Notes to growing Christians from David Jackman: Double bubble trouble

Notes to Growing Christians

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.

Cultural packaging

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. 0845 225 0057

Notes to growing Christians from David Jackman: Personal contact

Notes to Growing Christians

With the turn of the year, many churches will be concentrating their focus on a ‘Passion for Life’.

This national initiative of local churches to present the gospel within and to our communities will reach its climax at Easter time. Part of its appeal is that individual congregations, partnering wherever possible with other like-minded churches in their neighbourhood, can join together to proclaim the good news through special events as well as their regular church programmes. We can do more together than we could ever do as single units.

Confidence in the unspectacular

But it is as individuals that we serve the Lord, day by day, often in quite isolated contexts. So, perhaps we need to pray that God will help us to recover our confidence that he can use the unspectacular, but faithful, witness of ‘ordinary’ Christians like us to make those vital first connections which open doors for the good news to be heard. We often, rightly, say that our gospel is truth-centred, not need-centred. There can be no accommodation of its unchanging message to the prevailing norms of our secular culture. But the way by which that message is first heard and considered nearly always involves some form of personal contact and some connection with the needs of the person approached.

Of course, these are not necessarily their felt needs. Sometimes the Lord does bring people into our lives who are in the midst of overwhelming difficulties and only too aware that they need help. One thinks of situations like personal or family illness, bereavement, job loss, marriage break-up and so on. These may be times where there is an unusual openness to hearing God speak, though for many it can equally become a time for hardening the heart: ‘Why should God allow this to happen to me?’. But I am thinking of the more everyday situations, where the underlying needs of each human life are very rarely articulated or explored. It was this which Augustine was reflecting in his famous saying: ‘You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you’.

Life is like a radio

In a recent debate on addiction, one doctor, with many years experience in the field, drew attention to the evidence that addictions of all types are attractive either because they seem to give meaning to a person’s existence or, at least for a time, they appear to cover up the hole that is at the centre of their life. These may be extreme responses to the central dilemma of human existence, what used to be called the ‘human condition’, but the issues themselves of who we are, why we are here and what is our significance will always be there just beneath the surface in every human being, simply because we are made in the image of God. Every human life is like a radio which the Holy Spirit can switch on, at any moment, to receive a message which has always been on transmission but never actually heard until now.

It is striking how Jesus was able to use this initial contact point, as a way to revealing and dealing with the much deeper, eternal issues. Nicodemus comes by night for a private interview, which he probably thought would take the form of a rabbinic theological dialogue, only to be told: ‘You must be born from above’. The Samaritan woman knows that she needs water to quench her thirst, but is soon directed to the living water, which springs up to eternal life. This is a long way from off-loading a routinely-learned evangelistic ‘package’, which will always tend to generate a mechanistic approach. Rather, Jesus demonstrates a deeply personal concern for the individual and builds a relational approach for his hearer to receive what is, after all, a highly relational gospel.

Restoring the relationship

God is about the business of restoring the relationship between himself and his fallen human creation, which is ultimately the restoration of the image of God within each believer, through the indwelling Spirit. That is personal work. It demands a love which listens and understands, empathises and gently challenges, rather than a steamroller delivery of what can often sound like just another sales pitch. I would never choose to sing ‘I vow to thee my country’ because its first verse promotes the idolatry of nationalism. But its second verse has one line of real insight when it speaks of the heavenly country and the eternal kingdom: ‘And soul by soul and silently its shining bounds increase’. That is always how the kingdom of heaven grows. Personal evangelism is relational evangelism. In time it may feed the larger, corporate events, but the essence of our witness is in making these initial points of connection, as we live our lives lovingly and expectantly, making ourselves prayerfully available for God to use each of us, in the everyday.

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 January 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information. 0845 225 0057