Concern for more adequate communication of the Christian message arises at every level of Church activity—from new translations of the Scripture to increasing emphasis on evangelism. It is not surprising, therefore, to see a volume of the Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching (1953) titled Communicating the Gospel. After all, this is the preacher’s stock in trade. More unusual is it to find a contemporary theological movement motivated by a zeal to translate the Gospel to the modern world. One does not have to agree with Rudolf Bultmann’s radical (and inadequate) solution in order to recognize the validity of his concern and the problem he poses: in large measure the Church today is engaged in a monologue. Christians preach while modern men, passing by, “seeing see not, and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.”
After the Resurrection the disciples did not say “anything to any man for they were afraid”; after Pentecost they “were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the Word of God with boldness.” Surely this is the basic key by which Christ’s command to witness shall be fulfilled. Yet the problem of communication remains. To drop Bibles in the jungles, as one Christian lady suggested to a missionary, will not fulfill the task; to say merely “Jesus saves” to the civilized materialist may evoke only the image of a bank deposit.
It is possible that we fail to communicate the Gospel because we do not speak in a language meaningful to non-Christians. In this regard it is always necessary that we avoid clichés and define and clarify the basic theological terms we use. Yet the basic problem of communication is not technique. Although how we communicate certainly is a subordinate to what we communicate, both technique and content may well concern relating to non-Christians as much as telling them the Gospel story. At a party recently I met two Buddhist students from Thailand. Later they were at church with me and were greeted so warmly that one said, “I think I want to become a member.” If in the grace of God he is converted, the first step will have been not hearing the facts (which he little understood) but seeing the love of Christ in Christ’s followers.
Evangelical churches pride themselves on communicating the Gospel. But are we really communicating it? To be sure, we know and believe the Gospel—we devote many church services to the good news of the Saviour. But is this actually the message we convey to the world about us? In my denomination there is a joke about a lady who said, “Pastor, I’d like to be a Baptist, but frankly I am just not physically able!” To her “Baptist” conveyed an image of church programs and great activity rather than a new quality of life in Jesus Christ. In other areas and groups it is not unknown to have theological programs or emphases identify a church or a Christian. For many non-Christians, evangelicals are people who “don’t.” Disciplines are good, but when they become sacraments, have we not fallen from grace? The things that are central in church life also may be good, but are they necessarily the Gospel? Dr. Samuel M. Shoemaker asks in CHRISTIANITY TODAY (Oct. 10, 1960) why many young people are drawn away from the organized church into independent and informal Christian groups. His conclusion is that conventional churches often have lost sight of the centrality of the Gospel and of the “in Christ” fellowship of Christians. Perhaps his words do not have direct application to every church, but certainly they remind us of our need to be evangelical in deed as well as in name.
After the Reformation, Glasgow, Scotland, adopted as its motto, “Let Glasgow flourish by the preaching of the Word and the praising of His Name.” In the last century this was shortened to “Let Glasgow flourish.” This is the history of our times in a sentence. Secularism is defined as the practice of the absence of God. More popularly, it relegates God to the fringe area of life. Now it is to this secular world that the Church must address its message. And it is here that the problem of communication becomes most acute. To our world (no less than to my Buddhist friends) Christian concepts have little meaning. The notable Dutch layman, Hendrik Kraemer, in his Communication of the Christian Faith, suggests that the disposal of God by the modern mind may have the positive effect of calling the Church back to its original nature and calling. The worldliness of the Church can no longer be hidden under the cloak of a “Christian” culture which structures its thought, if not its heart, in biblical categories. But the Church must rightly understand its essential “over-against-ness” to the world before it can effectively communicate its message.
Two avenues, therefore, lie open to effective communication of the Gospel in a secular world. The more obvious one is direct evangelism. This involves both the mass evangelism by the Billy Grahams anointed for this purpose and also the personal evangelism of Christian laymen. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing Letters and Papers from Prison, speaks of the “worldliness” of the true Christian life. He does not mean, of course, conformity to the world but rather that the religious shell we Christians encase ourselves in ought to be broken. If we are to evangelize, we need to feel at ease with our non-Christian friends as Christians in their world. Jesus prayed that we be not taken out of the world—the pagan world. As “yeast” in society, Christians (and churches) tend to become terribly lumpy. When we do contact non-Christians it is most often on our terms (come to church) rather than on theirs (come to the game). For some Christians the task of evangelism may well lie in a secular framework; one should “not think of himself more highly than be ought to think.”
But the coin has another side. In the last century evangelical students were urged to evangelize the mission fields. From British and American universities they answered the call. No such call was made urging the importance of service in the academic field. As a result, many chairs of religion were filled by men of different persuasion, and the dominant theological current swept evangelical concern into the realm of the indifferent. At this point there is a great need for balancing short-range efforts with long-range vision and strategy. One of the biggest communication gaps between the Church and the world today is in the transformation of the scientific world view; the Church continues to speak in language and categories that the modern mind either does not understand or considers irrelevant. Evangelicals fret at the appeal of Bultmann and his “existentialist” solution: but we do little to encourage the open enquiry and contemplative study needed to achieve a creative evangelical encounter with modern intellectual currents. Too often we come to the (biblical) data with our (traditional) conclusions already assumed. And we are prone to define service in terms of “activity.”
Does God call monks as well as missionaries? Does the teacher or even the dry research scholar serve the cause of evangelism? In the big picture he does; and in today’s world there is increasing need for Christians to think of evangelism as a quest for the mind of modern man. The renaissance of Far-Eastern faiths and the growth of communism and secularism throughout the world place Christians under a dual imperative. (1) Other world views must be apprehended with a clarity born of honest appraisal and genuine concern. (2) The Christian alternative must be structured and presented with a keen awareness of the times in which we live. Only if we succeed in this—and in some measure we are not succeeding—can we present evangelical Christianity as really a live option in the competing ideologies of today’s world.
St. Paul, Minnesota
Yesterday is gone—the Day of the Lord.
God’s people are back in the world, not in church.
Inspiring sermons, hymns of praise, meaningful prayers—
All served to make the day glorious and majestic.
Yesterday—God’s people all together, vowing to do His will;
A beautiful sight!
Today—in overalls and house dresses,
Each alone with his thoughts and with God.
Will yesterday affect today?
What meant that great assembly of souls
If it does not?
What good those sermons, those hymns and prayers,
If lives are not changed, uplifted, or helped?
Monday now—six more days
Before the bells re-summon God’s people to His House.
Again there will be sermons and hymns of praise.
Prayers will ascend and God’s Word be read.
Perhaps Jesus Christ will be living in the hearts of those
Who yesterday were in church.
Maybe He will don overalls—or even do the weekly washing.
If not, yesterday should be forgotten.
The church building stands idle today—empty.
But God’s people are busy.
When they remember what happened in the sanctuary yesterday.
Monday, too, will be a glorious day—
Just like yesterday, because of yesterday.
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