evangelicalism as contextualised Gospel

I’ve been reading Andrew Walls’ The Missionary Movement in Christian History. Not a flashy title, but a fascinating book. It was published almost 20 years ago, so I’m a little slow on the uptake – perhaps everyone else has already been here, done that – but his writing about the incarnation as God’s translation of the Word for us, and the on-going re-translation of the gospel is just beautiful. If, like me, you’re also 20 years behind the times on missiology, it’s worth reading.

But something else about this book caught my eye – it articulated something I’d been thinking about but not quite able to put into words – evangelicalism as a ‘contextualised’ gospel. He argues that the success of the evangelical revivals in the 18th and 19th Centuries were that they made the Gospel meaningful for northern European Protestants, they answered the deep questions these people had at that time.

Western Christianity faced a cultural crisis – attrition of its basis in Western culture, with the weakening of the sanctions of the institutional church, the increasing efficiency of the centralised state, and the relegation of religion to the private sphere. The Evangelical Revival was perhaps the most successful of all the reformulations of Christianity in the context of changing Western culture… It retained the medieval concern (deep rooted in the European psyche) for propitiation. It also extended and clarified the Reformation idea (particularly as developed by the English Puritans  of a life of holy obedience in the secular world and in the family. Above all, it combined the traditional framework of the Christian nation and the established church… with serious recognition of individual selfhood and personal decision. That reconciliation bridged a cultural chasm in Christian self-identity. It helped to make evangelical religion a critical force in Western culture, a version of Christianity thoroughly authentic and indigenous there. To use the appalling current missiological jargon the Evangelical Revival contextualised the gospel for the northern Protestant world. 

The contextualisation was so successful that people found it hard to imagine there was any other way of following Jesus.

There is, of course, a lurking peril in all successful indigenisations. the more the gospel is made a place to feel at home, the greater the danger that no one else will be able to live there. And the missionary movement required people whose personal religion had become effectively (though critically) aligned with Western cultures to transmit the Christian message in non-Western settings where the assumptions that shaped their religion did not apply.

Walls is still very optimistic. He looks at the history of African missions and the dissonances between the missionaries’ culture and the Africans’ and concludes that both heard and responded to the gospel.

The fruit of the work of evangelical missionaries has not simply been a replication of Western evangelicalism. The Christian message that they set loose in Africa has its own dynamic, as it comes into creative and critical encounter with African life with its needs and its hurts. Exactly the same thing happened with the Evangelical Revival bridged the culture gap for northern Protestantism with such spectacular effect. Africans have responded to the gospel from where they were, not from where missionaries were; they have responded to the Christian message as they heard it, not to the missionaries’ experience of the message.

When we tend to talk about contextualising the gospel, what we normally mean is re-contextualising evangelicalism, never seeing that evangelicalism itself is a contextualised gospel.

But then, does this really matter? As Walls sees it, Africans in the past were able to seize what they understood from the missionaries’ message and creatively respond. The spread of the Gospel was not contingent on the missionaries’ ability to ‘contextualise’ it. Perhaps what’s more important is to remove barriers as much as possible, cultural stumbling blocks, and give indigenous people the freedom to do the contextualising themselves. What do you think?

I’ve also been thinking about Evangelicalism and print-culture. It’s a reading religion. It’s a very literate Christianity with hymn-books, quiet-times, bible-studies. It’s a Christianity contextualised for a (19th century middle class?) literary culture.

But what’s going to happen as we increasingly move towards an audio-visual culture? We already receive most of our information this way, how much longer do we expect books to hold on? Can evangelicalism adapt for an audio-visual culture? Perhaps – and maybe the answer is along the lines of those slick TGC monochrome clips with the Great Men in earnest discussion. Or perhaps evangelicalism will evolve, re-contextualise, translate itself into something else altogether. What do you think? Is evangelicalism prepared for the future?



Happy Friday everyone.

On the atonement

I’m halfway through these lectures from Fuller and loving them. What DID Jesus Do? The Atonement Symposium Videos

On the weather and climate

Tim Flannery As Australia burns, attitudes are changing. But is it too late?

On lust

When it comes to dressing modestly, I generally think that if my conscience is clear and I’ve dressed to attract no one else but my husband, then if a guy lusts it’s his own problem. Morgan Guyton Lust patriarchy and capitalism made me re-think this.

