July 2014 Issue: Contemporary Christianity- reflections on challenges and pathways

by Mr Jose Philip

It is not uncommon, today, to hear Christians speak of ‘engaging culture’. Yet the voice of the church in the public space has never been more stifled, and with good reason why this is the case. Take a close look at what is happening in the world today and you will be struck by the twin realities of progress and regress. We are getting better at what we do - progress; but are rapidly losing our sense of who we are, and why we do what we do - regress. The troubling thing, however, is that many Christians are either apathetic to or unaware of this dialectic.

Progress in the wrong direction is dangerous. We will be worse off tomorrow than we were yesterday if we lose sight of who we are, and perfect what we do. The world is spiralling out of control and as salt and light it is our mandate to dispel darkness and preserve truth, as God spoke it. The need is great, the mandate is clear, and yet hands to the plough are hard to come by. In my analysis, I surmise three reasons categorized under the following headings, dull eyes, dense hearts and deaf ears, as to why this might be the case.

a) Dull eyes

The Church has lost sight of her call. We have lost the vision of how ‘Christian living’ is at the heart of human flourishing. This is a connection we often make, but we must. God’s call is for human flourishing. God called Abraham to bless him and to make him a blessing (Gen. 12:2-3; 18:18). Even when Israel was exiled, as God’s people they were called to “seek the welfare of the city....” (Jer. 29:4-7). God created us to flourish and the church will do well to remember that in becoming His body (Eph. 1:23), we are His agents of change and flourishing.

Jesus taught his disciples in the hearing of the people, “You are the light of the world. … let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:14,16). It is important to realise that Jesus demanded both integrity and intention. The virtue we espouse must order our public action, and our public action must ensue in God’s praise. Take this one step further and you will see what the apostle Paul meant when he wrote, “creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Rom. 8:19). Christian living is for human flourishing, and when humans flourish all of creation also will.

b) Dense hearts

The church has lost her passion. We live in an age of hype and our hyper stimulated hearts are no longer able to stand in awe of God in the ordinary. Calloused, is one way to describe it. This explains why for the majority of us, most of what we do on a daily basis has little or no spiritual substance. Take a closer look at what we are told in Isaiah 40:31 “But those who wait on the Lord, shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, and they shall walk and not faint”. I find the order interesting. Should it not be walk, run and soar? One would assume that because it takes more to soar, there is a greater need to ‘wait on the Lord’. God did not get the order wrong. The disciples asked Jesus to increase their faith when he asked them to forgive the one who had wronged them. They needed no such increase of faith to drive out demons. (Luke 17:3-5; 10:1-17). Make no mistake, it takes more “waiting on the Lord”, to walk daily with Christ. It should not surprise us, then, having lost sight of God in the ordinary that our struggle is not the existence of God, but His relevance in our daily lives.

c) Deaf ears

The Church has lost her gospel. In his second letter to the Church in Corinth, Paul makes an impassioned plea for reconciliation. He speaks of us as new creatures (2 Cor. 5:17), and then points out that as ambassadors for Christ, God has entrusted to us the ministry of reconciliation. The good news the Church has to offer the world is ‘reconciliation’, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). Paul was ‘constrained by the love of Christ’ (2 Cor. 5:14), and so he pleaded ‘be reconciled to Christ’. God’s love for the most part today in our churches is falling on deaf ears. We are more concerned with what we can gain from God because he loves us than with what he expects from us, because he loves us. The call to be ambassadors for Christ, calling people to be reconciled with Christ, is unheard.
Progress in the wrong direction is regress, even dangerous. This should help us see why, in spite of all the advancements we have made, the world is just a stone’s throw away from annihilation. When the Church walks blindfolded, the world will trip and fall. When the Christian cares very little about waiting on the Lord, and living as an ambassador for Christ, the world will self-destruct.

The dance of death: Salt under foot and light under a basket

The Church demands our urgent attention because she is dancing with the devil and this after she has been ‘rescued from the dominion of darkness and transferred into the Kingdom of the Son’! (Col. 1:13). To dance with the devil is to dance with death. Here are three practicalities as to why this is the case.

a) Practical Deism

Deism is a belief that God exists, but that He is uninvolved. The Christian is becoming increasingly deistic in his disposition, but that should not come as a surprise. Practical deism is what follows when we lose our sense of God in the ordinary. The Christian, who is a ‘practical-deist’, will have no problem speaking of Jesus Christ as Lord. However, when the rubber meets the road, God is sidelined. His involvement is not sought because his absence is assumed. Practical deism breeds irrelevance.

b) Practical Dualism

Christians seldom challenge the fact that God is sovereign. However, an ever increasing allowance is being made for ‘situational exceptions’, where being a Christian has little to do with what or how we do things. The point is not that belief in a sovereign God will eliminate all hindrances. The point is that Christians are becoming increasingly comfortable with the chasm between the sacred-secular divide. In fact, it is only a matter of time when nothing will be expected of God, not even the spectacular. Practical dualism breeds irreverence.

c)Practical Atheism

We believe that God is sovereign yet we worry. That is behaving in a manner contrary to what we profess we believe. The antidote for worry is what Paul says when he writes to the Ephesians church “keep praying for all things”. But that antidote excites very few because when we have walked down the road of practical dualism we will end up with practical atheism.

