Recent events have reminded us how easy it is to be trapped in a sub-cultural bubble which obscures what is happening in the wider world. We can think we know what everyone around us thinks, what their concerns are, but it is really only our own immediate context that we know and we have been projecting those perspectives onto a much wider canvass. Sometimes it takes a surprise election result to remind us that not everyone in the country is thinking the same thoughts.
It is just as easy for Christians to think we already know what wider community thinks. There is a story being told repeatedly in the press and elsewhere that Christianity is dying out, as is religion more generally. Australians have grown weary of the gospel message. They’ve heard it and they don’t want a bar of it. The scandals of recent years have thoroughly discredited us and there is no way back. The intellectual assaults of the new atheists, whatever we might think of them, have triumphed and Christian faith is no longer credible. We hear of declining church attendances and assume there’s the proof.
Our response to this story — and I’m going to say in a moment its false or at best only half-true — can often run in either of two directions.
Some will be convinced we need to revise our message, seek some kind of accommodation with the dominant forces of the twenty-first century, be more affirming, soften or make ‘more nuanced’ the challenge of the Christian gospel. We should stop using the language which we have been told is most offensive (while of course trying hard not to discard the truths this language was meant to convey). We should become culturally savvy Christians, concentrate more on intelligent cultural engagement. We have neglected too long the practice of public theology.
Others will be more pessimistic and adopt a more defensive mindset: the world won’t listen so let’s batten down the hatches and protect what we have. We’ll concentrate on refining the programs already in place, ensure what we are doing is sustainable, do what we can to stem the haemorrhage. Our focus needs to be more on the local congregation, building its sense of community and ensuring its integrity at every level.
On one level there is nothing wrong with Christian cultural engagement. It is good to keep working at bringing Christian perspectives to bear on the issues of the day and in the public square. Nor is there anything wrong with strengthening the life and every-person-ministry of the local congregation. The counter-cultural love within the Christian congregation, a love that reaches across the usual divides of age, gender and race, is a powerful testimony that God is at work among us. Yet I’d like to suggest that this moment cries out for another response.
We’d be foolish to pretend that the changes and challenges of the moment are insignificant. They are real and they are not all bad either. I rejoice that we live in a time with greater accountability, a determination to protect the vulnerable, the rich and beautiful tapestry of cultural diversity that is the result of immigration, a greater awareness of our failure to respect the first nations of this land, and technology that connects us to each other instantly wherever we are in the world. Yet more is going on in our own patch and around the world.
When we take a global view, the world is becoming more religious not less, and Christianity continues to grow at a phenomenal rate. Yes, there has been decline in the West, but the world is more than the West. Even here, while census figures and sundry other surveys show fewer Australians are willing to identify as Christian or affiliate with traditional Christian groupings, every week men, women and children are still coming to faith. The promises of the secularists are not being realised and some are beginning to be disillusioned. The post-Christian utopia is not all it was cracked up to be. There is still a spiritual restlessness in many quarters.
The need of the moment is the same as it has always been. Men and women need to hear the gospel of sins forgiven, new life and hope. They need to be introduced to Jesus who knows everything about each one of us — the darkest secret, the failures and the insecurity (sometimes masked by what others would see as success) — and yet still loves us beyond anything we could imagine. They need to hear his invitation: ‘Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.’ (Matt. 11:28–29) The message is still ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel’ (Mark 1:15).
Public theology, at its best, opens up into evangelism. It is not an alternative to it. It is not an end in itself. Rich community life, centred around Jesus who is present by his word and in his Spirit, strengthens and supports the evangelistic efforts of its members. It is not inward looking but outwardly focused. It is not a retreat from the world but an outpost of gospel seriousness and generosity in the world.
I am not suggesting that everyone is a ‘big E’ evangelist. There are some people who are gifted well beyond the norm in this area. I can think of a few in the history of the diocese. Perhaps you can too. Nevertheless, those who have met with Jesus have never been able to remain silent about him. Knowing Jesus naturally flows out into talking about him and what he has done. Knowing the joy of sins forgiven and life without guilt or fear is naturally something we want to share. So our congregations ought to be full of men and women for whom evangelism is the natural response to this moment. After all, we look at our city and our world and see that there are more lost men and women all around us than ever before. If ever there was a moment when the harvest was plentiful (Matt. 9:37) it is this one.
Are we going to allow ourselves to be inwardly focused, holding tight to what we have and forgetting that the God who made all things and who sustains all things is still about the business of delivering people ‘from the domain of darkness and transferring [them] to the kingdom of his Son’?
What kind of church do we want to be as we enter the second decade of the twenty-first century? What kind of diocese do we want to be? My prayer is that above all else our churches and our diocese will be passionate about evangelism, that what energises us will be a concern to see men and women saved as they come to Jesus in repentance and faith. I pray we will renew this priority in the training we do with each other, with the allocation of resources at the local and diocesan level, and in the activities we organise on the large, small and individual scale. We mustn’t believe the lie that the gospel has been rejected by most Australians. The truth is that most Australians have never heard the gospel. And then there is the world.
Originally published in Southern Cross.