Three challenges facing Christians…

Posted by on Aug 5, 2016 in Blog | 5 comments

Those of us who are embedded in healthy church communities sometimes wonder why there are so many who are not. Put differently, at a time when it is so easy to track down information about Jesus and to learn about his teaching, why are so many deciding that following him has little appeal. A fair amount of the negative response can probably be put down to the negative publicity surrounding the church, with people thinking, ‘well, if that’s the community he founded, count me out.’ But it is not just that.

If you ask me what I think the three greatest challenges facing Christians in the Western world are (and I think the challenges are different in the two thirds world) I would say that it is that in the western world Christianity is seen to be

1)     Intellectually vacuous

2)     Morally suspect

3)     Experientially obsolete

A brief comment on each…

Intellectually vacuous

In many ways this is a bewildering accusation. The intellectual heritage of the Western word has been shaped by Christian thought, with theology traditionally being seen as the Queen of the sciences. No book has been as widely distributed and read as the Bible, and nor has any book birthed as many publications as the Bible. Many of these publications are deeply reflective, intellectually rigorous – even profound. There is hardly an area of life where people have not thought through an appropriate Christian response, and be it in the area of theology, philosophy, economics, health, education, ethics, environmental care… Well pretty much every area of life, Christians have developed considered and thoughtful views. True, there is significant diversity in these views, but surely this is a strength, indicating that the Christian faith is no straight jacket, enforcing dull and unimaginative thinking?

So why is the view that Christianity is intellectually vacuous so widespread amongst those who don’t believe?

A large part of the answer is probably found in the highly vocal responses given to social issues by the most conservative branches of the faith. The views of fundamentalists are quickly spread, and the shallowness of these views are often seen to be representative of the whole. It is a short step to dismiss the whole Christian Faith as superficial and silly – which is tragic, when it is anything but.

As I am discussing three key challenges facing Christians, here then is the intellectual challenge. How can we ensure that the voice of thoughtful Christians rises above the voices of fundamentalists in the marketplace of ideas?

Morally suspect

Having shaped so much of the moral framework of the Western world, it is naturally surprising that Christianity is viewed as being morally suspect. Clearly it links to far too many instances of sexual abuse, financial mismanagement and abuse of power. The justified sense of horror and outrage that arises from each of these drowns out the exceptionally long list of good that has been done in the name of Jesus.

But it is not just the abuse of privilege that is the cause. Many believe that the ethical contribution of Christianity in the past was commendable, but that it has now gone beyond its use by date. Christian ethics are portrayed as fixed and inflexible, unable to accommodate to new insights or a more scientifically informed view of the human condition. Much of our morality was shaped in the era of patriarchy, and in an age that is rapidly leaving such assumptions behind, the Christian faith often seems to be lacking in genuine thoughtfulness, and to simply parrot back old formulas from a world long gone.

Of course there is no inherent reason why this should be the case. Part of the success of Christianity in adapting to so many different cultures over a 2000 year history has been its ability to adapt… Historically it has been a remarkably nimble faith, able to extract the best from each era and to incorporate them into the more solid and enduring dimensions of belief.

In the moral sphere, it seems to me that we have two key challenges to rise to…

1)     Our words and deeds must correspond. The often painful chasm between what Christians proclaim and what they are seen to do, must be bridged. And when we act, we must do it with a helpful underlying attitude – one not motivated by doing our duty, but one flowing from genuine care and empathy.

2)     We must rediscover, reimagine and rearticulate a Christian moral vision for the 21st century. This will require digging deeply into the ‘why’ behind what are often presented as dogmatic and frozen ethical instructions. In some instances, the why might need to work its way out in fresh and radically different directions. It will involve listening to Scripture in a new way. Indeed, it will require us to listen closely to what the Spirit is saying to the Church through the Bible at this stage of the story of the Church.

Experientially obsolete

While deeper thinkers might voice their objections to faith in intellectual and moral terms, the larger majority probably have another reason. I’ve put it down as Christianity being seen to be experientially obsolete, but more popularly, that simply means that those outside the church have found church services dull (or heard that they are dull) and do not see in what way being part of a Christian community is relevant to their life.

This is incredibly sad. The Psalmist instructs us to taste and see that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8). It is an invitation to experience God. We are an age where the experiential trumps most things. We are no longer content to hear of how others climbed Everest. We plan to do it ourselves. And why not make that trip to the South Pole… Or at the very least, go skydiving, bungee jumping or hot air ballooning? Calmly sitting in church pews listening to a talking head at the front simply doesn’t hack it in an age where one adrenalin burst rapidly follows another.

Not that this should worry us unduly. While the Christian faith has never bypassed the head, it has never been intended solely for the head. Faith is meant to express itself in a life of action. For the original disciples, this led to a heart pounding ride – one miracle after another as Christianity slowly captured the imagination of the world. But there was also one martyrdom after another. Of the original 12 disciples, only John managed to avoid death as a direct result of following Jesus (true – the death of Judas Iscariot saw other factors at play). It was for them the wildest of wild rides – and in the end, it changed the world.

So what is the implicit challenge behind this third obstacle to Faith? If we want to avoid accusations of experiential obsolescence we need to encourage a wave of genuine 21st century Christ following – taking the risk of living as if Jesus is real, still alive, and can be trusted. Whatever else that journey might be, if genuinely and seriously undertaken, it will never be dull.

Well, those are some of my thoughts. What are yours? What challenges do you think the church in the West faces if we are to overcome the sense of inertia too often associated with Christianity?

As always, nice chatting…

5 Comments

  1. I think you hit 3 good nails on the head Brian.
    Working in a predominantly secular workplace I do think that a gradual drift away from any Christian influence in our culture is also a factor. Most of the younger folk I work around (as a chaplain) have had no contact with the faith as they grow up. Hence “religion” is not on their life radar….it is seen as a distant, old fashioned and irrelevant part of life.

  2. Thanks for this fourth challenge Barry. I think you are spot on. The drift from any Christian influence makes it a lot more difficult to find points of intersection – and places a lot more responsibility on places providing services in the name of Jesus.

  3. Always an interesting read thank you Brian. May be ‘the last days’ and Satans increased activity are also factors.

  4. Great post, Brian! Crucial issues.
    Possibilities:
    #1 People perceive the gospel as “intellectually vacuous” if we reduce it to something that merely addresses individual guilt. “Come to Jesus to be forgiven” is woefully inadequate and culturally irrelevant. We need the good news of the kingdom — the story of God releasing his world from the grip of evil back into his care through the most amazing kind of ruler you ever heard of (Jesus confronting evil unarmed, giving his life instead of taking lives, raised up to be our sovereign/Lord).
    #2 The only way to genuinely rebut the charge of being “morally suspect” is to live genuine lives in front of the people who know us. That involves being honest about how we abuse power, as all broken humans do. But we’re trying to give power back to God, so we can invite people to join us in doing that (without drawing lines to define them as out and us as in).
    #3 If people think Christianity is “experientially obsolete” they’re not hearing the stories of what people of faith are doing. We need to tell big-picture stories, as John Ortberg does in “Who is This Man?” We need to tell local stories, e.g. in our community newspapers. We need to tell each other’s stories. Perhaps we should devote as much time in our church gatherings to telling stories as we do to sermons? We can’t reduce it to back-slapping, but we are inspired and motivated when we hear what our friends are doing to bring the wider community under Jesus’ care.
    A big gospel about King Jesus releasing and restoring his world.
    An honest lifestyle that’s inclusive and inviting.
    Living and telling stories of the good news in action.
    We can do that!

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