What is God’s vision for the church?
As we ask that question we are faced with many imponderables. One thing we do know, of course. The church is in safe hands: very safe hands. But beyond that we know little. We don’t even know how much time is left to us. We’re living in the Last Days, but then we’ve been living in them since Christ came 2000 years ago, and they will last till He comes again. No one knows when that will be. The church may be still in her infancy and may last, on earth, for a million years. We simply do not know; and even if we did we have not the remotest idea what such a future might hold. We can see only a few steps ahead of ourselves; and even then only dimly.
Keep our nerve
First, surely, this is a time when we must keep our nerve. By every human criterion the church in Britain is in a bad way. Observers constantly tell us that attendances are on the decrease. The church itself is in confusion. It is increasingly marginalised and irrelevant.
In the face of these sombre analyses it is tempting to press the panic-button and to resort to policies which in the long term can be only destructive.
Part of the difficulty is that we live in a market economy where people instinctively turn to market solutions. The church, they insinuate, is merely a part of the entertainment industry which has lost its audience; or it is like a commercial company which is losing its customers and needs to diversify. It must do some consumer research and find out what people want. Let’s abandon traditional styles of worship! Abandon old-style preaching! Bring in musicals, drama, dancing, the Internet. Take a soft line on Christian ethics. That’s what consumers want. Go for the sound-bite: the 30-second advert.
All over the world there are signs of Christian capitulation to this kind of market-driven analysis. But these options are not open to the church. We have clear Rules of Engagement. The Lord, the Head of the church, has told us what our business is. We are here to preach the gospel. We are here to care for the poor. We are here to worship God. It may be that men don’t find any of that attractive. They may want to worship a different kind of God or to do something other than worship; and we, of course, have to keep asking ourselves whether we are fulfilling our Rules of Engagement in the most effective way. But we have no right to tear up our Commission or to change our God-given product in favour of others which we think more marketable or to abandon the activities assigned to us and concentrate on others which we think more promising. Even though our churches emptied to the point of extinction we must remain true to our mandate. We have to contextualise, of course, and adapt to our own time and place. But we cannot change our core business: “Go! Make disciples of all the nations and tell every human being, `I have good news for you!’”
A missionary footing
Yet, keeping our nerve cannot mean simply remaining as we are. The church must be put on a missionary footing. In a way this should not need to be said. We have always known, in the words of Alexander Duff, that Mission is the chief end of the Christian church. Everything we do in discipling our own people, organising our structures and elaborating our theology bears directly on our missionary responsibility. Yet it is easy to forget it; and sometimes the priority of evangelism is masked from us by the social conditions in which we operate. For centuries after the Reformation we lived in what was officially a Christian society. Virtually every child was baptised. The whole nation accepted the Christian world-view. Schools taught the Bible and every child had some knowledge of its contents. Everyone received Christian burial. Public life, in Parliament and elsewhere, professed Christian values.
All this dulled our sense of missionary obligation. When we thought of pagans we thought of Darkest Africa or the great masses of India and China. These were our spheres of missionary obligation.
But in the last hundred-and-fifty years we have lost so much ground that we are now struggling in a sea of paganism. The tide of faith has ebbed and in its place there has come, sometimes silently, sometimes fiercely, but always relentlessly, the flood of unbelief. Even in the Western Isles, so long immune to these forces, the signs of the ebb-tide are all too evident. At no point since the 6th century has Scotland shown such disregard for Christianity as it does today.
And we are ill-placed to respond to it. In fact, we are no better organised for mission than Britain under Neville Chamberlain was organised for war. Here in Scotland, the church, since the days of John Knox, has been on a pastoral footing. Our primary concern has been to hold fast what we have. Evangelism has meant only fishing in the pool of unconverted adherents who came to our churches every Sunday. Now that pool has evaporated. Few attend church unless already driven by a marked degree of commitment. The uncommitted are no longer sitting in our pews. We cannot reach the people unless we go among them; and that means going outside our churches to where Britain really is.
That implies, first of all, that the unchurched must be our priority. One of the best descriptions of the church is that it is the only society on earth which exists for the benefit of non-members. That may be a cliche, but the great merit of cliches is that they are true. The Great Commission didn’t say to the apostles, “Go and comfort your brothers and sisters. Go and give them great expositions.” It said, “Go! Make disciples of all the Gentiles.” We need to ponder that. We exist for the benefit of those who spend their lives in the public-houses, betting-shops and nightclubs of our land; those whose lives are spirals into addiction, despair and moral chaos; those who mock religion and spit on Christ.
How can we make our meetings relevant to them? Too often our only anxiety is what some prominent elder or some “mother in Israel” or some Christian bully will think of our proposals. If they’re offended, we drop them. Is it now time to apply a different set of controls: to assess our activities on the basis of their relevance to those who never attend church and have never heard the gospel? That means letting the world set the agenda. In that sense we are reactive, not proactive. We are willing to be all things to all men, adapting to changed circumstances in order to ensure that our message is heard by those who need it. Paul challenged the Corinthians as to what a stranger would think if he chanced into one of their meetings. Would he think they were mad? He didn’t allow them to say, “Oh! we can’t be governed by the feelings of outsiders!” That, said the apostle, is exactly what you must be governed by. That stranger, that chance visitor, is the most important person in the whole building.
