Challenges in Contemporary Theology

A Call to Change the World

The first Christians had a reputation for changing society. Their enemies accused them of "turning the world upside down" (Acts 17:6). The followers of Jesus Christ revolutionized the way men and women thought about God and life's priorities, how they treated one another and how they interpreted what was going on around them. The message they preached offered change and hope. Within a few years of its launch the church began to confront and contribute to the collapse of an empire and a panoply of entrenched deities and ancient faith systems. In no time at all, despite attempts from the highest levels to stamp them out, they came to shake the political, philosophical and social foundations of their world.

Fast forward. The UN World Heritage-listed Cathedral of Notre Dame in Chartres (built 1194- 1220), west of Paris, is arguably the most beautiful church building in the world. During the Middle Ages, when few people could read or write, one of the vehicles used by the church for teaching stories were stained glass windows. Cathedrals across Europe came to be filled with windows graphically depicting scenes from the Old Testament, the Gospels, church history and major events of the times. Popular ideas about God, Jesus, judgment, Heaven, Hell, the Apostles, heroes of the church and its contemporary hierarchy often came from these sources.

Unfortunately, the vision a lot of people still have of Jesus is fixed in stained glass windows or images in churches. This Jesus, who is artificial and untouchable, does not communicate to people living in the Third Millennium. Such "religion" leads to loss of purpose, identity, personality, values and connection to people's priorities.

Remaining Relevant -Geared to the Times, Anchored to The Rock

Down through the centuries, Jesus has not changed (Hebrews 13:8). But society and "church" and the way they intersect have changed considerably. What does the church look like to an outsider today: contemporary music, up-to-date furnishings and high quality audio-visual facilities. That response confuses "church" with buildings. It says nothing about the relevance and power of the Gospel or the church to the human condition.

Jesus connected with people in the street because he responded to peoples' felt needs and provided answers that were relevant to daily life. The majority of His followers continue to be ordinary people (1 Corinthians 1:26-29); the message is as relevant today as it was two thousand years ago. Relevant Christianity is still characterized by God's love in action, building bridges, reaching down and out to others with credibility. The Bible says that the Christian community grows and builds itself up in love (Ephesians 4:16).

Stagnant churches talk about love but outsiders recognize if it is in short supply. Other churches are confused about what they teach. The relevant church will demonstrate God's character and make disciples of Christ who recognize and are motivated by divine love. This type of church will reach non-Christians and unchurched believers. God's love within will go beyond verbal expressions and operate like a powerful magnet.

People's needs also make them more, or less, open to the Gospel. For example, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Eastern European communities were open to the Gospel and churches in parts of the Baltic States grew quickly; however, as they became more affluent/Western, felt needs diminished and the early success of evangelism/church planting levelled off.

Relevant to all people and cultures?

Christianity is perceived by many of its critics as having lost touch with reality. It is seen as abstract and theoretical. Some Christians and churches have eccentric cultures. Look at the religious paraphernalia that has grown up around Jesus' name: solid bookmarks made from Lebanon Cedar or olive wood from the Garden of Gethsemane or the Mount of Olives; a bottle of "Holy Water" from the Jordan River, "where Jesus was baptised" (it has a cute picture of the Holy Spirit descending from heaven, on the side of the box); battery operated angels that glow in the dark and play "Holy, Holy, Holy"; "herbs from the Holy Land - like those Mary would have used in her cooking"; "Biblical scents" exuding "the smells that greeted Jesus in the Garden"; Dead Sea bath salts "to give you a heavenly lift"; cups with inspirational sayings; Lily of the Valley and Rose of Sharon soap; tea bags with Bible verses on the labels, "for that special moment"; Bible verse candy canes; and "faith" jelly beans.

Cultures change. It is now possible to sit in a grass hut in a developing country and access the Internet using solar powered satellite telephones. Cultures change even though the Gospel does not (its message is eternal); we therefore need to be able to present the message effectively to new human contexts.

Language can also be a stumbling block? People do not grasp the Gospel if the terms we use and the concepts we present are alien to them (regeneration, sanctification, propitiation, catechism). The assumptions they have about the nature of truth, God, sin and sacrifice are different from statements contained in Christian creeds or liturgies. It is possible for the unchurched to be so focused on the architecture, iconography and styles of the church that they completely miss the personality of Jesus Christ. The message we declare is authenticated when we are real, lives that are unequivocal, clear, meaningful, contemporary and attractive.

Modern men and women reject extremism, but often end up standing for nothing at all. Many modern young people feel their leaders fail to take them seriously and articulate clear directions, that politics and business lack moral fibre. They have a culture of "no-values". They reject the voices of the past and one-size-fits-all religious dogmatism. People don't want church life to be reduced to meaningless repetition. What works in pluralistic, reductionist, syncretistic societies where all bets are off and social taboos are no longer sacrosanct?

