This Missional Moment

By Rev. Pete Nicholas

During the pandemic, I had a number of pastoral conversations where people told me how ‘shaken’ they had been by everything that was happening. Sometimes it was deeply personal: the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, the breakdown of a relationship. Other times, it was being confronted with their own frailty as day after day, for months on end, the only news was mortality rates. Sometimes it was the wider cultural issues: partisan politics, the tragic murder of George Floyd, the uncovering of abuse in various institutions and particularly the church. People were shaken. Many are still shaken.

The pain and the complexity of the last few years defy simplistic diagnostics, but Hebrews 12 does give us a window on one important perspective:

But now he has promised, ‘Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.’ The words ‘once more’ indicate the removal of what can be shaken – that is, created things – so that what cannot be shaken may remain.

Hebrews 12:26-27, NIV

If you think of a jar of pebbles being shaken, the shaking unsettles the status quo. It creates space, at least for a time, until things settle again. Similarly, when we are shaken there’s a kind of metaphysical space, a shaking up of ideas and deeply-held desires. I think we are seeing this all around us in this cultural moment, post-pandemic, but also in the midst of the shaking of the other major cultural events we have experienced.

People are reevaluating where they live, how they work, and their relationships. Hebrews 12 implies that God shakes things up so that people would rely more fully on Him, His Son, and His unshakeable word. I think we can infer from this that a major reason God is shaking things up in the West now is so that we will realize the uncertainty of ‘created things,’ and find solidity and permanence through Jesus and his gospel. This is our particular ‘missional moment.’

Are We Missing This Missional Moment?

As with any shaking up of the established order, this moment won’t last long. Perhaps it may be 12-18 months, perhaps a little longer. But soon people will settle back into a new status quo, and the moment will pass.

Sadly the church seems to be missing this missional moment. Many denominations, including my own, (both before I transferred from the Church of England to the PCA, and since!) are caught up with in-house discussions about hot button topics like sexuality, gender, and race. To be clear, all of these discussions are very much ‘of’ our cultural moment. That’s why they are hot button issues. However, too often the orientation of these discussions is inward-facing, rather than outward-facing. They are about drawing the internal lines in the sands of orthodoxy, rather than drawing people into the kingdom.

Now, lest I get accused of setting up false dichotomies, I am not saying that there isn’t a vital place for such in-house discussions. Orthodoxy matters, in great part because it is the way by which the church preserves the gospel for successive generations. But 2 Timothy reminds us that we guard the gospel, not to keep it on the shelf, neat and polished like a trophy, but because it is through the gospel that ‘Christ Jesus… destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light’ (2 Timothy 1:10, NIV). Therefore, if the church never transitions from internal discussions to how it can speak into those areas with grace and truth—or perhaps more likely, if it does not in the first place have those discussions with such an endpoint in mind—then isn’t it missing the point, and tragically missing the cultural moment?

By way of a conversation starter, here then are four key principles (all requiring fuller development) to help us grasp this missional moment.

  1. Recognise the Generational Shift

Back in 2001, sociologists were struggling to make sense of the huge shift between the post-war generation ‘Boomers’, and young adults then – ‘Gen X’. However, most sociologists who look at generational analysis suggest that the shift between Gen X and young adults today (broadly ‘Millennials’ and ‘Gen Z’ depending on where you draw the lines) is even bigger. [] [1] Generational analysis is a sociological exercise in grouping together non-discrete groups. Therefore, the precise boundaries of generations are necessarily debated. Pew Research defines Baby ‘Boomers’ as those born in the boom of births post-war 1946-1964, Gen X 1965-1980, Millennials 1981-1996, Gen Z 1997-2012. See for example, Defining Generations: Where Millennials End and Generation Z Begins, Dimock M. Jan 2019. Pew Research. If this analysis is correct, then isn’t it strange that the presentation of the gospel today, when compared with 30 years ago, seems to have scarcely changed at all?

The content of the gospel is necessarily unchanging. Otherwise it loses its power to save, and it will also lose its relevance to culture. As Simone Weill, a philosopher with a passion for truth and justice, commented, ‘To be always relevant, you have to say things which are eternal.’ However, the presentation of the eternal gospel will need to change, because the gospel connects with each generation in different ways, and needs to be contextualized for each generation to be effective. Paul, in his own context, wrote:

Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

1 Cor 1:22-24, NIV

Paul emphasizes in these verses both his commitment to ‘preach Christ crucified’ and his contextualization of this message to, on the one hand, the Jews’ desire for signs, and on the other hand, the Greeks’ desire for wisdom. Similarly, one could apply the above principle to the different generations something like this: Boomers sought stability and the nuclear family, while Gen X sought work-life balance and self-fulfillment. What then do Millennials seek? Authenticity, freedom and social impact? 