The problem faced by many churches is that the moment they take up some proposal to reach the unchurched they immediately find huge obstacles placed in their way. Where do these obstacles come from? From the world? From atheists and humanists? From those they’re trying to convert? No! From fellow Christians! That is one of the saddest features of the church’s history in the last hundred years. We have so often let ourselves be held to ransom by fellow believers who said, “If you evangelise like that, I’m going to disapprove! If you bring in a modern version of the Bible, I’m going to disapprove! If you replace pews with chairs I’m going to disapprove! If you replace the sermon with Bible Study I’m going to disapprove! If you use Mission Praise I’m going to disapprove!”
It seems to me that D.L. Moody had the perfect answer to such intimidation: “I prefer the way I evangelise badly to the way you don’t evangelise at all!” The challenge we face, particularly if we are Christian leaders, is whether “for the sake of peace” we are prepared to deprive the world of the gospel. The Christian evangelist will invariably find that the greatest danger he faces is friendly fire. The church is brilliant at turning its missionaries into Inoperative Combat Personnel, casualties to frustration, discouragement and spiritual intimidation.
Secondly, being on a missionary footing means that less and less of the church’s work will be done within its own buildings. We will need to go where the people are; and we will need to think very carefully about what we actually mean by preaching. One of the great watchwords of the Reformed churches is the primacy of preaching. Unfortunately, it is easily confused with something completely different: the primacy of the pulpit. These are not the same. In the New Testament, preaching is whatever vehicle we can use to put our message across. Jesus never had a pulpit. Sometimes He preached on a hill, sometimes from a boat, sometimes round a table, once at a well. Preaching does not necessarily mean a large, passive, receptive audience. Nor does it necessarily mean an elaborate structured discourse. These things are, of course, preaching. But when Jesus spoke to the woman of Samaria, that too was preaching. When he spoke to Nicodemus, that was preaching. When Philip spoke to the Ethiopian Chancellor or Paul to the Philippian jailer, that was preaching. Our four written gospels are preaching: perhaps the greatest preaching of all time. They were evangelism. They told the Good News.
Preaching is whatever gets the gospel across. That is really the only criterion. That’s what we have to ask. Do our means of communication enable us to tell the story of God’s Son, born of the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, raised again the third day? Are we delivering that message? As far as the New Testament is concerned, it is what is conveyed that matters, not how it is conveyed. We can put it in a structured discourse or we can put it in a tract or a conversation or a video or a book. We have to speak it where the world can hear us and challenge us and even where it can heckle, blaspheme and contradict.
Thirdly, being on a missionary footing means being faithful to the gospel. We hear a great deal about faithless ministers and faithless churches. No doubt there are such, though it should be our own faithlessness that troubles us, not that of others. But what is this phenomenon, so much spoken of among the Reformed? What is a faithless ministry? Some say there are faithless ministers who never preach about hell, election, sin or false ecumenism. No doubt that is lamentable; even, possibly, deplorable. But it is quite possible to preach every Sunday on death, judgement and eternity, on hell, sin and damnation, on the mysteries of election and on the solemnities of reprobation, and still be a faithless minister. A ministry without Good News is a faithless ministry. A ministry that doesn’t give hope to the wildest prodigal is a faithless ministry. A ministry that doesn’t major on the most incredible fact in the moral universe, the fact that God is love, is a faithless ministry. A ministry that boasts that it’s never preached on John 3:16 is a faithless ministry.
We are not faithful to Christ’s Rules of Engagement unless we proclaim the promises of God; unless we tell every man and woman, and every boy and girl, “You can go to God in your rags, because that’s what the Prodigal Son did. Straight home! Just as he was, in the spiritual clothes he stood in! Only after he got home did he dress up, and then it was the Father who did it.”
I don’t think for a moment that men and women find this easy to believe. Many preachers, unfortunately, do. Indeed, their starting-point appears to be that modern man finds it all too easy to presume on the love of God and to believe in the forgiveness of sins; and the preacher’s task, conversely, is to contradict such dangerous teaching, knock such presumption out of men and confront them with the divine awesomeness, not with flabby notions of grace.
Such attitudes, in my view, are heresy. They betray the gospel. As if God had left His church in the world to be a purveyor of darkness, an extinguisher of hope and a messenger of doom! As if our mission were to make men and women feel even worse about themselves than they already do!
Is this what Jesus did? Is this the charge He gave us? Did He not tell us we are the light of the world: the only light it has? Did He not send us forth with the incredible message that God is love? Every tribal demon in the pantheons of Greece and Rome was an angry god, consuming sinners in hell and striking terror in the souls of all their devotees. None of these gods loved. None of them cared. None of them wiped away tears. None of them clothed prodigals or put shoes on their feet or rings on their fingers.
A faithful church is a gospel church; a good news church; a hope church; a love church. It is a Christ-church: one that majors on the fact that God has taken our nature, shared our experiences, borne our sins and conquered death. Let us be faithful to that gospel.