When the Church insists on dancing with the devil she will be waltzing back into the darkness from whence she was rescued! Jesus raises a necessary, albeit sobering, question: “If the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again”? Answer: It cannot. “It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet.” (Mat. 5:13).

Make no mistake to dance with the devil is to dance with death, as the author of Hebrews cautioned the early church:  For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned. (Heb. 6:4-8 ESV).

It is not just in Hebrews, every epistle in the New Testament encourages the Church to guard her walk with the Lord, and to engage the world with the gospel. Jesus charged his followers to live in the world as he came to it (John 20:21). But when the Church loses her mooring, the world will lose its bearing. “If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Mat. 6:23 ESV).

The gospel: misrepresented, misunderstood, misappropriated

As terrible as it is, the slippery slope of practical deism-dualism-atheism is only symptomatic. That is not what is causing the Church to lose her saltiness, or blanket her light. The cause, I believe, is what we have made of the gospel; how the gospel is being preached, and why it is being received.
The gospel is increasingly being proclaimed as pill for personal ills. This is not to suggest that the preaching of the gospel has to ignore the individual. However, in a culture obsessed with self, the preaching of the gospel without communicating its demands on repentance and discipleship will be both misunderstood and misappropriated. The call to follow Jesus must never be separated from the cost of following him, if we do, we will be guilty of preaching another gospel. Faith in Jesus Christ is reduced to ‘God’s means to my ends’ and idolatry ensues when the preaching of the gospel is reduced to personal fulfilment.

What evidence do we have that many in the contemporary Church are flirting with another gospel? When Christians are neither troubled by their apathy towards the world, nor appalled at their obsession with pleasing themselves, we must recognise the writing on the wall. The nation Israel was in a mess, God’s people had forsaken him, and when they were charged with unfaithfulness they dismissed it with disdain.  Micah 6 tells the morbid tale of what happens when the light [in you] is indeed snuffed out. God demanded an explanation for the people’s unfaithfulness. The people nonchalantly replied ‘what do you want from us? Name it and it will be yours. Do you want us to give you thousands of rams, ten thousands rivers of oil? Do you want our firstborn for the sins of our flesh?’ God was invited to name it, and claim it. When the people of God lose sight of why they are his, they become part of the problem the world has to deal with. When the message of the gospel is reduced to personal wellbeing, the Church will assume the posture of non-interference.

Let us approach this dilemma by attempting to frame the questions differently, “what must the world expect from the church,” “who might be responsible for the moral conscience of a society,”? God’s answer to the people’s rant in Micah 6 is: “I told you O man, what is good, that you do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God” (Mic. 6:8). We live with a deep sense of entitlement. We have a lot of expectations of God, and the world. It is important that we consider seriously what the world is entitled to from the Church. The Church is responsible for the moral fabric of society. Make no mistake, if the world is perishing it is chiefly because the light has been snuffed out. Light will dispel darkness only when it shines. When the Gospel is misunderstood and misappropriated, there will be no place, or purpose to be ‘poor in spirit’, or to ‘hunger and thirst for righteousness sake’. To ‘suffer for righteousness sake’ is to suggest the unthinkable, and to have ‘trouble in this life’ will be perceived as God’s absence. Hope in such a state for spiritual malformation, is absent or worse, non-existent.

Let us learn to watch how we live in light of what we proclaim. It is not only important that we preach the gospel, it is vital that we preach the gospel as it has been handed down to us, and not as something that works for us. Jesus warned his disciples that even the elect will be deceived (Mat. 24:24); Paul cautioned the churches in Galatia and Corinth, to stand guard against other gospels (Gal 1:8; 2 Cor. 11:4). We will do well to take heed, and to stand guard, paying careful attention to what is being preached, and how it is being appropriated. Christian apologist Os Guinness sums it well. In an interview with the Christian Post he commented:  "Our central problem does not come from secularists, post-modernists, Islamists, Gay activists, or any other purported threat raised and broadcast by the fear-mongering machines. It comes from our own evangelical worldliness and our signal failure to live the Way of Jesus" (Guinness, Christian Post website, June, 2011).

Summarily, the problem lies not so much “out there”, as much as “at home”, in the calloused heart of the Church’s wanderings and meandering from the truth of the gospel that established her.

