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A Real and Relevant Religion

April 1999 | by Mark Johnston

What does the church have to say to the world in these closing years of the second millennium? Listening to most of the pronouncements from leading churchmen of our day, we can hardly blame the world for thinking, ‘Not a lot’. We are living in what Francis Schaeffer very aptly described as the ‘post-Christian era’.

‘God is dead’

Back in the mid-sixties the world was shocked when the headline ‘God is dead’ appeared on the cover of Time Magazine. It announced a number of articles that were written in response to Bishop J.A.T. Robinson’s book Honest to God. It was not merely the outrageous claims which Robinson had made about God, but the fact that the book had sold over a million copies that provoked the interest of the secular media. They could only conclude from what the bishop was saying, and how the public was responding, that religion was no longer relevant.

We may not be reading shocking headlines today which proclaim God’s obituary, but the same message is to be read in people’s lives. The statistics for church attendance in Britain and Europe led the Archbishop of Canterbury to warn in his recent Christmas message that the light of Christianity was in danger of being extinguished in this part of the world. For the vast majority, God might as well be dead. We live in a generation of practical atheists – people who live as though God did not exist.

The symptoms of the spiritual deadness of modern society are not hard to identify. Ours is a materialistic society. It is obsessed with having rather than being. Ours is a secular society. It pursues life with no reference to what is spiritual. Ours is a pluralistic society. It wants to make room for every conceivable view of the world and life and all corresponding shades of morality.

A dangerous philosophy

The root cause of these symptoms is, without question, sin. But sin, like the devil its originator, is a master of disguise and is well able to masquerade in the most attractive and plausible forms. Different forms of human philosophy have often been the devil’s chosen vehicle to maximise the effects of sin at any given time.

Again, it was Francis Schaeffer who demonstrated very helpfully in books like Escape From Reason and How Then Should We Live? how Western philosophy has steadily drifted from its moorings in fundamental truths about God. The eighteenth-century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, played a significant part in driving the wedge between God and philosophy, but the most sinister developments have come in this century.

The existentialism of men like Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus is well known to every A-Level French student or first-year language student at university. Their books are standard texts and their ideas are studied and discussed by Christian students with some discomfort. But, no matter how disturbing such philosophy may seem, the feeling is usually that it is confined to the heady and unreal world of the classroom.

It may well be the case that none but university professors and students will use the language of existentialism, and even then only do so as an academic exercise, but the ideas can proliferate without the jargon. The basic tenet of this mindset is that man is the master of his own universe – he is the measure of himself. No one can dictate to the individual what is right or wrong, true or false.

Now where have we heard that before? Why, it’s all around us! In contemporary values, morals and culture. The ‘me generation’ of the sixties, seventies, eighties and nineties is the common man’s expression of existentialism.

Society in tatters

The lifestyle that has become so prevalent over almost four decades has its price-tag. ‘As a man thinks in his heart, so he is’ (Proverbs 23:7); ‘A man reaps what he sows’ (Galatians 6:7). All around us are the shame and pain that life without God brings in its train.

Some scars on society are obvious. The generation that has made Mammon its god has become its slave. So many have discovered that the market place does not just mean freedom and prosperity, but unemployment and high interest rates as well. The liberation of casting off ‘Victorian’ morality has led to the tyranny of AIDS and the loneliness and insecurity of transitory relationships. Sadly, there have been many innocent victims in the social, moral and economic decline of recent years. Sin does not just visit the sinner with its consequences, it disrupts the lives of all around him.

Such is the world in which we find ourselves. America may be worse than Europe and Europe than Britain, but it comes to us all sooner or later. The evangelical heritage of this little corner, on the edge of the European continent, has all but disappeared as far as the nation is concerned. However, it is not just the nation that must face these issues, the church needs to do so as well.

Understanding the problem

Statistics and social trends, of course, are no reflection on God. What we are seeing is the age-old phenomenon of Romans 1:18: men ‘suppressing the truth in their wickedness’. Even though everyone has a deep-seated awareness of God (no one really needs proof that God exists), it is possible to trample that awareness into oblivion. Even if the entire race should turn atheist, it would not have the effect of voting God out of existence. As Paul said, ‘Let God be true and every man a liar’ (Romans 3:4). After all, there was a time when the number of true believers in the whole of humanity could almost be counted on the fingers of two hands; yet God left the world in no doubt at that time that he was alive and well.

There may well be a sense, however, in which statistics reflect on the church. In other words, the impression that God is dead and religion is irrelevant stems not from God himself, but from his professing people. When the church ceases to have a meaningful and effective influence on the world, it gives the wrong impression about God.

