The cry to “make Christianity relevant” grows more urgent each year. As humanity’s problems mount, Christian and unbeliever alike look to biblical religion with more desperation. The past year has been particularly trying for both church and society, causing many to plead inwardly, “God, do something!”
The call for relevance comes from churchmen of widely varying theological perspectives, from Unitarians to Pentecostalists. They differ on what relevance is and how to achieve it. But a large segment of the religious spectrum agrees that Christian principles must be brought to bear more meaningfully upon modern man, his problems and his aspirations. So much already has been said about the need for relevance that in many professional religious circles the topic has become trite and further mention is avoided. But the basic longing for a faith more germane to the times is getting ever more intense.
One is almost tempted to conclude that man’s problems are too many and too complex for the Christian faith to interact with them to any helpful degree. Surely this is an extraordinary age in that man has all the potential for self-annihilation. People today are concerned about mere survival, as our sophistication keeps backfiring.
Since the dawn of civilization men have promoted trade, sensing that everyone can benefit by exchange of goods. Now they transport anything anywhere—promptly. Yet there is as much if not more material imbalance as ever. Biafrans starve, not because the world lacks the means to get food to them but because of man-made obstacles. Nationalism and racial prejudices, which were supposed to wither away with the increase of education, seem instead to be on the increase.
Firearms, which for hundreds of years have enabled man to master the wilderness and maintain order among clustered humanity, have suddenly and almost inexplicably become instruments of oppression and violence in the hands of the depraved. The rash of assassinations and other senseless killings is forcing bans on good inventions that have been perverted to evil ends.
The art of diplomacy, so finely honed over the centuries, seems to have lost its potential for the maintenance of peace as Americans sit out a war that they didn’t want and that won’t end. The specter of an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between the United States, China, and the Soviet Union hangs over the world. Seizure of the “Pueblo” and Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia were two crises of the type we have virtually learned to expect. Turmoil in the Middle East seems ever on the edge of another crucial showdown, and that area of the world keeps shaping up as the probable focal point of the next great world war—which could be man’s last.
The United, States is a citadel of democracy whose citizens have enjoyed more freedom, opportunity, and affluence than any other nation in history. Yet now the nation faces revolt after revolt on the campus and in the ghetto as flames of anarchy seem to burn ever more brightly.
In the midst of this thunderous upheaval, with all its brutality, irrationality, and immorality, the world increasingly wonders whether Christianity can offer something to ease the pain and cure the malady. People everywhere are asking, “If God is God, why does he let all this happen?” Christians are among those who are confused over the relevance of their faith to current problems.
One thing is certain: no one can “make Christianity relevant,” as the cliche has it. If we believe Scripture, then by nature and definition Christianity is relevant to all aspects of man’s fife. But discovering the relevance of Christianity is something else. We have to break new ground as we seek to determine what bearing our faith has on this or that situation.
The trouble is that the world often thinks of Christianity only in terms of its search for problem-solving principles and persons. We are engaged in a global manhunt for a new messiah, longing evermore intensely for someone or something to deliver us from all our problems. Our mentality is much like that of the old Children of Israel, who looked not for a spiritual saviour but for a political wizard to bring them out of all their temporal difficulties.
Today’s man thinks he knows what he needs most: solutions for his environmental problems. But God works in another dimension. He offers us the potential for dealing with our immediately hostile habitat, but he holds out something far better—victory over evil per se. Our failure to deal with God on the metaphysical level keeps us from discovering Christianity’s real relevance.
Christians must affirm that God can intervene in a special way in the affairs of modern man. But he doesn’t always choose to do so. (If we don’t grant God that right, we end up with the image of a very small god.) In some ways we are faced with the divine majestic silence, the hiddenness of God, which causes some to wonder whether he really lives and reigns and rules. God is quite aware of the world’s massive power axis, in which one foolish decision could set off a nuclear holocaust. However, he has his ultimate goals in view, and his purposes are good and will come to pass, or else he is not God.
