Recently I have had the privilege of closer contact with some of the “Jesus people” than I have had before. They have told me of their work in community houses, among bikies, the drug culture, drop-outs, and others. The experience has been both heart-warming and mind-stretching. It has been good to get to know a little of the work these unconventional Christians are doing. But to someone whose Christian experience has been as much wrapped up in the institutional church as mine, it is a bit deflating to find these young men and women so repelled by the church.

For them the institution is just too much to take. They are for Christ, there is no doubt about that. But they are more than a little hesitant about Christ’s church. Indeed, they wonder whether that is the way to put it, whether it is in fact Christ’s church or some manmade institution.

I guess it is good for people like me to be made to think. We so easily take the church for granted. We have always associated the living out of the Christian life with our fellowship with other Christians in the church. We have taken seriously the injunction not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together. It has never occurred to us that this might refer to assemblies other than the church. Even now that we see a number of groups thinking differently, we find it hard to imagine that forsaking the church assembly is a tenable Christian position. But it is not easy to deny the genuineness of the Christian experience of many of these new-style believers.

I do not suggest that we should give serious consideration to abandoning the church. The place of the church in Scripture is so central that it is impossible for me at least to contemplate a churchless Christianity.

But this does not mean that the modern institutional church is fully the church in its New Testament sense. It is at least possible that the church has taken a wrong turn or two and that in these days it should be doing some considerable rethinking of its position.

The trouble is that times have a habit of changing and institutions always find it difficult to adapt to change. Particularly as we grow older, we all tend to be a bit conservative. And in institutions like churches, the older and more conservative members tend to have the determinative voice. Such groups change slowly.

This is not all bad. There is the accumulated experience of generations behind us, and the church must have learnt something during the centuries of its existence. The lessons of the past are not lightly to be discarded.

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But it ought to be possible to retain a firm hold on the wisdom of the past without alienating the vigorous life of the present. After all, that is life. No organism can do without its past. But none can ignore its present either. The present is demanding and we can never retreat into the past.

The trouble is that institutions find change difficult whether they are weak or strong. When strong they have a momentum from their past that carries them along. They are in no great trouble. They have strong leaders who have long been accustomed to the way things are going. They see the established ways of doing things as the way they have built up their strength and tend to act in accordance with the motto, “When you’re on a good thing, stick to it!” It always seems to them unreasonable to change from ways that are a proven success to ways that may possibly lead to disaster. So they settle for the status quo.

But it is not much easier when institutions are weak. Then their leaders may well be weak themselves and unable to take the strong action needed. Even if they see the need for change and want to bring it about, they may find their organization such that they cannot do it. There will be resistance to change from all who think that this will mean the end of an already weakened institution.

So whether they are strong or weak, established institutions always tend to favor the old ways. It is never easy to face the challenges of the current generation.

This is not to say that change is impossible. It is taking place all the time. And if we are talking about the church we are talking about an institution that has made a series of successful adaptations to the changing generations through many centuries. When the church has survived so much and changed so often, it would be foolish to write off its potential in the present.

But we must appreciate that the present time is one of unusual difficulty for the church. It is threatened from outside. Atheistic Communism controls the lives and much of the thought patterns of a considerable proportion of mankind. Atheistic humanism is prominent in most of those communities where communism does not hold sway. There has been something of a revival in several of the ancient faiths. Some of the Eastern religions have invaded those Western communities in which the strength of Christianity lies. There can be no doubt as to the magnitude and the variety of the forces that oppose the church from outside.

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But many feel that they are nothing to the foes within. Some versions of secular Christianity seem to have very little in common with what has always been taken to be the essence of the faith. There are those who urge such a concentration on social and political issues that the traditional Christian call for repentance and faith and personal piety is muted, if not altogether silent. Christianity for centuries has gathered much new strength from its missionary activity; now we are often told that we should sit down quietly with the men of other faiths and talk with them but not try to convert them. Adaptation to the present situation is not going to be easy.

But it is possible. There is a resilience in a right Christian faith, for it puts us in touch with none less than God himself. It is essential to Christianity that God has redeemed his people in Christ’s atoning death and triumphant resurrection. It is equally essential that God the Holy Spirit comes to live in the hearts of God’s people, giving them a strength and a wisdom not their own. They may not always use that strength and that wisdom. But it is there, available.

The “Jesus people” remind us that the great Christian verities still stand. I do not see their way as the answer to our problems. Their life-style is unlikely to make much appeal outside their own circle; it will probably never be adopted by more than a minority. But the “Jesus people” are a living witness to the truth that the Christian faith can be very relevant to modern, Western, rebellious youth. They challenge the church to become as relevant on the wider canvas as they are on their smaller one.

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