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Culture, Faith and Mission PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter Johnston   
Monday, 26 March 2012 12:12

Pastor John Chilimtsidya

A long day on Friday meant that when I got the chance at 10 p.m. having put the two younger kids to bed, I headed for the pillow myself. Stupidly, I checked facebook after plugging my phone in to charge on the bedside cabinet and saw the beginnings of a long discussion in the facebook OneKirk group from folks who had just watched the second episode in the series "Reverse Missionaries" on BBC2. The programme was recorded, but I had intended to watch it another time. The comments - one of which cheekily came to the conclusion that all the woes in Blantyre are due to me (thank you, Bryan!) - raised my curiosity level, and I ended up heading back downstairs to watch the programme.

I confess to a lot of mixed emotions having watched it. This seems to be echoed in the various comments from others either on facebook or in person. There was a wider story that it was good to tell, and raises a lot of questions and challenges for us and for the church as a whole, and then there were the very local issues that drastically oversimplified the story of church life in Blantyre for the sake of making the documentary easier to follow. [There's more...]

Before saying any more, I should say that I (and other clergy members in Blantyre and Hamilton) were interviewed and approached in the initial stages of the programme-making process. At that early stage, it looked like there could be a real possibility of engaging in a cross-cultural exploration with Pastor John Chilimtsidya from Blantyre, Malawi and the local churches and children within the schools here in Blantyre, Scotland. This was certainly something that I was keen to look at, and indeed a meeting with members of the chaplaincy team took place right after Cosy Café Calderside in the Academy one afternoon with one of the members of the production crew.

It became quickly clear, however, that the story the producer had in mind was rather different, and was indeed the story that was told in the episode shown on Friday night. It was a story about an out-of-touch church in Scotland struggling with how to engage with young people and how to share the good news of the gospel with them in a way that is meaningful. The programme focussed on the Congregational Church, and the courage of the congregation there to allow such a focussed light to be shone is commendable. The programme and Pastor John also made clear that the other congregations in Blantyre were similarly struggling to address the needs of young people in the community.

In our initial meetings, we talked at length about what local churches were doing in the way of children’s and youth work, and particularly the joint churches work that has been playing an important part of our work for the past couple of years. The producer, however, was not interested in this, and, it has to be said, she was quite open with me that this was not the story they wanted to tell.

This did not just extend to youth work. The film crew spent time at the Hamilton Drop-In Centre filming the joint churches work there with vulnerable people in the community. Again, this important and positive gospel work was not included in the programme as it did not fit the predetermined story of the film-makers.

Part of me can totally relate and understand the dilemma of the film-makers. The story had to be understandable and clear, it had to be engaging and challenging, and as a result it worked with people’s common preconceptions of what the church is like, both in Africa (i.e. vibrant and growing) and in Scotland (boring and shrinking).

In the broad strokes, the programme had a lot to awaken us to the reality that we, as Christ’s followers, face a huge challenge in making relevant the gospel story for young people who are far more critically minded on matters of religion and faith than might have been the case 50 years ago, who seek answers for themselves rather than relying on authority figures to determine for them the answers and who have many other calls on their time.

The institutions that have previously been the bastions of promoting religion in the community struggle (particularly when they are smaller) to cope with these different challenges while, at the same time, maintaining worship as we have known it for the past years for those who love their churches and their existing church family, and who find great meaning, sustenance and joy in the different forms of worship that we see in your average Church of Scotland, Baptist, Roman Catholic or Congregational church week by week. For many people who are the backbone of the worshipping community across the churches in Scotland, the church is neither broken nor out-of-touch. Yet for many others, being a part of a worshipping community is no longer important or meaningful.

I do wonder if the rate of cultural change is now so fast that within single generations there have been vast changes where in the past change took place at a more leisurely pace over a number of generations so that the church faith community could adapt together to these changes in a way that is far more difficult now and has meant that some churches offer a number of different experiences of worship in order to meet the different expectations of different generations, or they go their own way to provide a particular style that meets the desires of a particular group of people.

The churches that seem, on the surface, to be more successfully attracting young people are those, the programme hints, that are more charismatic (Pastor John is minister of a charismatic church) and experiential in style, a worship experience more akin to being at a concert than what many of us are used to. Pastor John pointed to the importance of music in drawing young people to worship. I have lots of sympathy with this, but I’m not sure it is that simple or straightforward.

For me, there is a potential problem with progressing too far down this line of determining a particular worship style or method of engagement as the only path of youth work. The problem I fear is that we, as followers of Christ, try to put on a ‘show’, we try to be something that we are not out of an entirely well-meaning desire to be able to share the message of God's love and the joy and fulfilment of Christian commitment with young people. I’ve witnessed people trying to be cool for the sake of young people, and there is nothing worse than someone trying too hard to be cool! Being authentic is far more important.

What I believe Jesus calls us to be is ourselves, as his followers serving him in this our community. Pastor John was entirely right that this means we are not to be ourselves locked away behind closed walls, but that we as a Christian community across the denominations are called to be a living witness to God’s love and care, hope and peace, in our communities. It means not being scared of young people, but willing to stop and chat, to be present and supportive. It means confidence in what we are about as the people who follow Jesus.

What saddened me about the documentary was the lack of recognition of the witness that so many people within all the local churches already have to young people in their midst (think about the Boys Brigade and the Guides, youth groups like Cosy Café, Sunday schools, Scripture Union groups,  school chaplaincy, helping coach junior football teams, holiday clubs, children’s clubs, and so on). This is often self-sacrificial service by people living out their faith to nurture and support young people, and is to be rightfully recognised with thankfulness.

This does not, however, take away the need that exists in our community for more engagement with the many young people within our community who do not participate in groups such as these. We have something to learn from the courage and conviction of Pastor John to reach out to young people with no connection with the church by spending time with them at the skate park, but we do well to recognise the reality that this is a long, slow process.

The programme makers themselves recognised that David Livingstone’s attempts to engage with local people by preaching to them directly was an abject failure. It was the long, slow, steady witness of Livingstone’s life living in community with people that ended up having the greatest impact on the African people with whom he stayed and made the biggest differences.

To make that difference, we have to be prepared to live out that difference in our lives. This is the same today as it was then, it is the same today as it was for the Apostle Paul living out the gospel while in chains, it is the same today as it was for Christ who witnessed to God’s love right up to the point of the cross, and then beyond.

Anyway, that is enough for now! The documentary has certainly stirred up debate, and if it encourages us to reflect more on how we witness to God's love in our community, then, Amen! Every blessing to Pastor John and his congregation in Malawi, and indeed to all of us here in Blantyre, Scotland also.

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