God’s goodness, in short, is not always immediately apparent. He is not necessarily where the “action” is. What may seem a gain today may be a loss tomorrow, and vice versa. Only God knows what is good for man and what is evil. The search for relevance must take the sovereignty of God into account.
Christianity nonetheless is man’s greatest resource and only hope, more so in 1969 than ever before. The Messiah came, and people who longed for him most missed him altogether. Similarly, we grope for a relevant Christianity, not always realizing that we already have it. It is up to Christians to show that man’s problems are deeper than he thinks and that Scripture addresses itself primarily to these.
Churchmen must stop trying to pull Christianity along with history. It is above and beyond the tide of men and events, and to try to deal with it merely in terms of how if fits in with the latest sociological hang-up is to mistake its identity and degrade its applicability. Unless religion transcends temporal anxieties, it is not worthy of the designation. Christianity is infinitely more than social first aid.
Behind much of the clamor for relevance is the desire for an exclusively utilitarian Christianity. Those seeking Christianity merely for its material serviceability will never really find it. If God is the One he says he is, and his Son did what the Bible said he did, then the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit deserve our commitment and allegiance for their own sake. The world might as well stop expecting benefits from Christianity as long as it is unwilling to accept its demands.
There are, however, several very significant things to be said for “Christian relevance.”
Probably the most relevant aspect of true Christianity for 1969 is its changelessness. Flexibility in ultimates is no asset, even in our rapidly changing world. If the object of faith is subject to change, who can have faith in it? Faith must be placed in something that cannot be altered.
Also peculiarly relevant for this year is the discipline that accompanies the Christian faith. No feat of lasting value is ever accomplished without discipline, and the Christian faith brings with it a divine call to supreme discipline, actually more demanding than any human being can attain. The Old Testament had the law as its discipline; we have the discipline of love, justice, and stewardship, as well as the example of Christ’s life. One of these days even secular man may learn in a dramatic new way the importance of discipline. It may come as a reaction to anarchy, though we can all pray that it does not take that to awaken us.
Christianity also offers challenge, and in that respect too is clearly relevant. The mechanization and automation of our age are robbing our people more and more of the opportunity of challenge. The Church can fill the void as no other institution can.
Other aspects of Christian relevance include the chance for freedom, reconciliation, a new capacity for good, victory over evil. But such things are not readily discerned by the worldly man—he doesn’t see the need. One other thing to put before secular man, however, is hope, the hope that springs from the love of God. God offers us the prospect and potential of good works, but our eternal destiny does not depend upon how successfully we perform these. Indeed, if we utterly fail, as we so often do, there still is hope. God has made his favor available to all men, though they do not deserve it. Grace is freely offered to the penitent sinner if he will only trust God. If everything else comes crashing down, God will still be alive and concerned for the eternal welfare of those who are his as well as those who are not but ought to be.
How much more relevant can you get?
Zero hour is near. Clock-watchers with the official time begin countdown. TEN. Supply-watchers ready the food, horns, bells, and confetti. NINE. Calendar-watchers take their posts, ready to turn the new leaf where the “number of days elapsed” now appears computer style. EIGHT. Ties are checked for security of peaked hats that insist on slipping over one ear. SEVEN. Weather-watchers gaze on the moonlight-reflected rhinestone-encrusted earth. SIX. The maintenance crew mentally measures snow drifts and anticipates sore muscles. FIVE. They know even the wisest resolutions won’t clear a path through the snow—FOUR—or through life either. Both require hard work to implement good intentions. THREE. The snow shoveler who works toward his goal one shovelful at a time will ultimately clear the path. TWO. And the man who sets his sights on Christ and lives by the rules of his kingdom can anticipate a year well done. ONE. Happy, successful new year! ZERO.
Pigs Versus People
The revolutionists of our day loudly protest that they feel depersonalized. Caught up in a computer culture, gigantic university structures, and Social Security and draft-board numeration, they rightfully complain that they feel like “its” and “things.”
But they themselves help to perpetuate what they protest. In confrontations with police, administrators, and government officials, student and non-student protestors heckle them not only with force but also with obscenities. And their usual name for their opponents is “pigs.” Need we remind them that this too is depersonalizing and dehumanizing? If the revolters want to gain proper respect for their dignity as human beings, they might give some thought to the golden rule.
