On Saturday we left Queenstown and flew over Mt. Cook to Auckland and then drove up to the Bay of Islands, towards the north of North Island. It is a beautiful coastline with hot, almost tropical weather – although we have not seen any sunshine yet, and it has been raining solidly all day today and the forecast doesn’t look that good for the rest of the week!
Yesterday we went to the local Baptist Church in the morning. It was good to worship there, and to be reminded in the sermon about the need for action to accompany faith – a poignant message in view of our reflection during this study leave on mission, but also as very few people talked to us, and when we were standing around after the service wondering where the coffee was which the congregation had been invited to stay for, were just on the point of walking out when at last a woman came up and said ‘hello’. Even in a small congregation, we saw how easy it is for newcomers to get ignored as people chat with their friends and wondered how much harder it is to welcome strangers in a larger church setting. I was reminded of the challenge someone once gave of ensuring that every Sunday at church we speak to at least one person we don’t know. We all know about the need for our faith to be backed up by our action, but this must start at home, our mission field.
Faith in action was also the subject for the afternoon, for we went to a place called Kerikeri. In the early 1800’s an Anglican Minister was invited by the local Maori chiefs to set up a mission station on the banks of the river there. The buildings that formed the heart of this mission (which were interestingly under the auspices of the Church Missionary Society, still very much involved in worldwide mission today) are still there and are the oldest remaining buildings in New Zealand (a contrast to the ancient monuments we have in the UK!)
However, looking through the museum at the story of the arrival of the missionaries and the development of the mission over the next 50 years was fascinating, seeing how Christian men and women left everything to travel to the other side of the world, to a land they didn’t know, to work amongst people who they knew nothing about, in order to share the Gospel. Faith in action – and I wondered whether I would have been willing to do the same in the days before modern transport and communication, where a journey out here or a letter home would have taken the whole 4 months I am on study leave for! It was a similar story in Malawi, where many Scottish ministers went, and I have been reading about the early days of the church in Australia as well, in preparation for our time in Sydney.
And the faith in action was not just about telling people the good news of Jesus, it was not just about converting the ‘heathen’ nations, but about teaching them, showing them how to farm, to build houses of brick, to make tools of iron, to read and write….but sadly it also brought traders who sold them muskets, drink, drugs and brought disease. Some missionaries we have heard about both here and in Malawi were unscrupulous and brought dishonour to the Christian faith they allegedly came to share, but clearly others were men and women of great faith and love, risking all for God, and in many cases giving all, including their lives.
In Malawi, Nedson joked about how, due to the influence of the English, many Malawians will wear a jacket and tie even in the heat of the day when working or at something official, and both there and here we have seen how some missionaries thought that to convert people involved westernising them in what they wore, what they ate, how they spoke, even down to the style of worship and the use of liturgy. This is something I have mentioned before when reflecting on the Anglican Church in Malawi, how they wear the same robes, use the old liturgy and hymns, sit in upright pews….in fact how things have changed little from the ways that the Victorian missionaries taught them to ‘do church’.
However, some of those who came to New Zealand tried to learn and integrate some of the Maori culture into their sharing of the Christian faith. And I have been pondering the tightrope these missionaries trod – being part of the culture in which they found themselves, but not of the culture. To what extent should they and we integrate with the culture we are reaching out to, and to what extent should we remain ‘not of this world’?
I have been reading around this sort of thing as I have reread the much-acclaimed Church of England report ‘Mission-Shaped Church’, and am now reading ‘The Shaping of Things to Come’ by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, who write “Mission is not merely an activity of the church. It is the very heartbeat and work of God. It is in the very being of God that the basis for the missionary enterprise is found. God is a sending God, with a desire to see humankind and creation reconciled, redeemed and healed. The missional church, then, is a sent church”, and the book goes on to encourage us to follow the example of the incarnate Christ, who became like us so that we might know God. Incarnational mission means identifying with those God takes us to “in all ways possible, without compromising the truth of the gospel itself”.
And so I have been asking myself, to what extent do we expect people who come to faith, even in Tonbridge, to change so that they fit in with us and the way we do things? Or should we, being aware of the culture around us, be willing to change (incarnationally) in order to make it as easy as possible, without compromising the gospel, for those outside the church to come and worship the one true God? If so, just as those early missionaries asked as they arrived in Malawi, on the shores of New Zealand or in Australia, what does this mean for the way we do church in a different or changing culture?