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The chief executive of the Bible Society, Paul Williams, believes God wants to do something radically new in our generation at this time
Since the 1960s it has become increasingly clear that Britain, along with the rest of the West, has become a post-Christian society. By this I mean not that Christ is no longer relevant, but that society has turned away from the Christian faith that brought it to birth, placing its faith instead in secular reason, scientific progress and consumer capitalism. The Church has largely retreated before a wave of hostility and indifference.
Sadly, there has been a loss of confidence in the gospel, we have grown ignorant of the Bible, and vulnerable to ideological capture by the attractive narratives of our culture. Our theology remains hampered by a chronic sacred-secular dualism. We, too, readily confuse discipleship with therapy.
Incidentally, our society can now also be described as post-secular. For a long time, the secular narrative essentially tried to keep the benefits of Christianity without incurring its costs – a false teaching worthy of the brutal epitaph of the Apostle Paul as “having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Timothy 3:5). Without the Bible at the centre of our public conversation, holding the various parts and interests of our society together, these outward ‘forms of godliness’ are degenerating.
The gifts of reason, freedom of speech and dignity of the human person are diminished in our public life. Trust in our institutions has plummeted. As a result, it is increasingly difficult to hold our common life together, or even engage in civil discussion about it. Western societies are fragmenting into a wide range of incoherent and incommensurate discourses. We witness an epidemic of loneliness and mental health problems in the midst of familial and community breakdown, and more and more struggle with a lack of purpose and meaning. This is a culture that is losing hope and desperate for something real to hold onto.
A new wave of mission
In the midst of all this, my conviction is that God is mobilising the church for a new wave of mission. Confidence has been growing in the British Church. Returning to Britain after living abroad for several years, I’ve been struck by the changes: a renewed appetite for scripture, a fresh conviction about evangelism, a sustained commitment to unity, and a growing confidence in the gospel and to talking about it in public. I’ve noticed a greater boldness among leaders and a culture of collaboration in place of disunity. And across these shifts it’s now common to see missional gatherings that embrace a wide range of the confessions and traditions of Christianity. All this can only be possible because of hearts changed by the Holy Spirit, and all of it is amplified by the experience of lockdown.
Lockdown is a kind of forced exile. In this sense, it is a good metaphor for the larger situation of the Church in the world. Many of us experience the post-Christian convulsions in our society that I have described as an unwanted form of exile. We resent the changes and the newfound experience of cultural alienation that is now commonplace for Christians. Few of us enjoy social marginalisation.
There is an alternative, however, and that is to understand our present experience as part of the permanent characteristic of Christian identity: to be in the world but not of it. Jesus’ prayer in John 17 suggests that by virtue of our allegiance to him, we are no more of the world than Jesus is, but we are nonetheless sent into it.
The whole Christian life is supposed to have the quality of sustained exile as we journey through the world, leaving behind the sinful nature, its desires and ‘worldly’ ways of being and thinking, and yearning for the coming kingdom and its fullness of life, joy and peace in the Holy Spirit. This is not a journey from earth to heaven, but rather a life that cries out for the kingdom to come “on earth, as it is in heaven” and keeps moving towards that fullness.
The power of lament
Strangely then, this moment can be a kind of gift to the church. There is nothing good about a deadly infectious disease, but God is able to work good from it if we will allow him: good in our lives and good in our society. Can we allow ourselves at this time to be pushed deeper into Jesus? Will we go deeper into prayer, scripture and dependence on God; deeper into care and awareness of our neighbour; and deeper into a lament for the state of things – the way we as a society are now living, the failings of our discipleship and witness, the loneliness, despair and anxiety of many? Lament in the presence of Jesus is the powerful gift of lockdown. If we receive it, if we will unwrap it, then we will find ourselves drawing near to the heart of God himself. His heart also weeps and grieves over the west, over Britain, over us.
The tears of lament will give us a renewed imagination. If we are close enough to Jesus to know his heart, we will be able to see from his perspective. God wants to do something radically new in our generation. If we draw near enough to him to see it, we can be part of its unfolding. We will hear his voice speaking it into being. Like the prophets of old we will be caught up into this divine proclamation.
We need a new language for this new era – fresh ways of articulating the biblical gospel of the coming kingdom. The deep miracle at Pentecost was not that the church spoke in tongues, but that those listening heard and understood in their own languages. The prophets and prophetesses who can proclaim the kingdom coming in the 21st century in such a way that makes sense to this generation, will be those who have spent time getting close enough to God’s heart to see from his perspective and to hear his words. This intimacy is discovered only in the place of shared tears.
Paul S Williams is the author of Exiles on Mission: How Christians Can Thrive in a Post-Christian World (Brazos/SPCK). He is Chief Executive of Bible Society and Research Professor of Marketplace Theology and Leadership at Regent College, Vancouver.
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