Back in the days when I owned a boat I would often use it for getting to a distant reef break to surf, or some remote diving, even the odd sad, pathetic fishing venture. We would head out a few kms, maybe even 7 or 8, but at no point did we lose sight of land. It wasn’t so much fear that kept me close, but simply that I had no need to go further. (I could fish just as badly 5kms off shore as I could 20kms off.)
However I imagine there would be something a little chilling about losing sight of land in a 5m runabout – losing your most primal bearing and being afloat in a very, big and unpredictable ocean. You would need tools for keeping your bearings and a steely crew not easily unsettled by the absence of that clear source of guidance and comfort.
In that sense I have a feeling the ‘Christian’ boat is losing sight of land – and it’s not heading back any time soon. If ‘land’ is the security of a society that both recognises and affirms the Judeo-Christian story then my sense is that we are headed for the horizon at an ever increasing pace.
The growing secularism we are living in is fast taking us away not just from the structures we are familiar with, but also from the story we claim to align with. The question I am currently pondering is how we speak to the challenge of forming disciples of Jesus in this fast shifting and disorienting culture.
Each year at this time, as school holidays end and people settle back into regular routines we (as pastors) ‘rally the troops’. For some its ‘Vision Sunday/s’ and we do our own version of this, except every year we say the exact same thing albeit in slightly different ways.
‘Follow Jesus – do it – don’t talk about, think about it, whine about it – just do it.’
It’s not very nuanced. I don’t believe in the need to shape a new vision each year or to inspire people with a fresh picture of the future. If there are new things there to get excited about then all well and good, but the primary task of the church never changes – ever.
It is to form people into Christlikeness and send them into the world while praying ‘your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.‘
That’s my ‘job’ and I love it. I also take it very seriously. There is nothing more important in the world than that task.
The unique challenge at this time in history is that we seem to be moving further and further from an old and familiar (albeit tired) Christendom towards a seemingly hopeful and glossy secularism. As the church our strongest inclination may be to sail the ship back towards Christendom – back to land – to ‘safe and familiar’. But while there was much that was good in that time, (and some stuff that wasn’t so good), it is definitely not the form ‘Christianity’ will take in the years to come.
Simply put – we no longer have the same authority in society. In fact we are often cast as the ‘bad guys’, the ones standing in the way of a world that could be. A real danger in this space is that in the absence of a ‘Christian heritage’ to appeal to, we will find ourselves aligned with either the left or the right side of politics and we will see this as pivotal to shifting society back towards a Jesus like posture. We will look for sources of power to leverage and with Christendom dead in the water those sources are most likely going to be political parties.
I don’t believe we don’t want to go that route.
My son came to me today and told me about a 16th C protestant group called The Levellers, a far left group who practiced ‘Christian communism’ based on their reading of Acts 2. One of his school friends who is an ardent Green supporter pointed him to them as an example of ‘Christians who had got some stuff right’. The levellers were an interesting mob, but as we talked I found myself again saying that the answer is not in any political ideology.
While these may seem to be our only ‘visible’ options at the moment the answer has been and always will be the kingdom of God as it takes form in local churches. The kingdom of God is neither ‘left’ nor ‘right’, (although both can put their cases for it being better represented by them). Instead this will be the way in which the world will be changed – as ordinary people give their lives to a ‘powerless’ way of living that inspires by its Jesus like qualities rather than its ability to rule and exert power.
So as a pastor preaching to a garden variety suburban church at this time of year my focus will be on preparing people for a world that is going to be increasingly unfamiliar and unforgiving – a world that at times will be openly hostile. It will be to encourage people to find strength in the tools of faith that have always been there – the spiritual practices that form us into Christlikeness and to prioritise being together as the church to encourage and support one another to follow a different story.
I won’t be encouraging anyone to head back to land. (I don’t believe ‘Christendom’ was ever the answer.) Rather I will be equipping people to sail confidently and humbly into the world trusting that the spirit of God is able to work thru a church that no longer has its position in society to appeal to, but rather only has the lives of its people as a credible witness.
It worked pretty well 2000 years ago…