Culture and the Missional Church – Spring 2010

On a recent episode of CBC Radio’s “Tapestry,” reporter Kevin Sylvester explored ‘the silencing of the bells.’ He discovered that his own local Catholic church’s bell-tower did not have any bells in it. Then he proceeded to ask about bells across the city of Toronto. Knox Presbyterian Church has bells, but stopped using them because their ringing was affecting the structural integrity of the bell-tower. They have used electronic, recorded bells for almost 40 years, despite the fact that the structure was restored a decade ago. But more than a year ago the wires up to bell-tower loudspeakers were burnt out and never replaced, so even the artificial bells are silenced.

A pastor at Walmer Road Baptist Church said that bells had never been installed in their belfry and couldn’t imagine why they would want to ring them now anyway. Yorkminster Baptist Church, however, located on deafening Yonge Street, rings their new bells everyday. Passers-by thank the church for contributing a natural sound to the metallic cacophony of the street.

Perhaps the most telling interview was with the priest from a Catholic church in Saskatoon that has been ringing its bells for decades. They have had to stop ringing their bells for the past three years, because of complaints from neighbours about being woken up on Sunday mornings. Police have warned that these neighbours are prepared to lay charges if they hear them again.

When Sylvester asked three senior leaders from Knox Presbyterian if his church could buy their unused bells, he sparked a chorus of nervous laughter – ‘oh no, that would never happen!’ They mentioned committees that would have to be involved and history that would be considered; the bells were given by the Lieutenant-Governor, a parishioner, in 1908. The bells were symbols of ‘something’ because the leaders knew the heart of their congregation would be stirred if they even brought up the idea of removing the bells.

This exploration of a cultural symbol left over from Christendom may trigger a whole variety of responses from Free Methodist believers. Very few, if any, of our church buildings ever had bells, or ever desired bells. But we have lots of other cultural symbols.

Cultural symbols are visible, physical manifestations of a culture, organization – or congregation – and serve as indicators of our cultural values. Symbols are things that can be experienced with the senses and are used by a congregation to make, and communicate, meaning. Symbols are experienced as real, and their impact has significant consequences for our congregations.

A symbol at the core of the Christian faith is the serving of the Communion meal – or is it The Lord’s Supper, or The Eucharist? Even with this symbol of bread and wine and ancient phrases, we may take different meanings depending on how our understanding (theology and values) was shaped and constructed in our early Christian formation.

When we talk about culture we often are led to think about “other cultures” – like Portuguese, or Indian, or Nigerian. And some of us examine and seek to understand those cultures to add to our picture of the world. When we talk about those ‘other cultures’ we often refer to behaviours, foods, values – the web of common agreements held by a particular group of people.

Sometimes we talk about “Canadian culture” or “post-modern culture.” Since we live in these cultures it is not quite as easy to study them and make sense of them – the cultural symbols of our own society just seem like “the way everybody does things.” It’s others who are ‘different,’ not us!

We also have to understand that our local congregations develop a culture – a way of doing things complete with symbols, behaviours, ways of organizing, values and beliefs. Throughout the history of Christianity we have learned that wherever the gospel is preached it is preached in a human language, in the language of a particular culture; wherever a Christian community tries to live out the gospel, it emerges in the shape of a particular human culture. Some of that shape is rooted in biblical theology and some of it is just “the way we do things around here” – that is, it’s part of the culture of our congregation.

At General Conference 2008, MEGAP introduced a new Foundational Course required of all FMC pastors – Culture and the Missional Church. The purpose of this new Foundational Course is to provide content that is distinctive to our Free Methodist movement – material that for the most part isn’t available in the bible colleges or seminaries where our Ministerial Candidates do their training. As our movement leaders became increasingly concerned about the gap between the culture of our churches and the cultures around us, the need for a course to help bridge the gap became apparent.

A local church engaging in mission in its own   neighbourhood needs to think like, and use the skills often associated with ‘missionaries.’ In this course participants are introduced to basic issues in understanding culture in our wider society and our organizations, principles for research and analysis of local church culture(s), processes for leading congregations through the “renewal cycle,” as well as a number of leadership practices for the missional church. The course uses two of the core books of the missional church orientation: The Forgotten Ways by Alan Hirsch and The Ministry of the Missional Church by Craig Van Gelder. Students are introduced to the seminal work of Lesslie Newbigin as well as examining the unique legacy of renewal and cultural engagement we have in John Wesley.

Church bells may not be a cultural symbol in our Free Methodist churches, but there are surely other issues, practices or behaviours, that are peripheral (shallow-water concerns) to vital Christianity which form barriers to connecting with our neighbours who still need to meet Jesus. The intention of the Culture and Missional Church course is to help us develop a set of common principles regarding our missional orientation across our movement. In the course we discuss this quote by Dee Hock:

Purpose and principle, clearly understood and articulated, and commonly shared, are the genetic code of any healthy organization. To the degree that you hold purpose and principles in common among you, you can dispense with command and control. People will know how to behave in accordance with them, and they’ll do it in thousands of unimaginable, creative ways. The organization will become a vital, living set of beliefs.

Some of these stories of leaders who have taken the course will give you a glimpse of how far along we are as a movement.

Rev. Dan Sheffield is the Director of Global and Intercultural Ministries for The Free Methodist Church in Canada