I love to find ways of local and global expressions of mission fuelling each other.
As we in the UK church seek to share Jesus with people in our increasingly complex, multi-cultural communities, what can we learn from sisters and brothers around the world who have been communicating the Bible cross-culturally for decades?
The thing I want to highlight in this blog post is that if we (that is, UK churches) are to orient ourselves and our church activities and cultures to a more missional, outward-focused perspective, we’d be crazy not to draw on the rich insights of cross-cultural mission thinking and practice!
One such area is ‘Scripture Engagement’. Over the last couple of decades, more and more people in the global mission community have been discussing, researching and practising Scripture Engagement (SE), which according to one definition,
‘involves accessing, understanding and interacting meaningfully with the life-changing message of the Scriptures.’ (SIL)
Here I want to offer four questions that I am drawing from SE thinking to help local UK churches consider how we can help people to access, understand and interact meaningfully with the life-changing message of the Scriptures.
1. Are we taking biblical illiteracy, suspicion and hostility seriously?
It’s important to ask ourselves whether we are accounting enough for the lack of biblical literacy in UK society. We simply cannot assume anything of our hearers in terms of background knowledge. So, for example, if you are speaking on a psalm of David or an epistle of Paul, do you spend any time giving a brief overview of who these people were and how they fit into the Bible’s big picture? If you ask me this is a great excuse as well to show how that passage fits into the big story of God’s mission. This can be done concisely and creatively. If you are worried about whether this will be a turn off for those who have heard it before, encourage them to see it as a reminder of all those in the community for whom it is news. Doing this can help normalise bringing friends on a Sunday morning because it assumes an expectation that people will be intentional about this.
As well as a lack of background knowledge people may be listening with big questions about the Bible. Is it irrelevant? Does it condone violence? Is it misogynist? Is it incoherent and untrustworthy?
Find ways of listening to the questions and objections to the Bible that are being expressed in your community and face them honestly but confidently to show that the Bible is indeed good news.
2. Are we taking orality seriously?
One of the great strides taken in recent years has been an awareness of and engagement with the phenomenon of orality. Here is how International Orality Network defines oral learners:
Oral learners are people from all over the globe, from all walks of life and all levels of education who learn primarily or exclusively through oral, not textual means. Their lives are therefore more likely to be transformed through stories, songs, drama, proverbs and media.
While some oral communicators learn this way out of necessity because they cannot read or write with understanding, others simply prefer non-print forms of communication. (Link)
It is important to recognise this because (a) there may be people from oral preference learning communities in your congregation; (b) there will certainly be people in your congregation who tend towards a preference for oral communication means; and (c) the way we often communicate the Bible is framed in rather ‘literate’ ways. Oral learning process information differently to literate learners; are we accounting for this in how we preach and teach the Scriptures?
3. Are we taking the transformative power of Scripture seriously?
The whole premise of Scripture Engagement is based on the assumption that Scripture is life-transforming.
I wonder if we in the UK Church have had our confidence in this eroded over time. It is easy to feel confident in the Bible when it is generally accepted in society as an important cultural and moral resource. Have we become complacent, only now waking up with a crisis of nerve as we find ourselves in the minority and not able to confidently articulate and defend biblical perspectives?
SE work around the world reminds us that God’s Word does indeed have power. I wonder if being attentive to how God has used Scripture around the world would give us in the UK a much-needed injection of confidence in God’s powerful Word for us today. Perhaps it would give us confidence and expectancy to see lives changed?
4. Are we taking the consequences of a positive response seriously?
With that renewed confidence in God’s Word, and a re-energised, Bible-confident Church, we may expect to see more people responding positively to the call of faith in Jesus. Of course, everyone needs to ‘count the cost’ of this decision but, for many, a decision to follow Jesus may well have enormous social and familial repercussions. What will your church do, for example, if someone from another faith community comes to faith and is ostracised by their family? Will your church be ready to embrace and walk with them? Will they be prepared to become their family in a fuller sense than we often think about?
There is lots of talk about mission being ‘from everywhere to everywhere’, and the world being on our doorstep here in the UK. Now, more than ever, the thinking and practice of cross-cultural work is of urgent relevance to the UK Church. Will we ignore the decades of insights from those who have gone before us in our attempts to reinvent the wheel, or will we embrace the rich insights on offer from brothers and sisters. Traditionally, the UK Church has been good at sending; will we also be good at receiving?
This July, Tim will be teaching an intensive MA module on ‘Scripture Engagement: Approaches and Issues’ at our UK MA Summer School. You can participate in this as a stand-alone module, or as part of the MA in Contemporary Missiology programme.