A ‘Cultural Intelligence Deficit’- A Lesson From Africa

‘The Church in the West is blinded to the fact

they have trapped Christ in their own culture”’                                                                    

Paul Vincent Donovan


The current missional mindset of local churches, particularly their leaderships, continues to be controlled by the assumption, even if subconsciously, that the goal is to reach a still Christianized society living on, what might be termed, a ‘Cultural Earth’ whereas the reality is that most of western society has changed address to a increasingly distant ‘Cultural Pluto’. The failure to realize and respond to this major contributor to the Missional Malaise is the result of a general ‘Cultural Intelligence Deficit’ i.e. failure to understand, exegete and engage with the now Church-alien culture(s) of 21st century Australia. The result of this is a continuing pursuance of ineffective missional strategies.

Cultural Intelligence is a measure of the ability to understand the times and the constantly revolving Kaleidoscope of increasingly Christian-hostile, micro-cultures (Tribes) comprising Australian society. The reality is that the Christendom society in which, and for which, the standard Sunday-Centric, In-Drag (into services), Christendom-form (‘SIC’) church model developed is long gone and importantly, the majority of Australians, including those born in the country, are from cultures that were NEVER IN IT! This ‘Church-Society’ cultural disconnect issue was highlighted by two articles that I recently saw.

Firstly, is what might be called a ‘Counsel of Despair’ from the Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the worldwide Anglican Church (once the major denomination in Australia). In a recent interview with the BBC, he accepted responsibility for ‘failing to attract more worshippers into the Church of England, with numbers hitting record lows in recent years’.

Note a ‘Counsel of Despair’ according to the Cambridge Dictionary is-

‘an action or statement that means you admit you have failed’

The Archbishop’s ‘Counsel of Despair’ continued with- ‘As you can tell from numbers in the Church of England, I don’t persuade many people’. This is a very significant admission of a decades long systemic missional failure that applies to not just the Church of England but most major western denominations.

With I am sure unintentional irony, a photo of the Archbishop attached to the article hinted at one of the key reasons for the very problem he bemoaned. That is the ‘Cultural Intelligence Deficit’ among church leaders generally. He was wearing a black Clergy shirt and a Clerical Collar, symbols of the cultural chasm between the Church and 21st century western society.

True many clergy don’t wear clerical garb these days, but there is a whole range of other aspects of ‘Church’ culture that makes it a foreign land to most of the non-Christian western population.

However, perhaps counter intuitively, the Archbishop’s ‘Counsel of Despair’ is to be welcomed, indeed it is a rare spark of light in the missional gloom, because it is an admission of potentially tectonic proportions coming from such a senior church leader. Its importance is because unless and until Church leaders begin to acknowledge the almost ubiquitous, decades-long failure of most missional endeavours, as the Archbishop has done, their will be no reversal in the chronic, long-standing decline in the number of Christians in Australian society.

Contrast this with the second article which appeared in the March/April edition of ‘BarnabusAid’ magazine. The article describes a ‘Church’ in West Africa the members of which are tribal cattle herders, the ‘Chebar’ people (name changed for security reasons). They are converted Muslims who suffer severe persecution.

The relevance to the ‘culture’ issue is that the ‘Chebar’ people generally don’t use buildings, indeed don’t even like entering buildings and so won’t ‘go to church’ as western Christians would understand it. This of course immediately raises a problem. What does ‘Church’ mean for them, indeed for us? In fact their meetings are largely open air, often around campfires where they listen to the Gospel and learn scripture from recordings on Audio players they call ‘Pocket Pastors’, and also sing along to Christian songs on the recording. So – no building, preacher etc. indeed none of the trappings that most western Christians consider essential for a ‘proper’ church.

And here is the key point, these gatherings are Missional Communities shaped by their cultural context, and have not been forced into the western model shaped by centuries of Christendom cultural tradition.

This is the ‘Lesson from Africa’ which reminds us that ‘Church’ does not have to be the traditional western ‘SIC’ church model. It can still be faithful to the principles for Christian community given to us by the New Testament, i.e. Bible, Prayer, Fellowship, Worship (contextualized) and Mission. There are tens of thousands of such culture shaped ‘churches’ throughout Christian history and also are around the world today.

Tragically however, Paul Vincent Donovan’s statement is still true-

‘The church in the west is “blinded to the fact they have trapped Christ in their own culture”’

For greater missional effectiveness, we must learn the ‘Lesson from Africa’ and take off the blindfolds.

The Archbishop’s ‘Counsel of Despair’ might just be an indicator of a dawning realization that mission to western societies must be through fellowships like that of the ‘Chebar’ Christians. That is to be shorn of Christendom traditional baggage; founded on the NT voiced principles for Christian community; and shaped in whatever way their Cultural context requires.

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