Monday, 4 July 2016

Taking Temperatures

Of Prophets and Kingdoms

The Otago Daily Times recently published a thoughtful editorial on the "state" of the Church and churches in New Zealand.  There are few media which could have penned such a piece: Otago is probably the last geographic location where something like this could be found.
These are difficult times for mainstream Christian churches.  Many congregations are dwindling and ageing and the stark divisions between liberals and conservatives continue to manifest themselves, particularly on the issue of same-sex marriages. Parishes in many places cannot afford full-time clergy, and rural and urban churches close regularly.
Most Christians in New Zealand will be aware of these stark realities.  We are now one of the most secular nations upon earth.
 It is a position in the van we hold with some perverse pride.  The right way to interpret this is to see the Church facing the Refiner's fire.  The Church in New Zealand, soon after the early Christian missionary effort, led by the Church Missionary Society, came to represent and articulate the perspectives of theological "modernism" swirling through Europe.
Census data illustrates the fall in those professing to be Christian. More than 90% did so 100 years ago and that figure is now under 50% and falling. Regular church attendance has declined during that period from about 30% to about 15%. Society and technology changes from the 1960s have had a huge impact. Where once churchgoing in some circles was expected and part of maintaining one's position in the community, it is now clearly a minority pastime. Not everyone is concerned about this trend because churchgoing, rather than being a default position, requires a willingness to be different, even countercultural.
That is why the current situation is a refining fire.  Largely gone is all the worldliness and pretense that attends a time when the Church is socially powerful.  People cuddling up to the Church to gain social advantage is an anathema to faithful Christians.  While hypocrits cuddling up was once the case, no longer.  Like the ancient masonic lodges, gradually dwindling to nothing, so the "fellow-travellers" in the pews have attenuated away to very few.  In order to be a Christian nowadays you have to have heard the beat of a very different Drummer.  That is why when one visits churches nowadays, of whatever denominational stripe, one is far more likely to encounter people who are true believers, truly converted.  The fellow travellers long ago turned aside from the narrow road to different paths.

If we had a general critical observation of those that still profess to be Christians, it is the poverty of understanding of the Scriptures.  So many are so readily and easily swept along by fads, opinions, "flavours", and the causes of the day.  When one can attend, say, a Baptist church and find that the Bible is not even read, let alone referred to during the service in New Zealand, we are confronted with the extent of the malaise.
Many young New Zealanders these days have never attended a church service, not even at Christmas or Easter and not for weddings or baptisms. The Catholic Church has been partly supported by immigration, and there are now large numbers of Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims. As well, within mainstream churches are scattered vigorous congregations, often but not exclusively fitting somewhere along the evangelical, fundamentalist or pentecostal spectrums. Then there are a collection of not dissimilar Christian congregations outside mainstream structures. These can be large, often with more younger members.

They can surge rapidly, particularly on the back of inspirational pastors, and they can also be vulnerable to waning quickly. They speak of the need of people to believe and to belong, of the search for meaning and a basis for right and wrong.
For our part, we are not disconsolate.  There are plenty of good things happening.  God is indeed working amongst His people.  The editorial writer reflected the same sentiment:
As University of Otago church historian Tim Cooper said in a ‘‘Faith and Reason'' column in this newspaper in March, all is not doom and gloom. Despite the unmistakable statistical decline, many New Zealanders still go to church on Sunday mornings.  And they do so out of genuine conviction and need, rather than just because it is socially desirable.

He also said that while the church had lost its former place of speaking from the centre of society, the margins might be a safer place for the church to be. ‘‘Perhaps the church ought to be the prophet at the gate, not chaplain to the nation. The social prestige of the church in the West posed spiritual dangers of coerciveness, complacency and conformism to which Christians often succumbed.'' 
Too true.  The Refiner's fire has not stopped burning.  But it is far, far better for Christians and churches to be "prophets at the gate" and not "chaplains to the nation" in our current age.  Such a positioning means it more likely that Christians will more frequently ask--in the light of the present discontent--"Lord, what would you have me do?"

If the Church's calling in our day and generation is to be the prophet at the gate, it implies that Christians need to be building outside the city wall, as it were.  The nation has departed from Christ.  Our calling is now to build the distinct alternative, the Christian alternative in family, schools, communities and churches.  Apart from personal fidelity and devotion to Christ, our family cultures must be distinctly Christian--not just attending public worship on the Lord's Day, but living in genuine familial Christian community within our families for the other six days, replete with the "old disciplines" of family devotions, praying together, and serving one-another for the sake of Christ.  Each Christian family must live devotedly to its Head, the Lord Jesus.  Kindness, consideration, love--and lots and lots of laughter, should characterise our family life, together with a commitment to do good to all men, but especially those of the household of faith.  Such things are truly radical and revolutionary in the days of secularist declension and familial dislocation.

Our call to our fellow citizens must be, "Come out from among them, and be ye separate".  Our task as prophets in the gate is to take every opportunity to expose, by our Christian counter-culture, the fruits of Unbelief in all their ugly manifestations.  It is to call people to the Kingdom of God--and in our days, the Kingdom is outside the city, with all that that implies.

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