It is easy to see how that becomes the case when churchmen have nothing to say. If you close your eyes and listen to church leaders being interviewed on television, you might be forgiven for thinking they were just politicians or social activists from another party. There is nothing distinctively Christian about their message. Then again, when churchmen abandon all confidence in the Bible and serious convictions about God, what else can they say? They have not truly begun to understand the problem, so how can they find a cure?

The evangelical community

What about the evangelical community? If any group ought to understand, then it should be those who still believe in the evangel. In the sea of relativity, doubt and change they, of all people, have something solid to hold on to, namely the Bible. We cannot help but recall Paul’s solemn admonition to Timothy as he foresaw times such as we experience today: ‘continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of … the Holy Scriptures…’ (2 Timothy 3:14-15). But how many ‘evangelicals’ are really evangelical? If we are to believe the popular view of that grouping, it constitutes that wing of Christendom that practises free expression in worship – the Bible is strangely absent.

The only way we can understand the problem is in the light of God’s revelation. In the midst of conflicting diagnoses from psychologists, sociologists and economists, our ears need to be attuned to the still small voice of God.

As the church addresses the needs of humanity she must, as it were, have the book of God’s Word in one hand and the ‘book’ of today’s world in the other. Throughout the centuries the church’s task has been to understand the changing world in the light of the unchanging Word, and speak accordingly. Sadly, perhaps especially among evangelicals, the church has been a better student of the Word than of the world. We need to understand both spheres if there is to be effective communication of the gospel.

The primacy of preaching, not the pulpit

In response to the question, ‘How do we evangelise the world?’, the classic evangelical answer is and ought to be, ‘By the preaching of the Word’ (1 Corinthians 1:21). But true as that statement is, it can be bent and distorted in practice.

The primacy of preaching should not be confused with the primacy of the pulpit. We recognise a special and much neglected place in the life and witness of the church for the formal proclamation of the Word in the context of worship. But true preaching does not begin and end with the pulpit or, for that matter, with the one set apart for the task. The fact that at least seven Greek words are translated ‘preaching’ in some sense indicates the range of activity the Bible envisages within its orbit.

If we regard preaching as a peculiarly evangelistic activity, we are steered away from the pulpit almost of necessity, because the majority of those who need salvation never come within earshot of it. Hence we find instances of evangelistic preaching such as Acts 8:4 where every believer is preaching the gospel wherever he (or she) goes, or Acts 8:35 where Philip ‘preaches’ to a congregation of one. It is not oratory or rhetoric that makes preaching preaching, but the faithful communication of God’s Word.

Tying it all together

Someone has said, ‘It is possible to talk without communicating’. So often that has been the achievement of the church. We talk at people and talk past them, because it can be so hard to really talk to them. Our aim and desire should be to speak God’s Word to the lost in such a way that their hearts ‘burn within them at the sound of God’s voice’ (Luke 24:32). Such effect on the lives of the hearers is obviously produced ultimately by the Holy Spirit, but he does not work in such a way as to suspend all human faculties and responsibilities.

Just as every ordained minister of the Word toils and labours in his study to understand the Word, then toils and labours in the community to understand his people so as to be a better preacher, so it is with all God’s children. This is not a task to be left to specialists; every Christian must always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is within them (1 Peter 3:15).

Different Christians will be able to minister the Word in different ways. The worker on the factory-floor will be in a better position to communicate with his work-mates than a full-time minister. So also the soldier with those in his regiment, or the teacher with those in the class or staff-room. They are with people day-in and day-out who never go near a church. They thus have ongoing opportunity, by deed as well as word, to present the gospel in a way precisely appropriate to the needs of those around them.

It should also be stressed that ministry to the soul goes hand in hand with ministry to the body. The very fact that the Hebrew word for ‘soul’ takes in body as well as spirit should alert us to this immediately. Add to that the way that Christ’s caring ministry was integral to his preaching ministry; then crown it with James’ denunciation of those who think they can be credible witnesses by saying, ‘Be warmed, be filled and go your way, yet do nothing about physical needs’ (James 2:16); and we are left with no room for ignoring the need for a ministry of compassion.

Go … and preach the gospel

As the battle-front of Satan’s dark kingdom encroaches on territory which the church has assumed for decades belonged to it, Christ’s troops must not sit in their trenches and theorise about the battle. They must go ‘over the top’ and into the conflict. This was Christ’s last word to his people as he left to return to heaven (Mark 16:15). It is his word to his people of every generation. We need a real and relevant religion!