by Neil Richardson
(Some reflections on the contemporary ‘heresy’ of relevance)
For years now we have been trying to make everything – the Church, worship, the Bible, the gospel……relevant. But what does that mean? What, if any, are the theological foundations for such an approach? Bonhoeffer wrote somewhere that the relevance of the Bible is axiomatic – it’s a given. The problem, I suggest, lies elsewhere. So, first, a provocative quotation – and its biblical basis!
- ‘Christianity is always changing itself into something which can be believed’ (T.S. Eliot). Is this true? Is it Scriptural? And if it is both true and biblical, how do we engage with it?
Change is built into both Scripture and Christian tradition. In the Bible, stories and teaching are ‘re-cycled’; both OT and NT embody an extraordinary amount of change and diversity, with ‘borrowings’, additions, and losses or omissions. The process has continued in Christian history and tradition. That is the nature of an incarnational (contextual) faith, (‘the Word became flesh’).
The ongoing task is the re-discovery of orthodoxy – i.e. the Gospel – in each generation: fundamentally, the ‘doctrines’ of the Incarnation and Trinity, including the cross and resurrection of Jesus which are their heart, however variously and differently expressed. (‘To say the same thing in a different context means saying it differently’).
And so to two more quotations…..
- ‘We cannot know the ‘full number of the Gentiles’ (Romans 11.25-6), but ‘it seems clear that it will take thousands of years before the Gospel is preached in a clear and compelling way to all nations’ (K. Ward, The Word of God. The Bible after Modern Scholarship (SPCK 2010), p.143).
- ‘Can the many faces of Christianity find a message which will remake religion for a society which has decided to do without it?….It would be very surprising if this religion, so youthful yet so varied in its historical experience, had now revealed all its secrets’, (Diarmaid MacCulloch, A History of Christianity, London Allen Lane 2009, p.1016).
So who knows what mutations of the Christian faith the future might hold? Two questions have impressed themselves upon me throughout my ministry:
- How far must Christianity change in order to remain Christianity?
- How far can Christianity change without ceasing to be Christianity?
- So who – or what –should be the drivers of change?
Making things ‘relevant’, I’ve suggested, is the wrong place to start. Its suspect nature becomes apparent as soon as we start to think about making God relevant. We are not engaged in a P.R. exercise, as if it were just a matter of ‘trying to get our(?) message’ across. There is a crucial difference between faithfulness to the Gospel and chameleon-like salesmanship.
The Gentile mission in the New Testament can guide us in discovering how change happens. (Instead of thinking of ‘getting back to the Bible’, we should think about going forward with the Bible).
The Acts of the Apostles suggests i) prayer – i.e. sustained attention to God, ii) love, (the opposite of fear), and iii) the Holy Spirit, are fundamental in the process of change. All imply, or require listening. (Note the place of dialogue in the ministry of Paul, Acts 17.2,17f, and 18.4).So one vital task will be our prayerful engagement with the Bible and with Christian tradition alongside our loving attention to the Church and to the world.
- Last, but not least, my final quotation here has haunted me ever since I read it (in, I think, Evangelism in the Wesleyan Spirit):
‘The Gospel hasn’t really been preached until it has been heard’ (Albert Outler).
So how far must Christian preaching and worship change in order to remain Christian?
How far can Christian preaching and worship change without ceasing to be Christian?
That will require ( at least)
– attending to our congregations and their contexts
– reading the Bible searchingly, persistently, prayerfully
– offering a message which evokes and nurtures faith.
The heart of the matter: the story of Jesus, and all that flows from that – including the preacher as an ‘icon’ of the Gospel (e.g. 1 Cor. 2.1-5, 2 Cor. 4.5).
A final thought: preaching, like the Faith, mutates – always has, and always will – or should – in faithfulness to the Gospel and in the service of those who hear.