In looking at our nation from a spiritual perspective, you would probably be both encouraged and discouraged in a very short period of time. On the one hand we have the success of Alpha, the fact that you can find a group of enthusiastic Christians, whether they be Anglican, Baptist, new church in nearly every town and major village of this country.
However, on the down side, there are still less than 10% of the population going to church and we face tremendous challenges in reaching and keeping teenagers. Deep down, we are perhaps all looking for some new wonderful method or some new fantastic idea that will enable us to reach our nation with the gos pel.
But I wonder if this is a time for us to take a look at the bigger picture. Perhaps to think about reaching Britain as a missionary might think. If we’re going to do that, we need to think in terms of what missiologists call, ‘contextualisation’. What does this mean? It means that the gospel message is true and relevant in every culture and every place. However, to communicate that message in a way that the people understand and find relevant to them, is quite another story. It can take missionaries generations or many years to answer some of these problems.
Why is that necessary here in Britain? It is my proposal that as our nation has gone from modernity to post-modernity the methodologies that we have used, the language, the metaphors, the way of doing church, are mo longer relevant because grew up in the age of modernity. We now need to think of new language, new metaphors, new ways to reach out to the people and n ew ways to do church.
There have perhaps been four times in the history of the UK when, in a big sense, the Christian message has lost its way. (That’s not to say that there weren’t moments of light and good things in those times, but in general the church was in trouble, was not growing and was not reaching the people.)
Every time this happens the church will go through the same pattern. There is decline as the church is failing to reach the people around it - that produces confusion. Out of that confusion, the gospel is re-contextualised, new language and new metaphors are applied. Out of this comes new models and then some of these models provide working models that many of the churches embrace. Then there is a time of growth, followed by exponential growth, normally followed by a period of nominalism as the culture changes once again, then decline and the process repeats itself.
So we could look at the gospel in the UK in Roman times. It came in Latin culture. Historians tell us it was effective and that in the last hundred years of Roman rule, there were many churches up and down the country. Yet when the Romans left and the underlying cultures emerged, mixed with a few invasions, the Latin gospel no longer touched the people. Confusion set in, but then we had the rise of Celtic Christianity. This was in the language of the people; it had culturally relevant metaphors; it was a community-based way of doing church; as far as history can tell us, it was exciting, dynamic and effective.
But then that declined. The church took on more of a Roman culture, Latin as the language of the church came back and slowly but surely Celtic Christianity died away. There was then a period of nominalism. The Norman invasion and the building of Norman churches and the Norman way of doing church reinforced this. However, in the 1300s were the early seeds of the reformation with John Wycliffe. We see the Bible coming into English, the Lollards, who were itinerant teachers of the English Bible, and slowly but surely the reformation takes hold in a contextualised church. Language and metaphors made a lot more sense. There were some radical changes to the way that church was done and amazing growth took place.
One spiritual divine, Richard Baxter, rode into Kidderminster in 1620 and observed that there was but one godly person per street. When he left in 1640, he observed that there was but one ungodly person per street. In other words, he had impacted the whole town.
But this move of God, after the reformation, was persecuted as it was deemed to be responsible for the beheading of Charles I. Subsequent kings issued five conforming acts that persecuted these people and pushed them underground. Once again there was a period of nominalism and a rising immorality and disregard for Christian principles and values. In 1730, things had got so bad that there were 28,000 prostitutes in the streets of London, one in eight women was a prostitute. The rich were getting richer, the poor were getting poorer, society in many ways was falling apart.
Into this rode a man who once again contextualised the gospel. Not entirely on his own, but borrowing from others, he began to put the gospel message into understandable language also into gallic dialects. He went to the people, rather than the people come to him, and he began to develop a way of doing church that met the needs of the people and discipled these pagan people, who had lost what it meant to be Christian to a large extent, and through the dynamic of small groups, he empowered them, discipled them to become a work force, which led us into the time of one of the most spectacular recorded examples of church growth that we have seen in this country. His name of course is John Wesley.
