Must Christianity Change?

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!

  1. ‘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…..

  1. ‘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).
  2. ‘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:

  1. How far must Christianity change in order to remain Christianity?
  2. How far can Christianity change without ceasing to be Christianity?
  3. 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.

  1. 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.

3 thoughts on “Must Christianity Change?”

  1. ‘There is a crucial difference between faithfulness to the Gospel and chameleon-like salesmanship.’

    I find this comment interesting.
    Let’s not forget that the word ‘Christianity’ was not in Jesus’ vocabulary. Jesus was nurtured in the Jewish tradition so the religion which was established in his name did not fully adhere to his teachings from the outset.
    Jesus would have observed Saturday as a Holy day of rest and worship, but after his death the Christian church changed this to Sunday to honour the day Jesus rose from the dead. Small changes; small steps.
    I’ve often wondered about Paul’s mysterious three gap years in Arabia after his conversion to Christianity.
    What was he doing there? A more learned person might enlighten me, but I wonder if he was setting the ground rules for this new break-away religion, making small changes to separate it from the established Jewish faith of the day. Was he re-packaging God and making Him more consumer-friendly in order to sell Him to the masses?


  2. Relevance is heretical??!! Relevance to me is about conveying meaning in our current situation and at our present time. What is the point of a faith that doesn’t do that? So many in Western Europe have walked away from church-based Christianity because they found that what was being presented no longer had any relevance to their daily lives. But making the faith relevant is not the same as shaping it to sell it to our current consumerist society, as is happening for example with Prosperity Christianity. Christianity is intended to be counter-cultural, to challenge the self-centred status quo, to be a catalyst for change as we help to further the kingdom of God. It is not relevant unless it is pointing the way forward to a better way of living in relationship with God and with one another and in harmony with world resources and the needs of future generations. So much of what we hear in and from Christian churches today is looking back to the past, it’s a clinging on to historical perspectives. The criteria that distinguish between something living and an inanimate object include growth and development. A living faith can’t be stuck in the past. It’s fossils that are set in stone!

    What is the theological foundation for relevance? “Follow me!” Jesus calls people to follow him — not merely “accept him,” not only “believe in him,” not just “worship him,” but follow him. And you can’t follow him by staying just where you are. Christianity is about changed lives. It’s about changes in thinking; it’s about changes in attitude; changes in life-style; changes in priorities; changes in relationships. It’s about being ready to walk with God in the direction he’s showing us – even if that means moving outside our comfort zone. It’s about joining in where God is already active in our community. It is about making our faith relevant not just for ourselves but for those we find ourselves in a position to serve.

    Through the bible we see a development in the human understanding of God, from Moses’ jealous tribal God to the universal God of second Isaiah; from Abraham’s God of the mountains, and later the God to be found in the Holy of Holies, to the God who could be found everywhere; from a storm and war god, leading his devotees to bloody triumph over their foes to the God who is Spirit: and must be worshipped in spirit and truth and who holds out the promise of a worldwide kingdom of peace and righteousness. These changes were about making faith in God relevant to changing situations. God may not change, but our understanding of him most certainly has changed and must keep on changing. If we continue to offer 19th century thinking about God in our scientific and technological age, we shouldn’t be surprised if young people grow out of those ideas of God.


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