On church growth

Nathan Campbell Spurgeon v Augustine; Egyptian gold, “faithful preaching”, equilateral triangles and church growth

On good books

I confess to having read none of these books. But I will. Scott Stephens Why the best books of 2012 were so good

On the trolls

Jon Acuff Proverbs 9

On violence

This one’s a challenge. I mostly posting it because I read Nahum last week and am still in shock – I had much the same concerns. Wil Gafney God, the Bible and rape

Also, on the recent shootings and masculinity: David Leonard The unbearable invisibility of white masculinity

On compulsory voting

Mungo MacCallum Visionary voting reform if it works in your favour

On women in ministry

Michael Bird has written a response to Peter Bolt’s review of his book – The Achilles heel of two complimentarian objections

I’ve been pretty disappointed by the responses to Dickson’s book (Lionel Windsor excluded). Dickson’s been dismissed out of hand with little engagement with his argument – a little embarrassing from people who should know better.

On alcohol

This is from Prohibition, what did they do with all the booze? Literal rivers of booze.


Subscribe to my blog

goon, grog & plonk

We’re often perplexed about Americans and their love for guns. Another random shooting, and another and another. Wake up! Get some common sense!

But I reckon we’ve got an equivalent. Something that’s killing us, but is so intrinsic to our national identity and culture we can’t imagine giving it up: alcohol.alcohol

That’s hard for me to write. I love a drink. My grandfather sold alcohol for a living. I’m a descendant of Irish Catholics. It’s in the genes. I’ve played goon of fortune (how quintessentially Australian – a goon bag on a hills hoist) and enjoyed it (does that make me a bad Christian?).

It goes way back. NSW had a coin shortage in the early nineteenth century. No worries. They used rum for a currency. Now we use beer.

Later, we got around to giving women and Aboriginal people the vote. But then, we eventually let them have a drink at the same bar as white men. The pub, not the ballot box, was the marker of equality on a social level.

This is because drinking is our great social equaliser. It turns ‘a boss into a mate’. It’s how we communicate that we trust people, that we don’t think we’re any better than them, that we enjoy their company – we get drunk with them. You have to shout when it’s your turn – it shows you’re reliable. Even Prime Ministers are champion drinkers – Bob Hawke can skull a beer in about 10 seconds.

What does this mean for Christians? A Christian friend of mine organising a dry social event commented that it would show that ‘you don’t need to drink to have fun.’ Well yes, but generally in my experience, drinking makes most things more fun! That’s ok. Water into wine!

Sometimes when Christians don’t drink we end up coming off a bit up-tight and stand-offish, like we can’t really relax. It’s like we’re unwilling to share our true selves. It’s weird to socialise without drinking: in my experience only Christians seem to do that. It can make people joining us uncomfortable. Maybe being ‘all things to all people’ means we should drink a little more often.

But then again, Australia’s drinking culture has it’s flaws. An Aussie teenager dies every week from alcohol-related causes. According to the government:

Alcohol-related harm is a major cause of mortality and morbidity in Australia, causing around 3,000 deaths and 65,000 hospitalisations every year. In 2004-05, the annual cost to the Australian community of alcohol-related social problems was estimated at $15.3 billion.

(if we stopped drinking we could afford the National Disability Insurance Scheme no problem!)

The ‘mateship’ which drinking promises to deliver is still largely the domain of white men. What about people who for medical, cultural or religious reasons can’t drink? Will they ever be mates in the same way as the blokes you drink with? Check out XXXX island (a magical place without even a hint of femininity, homosexuality or anyone not anglo – I plan never to visit).

We also have an increasing muslim (non-drinking) population. I’m worried that if we depend on alcohol to turn a boss or a colleague into a ‘mate’, we’ll not include our muslim neighbours.

Maybe we need a new social lubricant. One that doesn’t kill us.

Cup of tea anyone?

What do you reckon – is alcohol to Australia what guns are to the USA? Should Christians drink more or less than we do now, or just differently? Does Australia’s drinking culture exclude people?

(next post – alcohol in the Northern Territory)

Subscribe to my blog


Welcome to Friday! Highlights from this week:

On poverty and homelessness

A couple of years ago, a certain politician had be throwing things at the TV and stomping around the house. He had implied that Jesus’ statement that ‘the poor will always be with us‘ was reason to give up on reducing homelessness.

(by the way, the ABS has just told us that Australia’s homeless population has grown by 17% since 2006 – we need to do something about affordable housing)

Since then I’ve been a little (hyper)sensitive to the misuse of this saying, taking care to point out that in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus quickly follows ‘the poor you will always have with you’ with ‘and you can help them any time you want, but you will not always have me.’ He’s saying Christians will always be near the poor. Like Jesus, we’ll be hanging out with the poor for a long time, but Jesus’ own time on earth was short.

