2019.08.02 – Part 4: Turn to the Past for Guidance in the Present

In my last post, we discussed who was affected based on the time period is which they were raised. Since approximately 1965, there have been people who have grown up in a declining Christendom; a cultural moving toward a more secular and pluralistic philosophy and lifestyle. So now the task is to see where we can turn to instruct us understand how to engage in Christian faith in this context. Here is the next installment…

Where can we turn? Listening to the voices of the past.

Unfortunately, the church’s response to the death of Christendom has not always been helpful. As noted earlier, many Christians are either in denial of the situation, or play the blame game and dig in their heels refusing to change. They would rather look back longingly to:

…a time when Christians who were open about their faith, the clergy not the least, held positions of prominence and influence in the shaping of society. Those times are long past, but the fact that those times existed figures prominently in the collective memory of Christians… The nostalgia is palpable. [To Change the World – The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, James Davison Hunter.(New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 112.]

For those clergy and Christians who continued to fill the pews, they tried to recapture that nostalgic time. Unfortunately, their efforts were clumsy at best as they attempted to revive or reclaim ministries that worked back in the day. Others recognized that something new was needed and tried to mimic or appropriate what other churches had successfully done while failing to take into account the differences in their contexts. Some even tried to be innovative and develop new programs to meet the needs of their congregations. Unfortunately, all too often these attempts at reclamation, appropriation, or innovation have been unsuccessful in preparing the Christian community for ministry in this post-Christian culture of the western world.

So where do we turn? Where do we go to find some guidance on how to be the church in a non-Christian culture? The answers may be found in our ancient past as this is not the first time the church has been forced to struggle with the profound influences of a secular, pluralistic, atheistic, and superstitious culture. In fact, there is plenty of material to be harvested from the voices of the early church.

Throughout the scriptures there are numerous stories of the faithful communities of the Triune God of Grace besieged by, and even succumbing to, cultural influences. We find it with God’s chosen people throughout the Old Testament – especially in the major sagas of the Exodus and the Babylonian Exile. We find it in the struggles of the early church throughout the New Testament in the Gospels, the book of Acts, the epistles (especially 1 Peter) and John’s Revelation. For the purposes of this particular work, I will focus on Revelation.

John’s Vision of Jesus walking among the seven lampstands

In John’s open letter to the seven churches of Asia Minor, we find them struggling with the secularism, pluralism, and idolatry of the Greco-Roman world. It contains both stern warnings and words of hope from Christ for his church living as strangers within their own culture. John’s vision reveals the Living Christ walking amidst the seven churches (Rev 1:12-13, 2:1), holding the spirits of those churches in his hand (Rev 1:16, 2:1) and challenging them with a voice that roars like many waters with words as sharp as a two edged sword (Rev 1:15-16, 2:12). Jesus Christ calls all who have ears, including us, to hear what he is saying to his church (Rev 2:7, 2:11, 2:17, 2:29, 3:6, 3:13, and 3:22). I believe this will be a key for us as we look at each of the seven churches and identified in the scripture and how they parallel our lives today.

We find that the church in Ephesus (Rev 2:1-7) wrestled with battles over which theology or tradition was correct. These conflicts were getting in the way of their first love; serving with Jesus Christ and one another. The post-Boomer generations have been born and raised in the shadow of a church embroiled in the conservative and progressive theological and political battles that have plagued the church. In the midst of these wars, the church seems to have forgotten that “our orthodoxy will not save us, our tradition will not save us, our soup kitchens and our social programs will not save us; what will save the church is Christ, whose self-giving cannot but call forth a similar response on the part of his people.” [Revelation, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible(Grand Rapids, Joseph L. Mangina. (Michigan: Brazos Press, 2010), 59.]We need to find a way to remember from which rock we were quarried (Is 51:1) in order to understand and participate in the ministry with the Living One.

