My latest column at Christian Week:
Four challenges confront the church in Canada. These four challenges are significant and call for careful thinking. Two of these challenges have to do with the culture; two have to do with the church.
Culture presents us with two challenges.
Communicating the Message: The challenge of every age is to make the gospel intelligible to one’s culture; to speak the gospel clearly and yet without compromise.
When we present the gospel, we typically focus on sin as breaking God’s law, before describing the punishment for sin, and how Christ bore that punishment at the cross. This is a good presentation of the gospel, and I’m not ready to abandon it, but it’s not always clear to people at first. They have questions. Who are you to say what’s right and wrong? How can God be angry? How is it fair that Jesus was punished for the sin of others? Why couldn’t God just forgive? We need to understand and answer these questions if we are to make the gospel clear.
We can also think of other ways to communicate the gospel. There is one gospel, but it comes in many forms and uses many images. Scripture is full of images. Plays, movies, and fiction contain shadows of the gospel that help us explain it to others.
The gospel is always fresh. Communicating it clearly is a task for theologians and pastors, and also for songwriters, novelists, screenwriters, poets – all of us.
À la carte faith: People are open to Jesus, but often on their own terms. They’ll take a little of Jesus but not too much, and they’ll mix him with other beliefs. But Jesus is not one option among any.
This isn’t a new problem. Christianity began in a culture that tolerated almost any belief, except one that claimed ultimate allegiance. The gospel can thrive in this environment, but it means that we have to believe and proclaim that Jesus is Lord over all – and live as if we believe it.
The church faces two challenges of its own.
Moving beyond surface solutions: For two decades, many churches have focused on becoming more user-friendly and attractive. This isn’t all wrong, but it can create a consumer mindset. It also assumes that if you build a better church, people will come. But better churches have not produced the results we have hoped for. Many still aren’t coming, and slicker services have not always helped us retain even those who have grown up in church.
It’s hard to argue against better music and preaching, but we need to move beyond surface solutions. We need to reinvigorate our theology of the church, so we understand what it means to be the church, the people of God. We need a robust understanding of the gospel and how it applies to all of life. Of course, we also need the Spirit to empower us to be who he has called us to be. Better programs are not enough.
Moving beyond Sundays: Growing up, I spent hours in church activities: twice on Sundays, and at least two or three times during the week. Sometimes we spent too much time in church activities, but we did have deep relationships and we did learn the Scriptures.
For many today, church means attending a service on Sunday, and not even every Sunday. I’m not advocating a return to multiple meetings, but I am arguing that we need to think about church as more than a service. We need real fellowship. We also need catechesis – training in the basics of biblical knowledge and theology. That takes time.
These four challenges are significant. They’re going to require thoughtful reflection and action.
There are no quick fixes, but there are many reasons to hope. If we learn how to clearly communicate the gospel, and if we live as if Jesus truly is Lord over all, the world will notice. And if we understand what it means to be the people of God, and churches move beyond just services to deep fellowship and catechesis, the change will be profound.
These are the four biggest challenges we face. God is more than able to help us meet them.