Friday, 19 September 2014

An unchanging Gospel for an ever-changing world

To restrict one’s comments on our constantly changing world to social and economic factors would be to speak as if one was a politician. It’s often said that “everything is politics.” We also need to say that “politics isn’t everything.” Even in the Church, there seems to be a reticence of speaking about the Good News of Jesus Christ. Recently, I attended a conference where one questioner said, “I’ll mention the awkward word - evangelism”! This comment seems to reflect the feeling that the Church is being squeezed into the world’s mould. We talk of the world’s problems – “What a mess we’re in.” We hesitate to speak of the Saviour who can get us out of our mess. We watch as people fill their lives with many things. We hesitate to speak of “a God-shaped blank” which only Christ can fill. We’re called to be more than social commentators. We’re called “to preach Good News” (Luke 4:18).
We live in an ever-changing world. We can get so wrapped up in an analysis of the changes in society that we forget the great words brought to our attention at the beginning of the new Millennium – “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). We must not begin and end with sociological observation. It doesn’t take a genius to see that today’s world is very different from the world of fifty years ago! We must press on to make a theological assessment of these changes. This may not require great intellectual understanding. It may have more to do with an ongoing commitment to following Jesus Christ – “I have decided to follow Jesus … If no-one joins me, still I will follow.” With Jesus Christ at the centre of our thinking and living, we will evaluate changes in society in a distinctively Christ-centred way, which is quite different from the analyses offered to us by sociologists.
Offering a theological analysis of contemporary society does not mean that we ‘curse’ the society within which we live. We must always bring the Good News of God’s love – “God so loved the world …” (John 3:16). That doesn’t mean that we become uncritical of the world. We must never forget these words: “Do not love the world or the things of the world” (1 John 2:15). How are we to “seek the welfare of the city”? Do we get so caught up in earthly city that we forget about “the city of God” – so wrapped up in a this – worldly outlook that we lose sight of the eternal dimension – God’s eternal love, God’s eternal purpose, God’s eternal Kingdom? It’s often said that we can become too heavenly-minded to be any earthly-good. Have we reached the stage where we need to be reminded that we can become too earthly-minded to be any heavenly-good?
It’s often said that people no longer understand Biblical and theological language. What are we to do about this? Are we to “demythologize” the Christian message? Can we share the Good News if we are dismissive of the facts on which the Gospel is based – “Christ died for our sins” and was “raised on the third day” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)? By focusing on words such as suffering, social justice and mystery, we may find points of contact with people’s experience. This may lead to wide-ranging discussion of issues that are of general interest to people who might describe themselves as humanists. At what point do we speak of Christ? Sometimes, when we speak of dialogue, it can end up in a rambling type of discussion which never really gets very near to focusing attention on the Jesus Christ of the Bible. He always has more to say to us than simply calling us to love our neighbour. When we get people’s attention, what are we to say to them? If we are to get their attention for Jesus Christ, we must surely seek to move beyond a conversation about social issues.
It’s often said that our theology should be an “answering theology.” We are to engage with the questions people are asking. Recognizing the importance of this approach, we should be aware of the danger that our theology can end up becoming a “questioning theology.” When we end up saying things like, “We have more questions than answers”, are we not losing the simplicity of the Gospel which tells us of God’s Answer to the problem of human sin? We don’t need to have “all the answers to all the questions”, but we can point to “Christ Jesus who came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). “The courage to doubt” may help us to acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers. It is only the courage of faith that will enable us to confess Christ as our Saviour and call upon others to trust in Him. What do we mean when we use words like “evangelism” and “mission”? If “evangelism” means no more than bringing people to faith in God, have we taken them any further than the deist who sees ‘God’ as the most rational explanation of the mystery of life. Surely, evangelism takes us beyond this by focusing attention on our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. When mission emphasizes the importance of being a “gracious neighbour”, we must surely take care to make it clear that being a gracious neighbour arises out of loving the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength (Luke 10:27).
If, in our understanding of our work for the Lord, we emphasize the importance of both our words and our actions, I don’t think there is any great need to say that evangelism is one thing and mission is something else. Both words describe our commitment to serving the Lord in the whole of life.What are we to say about the distinction between “believing” and “belonging”?
