By Colin Day
Much conversation has focused upon the unavoidable challenge of communicating Christ to a society that is increasingly not just uninformed about things Christian and unchurched but also distinctively church cold.
Demographic statistics dispassionately make the point that, short of breeding like pharmaceutically inspired rabbits, churches in the West (even the apparently “successful” ones) face a bleak future unless they can rediscover genuine missional effectiveness. Hence the conversation.
Much of the discussion around this has been sociologically and ecclesiologically based: changes in society and their impact, the opportunities and challenges they bring, and realignments that may assist the church to communicate effectively into this milieu – cafe church, pub church, workplace church, home church etc. – as well as adjustments in more traditional settings.
This is all thought-provoking and necessary. My plea is that a little biblical, revitalising theological discussion is not excluded from the mix.
Have a message to share
In the midst of all our incarnating and activism as Christ’s ambassadors we still, at some point, have to be able to articulate Christ’s invitation to “follow me” in a way that is accurate and attractive to those amongst whom we live.
Deeds and words are opposite sides of the same coin. However inconvenient, we need both. Leaving aside the issue of whether or not we feel comfortable taking unchurched friends to our particular church, what do we say to a society that largely believes it has heard and moved on from the Christian message?
Who is the Jesus we commend? What does He have to say to current Western society?
My concern is that theological discussion regarding the aligning of our gospel message to that society has taken a back seat to its sociological and ecclesiological cousins. And the theological underpins all others.
At this point I may be about to be misunderstood and get into trouble. Hence my plea for a real theologian to stand up and wrestle with the issues involved! Bear with me as I try to outline the issues concerned as best I can.
Everything stands or falls on our understanding of Christ. An inadequate Christology means a deficient missiology (our going out into the world) and an inevitably wayward ecclesiology (the nature and place of the church). This is old news and not rocket science. In a nutshell, I fear our theological shortcomings are resulting not just in ineffective missional engagement but, in many cases contributing to a waning vitality amongst our own.
At the risk of oversimplification, I suggest two prime questions confront the church. The first is the question of energy (“vision” is probably the best biblical word). Not wanting to lose friends, anecdotally, I sense a significant number of our loyal church populace sitting quietly bored in their pews. Faithful believers, not wanting to be deemed troublesome, they are committed to their particular Christian community – but bored.
They may well have done church growth, surfed the various charismatic waves, done the seeker service/church thing and currently be doing the “contemporary” thing, however that is defined. Their church may have more lights than a Christmas tree and a sound system to rival the local concert hall. Its website may rival that of Weta workshop.
But, underneath, it’s lacking vitality. Christ has been tamed. Often “church” somehow has become an end in itself, the focus of its own life; supporting it, inviting people to it, (increasingly) paying for it, going on its rosters, praying for it even are key focuses of our faithfulness.
After all, if our church is growing then all cannot be lost on God’s earth even if the “growth” comes from other churches.
The faithful can cope with all this but it doesn’t really inspire or give confidence to engage with others. A glass wall exists between us and them. People just don’t come the way they used to. So we quietly stop trying. We shift our focus onto pulpit ministry and work at keeping Sunday attendance up.
Introduce the individual to the Kingdom
This leads to the other question; that of engagement. Again at the risk of oversimplifying, our effective inherited message of, “Come to Christ, be forgiven, join a church, live appropriately then go to heaven,” may well have been appropriate for a Christianised society that had an idea of what “sin” meant, for whom church was still part of the cultural framework, and heaven not entirely discarded.
For a society that has nothing like a biblical concept of “sin,” sees “church” as something between a haven for paedophiles and the home of self-appointed autocrats or, on a good day, the domain of the Vicar of Dibley, it just doesn’t cut it.
Current generations are possibly more aware of and more committed to fixing the problems of the world than any other. To them, emphasis on apparent dogmatism, cultic retreat and a spiritualised life-to-come appears escapist and unattractive. No matter how many different coloured booklets we may produce offering easy steps to faith, or multimedia services we may develop, we are going to struggle with this one. And we know it, so we keep our heads down!
But is this the message of Jesus? (This is where we need the real theologians!) Was not Jesus’ call to follow Him a kingdom-centred, not church-centred, message? Do we hear enough of this?
His messiahship is far more extensive than that of a purely personal Saviour even though such saving was at the heart of his mission. His prime call was a Kingdom call to be his Spirit-energised, collaborative, agents in the restoring of a malfunctioning world in every way. This is more than just recruiting for the local church.
