Sharing the Gospel Today

Alex recently moved to Guelph after being called to Kortright Church as their new Lead Minister. He started on Nov.1st. From 1996, he served on staff at Knox Church, Toronto, most recently as Associate Minister, Leadership and Small Groups. At Knox, he was particularly focused on discipleship and leadership development among the university and young adult community. He was delighted to see six new elders in their 20s and 30s join the Knox session last spring. Alex grew up in Toronto and went to the University of Toronto for history and philosophy before a year studying in Beijing, China, turned him around. To his surprise, he ended up at Regent College in Vancouver, learning about biblical theology from people like Eugene Peterson. He received his M.Div. from Knox College and is currently slogging through a doctoral program in the History of Christianity at the Toronto School of Theology. He has taught modern church history at Tyndale University College and Seminary and writes occasionally for the Presbyterian Record, among other publications. Alex is married to Judith Michell and they have 3 young children. Alex loves to ride his bike, collect and consume hot sauces from around the world, drink pitch-black coffee, and make good use of public libraries.

Getting Outside The Box

Leaders in the church today sometimes wonder how we can be more hospitable towards a new generation of young adults as we try to welcome them into our congregations. I've found Leonard Sweet to be helpful in trying to explain the change in our emerging culture to those who want to better understand the generational gap which exists in our churches.

Leonard Sweet was a history professor until twenty years ago when he experienced a conversion while cleaning out his attic. He came across some mimeographed lecture notes in a box full of out-of-date course material. In an epiphany moment, he concluded that both his chosen profession and the church were like that — dependent on antiquated technology and stored safely away in the dusty corners of our culture. Ever since then, Sweet has been trying to help Christians get outside the box.

Sweet urges us not to settle for today, but rather to aim ahead of the culture. He's still an academic; he teaches postmodern Christianity and evangelism at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. But he also spends a lot of time off-campus — writing, speaking, and travelling around the United States and Canada, teaching various organizations how to respond to what he calls "our emerging postmodern culture."

A New Way Of Understanding

"You can see the emerging culture in the way we've moved away from texts to images and from books to screens." Sweet elaborates. "All of us who were born before 1962 are immigrants to this new ethos which is full of images and centres on screens. There's a B.C. generation and an A.C. generation out there. You're either 'Before Computer' or 'After Computer'. Let's face it, young people communicate differently now. And if we want to influence those who might be the future church, we're going to have to take the plunge. We're going to have to get indigenous."

Sweet spins the metaphor out. He says that we find both "immigrants" and "natives" within the emerging culture. "Natives" are in their thirties or younger, and they can't even imagine a world without computers — to name two prominent "native" characteristics. But the church tends to draw its leadership from among the ranks of "immigrants". This is especially the case in mainline Protestant denominations. Above all, Sweet encourages us to work hard at keeping the "immigrants" and the "natives" together.

"How do immigrants get to understand the foreign culture they're in?" he asks. "The answer is simple: they learn from the children and the grandchildren in their community. Immigrants have always done that. Let your kids guide you. Then let their kids guide you too. These are the natives. We absolutely need to listen to them. And we also have to be open to many of the ways they'll change us. Otherwise, our congregations won't have a voice. The church won't have anything to say; it just won't speak the emerging language."

A Missional Mind Set

Sweet sounds a note of impatience. "What are we so afraid of? Why do Christians run away from popular culture? Martin Luther told us to plunder the Egyptians. By that he meant that we should take whatever might serve the gospel from the so-called secular world. Luther produced some of our greatest hymns from barroom melodies and yet today some churches still hesitate to include drums in their worship. We've spent 500 years in a reformation mindset, focusing on the church. Now we need to develop a missional mindset. We need to go beyond church. What are people listening to? What's on the radio? Let's get out there and learn how to communicate."

Ancient Future Church

Sweet argues that our traditional "sit-and-soak worship" will not reach people today. He praises the Pentecostals and the Orthodox for modelling a new "ancient-future" way of being church. He describes their worship as "E.P.I.C.": it's Experiential rather than rational and intellectual; Participatory rather than focused on one person up at the front; Image-rich rather than text- and word-oriented; and Connective rather than individualistic.

This outline of how the culture has changed may be simplistic, but I've found it helpful for church leaders as we explore ways in which we can be reformed and reforming in the media we use. Marshall McLuhan said that the medium is the message. Whatever your view of that statement, we can perhaps agree that in trying to communicate the Gospel, we do well to renew our Reformation commitment to searching out the latest vernacular and building bridges from that kind of common ground.