But thank you Con Campbell – he has explained it far better than I could: The poor are always with you

My only concern with Campbell’s piece is that he contrasts caring for the poor with ‘proclaiming Jesus’. I’m not sure this is a helpful dichotomy (I know many disagree with me here).  As I understand it, we proclaim Jesus both with our mouths and our bodies, our speech and our actions. We can’t neglect either because our whole selves are his. I would hate for a Christian to worry she was spending too much time loving and not enough time evangelising, like these are discrete tasks. Jesus himself proclaimed his messiahship through speech and action.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

On war, peace and remembrance day

Stanley Hauerwas Sacrificed on the altar of the nation

On disability

Ellen Painter Dollar When Parents Hope for their Children to be cured, are we really wishing that they “cease to be?”

Do you say ‘people with disabilities’, ‘the disabled’, or what? – Stella Young Reporting it Right: How the Government Got it Wrong

On cultures

Alix Spiegel  Struggle for Smarts? How Eastern and Western Cultures Tackle Learning. Apparently, in Japan kids learn that you succeed if you work hard whereas, in America, they learn that you succeed if you’re smart. All I know is from my Suzuki violin days; the first song I learned went ‘Dr Suzuki says never be lazy but practice and practice until you go crazy.’

On gambling, ‘high rollers’ and addiction

Lawrence Bull Meet Packer’s High Rollers. Many of the so called ‘high rollers’ also suffer addiction and depression.

On the new Archbishop of Canterbury

Who would have thought. He’s an ex oil executive and Etonian, but Justin Welby actually sounds pretty good.

On the Bible

Peter Enns Inerrancy: I think someone forgot to tell the Bible

On evangelicalism

Michael Pahl Radically Evangelical – we need to be more evangelical, he argues.

On politics

brownie badgesOf the 20 women in the USA Senate, 70% were girl scouts (compared to 8% of American women). I’d like to see the stats for Australia. Julie Bishop and Louise Pratt were brownies, there’s got to be others.

Some people joked that Romney was the perfect candidate, if it were 1950. Seems like he’s an actually the ideal candidate for 1868 – given this map of the result of the election if only white men could vote. If it was just up to white men, Romney would have won 501 electoral votes to Obama’s 37.You can also see the result if it were only white people voting or people over 24.

So I also have some vintage anti-suffragette postcards. More postcards here and cats and suffrage.


Finally, the anniversary of the possessed toaster was this week.

Subscribe to my blog

surprised by hope

Surprised by hopeYou really must read this book. It’s the most exciting thing I’ve read in a while. It’s the kind of book that you just want to tell people about, that you give away to your friends saying ‘keep it’, that you feel like reading aloud to random people on public transport; ‘did you know this?! you must know this!’

It’s so exciting, even non-christians are talking about it. It made the front page of Time Magazine. I can’t say I know of any other evangelical book which non-christians might get excited about.

Time Magazine - rethinking heavenAnd It’s about our hope!

Wright argues that what we believe about our future hope is directly relevant to how we act now. So I was saddened when I heard it dismissed as ‘mere social gospel’ at a women’s conference recently. It was quite the opposite – we work for justice and beauty and evangelise because our hope in Jesus is so real.

He starts by showing how we’ve sold ourselves short. Somehow resurrection and ‘the new heavens and the new earth’ has become a vague ‘going to heaven when we die.’ Muddled theology often comes in through songs, and he points out how, somewhere in the nineteenth century, we started singing about resting on clouds with angels and esca

ping creation, rather than resurrection.

and fit us for heaven to live with thee there

But when life’s day is over, shall death’s fair night discover, the fields of everlasting life.

When Christ shall come, with shouts of acclamation, and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.

No no no, dying is not our hope! Leaving the world is not what we’re waiting for. Although there is ‘life after death’ he says, we wait for ‘life after life after death’, that is RESURRECTION and GOD’S NEW CREATION: the coming together of heaven and earth.

Admittedly, he repeats himself and goes around in circles a fair bit in the earlier chapters. I readily forgave him. I got the sense that he was just so excited about our hope, and just so frustrated at our kind of gnostic ideas of a fluffy floaty heaven that he had no time for mundane things, like editing.

He then goes through and does the hard work, using the bible to talk about the resurrection, what it is to be a ‘citizen of heaven’ on earth, heaven, hell and purgatory. I wished he spent a bit more time explaining that trippy rapture-esque passage in 1 Thessalonians 4, but that was the only point at which he lost me.

Then it gets really interesting.

You see, he says, if you believe Christian hope is about ‘getting into heaven’, what we do now doesn’t really have much connection to what happens in eternity. What we do now isn’t particularly important. All that matters is getting other people’s souls through the gates. Everything is only relevant in terms of evangelistic output. That’s all that will last.

