Will the gospel break through or do we need to help it?

Posted: April 7, 2015 by J in Bible, Church, Mission, Theology

hear-no-evil-see-no-evil-speak-no-evilAnnouncing Jesus is no simple task these days!

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McCrindle research has just surveyed more than 1,000 people from across Australia on behalf of the Centre for Public Christianity. According to the poll, only 21% of those surveyed are confident the resurrection of Jesus happened, and 13% don’t think Jesus even lived. And a significant 60% believe the Bible is a book of myths.

Director of the Centre for Public Christianity (CPX), Simon Smart says the findings indicate that Australians are moving away from conventional spiritual beliefs … the overall picture is one of polarisation.

“You’re seeing people at very different ends of the spectrum there indicating a gulf between those who are confident and those who are a very long way from that.”

He says the main application for Christians is to face the reality of where Australians are at and where they are headed in terms of their beliefs, and to find new ways of engaging them.

“What we are seeing is a rapid loss of belief among many people. The church in the West must learn how to speak into a new environment where around about half the people think belief is unsustainable, they think it’s nonsense.

“It’s important that the Christian community learns to speak into that environment and not one they wish was the case or perhaps misconstrue and believe it’s more positive than it actually is.”

See more at http://www.biblesociety.org.au/news/aussies-polarised-over-belief-in-god-resurrection-and-bible-as-word-of-god

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These are compelling figures and confronting advice. We need to ‘face the reality of where Aussies are at’ and ‘learn how to speak into a new environment…and not one they wish was the case’.

Gulp!

Sounds like hard work. Brain work. Can that really be true? Can gospel faithfulness really require of us that we do serious brain work? Cultural analysis?

Actually there’s two schools of thought here.

1. The Timeless Gospel will break through

One view says surveys like this will probably send us down the wrong track. Because there is something supernatural about the message of Jesus that overrides all normal rules of communication. The gospel is so powerful, God uses it to call people whether or not it makes sense in their cultural context. Surveys and so on are appropriate for everyday communicating, but the Bible message is a special case, it’s in a class of its own. Whether or not it connects with anything our society believes or cares about, quite apart from all that, God’s Spirit uses the gospel to cut through to people and call them to faith. The message is timeless, and in any time He can make it make sense in a wonderful and unexpected way.

The ultimate expression of view 1 is the Catholic church using Latin for the mass, regardless of which language the people spoke.

2. The Contextual Gospel

According to this view, although the content of the gospel message is the miraculous acts of God, the medium is not supernatural but rather that of ordinary human communication. The message can only do its thing as it is understood and appreciated by the hearers. First it has to engage them and connect with them. Then it can be used by the Spirit to transform people.

In other words the gospel is not timeless. It comes clothed in a culture: Jewish, and it also needs to be ‘enculturated’, or contextualised or presented in terms and categories that the hearers can understand in their own culture. This can take a lot of brain work on the part of preachers, especially if they are speaking across cultures.

A classic example of this approach is the Protestant reformers, who insisted on getting the Bible translated into everyday language for the common people. Their catechisms tried to explain what the gospel meant for people in c.16th Europe. These guys were willing to rethink and reform communicative practices for the sake of connecting with people.

Reflections: 

Is the CPX survey worth paying attention to? Depends on which of these views you hold to about the way gospel communication works.

If you hold to View 2, then we need to pay attention. More than that, we need to find a new way of addressing our society that doesn’t assume they believe what we are saying. Our traditional model of preaching and evangelism is all about asserting facts with confidence, indeed with certainty. We tend to deliver a message that only makes sense to those who agree. We don’t usually acknowledge the possibility of a different view point. This leaves our hearers with a ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ set of options. The CPX survey suggests we will be preaching to an ever-shrinking audience.

If you hold to View 1, then rather than rethinking anything, we just need to stick to our guns and keep the message pure. The gospel will break through.

It’s probably worth noticing that View 1 doesn’t seem to be working in Australia. There’s a whole lot of people out there keeping the message pure, but what they’re reporting back is that they don’t get traction. Ask your local Anglican minister. And the survey confirms this: ‘a rapid loss of belief.’  The gospel as we are preaching it, is not breaking through.

It’s probably worth noting also that among cross-cultural missios, View 2 is considered basic mission practice. It’s only here at home that View 1 still finds a home.

But does anyone really believe View 1? There are signs that we are living under its influence. for example: where are the denominational forums in which Christians can discuss the challenges of communicating across the gap to our own society? Where are those discussions taking place? Where is the hard thinking going on? At CPX, for sure. But at the denominational level, nowhere that I know of.

Which colleges are training our next leaders to do this sort of contextualised ministry? Not the one I went to!

In Sydney we Anglicans had ten years of mission. You might think after that would come a stock-take. People who had led the mission called for a rethink. But no, instead we launched into another ten years of mission. Without the thinking. How could we do that? It’s View 1 at work. There’s theological blinkers stopping us from looking. Bad theology –> bad practice.

And that is why we can confidently predict that this new CPX survey will be ignored by the people we are counting on to lead us in mission, here in Sydney’s churches.

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Comments
  1. mike w says:

    What we all need to remember is that deep down, at their core, everyone is a 18 year old lapsed catholic in their first year of university, wondering how they can please God with their good works

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