I will make you fish
December 2000 'Small Fire' column for Ship of Fools
What does it mean to embody Christ in your place and time? Christ himself showed us how it can be done - how God can be made real and present in a specific local culture. He also showed us that embodying God might mean a radical challenge to the religious values and practice of your society. Religions tend to develop a hard shell of forms which are held to embody, make incarnate, Godly ways of being. Perhaps in the beginning they do, in a specific place and time among particular people. And then they set like plaster around a broken leg. What is it about religions that attracts rigidity? Is it because the nature of religious values, which are usually considered atemporal and eternally valid, seem to demand an equally atemporal embodiment? Certainly, challenges to forms are usually seen as challenges to beliefs.
Culture is more than a thin dressing. We tend to think that 'being Church in a culture' involves little more than a change of appearances or style. But cultures are about ways of being. Ways of being may be signalled by appearances, especially in a consumer society where appearances are easily manipulated. We fall into the trap of believing that we can buy our way into a culture by this means - and very often we can, because appearances are a major subject of culture in our society. But the cynicism of the manoeuvre often shows through. Forms of church manufactured for a target audience have as much integrity as pop groups manufactured for a target audience.
Incarnation into a culture involves not just taking on its forms, but a lived understanding of what those forms really mean and how they fit together. Cultures have worldviews which insiders share and newcomers must take on board. There are unstated meanings and values that are read instinctively by insiders but which are invisible to those outside. Most churches are proof of that!
This means that the incarnation of Christ into a particular culture is best done by those already in it. As second best, those who are called to mission in a culture not their own face total immersion, as God did by becoming fully human for us. There is no escape from getting wet, right through, or like a fish knowing nothing of 'wet' because you know nothing else.
So if incarnation into a culture is best done by those already in it - who are you? What sea do you swim in, without knowing that you are wet? Do your forms of church take you out of it and leave you gasping? Do you expect others to join you there? How can you make church where you find breath? Is it so barren of God's presence? If God could make the leap to human culture, how would any further step prove too far?