But if we believe that God is going to renew and restore the earth, then everything matters. God’s new creation has already begun through Jesus’ resurrection (if anyone is in Christ there is new creation!). Our good deeds now – works of beauty, justice, righteousness – are like the seeds which will grow into fruition in the new creation (just like our bodies are seeds which will be changed and flourish). Our labour in the Lord is not in vain because we are sure of new creation.

He does not at all diminish the importance of evangelism, but argues that if we think of new creation, rather than simply ‘getting into heaven’, evangelism will be more holistic and ultimately helpful for the new Christian.

There have been in the past some kinds of evangelism which have implied that the main thing is to sign on, to prayer a particular prayer which results in the assurance that one is safely on the way to heaven – and which have failed to mention, to the frustration of pastors and teachers of such ‘converts’, that the fact that following Jesus means just that, following Jesus, not ticking a box which says ‘Jesus’ and then just sitting back as though it’s all done. To speak, rather of Jesus’ lordship, and of the new creation which results from his victory on Calvary and at Easter, implies at once that to confess him as Lord and to believe that God raised him from the dead is to allow on’s entire life to be reshaped by him…knowing that it will be the way…to genuine human life in the present, and complete glorious resurrected human life in the future.

What more can I say? I could go on to talk about the implications he draws for social justice, for the environment, for the arts, for mission. God is doing good things.

But I’m beginning to ramble. Read the book. Get excited.

Subscribe to my blog

does popularity matter?

Earlier this week, Raj Gupta posted Helping Husbands be Husbands on sydneyanglicans.net.

It’s the latest instalment on the submission saga (dare I say submissiongate?) from earlier this year. For those of you who missed it, I’ll quickly get you up to speed. It’s to do with the Sydney Anglican Sydnod’s proposal to introduce the option of vowing to submit to your husband at your wedding.


I’ve been reading through 1 Corinthians with a student recently and what’s really surprised me is Paul’s extreme pragmatism, even populism. It seems that everything about him is up for grabs, everything he does, even what he says, except for preaching Christ crucified.

So , Raj Gupta’s piece got me thinking. Gupta writes:

The argument to remove [the submission clause] was twofold and, I believe, flawed. The first argument was that the issue was making us unpopular in our society. There is no doubt it is, as we have experienced in recent times. However, unpopularity is part of being Christian.

To Gupta, neither popularity or unpopularity means anything. It sounds fair enough given Jesus’ words ‘Don’t be surprised when people hate you because of me’ said Jesus, even ‘blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil because of the Son of man.’

But then, what do we do with Paul’s pragmatism?

1 Corinthians 19

22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

1 Corinthians 10

32 Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— 33 even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.

Paul’s trying to please everyone in every way! It doesn’t sound very ‘Christian’ (what happened to trying to please God and not people?), but he’s doing it so that they might be saved.

1 Corinthians 14

23 So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and inquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? 24 But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, 25 as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!”

That is, try not to sound like nutters. It seems like Christians over the centuries haven’t changed, we’ve always had a problem with sounding just a little bit crazy.

1 Thessalonians 4

You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, 12 so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.

1 Timothy 3

7[Elders] must also have a good reputation with outsiders.

 Titus 2

Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.

Similarly, encourage the young men to be self-controlled. In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us.

Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, 10 and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Saviour attractive.

Paul explains that we should act in our households in a way which garners respect, so that our message of Jesus is attractive. It’s about how we appear to outsiders so that they will hear the gospel without distractions.

‘Ah, but what about, ‘the foolishness of the cross’ earlier in 1 Corinthians?’ I hear you ask. Exactly. It’s the foolishness of the message of the cross, not our foolishness.

Where does this lead us? We’re told to expect to be hated, but also to try and be liked and respected and, most of all, try not to sound crazy.

Is this a contradiction?

No. Paul’s not craving affirmation, he doesn’t need to be loved.

Rather, he wants nothing, not our behaviour, our speech or even our teaching to stand in the way of others hearing about Jesus. This is why everything is up for grabs, he’ll change, do anything, be anyone to make the Jesus known.

So I disagree with Gupta, Christians should be concerned about PR. We need to think how we come across to outsiders, whether we’re respectable or easily dismissed as a crackpot fringe group, stuck in the dinosaur age. We need to be concerned, not for our pride, but for the sake of winning others to Jesus. It’s not a good thing if people think we’re ridiculous!

But, don’t be surprised that when, despite our best appeals, Jesus is rejected.

Subscribe to my blog