DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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SUNDAY BEFORE LENT
The Next Revival

1 Corinthians 4.1  God in his mercy has given us this work to do, and so we are not discouraged.

A nearby group of congregations I know of is about to spend the equivalent of almost two million United States dollars on a new building in the centre of a large city in England. That may appear crazy. As it happens, their motivation is service of the community in which they live. The building is, in effect, a new social centre.

Their reasons could have been very different. Many congregations worry about decline in numbers. It may not often be mentioned. But it lurks in the background, rather as an ongoing illness lurks in the mind of a sick person. One of the symptoms of this worry tends to be a subconscious need to recruit new members. This need often comes alive in the form of missionary activity. The two million of the English congregations' money could have been spent on getting people into the Church.

This is what Paul refers to in his first letter to the Corinthian church. Moses, he reminded them, covered his face to hide God's glory. In contrast, Christians remove the veil to "... reflect the glory of the Lord" and so "... commend ourselves to everyone's good conscience". Christian people take Jesus to those who are "... kept in the dark by the evil god of this world". Paul's approach typifies his motivation to, as he put it, "... preach Jesus the Messiah as Lord".

Only a few generations ago Christians were fired up about mission. They piggy-backed on colonial expansion to bring the Gospel to heathens and misguided religions. Even the great pioneering scientist Robert Boyle was one such. He left money when he died to fund lectures "... proving the Christian religion against notorious Infidels, to wit, Atheists, Theists, Pagans, Jews, and Mohametans". His missionary motive was based on the assumption that Christianity incorporates absolute truth. It is therefore the final answer for everybody for ever.

Our times have changed drastically. The Church is no longer sewn tightly into the garment of political and commercial expansion. Not only that, but modern travel and communication has exposed many millions to other cultures in a way nobody has ever known before. It is now plain to those with eyes to see and ears to hear that being Christian doesn't necessarily convey superiority, as missionaries once supposed.

A harsh truth has emerged. It is that people of other great religions don't want to be Christian. They're quite happy with their own ways of knowing God and relating to the world. Not only that, but a large majority is content without religion at all. The realisation is, I think, gradually dawning on many despondent Christians that they have nothing to sell. People buy only what they need or want. Christians who hope to bring to others "... the knowledge of God's glory shining in the face of Christ" are not needed or wanted.

That's why the motivation of the congregations mentioned above makes sense. They have had the grace to affirm what Jesus advised. "If any of you want to be something," he said, "then you should aim at being a servant." Their investment is wise and will bear fruit because it serves the community rather than preaching at it. Somebody asked recently why the Church promotes so many leadership courses for ministers and laypeople. Surely, he said, there should instead be courses about how to be a good servant. He hit the nail on the head. 

Instead of worrying about numbers, instead of hoping that the next campaign for new members will result in a late, great revival, perhaps Christian people can find ways of serving with humility instead of preaching with the arrogance of complete conviction.

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