Wednesday, January 23, 2008

If You Can't Shun Them, Clone Them

Christian subculture is often accused of being particularly insular, as well as being rather antagonistic towards those outside of the circle. This was highlighted strongly in the film "Saved", in which the mother of the main character won an award for the "Best Christian Interior Designer". Sadly, this is not the stuff of mere fiction - I have heard of plans in the United States to build a self-contained village for Christians. Inhabitants need not ever leave this village because they have a Christian doctor, a Christian plummer and a Christian day care. The plan, it would seem, is to build a utopian society free from the moral degradation of the outside world.

In this thoughtful post, Tim Challies speaks with candour about his experiences growing up in a churched environment. Notably, he makes the following charge:

Of course the church would never have articulated that belief, but it seemed to be deeply rooted.

This attitude manifested itself in many ways. One of the clearest ways was among the children of church members. They would rarely, if ever, be allowed or encouraged to play with the unsaved children in the neighborhood. I knew a man who was an “urban missionary” whose children were confined to their backyard and were never, ever allowed to play with the other children in the area. The churched children were not allowed to play with other children lest they become corrupted by their worldliness.

Even though Challies is not that much older than myself, I didn't find this comment particularly surprising. What did surprise me, however, was his suggestion in the comments that this phenomenon still exists in many churches he has observed. I suspect that part of this might have to do with the cultural differences between Australia and North America. In America (and to a lesser extent, Canada) there has often been a much greater stigma attached to the status of not being Christian. Part of this has to do with the relatively apathetic stance that many Australians take to the issue of religion and the relative impotency of Christians as a political force compared with America. Politically speaking, Christians are simply part of the mainstream and political loyalties tend to be divided.

The other reason that I haven't observed the phenomenon that Challies speaks about it because of the emphasis on evangelism in Sydney Anglican churches. To their credit, most Sydney Anglican churches have made welcoming newcomers a strong priority. Sure enough, there may be some kind of inadvertent culture clash that makes both parties feel a little uncomfortable, but the intention to make the visitor's experience a pleasant one is definitely there. Where Sydney Anglican churches and Sydney Anglicans are not so good, is with people who have been coming along to a church for an extended period of time and have not yet come to a commitment about the Christian faith. At this point in time, from the experiences of people I know, the relationship tends to deteriorate. It seems as though all those happy smiles and those friendly phone calls are just too much effort if their conversion projects aren't paying the right dividends.

Perhaps this latter criticism - and I hope that it is taken in the spirit with which it is intended - highlights an inadequacy in much Christian thinking. While Sydney Anglicans seem to have got the first part right in that they are trying to make their church communities a more welcoming place for outsiders, the expectation seems to be that people will gravitate towards their churches and that these people will simply be sucked into a black, seamless, void. The intention seems not to be to truly engage with the non-Christian, but rather to turn him or her into a cloned version of themselves. The Jesus I see in the gospels does not do this. Instead of waiting for people to come to the Temple, he goes out to meet people where they are. He goes out from the centre into the wilderness and shares the lives of those who are disenfranchised in the wilderness.

We need more Christians who are prepared to move outside of their own comfort zone. It may be scary to travel outside of the centrifugal orbit of one's church, but this needs to be done if we are truly to engage with people on the margins. It is the only way we truly live as disciples of Christ. And if we, who claim to be Christians cannot be disciples of Christ, then how can we expect others to become disciples?

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