I was recently privileged to listen to a recording of a famous and much-used preacher, from 50 years ago.
It was at the time of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the sermon I listened to had been preached in England the Sunday after that fateful Friday. It was, as I expected, a faithful and powerful biblical address, with strong reminders of the fragility of human life and the vanity of putting one’s hopes in mere men. This was followed by a stirring call to repent and put one’s trust in the promises of the eternal God, made available to us through the person and work of Jesus Christ.
From another age
What particularly struck me was that nobody could preach like that today. Of course, the sermon’s script could still be read and understood with great benefit, but the style of communication, its rhetoric and rhythms, belonged to another age – now completely gone. The same was true of the whole service, which was also recorded, led entirely and only by the same minister who preached, prayed and read, with four traditional hymns, to organ accompaniment. It was not so much that the vocabulary was dated, though it inevitably was, but that what I might call the unspoken agreement, or understanding, between the preacher and the obviously large congregation would not have the same currency in today’s context – even among regular church-goers. The way in which the congregation was addressed, the fact that they were prepared to come in their hundreds, weekly, for a 90-minute service, with minimal congregational participation, the sense of social and moral certainty which was threaded through the proceedings, its affirmation of spiritual truth but without much emphasis on analysis or argument – they all took me back to my youth and a renewed awareness of how much things have changed.
The temptation of those of us who remember a different style and presentation of even evangelical truth, is to fantasise nostalgically that the ‘pulpit greats’ of the past might be emulated today. But, of course, if they were of today’s generation their approach would be entirely different. Like all good preachers, they were of their time, speaking both from and into their own culture, which was so much more Christian than ours today. I have no doubt that they would be presenting the same biblical message, with its unchanging truth content, but in distinctly contemporary packaging. The challenge for us, however, is how to communicate biblical truth in the changed cultures of the 21st century, without diminution of the biblical context, or accommodation of the message to the prejudices of the listeners. That’s a challenge faced not only by every preacher, but every Sunday school teacher, youth worker, study group leader; indeed every individual believer who is trying to share their faith.
Our culture is inherently suspicious of conviction, or that there could be any sort of certainty, due to its widespread rejection of the concept of absolute truth. It is equally negative about ‘earnestness’, not only because that unsettles the ‘fun ethic’, which dominates popular culture, but also because it so often seems to mask a self-serving motivation. ‘Well, of course, you want me to believe what you believe, because you want to make me a member of your club. Just like every body else, you want a slice of my time and energy and especially my money.’
Our own worlds?
This is the problem the politicians face, having become so disconnected from society as a whole, that they live in a professional bubble-world, with its own values, pecking orders, hierarchy, ambitions, treacheries and deceptions. Planets Westminster and Strasbourg really do seem to be another world to most people.
But are not we in exactly the same dilemma? ‘The church’, or Christianity in general, seems to lack credibility in the modern world, partly at least because we have failed to realise how the world has changed and continues to do so. Too often we still rely on volume and enthusiasm as indicators of sincerity in communicating our faith, but are conspicuously light on evidence, argument and interaction with the questions which the culture is actually asking.
Too often we are so busy telling people what they ought to think and how they ought to respond that we deny others, even our own children, the right and responsibility of learning to think for themselves and so develop their own ultimately water-tight convictions. But is that the way Jesus and the apostles went about it? Or have we been trapped into a Christian bubble, characterised by endless instruction and training sessions, but where we end up talking only to ourselves? Over the next two or three columns, I hope to explore these essential issues in more detail and see what pointers God’s unchanging word can give us for our rapidly changing world.
David Jackman is the past President of the Proclamation Trust and writes the ‘Notes to growing Christians’ column for EN.
This article was first published in the February 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
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