A few nights ago at Laidlaw College Christchurch I heard the second of two lectures by Ian Proven, a teacher at Regent College, Vancouver who visited our city for a few days. In the course of that lecture Ian said something which I have been pondering. In my own words, this is what I have been thinking about:
In a world which is very sceptical about truth claims, which places no value on claims to uniqueness for a large truth claim (compared to plenty of value on other forms of uniqueness such as one's own individuality), for the gospel to be heard as a true story it needs to be able to connect to the story our culture is telling itself about what the meaning of life is. If we wish the gospel to regain the ground lost with the demise of Christendom, how Christians tell the story of the gospel needs to do more than tick the boxes of Christians who hear it. The gospel needs to be told in a manner which is able to be received by a world which neither knows the gospel nor is able to receive as truth the gospel as Christians often tell it. Thus Christians need to understand culture and society around us better and relate the gospel to it accordingly.
In a sense there is nothing new missiologically here: 'when taking the gospel to another culture communicate it in the language of that culture' is a well-established principle. I guess I am reflecting not on the novelty of what Ian Provan said, but on the implication that we Western Christians may be settling to easily for a form of survival as a faith in a pluralist, post-modernist world. Are our ambitions too small? Are we prepared to rethink what the gospel of Jesus Christ is in terms which communicate truthfully and truly to a world which is not the world, say, we grew up in during our formative years?
That in part is what I am trying to get at in my post below re women bishops. To a world without the gospel, how does the gospel make sense? Is it believable if it comes as a package with social and ethical conditions attached which are nonsense to the world trying to make sense of the gospel? Clearly some are going to put their hands up and say 'Yes, it does. Look at how my congregation is growing.' Around our post-modernist world we see varieties of expressions of being the church associated with growth: Roman Catholic churches, conservative Anglican churches, Eastern Orthodox churches, Fresh Expressions, and so on. Perhaps we should be satisfied with these stories of growth, such as it is? In a country such as my own, however, all too often these stories of growing congregations either represent transfers of Christians (so no gospel growth of significant numbers of new Christians) or statistically speaking a handful of new Christians. In broad terms, the number of Christians actively expressing their faith through church attendance is at best a static small proportion (I suggest around 10%, maybe 20% if we allow for irregular attendance) of the overall population. What I heard Ian Provan challenging us to think about, is whether we could have greater gospel impact through better attention to relationship between how we tell the gospel and how the whole population of non-Christians makes sense of any truth claim in this day which is derisive of any claim to tell truth applicable to the whole world.
These are tough questions to raise. Not least because the very raising of them may be inferred by some as criticism of past and present gospel work. That is not why they are raised here. They are raised here because looking at the future of our world - for example through the percipient eyes of a scholar such as Ian Provan - the gospel may be in for a rougher ride than we have ever thought possible. Not the rough ride of persecution, but the rough ride of dismissal, avoidance, and deafness. So I raise these questions hesitantly, but also raise them insistently because I am confident that none reading here wishes to be complacent about the course of the gospel in the twenty-first century and all want to find a way, if possible, to reach many more people for Christ than we are currently doing.
Incidentally, in the RCL readings for tomorrow, the Parable of the Sower is the gospel reading (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23), and one of Paul's great explanations of the gospel is the epistle (Romans 8:1-11). As I prepare to speak on (mainly) Romans 8:1-11, I am struck by the language Paul uses which presumably made excellent sense to his readers 2000 years ago, and require careful unpacking and explanation by the preacher to make sense to hearers today.