Indeed, a few short years after Christ gave the Great Commission, Europe was one of the first places to receive the Good News. Europe would soon be the home of almost every cultural and social revolution that humanity could conjure up over the next few millennia; revolutions that would sway away from the idea of religion, and then return back to it, but with a steady trend towards humanism.
As a high-school student who 'majored' in modern history, seeing the various effects and perspectives on religion projected by the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the French Revolution, Industrial Revolution, and the many wars started sparked my interest in the survival of Christianity as a social influence in Europe.
When presented with the opportunity to travel to another field and observe church planting techniques, I wanted to know how one went about planting a church in a country where Christianity has long been established and since faded into irrelevancy. And as Providence would have it, Thessaloniki, Greece was the perfect opportunity to observe evangelism in a post-Christian world.
It is clear that something has to change in the way that the church is going about reaching the lost especially those wrapped in the consumeristic, humanistic philosophy that has engulfed modern Western civilisation. Christianity as a whole is on the decline, especially when you look at the influence of Christian thought in past centuries compared to now. This undeniable influence was what propelled Christianity forward in terms of evangelism in times past, but today that same methodology does not transpose into the 21st century all too well.
1st Century Thessaloniki and today
As you may have observed, there are many points of difference between today's church – the body of Christ, and the host culture at large. Ralph Winter describes it something like this: On a continuum where you have numbers, each number represents one significant cultural barrier to the effective communication of the gospel.
These barriers might include language, cultural expression and differences in world view all of which the long-established church has firmly distinct standards set. In cross-cultural mission, we can easily see the differences in culture and language and package the Good News of Christ in a way that is understandable to the host culture. But we don't often think that way when it comes to evangelism amongst predominantly Western culture in Europe, the USA, Australia etc., because we assume that Christianity's longevity in Western culture warrants its future success. We need to reconsider.
The church has its own language, its own cultural expressions (music, films, art in general), and its own world views each of which are different in varying degrees from that of the majority of Western culture of today. Of course, back in the day when Christianity almost dictated cultural norms, these distinctions particular to the church were not a problem, as the church was a major influence on society and therefore was directing cultural traffic (for better or for worse) inside its own – rather large – sphere of influence. Today, that sphere of influence has shrunk considerably, and the church is becoming increasingly isolated as a result.
The church still has the potential to reach those within its own cultural orbit, but in order to evangelise beyond the rapidly shrinking sphere of influence that the church has, we as believers have to adopt a cross-cultural missional policy – even within our own so called 'culture'. Often, western church evangelism is centred around bringing people from other cultures and other backgrounds into the safe folds of the church culture.
In effect, we try to remove them from the society of which they have previously been a part, and 'church' them into the social group that has been the church. We expect them to do the cross-cultural work to change themselves to fit the model of the church. The more we 'convert' others, the more we are effectively distancing ourselves from the host culture as we are developing our own culture and expecting new comers to adopt said culture.
According to Alan Hirsch in his discussion about post-Christian evangelism, this is contrary to what Christ intended missions to be for three reasons:
1. Missions is to be inherently incarnational. It doesn't matter whether you are trying to reach a 'foreign' culture or not, Jesus showed us that we are to get in amongst a culture, spend time building relationships, and we are to communicate the gospel within an existing culture.
2. It violates the command of Christ to 'go' and make disciples not to merely draw people into the church, or expect them to be attracted to the church through traditional means of evangelism.
3. If you bring everyone into the same place you can no longer circulate ideas that spread a movement or 'viral mentality' Essentially stagnation of the spirit occurs.
Einstein asserts that the problems in the world cannot be solved with the same thought paradigms that created those problems in the first place. So in applying that logic to the current issue, we need to look at new cross-cultural ways to meet the people of Western civilisation where they are at, and pioneer new ways of establishing and discipling groups of Christ-centred people.
Pastoral experience of Thessaloniki
While in Thessaloniki, a city which has known Christianity since the time of Paul, I observed and participated in an evangelistic method usually used in a cross-cultural setting, even though the target of the evangelism was a group of native Greek young adults.
The method employed by the pastor was not to distribute literature, or to invite the group to a church outreach event, or even to share those four spiritual truths. It was simply to invest time in building a relationship with them in their cultural norm. The pastor would watch movies, play sport and share a meal with them, all the while building a genuine relationship and being Christ's ambassador in the lives of these young adults. In the time that I was amongst them,
I could see that the pastor was well respected in the eyes of the young adults, and that the young adults were now quite comfortable in visiting the church to spend time with the pastor. It's this sort of relationship that God can then use to sow the seed of the Gospel into the heart of the unbeliever.
In a discussion I had with the pastor, he described his methodology using the trusted adage, 'People don't care what you know, until they know that you care'. And I think that in a civilisation that has grown tired of "the church's" organisational influence and tentacle approach to evangelism, this sort of cross-cultural attitude is at least one way that we can see the expansion of God's Kingdom in a post-Christian world.
Blaine Packer is studying a Bachelor of Cross-cultural Ministry at Worldview Centre for Intercultural Studies in Launceston, Tasmania.
Blaine Packer's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/blaine-packer.html