: Stories and Structure (Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1987) p.4
 Bosch, D., Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Orbis, 1991 new edition 2011), p. 9
 Graham, E., Apologetics without apology, (Cascade Books, Eugene, 2017) p.1
 Revell, F., H., The Journal of John Wesley Founder of the Methodist Movement, (@John Wesley, 2016) p.59
 The Holy Bible, Acts, NRV. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977
 Stackhouse, JR, J., G., Humble Apologetics- defending faith today, (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006) p. 14
 Cameron, H., Resourcing Mission, (SCM, 2009) p. 34
 Loughlin, Gerald, Telling God’s story, (Cambridge University, Cambridge , 1996)
 The Holy Bible, Exodus, NRV. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977
 Hull, J., M., Mission-Shaped Church, A Theological Response (SCM Press, 2015) p.5
 Craddock, F., As One without Authority, Revised and with New Sermons (Chalice Press, Missouri, 2001) p. 52
 The Holy Bible, Matthew, NRV. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977
 The Holy Bible, Galatians, NRV. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977
 Bonhoeffer, D., Life together, (SCM Press, 2015) p.9
 The Holy Bible, James, NRV. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977
 Heath, A., E., The Mystic Way of Evangelism: A contemplative vision for Christian Outreach, (Baker Publishing Group, 2015) p. 12
 Aquina, T. (1998) Selected Writings, edited by Mcinerny, R., London: Penguin Group (1998 p.70)