Does the church not owe its existence and find its purpose as an agent of His kingdom rather than being an end in itself, or a holding pen for the hereafter? What’s more, is not the ultimate heaven of which Jesus speaks a reuniting of heaven and earth in a fully restored creation, more than some nebulous bliss? If so, we are already in exhilarating, reviving waters!
My best understanding is that Christ’s call on our lives is to discern His will, be His representatives, and promote His cause in all the endeavours we find ourselves occupationally and socially. This is where the kingdom of God is to be found, at work in even the most unlikely places.
Jesus calls us to join Him restorating absolutely every aspect of fractured creation. Would it be fair to say that, in many cases, our message has become more church-centred than Kingdom-centred?
Christ’s focus seemed to be engaging people in what God was doing in the world. Do we need to recover that centripetal (moving out) rather than centrifugal (coming in) priority? Is “church” not meant to be the envisioning, resourcing and supporting community out of which we go, to whom we report back, and with whom we worship God for both His very being and all He is doing in our world?
If church is anything other than this, then is it church at all? It might be said that realising this and constantly reminding ourselves is our only insurance against becoming no more than a religious club.
It all hinges on the cross
Properly understood, forgiveness is the undeserved gift of God that enables us to be reconciled to Him, filled with His Spirit and released into his adventure and service “out there.” Something that begins as much as ends at the cross. Is not the cross itself God’s means to the reconciliation and restoration of all creation, of which our personal reconciliation is at the heart but not the whole story?
Biblically, the presence and outworking of the kingdom of God is, in a dynamic sense, the cross-centred core of Jesus’ message and what God is doing to put right a world gone wrong in every sphere. When Christ says “follow me” it is His invitation to work with Him in the putting right of the world (starting with me!).
Our stories of this happening, and our resourcing its furtherance, are what we need to regularly hear when we gather.
Jesus and the gospel is so much bigger, more invigorating, more liberating and more capable of engaging our world than we realise. Having even the merest grasp of this is to sense a Spirit-fed empowerment, wanting to be sent.
Questions, questions, questions!
There are questions of Christology, soteriology (the nature of salvation), kingdom theology, missiology and eschatology (what is to come), just for starters!
Yet if we renew our understanding in some of these areas, recalibrating our lives around Jesus’ extraordinary agenda, our sights will be raised and our missional energy restored. Moreover, this immense message in its biblical, evangelical fullness directly engages an anxious community in its relevance, realism and hope. Oh yes, and we’ll start to see where church fits as well!
The truth about God answers all questions
The challenge facing us all is how to be God’s people in an unfamiliar place. We now live in a society of different spiritualities and a mistrust of the very institution upon which we focus so much of our efforts. How are we to be God’s people in this such strange territory amongst an increasing number of people who believe the Christian story is irrelevant?
The foundation to any answer is theological before it is sociological or ecclesiological, with a renewed appreciation of Jesus at its heart.
I long for a rediscovery of God at work in a seemingly unreceptive world, of Christ and the full extent of the good news He brings, of God’s Kingdom, of church, of ourselves, of Christian confidence and hope. I look not for a rejection of the past but a realignment with the present, which has happened throughout the church’s history, usually at times of stress.
Contextualised theology does not mean compromised theology. I know it’s hard to accept that the gospel is not ultimately about me, or my church, but about God and what He is doing in the world. However, I do have to recognise what we’re doing at the moment doesn’t seem to be working very well. So can we not have some positive discussions at a grassroots level? There is so much to be unearthed.
Philosopher Ivan Illich once stated neither gradual reform nor revolution was the best way to change a society. He said you must tell an alternative (better) story. As Christians we are very good at telling others that Jesus is that story. But, perhaps, we need to rediscover it first ourselves if we are to travel with any conviction.
I have painted with a broad brush. Much good is being done in and by a wide variety of churches. The good news is being spread. God’s kingdom is being extended. But is there not more than a grain of truth in the picture painted?
I have asked many questions and given no answers. Which is why I ask, ‘Would a real theologian please stand up?’ Even better, would a whole bunch of practical, streetwise theologians stand up to educate, inspire and challenge us into life?
• Since the beginning of 2009 Colin Day has been serving as a Chaplain at Massey University, Palmerston North. For seven years until the end of 2008 he was on the staff of Central Baptist Church, Palmerston North. Before that he was a staff member of a Baptist church in the United Kingdom.