In my opinion, there is much that we can learn from John Wesley, as he faced some of the same problems that we face. He was winning people to Christ, who in real terms, understood very little of practical Christian living, and as much as he believed in big meetings, he recognised that big meetings did not bring accountability, but were good for worship, teaching and leadership. But he needed to find a way to help people to live out their watch cry of spiritual holiness lived out everywhere. So through their classes, their cell-like structure, they were held accountable to obeying God, to building community and also to living spiritual holiness out everywhere they went. The secret of Methodism and the reason for its success was not just for dynamic of the one powerful leader, but the fact that he used his power and influence to equip lay people, ordinary people to reach out to their communities, at a personal relational level, through projects encouraging Christian education and through the influence of many non-conformist businessmen who began to ask, what is a just profit? How should we treat our employees? They began to model something radical in the business world.
Martin Robinson has well pointed out that there were three stages to the Methodist revival. The first phase was the rising up of enthusiasts, approximately 1730-1760. The second, 1760- 1790, was hard work. The third, 1790- 1830 was spectacular church growth. Not just through the Methodists, but by this time, their enthusiasm and methodology had been picked up by many. There is an important lesson for us in this, Martin Robinson points out, that we seem to be on an everlasting pendulum from phase one to phase three. We become enthused, but expect instant revival. It doesn’t happen, so we get discouraged, and as it were, the Holy Spirit reenthuses us. Once again we expect revival, it doesn’t come, we are discouraged, and the Holy Spirit re-enthuses us. Has this not happened a number of times in the last 30 years?
But here is the challenge. The Methodists did at least 30 years of hard work. In this hard work, they changed the average perception of the evangelical church from being downright hostile, to being open and receptive. People were hostile, because of the propaganda re the Puritans. Do we not face the same challenge today? That largely speaking, whether we like it or not, people have a negative view of the church and evangelical Christians. Our Christian Victorian heritage is ridiculed and we are seen to be irrelevant. So before large numbers of people come to Christ, have we not got to find ways to change people’s perception of the church? And go through third hard work phase. Be this through faith values, face values, Alpha. And as we enter into this phase of hard work, through the relationships that individuals have with non- Christians. Through the emphasizing of the market-place witness, everyone living out Christianity everywhere they go, through plain old-fashioned sacrificial love and hospitality, will we not create a change of people’s perception that will make them open to the gospel?
So today, we can learn from Wesley, but we still have to face some of the issues of contextualisation as it relates to language and metaphors. While we seek to preach and communicate with a heavy reliance on words like ‘sin’, ‘saved’, ‘born again’, ‘repent’, ‘washed’, ‘redeemed’; while our metaphors are ‘being born again’, ‘behold I stand at the door and knock’ are in predominant use, we will continue to have problems.
We need to find modern words that say exactly what these words say without dilution of meaning, without watering down of the Christian gospel, but it is pointless speaking Latin to the Celts. It is equally pointless speaking the language of modernity to a postmodern world.
So here are a few thoughts for ‘sin’. Perhaps we could look at the principle of selfishness, 2 Corinthians 5:15; Christ died that we may no longer live for ourselves, but for him’. At the heart of the human dilemma is the principle of self-rule. Selfishness is a problem that everybody understands. It is common lostness. It is sin.
For ‘repent’, perhaps an expression ‘change your value system,’ ‘change the way you think about God, others, yourself.’
For ‘give your life to Christ’, perhaps use the word ‘surrender’. We have been so influenced by a consumer gospel that the metaphors that we have used encourage people to ask God for blessings, rather than challenge them to surrender control of their lives.
Of course, you may disagree with the words that I have chosen here, but I hope you agree with me that we have a challenge to face. If we do not contextualise the Gospel into the culture through language, through metaphors, and through the way we reach out and do church, we may well struggle to see more than 10% of the population ever go to church and ever experience the wonder of the Christian message.