This article by Paul Blackham is continued from here.
Before we examine various approaches to church and culture, let’s acknowledge a key fact: becoming a follower of Jesus is a deeply social matter. The LORD Jesus does not save mere individuals but saves His Church. Too often we might talk about someone making various decisions in their heart/head about Jesus, but we might forget that in the Bible the key issue is about their membership of the community of the LORD Jesus Christ, becoming members of His Body. The forms that His Body might take in all the different contexts and cultures of the world is gloriously and marvellously diverse, so a person must never feel that they are an isolated soul. The formation of local church communities is how evangelism happens.
One further introductory point. Advocates of the “Insider Movement” are aware that this is not always the most helpful label as it tends to give the impression of something only for those “in the know” or something not entirely ‘above board’. Therefore, there has been an effort to change the vocabulary to emphasise that it is all about the LORD Jesus Christ. There has been an attempt to focus on the goal of making disciples of Jesus as the primary goal. This is somewhat helpful, but again it is not always clear how it fits with the Biblical vision of the local church.
Let’s begin with John Travis’ seminal article as he argued for a way of understanding how Muslims were believing in Jesus but remaining as Muslims. He provided a scale that helps to analyse different ways in which a person might join the church as they turn to Jesus. The scale runs from C1 to C6, where C1 is a ‘Western’ style church with ‘Western’ languages and C6 describes mostly isolated people who are secretly trying to trust/follow Jesus whilst remaining entirely within their religion/culture.
The whole original article by John Travis is essential reading if we are going to really understand what this is all about.
As we go through this list, it might be helpful to think about it in terms of the church plants and emerging church situations that you might have personal experience of. Many of the same issues that face a Jesus community in Tehran will also be relevant in Manchester. Each of these C-ratings describes a church situation that has different levels of integration into a local culture.
C1 – A Christian church that is like an island in the local culture, where worship is in a language foreign to the local population, where the music, songs and styles within the church reflect the culture of another nation. So we might imagine an English speaking parish church in an Arabic city, where English is spoken and English hymns, clothes and cultural styles are adopted. I seem to remember Michael Palin coming across a church like that in his Sahara adventures.
C2 – The same as C1 but the local Church uses the language of the local population.
C3 – A Christian Church that uses the local language and culture, but is careful to reject the aspects of local culture that might have religious associations. So, dress, music and traditions from the local church are all embraced, but if any of those things are tied into the local religions [whether Islam, Hinduism etc] then they are excluded. In terms of Islam, a conscious attempt is made not to keep Ramadan and food rules. In addition, the mosque is rejected as the communal centre in favour of the Church community. In a C3 context the followers will normally call themselves ‘Christian’, but they do not necessarily meet in a distinctively ‘Christian’ building.
C4 – The church will retain those aspects of the religious tradition that fit in with or are permitted by the Bible, but these religious traditions and forms are now understood in terms of the LORD Jesus Christ and His Way. So, for example, a Muslim background believer might be most comfortable with prostrating in prayer or using a prayer mat: that same style of praying is retained in the church, but now the prayer is to the Father through Jesus in the power of the Spirit. The religious forms might remain, but the people no longer see themselves as “Muslim” or “Buddhist” etc. In addition, the church might keep the food laws [rejecting pork and alcohol] and use Islamic words/phrases. Often the people in this kind of local church might not call themselves ‘Christians’ due to the political and historical associations with this specific term and might instead use terms like “followers of Jesus”. However, the Muslim community would recognise that this church is not a Muslim community.
[NOTE: in point of fact, some of the “religious traditions” may be more in harmony with the Bible than the supposedly ‘Christian’ forms: think of how little attention is given to body posture in some forms of Christianity, but how often it is noted in the Bible. Speaking personally, my wife and I have been involved in planning a church plant that quite deliberately makes provision for Muslims and Muslim background believers to use prayer mats].
C5 – It is harder to think in terms of a local church community when we get to C5 because the Muslims in this category are described as following Jesus whilst remaining within the Muslim communities. They would reject the title ‘Christian’, not only for the reasons in C4 but also because “becoming a Christian” might be seen as treason against their local religious community. In an Islamic context, these people would continue to be legally/socially/politically within the Muslim community – [NOTE: given the intense legal/political difficulties that many Muslims have in terms of changing their religious designation, there are many obvious pressures to explain this]. Yes, those aspects of Islam that are understood to be clearly against the Bible might be rejected, but in practice this is not always the case. They are involved in life at the mosque, continuing to pray traditional Islamic prayers and keeping the fast, along with all the other aspects of mosque life that their neighbours follow. As other Muslims become aware that they are committed to the LORD Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, so they might be seen as no longer “true Muslims” and can then be rejected by the local Muslim community. It is claimed that there have been examples when so many local Muslims are C5 believers in Jesus that a kind of C5 mosque is established.
C6 – This describes the situation of believers who are isolated by such extreme hostility and persecution that they remain as secret believers within their local community. They may even have no fellowship with any other believers in Jesus, so know nothing of membership of a church family, but more often they may have limited fellowship with small groups of other secret believers.
Now, of course, there may be all kinds of initial comments to make about this analysis, not least that it doesn’t really address how Christ transforms a local culture and it is not at all clear how C5 relates to the church [understood as the fellowship of the followers of Jesus, with leaders appointed to teach the Bible and disciple the church family]. It provides only a snap-shot at a moment in time of the work of the Spirit in a given situation. Probably all of us can see how C1 and C6 can only be stages that must develop into something more if the Church is to find a vital, Biblical expression. Many of us pray that in 100 years time we will find culturally vibrant churches all across the Islamic world where the Way of Jesus has found expression perhaps in forms and styles that perhaps we can’t quite imagine today – in a C3-C4 range. The churches of the LORD Jesus, all across the world, do tend to produce new and exciting cultural forms over time: think of the variety of styles of music, dress and architecture that have emerged over time in the different cultures of the world.
Surely, from a Biblical perspective, we want to be thinking more deeply about Christ transforming all cultures rather than conformity to any culture.
Speaking personally as a British person with more than a passing interest in the ancient druidic religion of northern Europe, I am very aware that Mediterranean and Asian cultural forms of worship were imposed on my ancestors together with a North African form of the doctrine of the Trinity, articulated by the Egyptian Athanasius. Even after more than a thousand years, we are still processing and dealing with those cultural issues: how can we retain the Biblical truth in Jesus whilst transforming, rejecting or re-affirming the cultural forms and styles that have had such a massive impact on Europe. Yet, whatever cultural issues we European barbarians have had to deal with we always think back with deep gratitude to those Mediterranean and Asian missionaries who planted local churches among us so long ago.
However, the C-scale does provide a way of thinking about this moment in the way that people are turning to Jesus in especially Muslim majority nations. The C-scale helps us to think through what is happening in terms of religion/culture in a situation.
In the next post we’ll think further about the C-scale and in particular C-5/6 – “the Insider Movement”…