June 1, 2011 Volume 25, Number 04
The gospel and culture
We have to be ready to challenge our traditions for the sake of the gospel
By Glen Shepherd | ChristianWeek Columnist
It was July 1990 and our family had been living in Paris for three years. We were on our way with the Paris Youth Band to an international gathering of The Salvation Army in London.
Thursday night was the opening service of thanksgiving and celebration. There were more than 8,000 people gathered at Wembley Arena in the north of London and you could sense the excitement as we began to sing Charles Wesley's great hymn "O, For A Thousand Tongues." As we came to the final verse, "He breaks the power of canceled sin," the audience lifted the hymn to the majestic tune we in The Salvation Army know as Grimsby. The song took flight.
And I stood there in tears, emotionally overwhelmed and unable to sing a note. As I look back at that moment I can how several threads that define who I am came together in that moment and touched the core of my being.
First, that hymn articulated my faith. It speaks of the glory of Jesus' name, of my indebtedness to His power to cancel sin, of the music, health and peace we find in Jesus.
The second thing that happened that evening was that I was fully at home in the context of my denomination, The Salvation Army, singing these truths in our style with the power of accompaniment by a brass band.
But what was special in that moment was the third strain: I was singing in my native language. During our assignment in France we lived, worked and worshipped in French. But now here I was singing in the language I best understand. We learn our language as infants. It is intimate, the language we count change and pray in. It is as close as our skin.
That evening at Wembley I was fully at home in my faith, my culture and my own style of worship.
As I write tonight, 21 years after that moment, I can still feel its power. I am beginning to understand the broader lessons of that moment for how I present the gospel in the 21st century. If that evening meant so much to me because I was at home with my faith, there are three lessons I should carry forward.
The first lesson is the need to translate the gospel into the cultural context of those with whom we wish to connect. We need to be adaptable and flexible so those we encounter hear the gospel in understandable and familiar terms. Faith is so often blended with mores and traditions that the message of the love and mercy of God is lost in our religious culture. For me, the religious culture of my denomination could be a barrier to those from another generation. I have to be willing to ask the questions, and let go of things that create unnecessary barriers.
Secondly, I must be willing to be open about style. The members of the college and careers Bible study my wife and I lead have a different way of thinking and doing church than we do and I must adapt to connect.
Finally, we must work to put the gospel in an intellectual context that makes sense to a post-modern generation. We may quarrel with some of the assumptions of their culture. But that culture frames the way they think and reason. It is up to us to speak the gospel in a way that makes sense to them.
Last December my wife and I were in London and on Sunday evening we attended All Souls Church at Langham Place. We have been there 20 times in the last 30 years. It was neat to see the changes at All Souls. Hymns share space with worship songs; robes have been replaced by a much more casual attire; the words of hymns are in 21st century gender-inclusive poetry.
In fact, as we stepped out into the evening after the service we commented on how the only thing that was the same after 30 years was the message of the gospel. One other thing - more than 90 per cent of the 900 people there that Sunday night were under age 30.
Glen Shepherd is the president of Health Partners International of Canada.