The churches of Pergamum and Thyatira (Rev 2:12-29) were cautioned by Christ to be aware of the power of the world’s culture to influence the church rather than the church living out its hope as a community of chosen exiles amongst the world (1 Pet 1:1-2). Like Pergamum and Thyatira, the church of our time seems to have embraced and even practiced the philosophies and beliefs of the surrounding culture, and even rationalized participation in their practices even when they are contrary to a belief in the Triune God of Grace. Some, like those within the two churches of Revelation, have encouraged the celebration of cultural idols. Much of this un-orthodoxy seems to stem from a lack of reflective understanding of the scriptures, knowledge of the core beliefs of the faith as presented by the witnesses of the early church, and prayer. It seems like many in churches across the land were forced to pray, memorize scripture, and recite the creeds, but were not taught their significance in revealing to us the Triune God of Grace; a relationship necessary for living out a counter-cultural Christian faith in the world. We need to reestablish our identity in Christ, and claim the “new name” given to us by “He who walks among the churches” (Rev 2:17). We do this by inspiring each other and helping one another to further develop in faith and practice.

Sardis’ issue (Rev 3:1-6) is a very common problem for many churches. They were so focused on being a church full of works and looking alive that they had not realized they were losing their life; “You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.” (Rev. 3:1) People in many churches in modern day are so busy “doing church” with programs and curriculums and fellowship events that they forget they are walking with Christ in the “first love.” A congregation that “does” church without an understanding as to why worship, fellowship, events, and programs are important to the formation of the Body of Christ risks dying a long slow death. Recently I sat with a Kenyan Christian elder who said that when this happens, “we lose Jesus along the way.” We need to pursue a vital and living relationship within the Body of Christ in community and nurture one another for ministry in the world that we share with Jesus and each other. We need to be “the church that is, not just the place where…”[“The Church that Is, Not Just the Place Where,” Gale. 133.]

Probably the most pervasive of issues facing the present church can be found in Laodicea (Rev 3:14-22). Laodicea was a wealthy, prosperous and self-sufficient community who needed nothing. As a result, they suffered from a general malaise or apathy of faith in Christ. They believed that everything was fine, nothing needed to change, and even if it did run into difficulty they could fix it because they had the means to do so. Because of the busyness of life and the comfort of lifestyle, many people in the western world have lost reliance upon Christ himself and have turned inward for their comfort. Parents in the 21st Century are trying to balance family, career and leisure, often failing to see that Christ can dwell with them in all of these aspects of life. This can only make us blind, naked, and impoverished to the Good News of serving alongside the Triune God of Grace. We need to consistently hear the Gospel proclaimed in corporate worship, study of scripture, prayer, and in our relationships with other Christians in order to experience Christ in every aspect of life. Jesus loves us, has not given up on us, and stands at the doors of our hearts and knocks.

Lastly, we find encouragement and hope through the churches of Smyrna and Philadelphia (Rev 2:8-11, 3:7-13). The one who walks among the churches reassures them (and us) that even in the difficulties we experience now and in the future, we have his promise that we will endure because of his ultimate triumph. In a world where people seem to check-out from church when difficulties and challenges present themselves, it is important to hear that the living Christ applauds us for not losing our first love. An essential part of any work being done with post-Boomers who are still engaged in the church is to call attention to their perseverance of faith in a culture that has rejected the church.

To return to our original question: Where do we turn? The answer is threefold and can be found flowing from the seven letters and indeed throughout the New Testament: Jesus Christ, Christian community, and context.

First, there is the Living Christ who walks in our midst and holds the spirit of our church in his hand. Jesus Christ instructs and disciplines us, and he invites us to join him in his mission. He asks us to listen to him as he calls us into communion with him, and will inspire us to persevere. Our response is to surrender to his will and engage in a deeper relationship with him, our Living Lord, for it is he who says:

See, I am making all things new…these words are trustworthy and true…I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children. Rev. 21:5-7

Second is Jesus’ call for us to be in communion with one another. Individualistic or personal faith was never the focus of the early church. Notice that John’s letter was not addressed to individuals but to specific communities, and the fact that the letter was an open circular letter means that Christ intended it for the whole church. Christians are called “to provoke one another to love and good deeds,not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging “one another, and all the more as you see the day approaching.” (Heb 10:24-25) When this happens, the community will inspire one another to persevere.

 The third important factor is context. Even though the seven churches shared a common struggle of being the church in a non-Christian culture, each community struggled within their own specific setting. Although Sardis was supposed to learn from Ephesus’ struggle, they had a different context in which they were called, and the application of the lessons and warnings they heard needed to be tailored to help them within their specific non-Christian environment. In order to persevere in its context, a community must be relevant to their particular context.

Lastly, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but there certainly is a “one Christ fits all” answer:

It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star. The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. Rev 22:16-17

More next time…

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