In recent times, I have conducted ministries in Britain and Australia. There is a decline in church membership and attendance in both countries, and the decline is rapid. In the British press, there has been a spate of complaints by Christians, asserting that the Christian religion is under attack and being marginalised.
I think it nearer the truth that the Church, having failed to read the pace of change in contemporary society, has become increasingly irrelevant. Having failed the test of relevance, the Church has taken to styling itself as a victim. It may well be better if there was victimisation, as opposed to not being noticed.
Should Christianity desire to once again become relevant to the national conscience; to be a voice in the national debate; to influence the nature of national and personal life – and fulfil the mission of proclaiming the Jesus vision – it must, I believe, not simply seek to change. It must engage in reformation – root and branch.
The Protestant reformers of the 16th century did not seek change to an existing structure. They boldly reset the theological basis, that hitherto had been the foundation of the Church’s dictum and practice.
It was a mighty challenge attended by great risk, but theology is where a start must be made, because upon theology rests the message.
Luther asserted, that: “faith alone without works, sets free and saves” and “that all men were priests forever”, thus turning previously held “absolutes” on their head.
Like those who had attempted reform before him, Luther may well have been crushed, but for one particular thing. The printing press had become the means of the wide dissemination of information. Luther and other reformers made full use of this new means of communication.
It is propitious that information technology in its various forms is available in this present day. It is a ready medium for the carriage of a contemporary rendering of the Christian faith. Such a rendering depends upon a bold examination of theology and practice, even though this may mean a challenge to things which have remained unchallenged for far too long.
It would be lamentable if such an examination was limited to fresh expressions of current norms. Root and branch reform is required, not just a new coat of paint on an old building.
The beginning must be where the Reformers began: a fearless appraisal of scripture.
I advance the following as two givens as a point of departure:
Scripture is informative not declaratory:
Scripture must be viewed as much for its frailties as for its strengths.
Scripture is the faith witness of those who, believing in God, addressed the contemporary contexts of their day. The New Testament is a faith response to the person and life of Jesus of Nazareth.
The events of the first century CE saw changes that meant that each epistle and gospel was fashioned to a parade of contexts.
There was a single faith context – that Jesus was the fulfilment of Jewish scripture. But the historical context was ever changing. The faith of the New Testament writers was informed and formed out of that from which they had come; out of the Jewish background in which they were immersed, and in which they consequentially immersed Jesus.
I venture the following:
Jesus and his message cannot be limited to a particular context;
Jesus and his message transcend a single religious encapsulation;
Jesus and his message are universal and properly relate to a universal interpretation.
In an examination of scripture today, in the light of contemporary contexts, the outcomes may be such as to overturn long held scriptural interpretations.
Have we, as a church, the courage for such a task, or is it easier to opt for victim status?
It is only by an extraordinary exercise of will, insight and imagination can the task of reform be contemplated, let alone accomplished.
My experience in preaching before a congregation, however, leads me to believe that there are many who find the introduction of contextual appreciations of scripture, an exciting departure; one that engages them again in their faith journey.
Should it be that we are fearless and take the way to which the Church is irrevocably committed, that is, the search for truth, we can be sure of one thing – the repository of truth will have left footprints upon the pathway for us to follow.
God is never back there; God is always out there – leading.
Bill Perry’s ministry has included: Secretary of Synod Queensland; acting Presbytery Minister in three Victorian presbyteries; ministry in three Australian States, the UK and USA.