Of course pinning down a generation to two or three values is difficult (but I imagine so was summing up the longings of the Jews and the Greeks in one word – and Paul did!), but hopefully you get the point. What we need is the church seeking to articulate a new apologetic for this generation that brings the gospel to bear on the issues that young adults are animated by: How do we form a secure and liberating identity? How do we make the world a better place? How can we be truly happy? What is true freedom and how should we use it? What does it really mean to be successful in life? Is there any hope for the future?

What we need is the church seeking to articulate a new apologetic for this generation that brings the gospel to bear on the issues that young adults are animated by…

These may be unfamiliar questions for the church to be engaging with in the context of the last 30 years, but they are the kind of ‘Big Questions’ of life that Scripture gives rich and unique answers to, and that secularism struggles with. Secularism is bankrupt when it comes to the meaning and purpose questions that stir our souls. I have found people are particularly open to these questions as we emerge post-pandemic. What an opportunity to present Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life!

  1. Embrace the ‘Tone of Voice’ Shift

A significant part of the generational shift has been a steady decline in the cultural acceptability of Christianity. This has been accompanied, particularly in Europe, by a breaking down of church and state links. It is difficult to grasp just how seismic this shift is, in a context where for the best part of one and a half millennia Christendom has been normal. The sociologist Robert Wuthnow has been commenting on this phenomenon for some time, and he writes:

At the start of the twentieth century, virtually all Americans were cradle-to-grave members of their particular traditions, and their spirituality prompted them to attend services and to believe in the teachings of their churches and synagogues. Now, growing numbers of Americans piece together their faith like a patchwork quilt. [] [2] Wuthnow, Robert and Andlinger, Gerhard R. After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s. University of California Press. 1998.

He suggests that in this new landscape, Christians should adopt a different disposition and tone of voice when engaging the culture. Effectively we have moved from a ‘temple’ mode of dwelling (where Christianity is the status quo) to a ‘tabernacle’ mode, more from the margins, of seeking and negotiation. He continues:

The latter way, a spirituality of seeking, emphasizes negotiation: individuals search for sacred moments that reinforce their conviction that the divine exists, but these moments are fleeting; rather than knowing the territory, people explore new spiritual vistas, and they may have to negotiate among complex and confusing meanings of spirituality. [] [3] Ibid.

There are rich resources in Scripture to help navigate this new (for the West) tabernacle mode: Exodus, Ezekiel, Daniel, 1 Peter, Acts, for example. It is important to recognise that the ‘tone of voice’ of a temple mode and a tabernacle mode are different. Daniel was prayerful, watching for an opportunity. He was courteous, but faithful when delivering his interpretation of the dream to the pagan king Nebuchadnezzar. Similarly, 1 Peter urges Christians ‘in their hearts to revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect’ (1 Peter 3:15 NIV). 

Such gracious perseverance that remains gentle, yet steadfast is challenging to the cultural status quo, but also beckoning. It defies simplistic categorization because it is neither the shrill voice of protest that characterizes so much on social media when people disagree, nor the ‘nice’ platitudes others trade in that refuse to acknowledge objective right and wrong. Yet this is a tone of voice the church seems to be struggling to adopt. Too often instead, there is a kind of insecure defensiveness as the church rails against the loss of cultural status, attacking non-Christian ideologies in a way that plays well to the pews, but with little grace and gentleness to attract those who don’t know Christ.

Too often instead, there is a kind of insecure defensiveness as the church rails against the loss of cultural status, attacking non-Christian ideologies in a way that plays well to the pews, but with little grace and gentleness to attract those who don’t know Christ.

Daniel stood up to the status quo, to the point of being thrown into a lion’s den, but he was so attractive in his manner that the king ran to see if he had been rescued! What would it look like for the church to resist the well-plowed furrows of the culture wars in both the content and tone of its engagement?

  1. Awaken A Sense Of The Transcendent

The philosopher Charles Taylor talks about the ‘immanent frame’ of the ‘disenchanted’ West, where imminence is a way of viewing the world such that all that there is, and all that matters, is matter. This is increasingly the view that is held to, and yet at the same time there is a stubborn (and mutually contradictory) belief in the spiritual. For example, sociologists note the growth of the ‘spiritual but not religious’—SBNR—category. Also, a survey by the Roper Center shows that since 1968, belief in life after death amongst Americans has changed very little from 75% of adults to 73%, and belief in heaven only from 85% to 80%. [] [4} Paradise Polled: Americans and the Afterlife. The Roper Center, Cornell pooled by Gallup Surveys. There is still a strong belief in the transcendent even amidst the professed belief in the immanent frame.

