Saturday, 7 April 2012

Parlez Vous Secular?

I spent much of this week in Belgium, fulfilling a long-held ambition to vist the country before it collapses. It was, actually my third time there- the first two times have been simply going through it en route to other countries (Sweden and Germany) on Operation Mobilsation Love Europe teams.

This was my first proper holiday there.

And Belgium (and a day trip to Germany from there) got me thinking a bit about apologetics.

There are two extreme views on apologetics which I have come across in my time as a Christian. The first is the "sock 'em with the Gospel" approach. We are called to share the Gospel. Period. No fiddle-faddle around with discussion or answering questions. No need to deal with the preliminaries of "pre-evangelism" (as I heard one speaker call it)- finding out where people are coming from, who they are, what they think, why they are asking that question. A person enquiring about Christianity might want to know how a good omnipotent God allows suffering- but they need to hear the Gospel explained to them again.

This attitude was summed up in a street drama I saw years ago. Man one side of a chasm looking at the Christians the other side enjoying themselves. How could he join them? The response from the Christians the other side was simple- "just have faith".

How did the whole tone come across? Put your questions and reason to one side. Unzip your forehead like a Slitheen dealing with excessive flatuence and remove your brain as efficiently as a Cyber-conversion machine. And then take the leap of faith.

The second is "the apologetic is the Gospel" approach elevating an apologetic beyond what it is there for. This has a Cross that is teetering and needs loads of scaffolding. The shrinking Sun can go there. Put the NASA computer that went doolally because it didn't account for the missing day up there. V4334 Sagittarii can go over there. And if one piece of scaffolding is removed- if one of these "scientific proofs" of Christianity is shown to be wrong- then the whole thing collapses and we are left with a useless Cross lying on the ground.

I'm a Christian and an astronomer, so from time to time I will be shown defences of Christianity based on astronomy (a common logic is that some astronomical observation proves the universe is only a few thousand years old). The one thing they have in common is this- they are not true. The Sun is not shrinking. V4334 Sagittarii is a star that has used up all its hydrogen. That NASA computer going haywire is an urban myth.

My response is often along the lines that it might be true that the universe is very young- but if this is true, we do not defend truth with falsehood. If your argument for God is a bad one, if it is based on a misunderstanding or something that is not true- ditch it. Don't cling to it "by faith". (Ah, like the street drame, the idea that "faith" is something which reason plays no part in...)

My other response is along the lines that they can have me, as a brother in Christ, go through the "scientific proof" which they have read and point out the flaws and inaccuracies, or they can try it on a secular scientist and have their "scientific proof of Christianity" torn to shreds. I'd prefer if it they tried the first- the second simply leads to Christians being seen as people who can't think.

The other danger with this is that it reduces apologetics to just learning a series of arguments, which are assumed to be knock-down arguments that will win you the argument. Notice the use of "argument" a lot there? Yes, you may have read a little faith-strengthening booklet which has a cartoon where the humble Christian armed with just the Bible demolished a scientist's argument and has scientist reduced to just saying "I don't know", but that it just fantasy.

The ends (salvation of individuals, the glorification of God) are great, but nowhere in the Bible are we told that the end justifies the means.

That is the groundwork out the way- what has it got to do with Belgium?

If you ever visit Belgium, you will be aware the of the language divide. The south tends to speak French, the north Dutch. A couple of exceptions are the parts of the south-east around Eupen and Malmedy which were once part of North Rhine-Westphalia and where German is the dominant language. And Brussels which is legally bilingual, but the signs tend to be French first and then Dutch and my advice would be to use French. My language skills are restricted the GCSE French and German. My Dutch is non-existent.

One thing that grates is those tourists who assume that everybody speaks English as their parent tongue- for example, I was in Aachen tourist information office and was asking Frau Eißner "Entschuldigen Sie mir, bitte, wo ist der Dom?" as I was looking for the cathedral, when an American woman got impatient and rushed up to Frau Eißner with a "Where are the restrooms?"

OK, maybe it is reasonable to assume that someone who works behind the desk at a tourist information centre can speak a word or three of English (it is polite to speak to staff in their parent tongue and leave them with the choice of switching the conversation to English), but when it is at the stage of tourists walking up to passengers at Aachen railway station and asking them in English which platform a train goes from that a line has been crossed. At least make the effort to say "Sprechen Sie Englisch?"

And we have a language barrier of our own to overcome. Do you speak how secular people or people of other faiths speak? Do you know how they would use words? For example, one CU would advertise "love feasts" before some of its meetings. Now, the average secular person on the Clapham omnibus isn't going to say "ooh look, the CU is holding a bring and share supper to help strengthen fellowship between its members".

OK, what is the average person going to think when they see a "Love Feast" advertised?

When I was converted- from a non-churchgoing background- there used to be a testimony time in CU meetings for people to say how they became a Christian. And week after week there was a pattern. Brought up in a good Christian family home. Church and Sunday school week after week. Scripture Union or CYFA camps in the summer. Church youth group. It was not until my third year that there was a testimony time from someone who had not been brought up in a Christian home.

Now, what is a person from a non-churchgoing background who is not a Christian going to make of hearing that time and time again? That Christianity is for people from Christian backgrounds. The era was of the Church of England's "Decade of Evangelism", with its emphasis on what it quaintly called "lapsed communicants".

And if you are from a non-churchgoing background, you have some sort of insight into how the secular world thinks. Sometimes those who have grown up in a cozy Christian bubble have been protected and insulated and have no idea how the outside world thinks.

