From Rich Nathan’s March 2013 congregational letter:
Imagine you are Rip Van Winkle and you fell asleep on November 21, 1963 (the eve of JFK’s assassination) and woke up 50 years later in the year 2013. You would find yourself not only living at a different date, but living in a different world. The top-rated program in 1963 was The Beverly Hillbillies with a rating of 34.9 meaning that 34.9% of all American homes with a television were watching it. All of the top 31 shows had a rating of at least 20. By way of comparison, the #1 show is the 2010 season, American Idol, had a rating of 9.1. (Ozzie and Harriett, Bonanza, and Gunsmoke were also massively popular in 1963).
In 1963 there simply wasn’t much choice for TV watching. Most major cities had only four channels (CBS, NBC, ABC and a non-profit station of some sort). Popular music consisted of a single Top 40 list, with Rock, Country, Folk, and 50’s-Style ballads on the list. There were no separate radio stations specializing in different genres except for a few country music stations in certain parts of America. Bookstores were very small and scarce, typically carrying only a few hundred titles. There was no Amazon. If you didn’t see a movie within a month of its showing in your town, you probably would never see it. People drove cars made almost exclusively in America.
The typical American city had few choices regarding things to eat. Foreign food consisted of an Italian place serving pizza and spaghetti and an Americanized Chinese food restaurant. Almost nowhere in America could you get Szechuan cooking, Thai food, or sushi.
Marriage was nearly universal and divorce was rare across all races. Children born out-of-wedlock was exceedingly rare. For Caucasians the out-of-wedlock birthrate was 3%.
The movie code that was in place in 1963 prohibited taking the name of the Lord in vain, ridiculing religion, and using any form of obscenity. Actors were forbidden from appearing naked or near naked. And plots could not present sex outside of marriage as attractive, or justified. A Gallup Poll taken in 1963 found that only 1% of respondents did not have a religious preference. Half said they had attended a worship service in the last seven days. Of course, not all was well. The nation struggled with the long legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. And the Women’s Liberation Movement had not yet begun.
What a different world you would have woken up to in 2013!
Lesslie Newbigin had a real life Rip Van Winkle moment. He was a British missionary in India for several decades beginning in the 1930’s. When he returned to England in the 1970’s, he discovered that the England he came back to was radically different than the England he had left. He found that church and Christian influence on English society had massively declined in the years that he had spent in India. The larger society was no longer supportive of Christian values, or a Christian understanding of life. In fact, not only was the larger society indifferent to Christian faith, but many of the institutions were overtly hostile. Newbigin discovered that the government, the universities, the mass media and the elites of society were actively antagonistic to Christian faith and that church attendance had plummeted.
So, if you woke up in America in 2013 after being asleep for 50 years, how would you respond as a Christian?
Lesslie Newbigin, in his various writings, points the way forward for the Christian who finds herself or himself as “an alien in an alien world.” Newbigin stressed in his writings that we Christians in the West are every bit as much missionaries as anyone who we send to Egypt, Japan, or India. If you went to Egypt to plant a church, you would quickly realize that you were a missionary. You would spend years learning Arabic. You would carefully observe how Egyptians thought about family, friendships and love. You would learn how Egyptians showed honor to each other and what offended people. And you would go deeper to find out what Egyptians believed about the world, about human nature, about God, and what Egyptians considered to be good, true and beautiful.
The problem Newbigin found is that we Christians in the West don’t realize that we are missionaries. We’ve inherited many Christian practices and assumptions from prior generations and do not realize that we are now living in a new world in which our practices and assumptions are largely irrelevant and, occasionally, offensive to the people we are trying to reach. Not realizing that we are Rip Van Winkle waking up in a new world, we do not spend years learning the foreign language, foreign culture and foreign worldview of those strange people around us, who are outside the church.
The issue, to use mission language, is called “contextualization.” Contextualization, according to Pastor Tim Keller, is giving people the Bible’s answers to questions about life that people are actually asking, in language and forms they can comprehend, and through appeals and approaches that they can feel and understand even if they reject them. Contextualizing the gospel means that we eliminate making our message about Jesus unnecessarily alien to the culture we’re living in without removing or obscuring the offense that Jesus and his cross always brings. Being a missionary means learning how to connect Jesus and his gospel to the people we’re trying to reach.
How can you begin to be a better missionary to our community?
How would you describe the people living in Central Ohio who you regularly encounter? What values do they espouse? For example, many of the people that I meet in Central Ohio share deeply held convictions about the importance of tolerance, inclusion, and not judging other people. How might we connect Jesus and his gospel to people who hold these values? What other deeply held values do you see in the people you regularly meet?
What objections to Jesus and the gospel have you often encountered here in Central Ohio? For example, one objection that I’ve regularly encountered is that there cannot be one and only one true way to God. What objections do you hear? These objections point to deeply held beliefs that Jesus and his gospel must challenge.
What behaviors or practices do you see in the lives of the people in Central Ohio that are at right angles with Jesus and his gospel? How do you relate the gospel to these people?
It is said of the men of Issachar that they “understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chronicles 12.32). May God make us Rip Van Winkle-Christians like the men of Issachar.