One important way to tap into this almost innate sense of the spiritual is to seek to awaken a sense of the transcendent. If materialism teaches that ultimately our world is a disenchanted universe, then Christians can show how wonderful the universe is when we truly see it as enchanted.

G. K. Chesterton richly explored this in his brilliant work Orthodoxy, and particularly his chapter titled ‘The Ethics Of Elfland:’

Ordinary things are more valuable than extraordinary things; nay, they are more extraordinary. Man is something more awful than men; something more strange. The sense of the miracle of humanity itself should be always more vivid to us than any marvels of power, intellect, art, or civilization. [] [5] Chesterton G K, Orthodoxy. Createspace publishing. Reprint 2017. Ch. IV. Originally published 1908.

A compelling apologetic for today draws on rich imagery and awakens the imagination, lifting the soul upwards to ‘things above where Christ is seated,,’ not instead of engagement with science, psychology, history, and nature, but alongside them. It should have on the one hand real intellectual ballast that causes people to reflect on their secular beliefs. But at the same time it should have an evocative appeal that stirs the affections and causes people to want the gospel to be true because of the way it enchants our world, even as they discover that it is true. C S Lewis memorably went on such a journey when he discovered that the gospel is the ‘true myth.’

  1. Appeal to Beauty Not Just Truth

The 2016 Oxford Dictionary’s ‘Word Of The Year’ was post-truth. Post-truth properly understood does not mean ‘we are so over truth, all we want now is lies and deception!’ Instead it refers to how we arbiter what is true and false; post-truth means that we consider ourselves to be the arbiters, and how we feel about something, not primarily reason, logic, revelation, or the authority of an institution.

Partly this has been brought on by deep institutional mistrust and a hermeneutic of suspicion that is rife. The philosopher and thinker Michel Foucault taught that truth claims are power plays, and this thought has become widely subscribed to. Consequently, when Christians claim to have ‘the truth’ about God, people often receive this as them saying that they are making a power play to try to be in control. How should we navigate this when, of course, objective truth really matters, and when Jesus Christ claims to be ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ (John 14:6)? On the other hand, Jesus came ‘not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:41). How can you claim to worship someone who is the truth, and at the same time is the servant of all, if to claim to be the truth is perceived as the ultimate power play?

How can you claim to worship someone who is the truth, and at the same time is the servant of all, if to claim to be the truth is perceived as the ultimate power play?

It can be helpful to point out that making truth claims is inescapable. If someone says ‘all truth is personal opinion,’ then either that statement itself is just personal opinion, and therefore not applicable to ‘all truth,’ or they do actually believe in objective truth. Such logical judo-flips may be intellectually neat, but they don’t have the same persuasive force that they might have had with a previous generation.

Instead, the church can draw from rich traditions of appeals to the beauty of Jesus alongside truth, and the beauty of truth. Calvin understood this and wrote:

It must be acknowledged, therefore, that in each of the works of God, and more especially in the whole of them taken together, the divine perfections are delineated as in a picture, and the whole human race thereby invited and allured to acquire the knowledge of God, and, in consequence of this knowledge, true and complete felicity. [] [6] Calvin, J., & Beveridge, H. 1997. Institutes of the Christian religion. Translation of: Institutio Christianae religionis.; Reprint, with new introd. Originally published: Edinburgh : Calvin Translation Society, 1845-1846.

Notice the emphasis on invitation and allure, and the consequence of knowing truth bringing happiness (felicity).

Jesus wasn’t just the truth, but in being the truth, he lived a life of unparalleled beauty. The way he interacted with the marginalized and the poor, such that a bruised reed he wouldn’t break and a smoldering wick he wouldn’t snuff out. The unlikely combination of virtues held together in marvelous harmony: grace and truth, courage and patience, compassion and justice. Think of his humility, reflect on his radical servant heart, read the eloquence of his teaching in the Beatitudes, witness his poise during his death, and his playful majesty in his resurrection. He is beautiful and he exhibits the distinctive beauty of truth!

Not only this, but to know and follow Jesus brings true happiness. Not the thin pleasure-seeking that characterizes much of how we use ‘happiness’ today, but the deep joy that speaks of a soul at ease with its maker. To a world that is skeptical of truth but is aesthetically sensitive, to a world that is shaken and looking for foundations from which to rebuild, Christ is beautiful as well as true, and grants us the restful happiness that eludes our striving.

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