One danger associated with this is that apologetics get learned that only work when preaching to the converted (e.g. "look at this beautiful world. That tells you that God exists". Try it on Richard Dawkins). Evangelism training which ignore the slight possibility that out there in the world the non-Christian hasn't learned the script. The best evangelism training is when the trainer responds as a non-Christian might and genuinely challenges Christians.

A couple of years ago I was visiting a church and some of the young people were talking about the university courses they were about to start. One young man was worried that he would be a man alone on his course, that he would be isolated. Afterwards I spoke to him and gave him details of UCCF (telling him they could give him details of the local CU and through the CU he could also find an evangelical church) and Christians In Science. Through a mutual friend I learned that- as I expected- he is thriving and growing as a Christian. A young lady gave her little spiel and said that she hoped that her new housemates would understand that, as a Christian, she could not go out in the evenings.

The sad background is- as happens- Christian parents who think they are loving their children by keeping their teenage years as sheltered as possible and not giving them the survival skills for the world outside. What will she feel when she sees housemates coming back having had a good evening out? What wull she make of other Christians who are out enjoying themselves at a pub or a cinema? I worry about what university life has held for her.

When I became a Christian I heard all these long words- justification, redemption, sanctification- without knowing what they meant. Sometimes Christians take it for granted that non-Christians will have all this Biblical knowledge and terms don't need to be explained. Ditch the jargon if it's a barrier.

In the New Testament, as Paul went around sharing the Gospel, he changed his tack depending on the audience. He didn't change the message, but the apologetic and evangelistic approach is different horses for different courses. No use giving the Greeks long speeches on how Jesus fulfils Old Testament prophecy. No use answering a question with "well, you remember when you were at Sunday school and..." (yep, I have been on the receiving end of answers like that when I became a Christian) when the person asking is not from a churchgoing background.

We have to realise that people speak different languages- I don't know what Belgians made of me leaping through the doors of a Brussels underground train just nefore they closed with an "Entschuldigen Sie mir, bi.. oops, wrong country, excusez moi s'il vous plait"

When I got to Antwerpen I felt a bit peckish, so went to a shop to get some food. As I clearly couldn't speak Dutch, the man behind the counter asked me "parlez vous francais?"

No big deal, you might think. But this is Antwerpen- the major city in the Dutch-speaking area. To speak French there is a major faux pas. But, to help a tourist, someone was willing to speak a language you just don't speak in Antwerpen.

When people are exploring Christianity, or have become Christians, then we need to go beyond helping them know the lingo.

For example, I made an afternoon trip to Antwerpen, and travelled on its underground tram aystem. Even if I knew Dutch fluently, I would not have a clue about the ticket system (thanks to the lady from security at Antwerpen Centraal train station who saw me looking confused and showed me where to buy the tickets and to the passengers on the tram who saw me looking confused and showed me the correct way to validate my ticket using the yellow box thingy by the door).

And people need that. Even from different churches, they may not know how we do things. We can take things for granted. Does it feel weird for Brussels inhabitants to have everything in two languages? Not at all- they grew up with that. It's what they are used to. The same way, what we are used to can feel unfamiliar to other Christians and to non-Christians.

Don't assume that because a different church or denomination does something different to you that they are in error- if they are being unbiblical then that is a different matter. And before rushing off to the Bible to prove that your denomination or church is the only one doing it properly stop and consider whether you are the one being culture-bound. For example, I have heard four basic explanations of the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15:

  • It was a meeting of the church to hear what Peter, speaking ex cathedra as Pope would decree
  • It was a sort of mega-General Synod, as the bishops, clergy and laity resolved the issues
  • It was a sort of mega-General Assembly, as the ministers and elders resolved the issues
  • It was a meeting of independent, self-governing churches

    Communion is done different ways in Anglican churches, Methodist churches, Evangelical Free churches. "The Peace" throwa people- and yes, it gets defended on the grounds that it shows we are friendly.

    Well, the first communion service I was at, I flicked through the service booklet (Alternative Service Book, Rite A) and saw the note:

    The President may say

    Let us offer another a sign of peace

    and all may exchange a sign of peace

    What on Earth did that mean? As a recent convert, I assumed, not knowing the lingo, that we would be expected to make the dippy hippy V-sign and say "peace man" to other people.

    Some people don't want to be Peaced, for whatever reasons. It's up to them. If someone is in "shampoo position" don't roughly shake them to get them to look up so you can peace them. If you're one of the rampant bearhuggers then don't force it on people- especially people you don't know.

    I remember hearing a curate- from a non-churchgoing family- comment on this in a sermon. His dad, a non-Christian, had decided to go to a church. Unfriendly, unwelcoming. No-one spoke to him. Oh, but people muttered "Peace be with you" and shook his hand at the correct moment, and then went back to ignoring him. They had ticked the "being friendly and welcoming" box in their eyes it seemed.

    "The Peace" doesn't show we're being friendly. If we have to have a "being friendly and welcoming" moment mid-service then we are not being friendly and welcoming. Being friendly and welcoming is an attitude not a one-off event. It's not just the clergy and the welcome team who have to do this.

    In our services, there should always be a focus on what a non-Christian would make of it. I don't mean we should alter the essence of the teaching or do things the Bible forbids, but all services should be "seeker services". How is our language putting people off? Are things we do putting people off (if you are organising a service and think it'd be wonderful in the prayer bit to tell people to lay hands on the person in front of them, stop and think that firstly, there may be non-Christians there who wouldn't want to be praying to a God they don't know, and secondly, you don't do that in the world outside the church doors- save it for the prayer meeting maybe?).

    In every service, try this. Think of a non-Christian friend or relative, and imagine they are sitting next to you. What would they make of the service? If you invited them, would they come back?

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