I was talking recently with someone who has been very involved in inner city mission work for many years now. He was telling me stories about the homeless, marginalized, and destitute that he regularly connects with and tries to help. Some stories were so sad that my heart bled and other stories were so raw that they made my toes curl with embarrassment.
His talk was peppered with colorful language and his manner was not always what I’d call polite or socially acceptable. However, what startled me is when I spoke to him, I had the disorienting yet delightful feeling that I was in the presence of Jesus. What I mean is that this person oozed such compassion, love, and grace that the effect was to remind me of the Jesus we read about in the Gospels. It was very hard to find any trace of religiosity or duplicity in him. I was in a state of mild awe. However, as he spoke he mentioned some decisions that he had made around the practice of his ministry which made me feel uncomfortable. His out of the box thinking around ministry practice was frankly, challenging my theology.
As I listened, I felt as though he was moving away from Christian orthodoxy and towards what we Evangelicals label Liberalism. I checked the emotion in me and it was fear. “Should I associate with this person?” “How will I be perceived if I do?” “Will I also be seen as a Liberal?” “Will I be marginalized in my church and broader context?” “Will I too become Liberal if I continue to live incarnationally in my urban context?” These are the questions which, I have to embarrassingly admit, were filling my mind as I walked away from that meeting.
An Emerging Culture of Fear?
This experience made me wonder more broadly about whether an emerging culture of fear is currently shaping Evangelical theology and praxis today.
I will often talk with people who are genuinely wrestling with current day issues yet too afraid to publicly share what they are working through for fear that their church, denomination, or Bible College might brand them as heretics. I also see more than a few churches practicing what I would call an unnecessarily constraining form of conservatism as they think about the values and structures of their church and I wonder if this is a fear based reaction.
It may not be, but I think the question needs to be asked. If it is true that there is a culture of fear emerging in Evangelicalism today then the consequences of this are concerning to me.
Do we marginalize and domesticate our prophets?
I wonder if God sends the church prophets who are the oddballs that we never expect and instead of listening to them we marginalize and domesticate their message? Prophets will often work on the fringes of society and as a result their message can be confronting and irritating to our middle class ears. Prophets will always disturb our practice and theology as they embody the radical values of the kingdom of God.
In a climate of fear, however, instead of hearing God’s voice through the strange prophets he send us, we will either reject God’s message or we will try to tame it so that it suits the culture we live in. This is disastrous. It means that instead of following in the footsteps of Jesus as we discern his Spirit today, we will be blindly walking in our own human-made paths.
We de-radicalize the radical nature of mission
Theologian Segundo Galilea has written
“Mission is to leave one’s own geographic or cultural Christian world in order to enter the world of even the poorest and the most unchristian. The non-believer, the fallen away Christian, the poor and the oppressed are always the subject of missionary love, and the more mission leaves its own world in search of them, the more it is radicalised and the closer it approaches the model and desire of Christ.”
This is a beautiful statement on mission. Mission in essence is deeply radical, risky and can cause disorientation as we come face to face with the messed up people that Jesus came to die for.
I admire immensely those practitioners who face challenging contexts in mission, reflect on the dissonance that this can bring, then do their theology from that posture. I much prefer that to theologians who sit in offices theorizing about mission.
Our lived in context affects our praxis which then shapes our theology. This is the adventure of contextual theology! This is most excitingly where we see the Spirit of God move and do a new thing right before our eyes. This is where theology ceases to be merely something that is produced in written form and stocked on theologians bookshelves. It moves us beyond theory into the real world.
What a tragedy when this does not happen because we fear stepping outside of our usual ways of thinking. How can the Spirit of God speak today if we live in fear? When did we begin to think that mission would not be radical?
Public forums for discussion and creative thinking are shut down.
When we live in a culture of fear we begin to see creative conversations and thinking move underground. In other words, instead of fearless, public discussions around “hot topic” issues, people congregate privately to discuss the issues that are challenging them and causing them to rethink their theology. I will say that I have seen this happen in authoritarian churches, authoritarianism being another consequence of fear, on the topic of women in ministry and gender. People gather in private groups in order to discuss the issue instead of discussing the topic publicly.
Leaders need to facilitate forums where these discussions can occur. However, these forums should not be inhabited and inhibited by fear. Often leaders of these churches will hold forums on these topics but will steer the conversations a particular direction according to their own theology rather than listening to what people are actually wrestling with and then being willing to change their views. How can we create such forums?
We breed disunity
Fear will breed disunity. Here in Sydney I have seen denominations split over hot topic issues and yet others are able to remain united despite their differences. Why are some denominations able to retain unity over certain issues and others divide? I wonder if it is fear which causes those divisions. They fear perhaps they are compromising the gospel. Maybe they fear that they will lose their orthodoxy.
I sense that fear sometimes when I visit churches in the inner city and tell them I am a Baptist minister. In a city where female ministers are not acceptable in all denominations, I will always notice whether I am accepted or not by the leader who I introduce myself to. Some leaders uncomfortably shift their eyes when I introduce myself and then ignore me for the rest of the service. Others, even though I know they do not agree with female leadership, will still be kind, generous and even be willing to partner with me in the ministry of the gospel.
What causes some people to act in such a kind, gracious way and others not? Are we able to come to a place where we can accept each other even though we have such varied views on different topics? I think we need to be fearless and accept and love each other in the midst of our differences.
What do we fear?
What do we fear exactly? Loss of control? Compromise? Slippery slopes?
Our broader culture is driven by fear, fear of those we see to be different to us, fear of terrorism, fear of missing out (FOMO), fear of crime. In such a climate we can easily turn to other things in which to place our trust rather than God. We create structures, systems, rules, theologies and practices which seemingly protect us from that which will do us damage. I don’t think all of these actions are wrong, and of course we need orthodoxy in our faith, but I think that if we let fear drive us rather than a radical, risky trust in a God who beckons us to follow him, we will be shaped by the values of our world and the Christian culture we have created rather than by the Spirit of God who takes us to uncomfortable places as we humbly depend on him for our provision.
Love of God and each other casts off all fear. This love calls not for sentimentality but rather courage, risk and grace. I hope we can practice this love so that we move with humble confidence into the new things that God is preparing for us in this season. We are in a new season which the church is entering and it will require being equipped by the new things that God has prepared for us. Many people have much to contribute in this season with fresh thoughts which will equip the people of God to embody the gospel faithfully in their contexts. May we not disobediently muzzle the conversations and stifle the thinking which will lead to those new things.