There may be people of ‘vague faith’ who do not have a feeling of belonging because they do not really want to move beyond a ‘vague faith.’ Surely, we must ask whether this kind of ‘vague faith’, which shows no real interest in becoming a life-changing faith in Christ, should be described as ‘believing’.
There may also be people of a very strong faith who do not have a sense of belonging when they come to our congregations because they do not feel that Christ is at the centre of all that we do. Often, such people will go elsewhere, feeling that they must look for a fellowship of believers who seek to keep Christ at the centre of their worship and witness.
Whatever else may be said about ‘believing’ and ‘belonging’, those who wish to focus attention on Jesus Christ must surely agree with the statement that “any attempt to promote the church as an institution, to ‘sell’ the church as a form of religious commitment is futile.” We do not promote the church. We “preach … Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Corinthians 4:5). We do not ‘sell’ the church. We point people to the Saviour, emphasizing that “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
It is important to welcome God’s “new thing” (Isaiah 43:19). We should not, however, forget the words of Jeremiah 6:16 – “ask for the ancient paths.”
A recent book in the “Faith in an Emerging Culture Series” (Paternoster) –“Metavista: Bible Church and Mission in an Age of Imagination” has received this recommendation: “If you have a taste for the subversive, a passion for the church, a heart for biblical engagement, and an eye on the future; this book is a must-read.” Another recent book – “Why We’re Not Emergent” does not share this enthusiasm for encouraging “a taste for the subversive.” Commenting on this book, Don Carson writes, “the emerging church movement, which taught an entire generation to rebel, is now old enough to find growing numbers of people learning to rebel against its rebellion.” When we read about a book which encourages “a taste for the subversive”, there should be alarm-bells ringing in our minds. When we hear about a protest movement, our thoughts may go back to the original meaning of the word “Protestant.” The Reformation was an Evangelical Reformation. The word, “evangelical” focuses on the Gospel. The Reformation protest was not primarily a negative thing. It was a positive protest for the Gospel. The word, “emergent”, is in danger of becoming ‘all things to all men.’ Is there a spirit of rebellion - a ‘nobody can tell me what to do’ attitude – just under the surface? We should certainly be aware of this danger – especially if a conflict arises between Christ’s teaching and our own inclinations. Who is Lord of our life – Jesus Christ or ourselves? This is the question each of us must face.When we hear “a call for prayerful ‘double listening’ rather than hasty action: listening to what God is saying to the church through biblical and theological reflection, and listening to the cultures of the day”, we must ask, “What are we to do when we hear what today’s culture is saying to us?” If there is a conflict between the voice of today’s culture and the testimony of God’s Word, where will our ‘double listening’ take us? We should welcome the words of caution. Double listening is to be prayerful. Double listening is not to be identified with hasty action. We should also ask the question raised by another recent book, “Reforming or Conforming?” When we speak of “always reforming”, we should take that we do not end up “conforming.”
Where there is a conflict between the Word and the world, we need to make sure that, in our double listening, we don’t end up agreeing with the world and forgetting about the Word. We can still pay lip-service to the Word, while offering ‘interpretations’ which may call in question our commitment to “taking every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).
Looking back to the 1950s, we are reminded of the expression, “Rebel Without A Cause” (James Dean film, 1955). We may wonder about the emergent movement. Where will it lead us? Will we end up being “rebels without a Cross”? Jesus says to us, “Whoever does not bear his cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). In our culture, “every man does what is right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). As we listen to this culture, we must take care that we do not lose sight of the “Cross” dimension: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me”; “God forbid that I should glory except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 2:20; 6:14).We dare not be uncritical of the emergent movement. It could lead us into a spiritual wilderness if we do not take care to ensure that our thinking and living remain grounded in the Scriptures and centred on the Saviour. If we become so wrapped up in a new movement, with its preference for words like “emerging” and “emergent” rather than words like “evangelical” and “evangelism”, we may wonder whether we are being led into “the latest version of liberalism” (Mark Driscoll). In seeking the empowering of the Spirit, we must make sure that we do not forget that God’s “new thing” will not lead to a weakening of our commitment to following the “ancient paths” in which we are grounded in the Scriptures and centred on the Saviour.
While I am not opposed to modern methods of communicating the Gospel, I am concerned that we keep a firm hold on the Gospel we have been called to proclaim. By raising such questions, I wish to echo the question which was asked in Psalm 11:3 – “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?”

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