UPGRADING OUR FAITH— reformatting the expressions of faith…, probably part 1.
Innovations in inventions & language are changing at a rate that has accelerated beyond being measurable. Ever notice that within a month (or week) of purchasing a new App for your laptop or smartphone, you receive notification that it has an update.
The same is true in the exchange between the church and the world. When James Hudson Taylor (1832-1905) went to China in 1854, he had much to learn. As with most foreign missionaries of that era he first had to learn the language. Through careful observation he continued to learn about cultural mores, kinship relationships, and the subtleties of cultural protocol and nuance. He learned how to dress appropriately so he would be more approachable, in the clothing of his host culture. He had to learn how to communicate the Christian faith to the Chinese culture within a Chinese framework. But the biggest shift Taylor had to make was that of expressing his own faith in a Chinese format. Western formats of faith would have been inappropriate here.
Though cultural changes and shifts have accelerated at increased velocity Western cultural expressions of faith are just now catching up. This International evangelistic program known as ALPHA is highly successful in communicating the basics of the Christian faith worldwide. It’s a great experience, where great food and growing friendships abound. But…! I spoke with a youth worker who was also attending, and was not surprised when he told me, “This is great, but I cannot use it with my kids.” Why? I asked. “Because it answers questions that are totally foreign to their thinking.”
This early 21st century finds us in a time where Christian leaders need to reexamine the premises of our faith. This is not a challenge to the Bible or questioning its authority: it is reassessing, a repositioning, if you will, of how we approach the Bible as our founding source. The theological constructs of the past had no need to deal with the new definitions of life prevalent in North American today. Former approaches to the Bible were couched in concerns for the issues of their day. The Church in North America needs to address our present culture’s felt needs, pluralities, diversities, and philosophical fancies, and then implement a new kind of Christianity appropriate to the expressions and approaches to life of our time.
What are the foundational premises we need to establish for a vibrant Christian faith to flourish in our generation? These are the non-negotiables in the next wave of Christian life and expression in western society.
- The nature, purpose, and rubric of Christian theology need to be reformatted to fit this present cultural, generational, western society. I am sure you are aware that in any era, ALL theology happens through the interplay between the church, the culture, and the Bible. [Of course, individual personalities, personal positioning and church power politics are also a great part of the mix.]
The last major theological construct in western society was Reformed Theology, circa 1517/1520. This theology grew out of a sense of injustice in the way clergy represented the faith to the people of Western Europe. Martin Luther’s cry was “The just shall live by faith!” and nothing else. Though that is still very true, the issues of North America in this 21st century are much more multifaceted. Time for an upgrade?
- The Christian community and individual believers alike need to start living their lives as if they were truly forgiven by God. One winter, NEED’s CHINA Consultant, attended an Emergent Convention in San Diego. Upon her return I asked her opinion of the conference. To my surprise she said she was confronted with her own reticence to accept Christ’s forgiveness for her sins and to stop feeding her guilt. She never believed that she was truly forgiven. Today, she is a different person with far more freedom in her life, and a freedom to fail before God, again…, and to be forgiven, again.
For whatever reason, so much of the Christian faith is about doing more to assuage your guilt and/or to prove yourself to God as worthy [i.e., being moral]. Please, people, it’s time we trust in God and stop this nonsense. “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ is coming again.” Is this true? Isn’t this enough!? Isn’t this what is proclaimed every time we celebrate Holy Communion? CELEBRATION!? Everything that is necessary for us to be reinstated into a relationship with the God who made us has been accomplished by Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary. We are forgiven. This is foundational to the Christian life; without forgiveness there is only fruitless.
- Building on a new sense of genuine forgiveness, we must move to the holiness granted us by God. God declares us to be HOLY. Therefore, holiness too, becomes for the genuine Christian, foundational. I’ve often wondered if holiness isn’t more of a platform for launching the Christian life than a goal to be striven toward. In my own life I have carried on a conversation with God that runs something like this—
“Now come on God, how can you declare me holy. You know my life. I know my life. There is just no way I am a holy person. So how can you declare that I am holy?” And the Lord God of the Universe would reply, “Listen to me, my son. Through Jesus I have declared you holy. Now live like it.” End of scenario.
He has declared us holy…, live with it. We are still to seek after God and personal holiness; but we must always remember that He has already declared us holy…, as odd as that may sound. Therefore, living as if we hold within us a clean spirit is essential to any new foundation of the Christian life.
- The Body of Christ must truly become the Body of Christ. Commitment to Christian community is foundational to twenty-first century faith. Yet so many of us live in isolation, with little commitment to a church or even to a small group of believers. We need to be more a part of each other’s lives in a society where there is so much pain and fragmentation. Any profile of the Millennial/Mosaic generation reinforces the need for genuine Christian community. And that community might not be defined in terms of your immediate geography. Thanks to the marvels of our postmodern, technological society, our “community” can be pin-boarded on a worldwide map. My personal community also extends to places around the world. Our world has shrunk!
You know the mantra think globally, act locally? Well, it’s changed—think locally, think globally now act locally, act globally too. We are all part of something bigger than we could ever have imagined 35 years ago. The answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” has grown exponentially.
- The last foundational premise is the power of God, which is able to draw unbelievers into relationship with their Creator. He alone is the author and designer of life: he alone has the power to bring people into a relationship with himself. Remember, God’s Word, though foundational for all we believe, is still purely a historical recounting of the descriptions of the works of God on earth. It is not simply that Truth brings people to life— it is the Author of Truth Himself who does. Any new foundation for emerging generations of believers must be founded, not on Truth alone, but on real life encounters with God, on the God of the Bible who stands behind the Bible. We all must learn to trust in our experiences of God as much as we do in our beliefs about God (the Bible); one is validated by the other. This past year a local teenager came to me with a question. “What is a Christian?” A somewhat odd question from a liberal-based youth culture. So I responded with questions— What is your interest in Christian faith? Why do you want to know? What happened to you? It was then that he launched into monologue about dreams and experiences he had gone through recently. He called them encounters— encounters with God. I described the context for Christian faith in creation, the context for Christ’s death to fulfill the requirements of Jewish law, the mark of His deity verified in His resurrection, His call to repentance and trust. [Not using those words, of course.] In essence I was explaining the Christian faith as the context for his experiences. He responded, “Oh, that’s it…, that’s what happened to me! This is great! I’m a Christian aren’t I!?” And so he was. For postmodern, experience-based individuals will not believe in Truth alone. This istheir way to come to faith; until they see it working its way out in people’s lives, Truth is no more than descriptive words. But when they see Christian life lived, and the power of God demonstrated in other peoples’ lives, and subsequently experience it in their own lives, then, our Biblical explanations have a context— they make sense. Frankly, I find this amazingly wholistic.
These Foundational Premises lay the groundwork for a new kind of freedom wherein Christians can grow and flourish with less spiritual baggage, less ecclesiastical classification, and less theological fuss. If implemented, these premises create a framework for us to explore new and different avenues of Christian life and thought. Each Foundational Premise, in turn, evokes an ensuing response that must be joined with its principle, and implemented. Do you think you’ve got that? Sorry to be so obtuse; this form of thinking doesn’t exactly proceed along linear/sequential lines.
NEXT— Implications of UPgrading