Follow me as I follow Christ: Walking in the Light, together

I go to church so that I can feel good. I go to church and am part of a worshipping community so that my needs will be met. That, if I may, is the true disposition of countless Christians as they meet week after week. Worship, fellowship, small groups, prayer meetings, almost anything done in the name of Christ has to deliver the goods: self-fulfilment. I am not sure how many of us realise that we are actually short-changing ourselves in the process. Thinking about spiritual formation, particularly prayer, we often forget that as God’s family and Christian community, when we come to pray, we are also the answer to someone else’s prayer. We have lost that perspective, and we are poorer for that. In his book Living Church, John Stott said something very important which we will do well to pay attention to,
‘The Church lies at the very centre of the eternal purpose of God … His purpose, conceived in eternity past, [is] being worked out in history, [...] to be perfected in future eternity, is not just to save isolated individuals and so perpetuate our loneliness, but rather to build his Church, that is, to call out of the world a people for his own glory’ (Stott, 2007, 19-20).

God did not intend for us to be alone. He is Trinity, and he created us to flourish in community. This, I believe, will be our prized possession when we commit to walk in the light, together. If we walk in the light says John, we will have fellowship with God and man. (1 John. 1:7).

There is a place for us to recover what Paul said, ‘Imitate me, just as i also imitate Christ’ (1 Cor. 11:1NKJV), but if we do so uncritically, our fellowship will be about becoming clones of each other, and not children of our Father in heaven. The call to follow ‘me’ presupposes the commitment to walk in the light.

As followers of Jesus Christ we must nurture a healthy appetite for transparency. Discipleship is impossible without discipline, and discipline demands openness. One of the dominant problems in most urban churches is church discipline. There is little or no space for church discipline. Here is what one pastor said when asked why he was not favour church discipline, ‘There is no point because if I do, then they will just leave this church and go somewhere else’. Discipline is never easy, and to be candid, the reason why pastors shy away from disciplining their flock, is the pointlessness of it all. How are we going to wash one another’s feet, so to speak, and serve to sanctify one another if we don't create space for each other? We need to nurture a healthy appetite to be open to one another under the Lord.

You should be looking at me intently to see if I am following Christ. When I am, you must do your best to follow me as I follow him. But when I am not walking in his ways, you must not take your eyes off me you must admonish me so as to encourage me to pursue Christ. That is what Paul was actually saying to the Corinthians church in his first letter to them. He was opening his heart to them, and inviting them to look into his life. He was not asserting his supremacy over them. He did not need to be commended to them. His life was an open book so that he could say to them, ‘Imitate me, just as i also imitateChrist’. (1 Cor. 11:1 NKJV).

To call people to follow us as we follow Jesus does not require moral perfection. It requires humility. Paul did not walk around with his head in the clouds. In his letter to the Philippians, he wrote,
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.’ (Phil. 3:12-14ESV).
The Christian community will not be able to call the world to consider its moral standard because we do not have the moral resolve to hold one another accountable. The Church is the salt of the earth, she is a light unto the world; she must take her place on the hill. We must learn to walk in the light, together.

Losing to find, dying to live and living to reign

Human beings are created to reign. And let them rule… so God decreed when he created humankind (Gen. 1:26-27ESV). Sin destroyed everything, and because of human sin, death now reigns (Rom. 5;14 ESV). That, however, is not how things will end. Redemption restores our ability to reign. Yes, death reigns because of sin, but in one man: Christ Jesus, we are restored to reign in life. Jesus’ invitation is for us to come to him and receive fullness of life (John. 10:10).

How would you like to live your life on a treadmill? Some of us appreciate the health benefits associated with using a treadmill frequently. Even so, I am yet to meet someone who is thrilled at the suggestion of having to live his entire life on a treadmill. No one likes constant action, yet that’s how we live life. We long for satisfaction, yet we define who we are by what we do. Living unsatisfied lives is the result of having chosen to define who we are by what we do. The hands can only give our hearts what it does not want - constant action. But it does not end there.

Even when we are satisfied (with what we have accomplished), we are not satisfied with being satisfied once, are we? We want to be permanently satisfied. Satisfaction is something given to us and so is permanence. Neither of which can be gained on our own; which tells us that the world is desperately looking for help, and we must acknowledge our predicament if we are to find an answer to our problem. Jesus alone says to the world, ‘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’ (Mat. 11:28-29). Unless we, as followers of Jesus, commit ourselves to learn from Jesus, humanity has no hope. But when we live for His sake, and for the gospel, we will be salt and light in a decaying and dark world as He commissioned us.

(This talk was given at the GCF Fellowship Meeting on 22 April 2014 at GCF/FES Centre)