Thirty thousand Americans have now been killed in the Viet Nam war. The new figure didn’t even make the front page of most newspapers. We’ve become calloused to the statistics that roll in week after week. Unless we have been personally touched by the tragedy of the war, it seems far away and we remain unconcerned.
Thirty thousand husbands and fathers and sons and brothers—and many thousands of grieving parents and children and wives. We cannot allow ourselves to be unmoved by this vast ocean of suffering. Like our Lord, we must reach out in compassion toward the heartbroken and lonely.
Thirty thousand today—and who knows how many more before it’s all over. Let us do all we can to show the love of Christ to those whose lives have been touched by the terror of war.
The Table Talks
The dispute over the shape of the table at the Paris peace talks suggests that the negotiators need the advice of a good carpenter. If the consultant is ingenious and imaginative, perhaps as a compromise he can devise a true cross between a round and a square table. What a boon this would be to the furniture industry—manufacturers would have a field day turning out copies of the newest thing in tables.
Come to think of it, there is a Carpenter upon whom the Paris negotiators could profitably call. His is the design for a truly peaceful world.
The best way to get mass exposure for a simple idea these days is not, as some people think, through an hour of prime time on NBC-TV or a full-page ad in the New York Times. Visibility is more effective, farther-reaching, and cheaper through bumper stickers. All you need is the consent of car-owners—something politicians clearly acquired during the recent elections. In fact, the politicians’ expertise in the production and use of bumper stickers probably merits study.
Perhaps evangelicals ought to get in on the opportunity for the sake of the Gospel. Some well-prepared bumper stickers might go a long way toward establishing at least a climate for evangelism. The text of the message is all-important. To do the job it must get to the heart of things clearly, but with imagination. Like the one lamenting the Redskins’ losingest season in years: BRING PRO FOOTBALL BACK TO WASHINGTON.
Will Revival Come?
Throughout its history the Church has often been a suffering Church even while it has been a powerfully witnessing Church. Today for the most part it is neither. It is a confused Church, an impotent Church, a directionless Church. It seems unsure of its calling and unsure of its destiny. In the midst of the swirling currents of dissatisfaction and riptides of dissent in our times, it seems to have little to say. Therefore it has become the object of the world’s scorn.
Like the Laodicean church, the Church of the sixties asserts, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing”—not knowing that it is “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” It does not serve the world as it should because it is spiritually depressed and lethargic, if not fast asleep. It desperately needs to be quickened by God, but it will not meet the conditions for quickening. It seems too rebellious to repent, too proud to pray, too haughty to humble itself, too spoiled to seek God’s renewing mercy.
Would it be too bold to say that there are signs that God is pronouncing judgment by abandonment? That he is permitting the Church to go its own way? Surely it is true that God’s hand is not shortened so that it cannot save. Nor is his ear heavy so that he cannot hear. But might not God be saying, “I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me; I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, ‘Here am I, here am I,’ to a nation that did not call on my name” (Isa. 65:1)?
There will be no spiritual awakening outside the Church until first there is a revival of true religion inside the Church. God is always ready to bring renewal. He did it again and again in the Old Testament when his people had drawn away from him. He has done it again and again in the last two thousand years, especially in Western Christendom. But revival has not come in our day and it will not come—until God’s people “humble themselves, and pray, and seek [God’s] face, and turn from their wicked ways.” When this happens, God promises, “then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.”
CHURCH AND STATE
In medieval times, the alliance between Christianity and the Empire became so firmly welded that the Church was not a state; it was the State. The State as such was merely the secular side of the universal ecclesiastical corporation.… There were struggles between the Pope and the Emperor, but the contest lay between two officials, never between two separate and distinct bodies. There was no quarrel between Church and State in our sense of the term.… The vice of the medieval state, like that of the classical state, was that it united Church and State in one.—From R. H. Murray’s book The Political Consequences of the Reformation.
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