People today are increasingly mobile, physically and mentally. They have gone from book to screen and their world has shrunk. Many of the old models, jargon and ceremonies no longer work. Young people are prepared to experiment with other religions. They have more information available to them than any other generation in history. They are interactive and multi-channel. They sit in front of screens and anonymously chat with virtual communities across the globe. They absorb a wide range of attitudes, symbols, music, languages and sounds. If we are to reach them, the narrative has to be diverse, high-tech, relational and culturally relevant, without changing the central message. We need to engage effectively and imaginatively and get closer in practice to the heart of Jesus' message.

There is a growing trend for Christian formation outside of traditional church structures. People want church life that is not boring, monotonous, unpleasant, materialistic or non-directional; worship services that are as attractive for young people as for their parents, because they stem from "life". Men and women respond to preaching and counselling that make sense and work; prayer that comes from the heart, not endless repetition (every denomination and single-issue church or home group has its own rote); worship that focuses joy on God, not just the moment; meaningful programs that promote Jesus, not leaders; hope that does not fade; relationship with a God who is objectively "there", where they are; who speaks to them, in their own language.

They need grace that forgives, transforms and reconciles people; spiritual life that transcends the material, but meets needs; love that builds families and provides a bedrock for marriage and family; and meaningful Biblical absolutes that (by definition) don't change, but apply to each and any cultural setting.

Relevant Christianity is led by empowering leadership. Churches today are full of people who have God's call on their lives but will never be equipped and released to realize their potential because of religious protectionism and lack of vision. Effective and mature Christian ministry concentrates on equipping and empowering men and women for God's service (as Jesus did). Healthy church life talks less about "laity" (not a New Testament concept), looks less like pyramids and more like a nurturing environment, where Christians have the "fire" of God, the love of Jesus in their hearts and are encouraged to allow the Holy Spirit to make them what God wants them to be.

Christianity focuses on Jesus, not man; it reflects God's energy and purpose and is unashamedly Christo-centric (Romans 1:16). Only the power of God can transform people. Fulfilled lives answer the existential questions and make the Gospel relevant.

What shape will a reinvented church have? What ideas will predominate? What model are we trying to achieve? How much of the past should be carried forward? How can we evangelize modern cities? What is the future of the church as we know it? What is the future role of parachurch organisations?

The denominational franchise model (in which all churches look the same, like McDonalds) does not need to constrict us. Practices that worked well fifty (or even twenty) years ago may not do so any longer; some are timeless and will work in practically any generation and culture.

Issues Facing the World Christian Movement Today

Responding to the Issues

"But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people." (2 Timothy 3:1-5)

"But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their depraved conduct and will bring the way of truth into disrepute." (2 Peter 2:1, 2)

"Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God's holy people. For certain individuals whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord." (Jude 3, 4)


The church must realise it now operates in a more sophisticated, demanding, materialistic, selfcentred world. People today get together in common-interest groups (eg on the Internet). 'Church on Sundays' is being supplemented by church-whenever-it is-convenient. There are growing groups of divorced people, singles, people who cohabit and feel alienated from churches, or have work arrangements that make options necessary. Today's songs are less 'theologically objective', more about individual themes; preaching is more life-related, less theological. People are suspicious of organisations trying to sell them things. But they still have spiritual needs.

If we are to reach others with the Gospel we need to be able to distil what they are experiencing, what they need, what's important to them and what excites them. We need the Holy Spirit's help to do this - otherwise we won't last the distance.

Power Gospel - silver and gold analogy

Re-Focusing the Message

"And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. For God, who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God's glory displayed in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us." (2 Corinthians 4:3-7)

The Christian message is not meant to be confined to buildings, creeds, programs or denominations. The Gospel is relevant to every generation. Jesus is above culture; He transcends it. Instead of changing Him into our likeness, He transforms us into His own image, by the Holy Spirit. Culture can get in the way, but Christ came into human culture and sends us out into the world to share His eternal message and love.

Understanding Underlying Issues

Back to Basics in a Forward-Looking Way

The Apostle Paul encouraged Christians in the first church at Corinth not to lose sight of their pure and simple devotion to Christ, not to add anything to it, but hold firm to the simplicity of the Christian message (2 Corinthians 11:3). We can add nothing to what Jesus has already done for us, but need to know what we believe and be committed to it, holding to the absolutes of Biblical revelation, living by our faith.

Young people growing up in church have a fear - almost a phobia - about distinctiveness, of being rejected because they are different. They don't want to be associated with the image of the small, traditional, suburban church with a hall, a manse, an old worship style and an aging membership.

The church of the future must employ culturally sensitive evangelism, without being seduced to conform. Otherwise, the natural process of syncretism and conditioning will increasingly lead to the acceptance and validation of extra-Biblical offshoots such as Christian feminism, Christian gay groups, atheistic philosophies in Christian schools, removing Christ from Christmas and Easter celebrations and a host of similar developments in respectable ecclesial circles. Christian leaders need to have a Biblical theology and know how to operationalize it.


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