The truth about the Truth: part two

13 07 2007

The second part of my talk on the crisis facing the church (for the first part click here)….

Now I shared with you about the busyness of the day and making it a priority. Now I want to dig even deeper. We need to look at the culture around us. But before I do this, I want to spend a moment considering why the Bible is of value. JH Westerhoff states “Unless the story is known, understood, owned and lived, he’s talking about the Bible here, we and our children will not have a Christian faith. When we read the Bible, we are not just undertaking an exercise in learning facts but engaging in the process. Now listen to this – engaging in the process of being transformed. It’s not just about information, it’s about transformation. And this transformation takes time. It requires disciplinedtransformation.jpg engagement over an extended period, as Bishop N. T. Wright notes, ‘reading and studying Scripture has been seen as central to how we are to grow in love of God. How we come to understand God and His truth more fully and how we can develop the moral muscle to live in accordance with the Gospel of Jesus. Even when everything seems to be pulling the other way.’

Transformation involves aligning ourselves to the perfect Will of God. Let me put it this way: Who has watched those shows. They all the rage at the moment. It used to be gardening shows where you just watch people putting plants in the ground. And they talk about it endlessly. Now it has kind of taken another step up and we talk about transforming gardens and transforming houses and transforming faces even. Has anyone watched the one where people get their faces transformed. ‘Extreme makeover.’? They look at you, take a bit of the nose off, the ears back etc.. it’s all the rage at the moment.

Where you are now changes, dramatically changes. But it’s not a shot of expresso, It’s more like the slowly unfurling effects of multivitamin. I take a men’s multi-vitamin every day. I don’t put the multi-vitamin in my mouth, swallow it down and say “I’m ready for the day!” But I’m trusting that it’s working, I hope so. I pay a lot of money for it. I’m trusting that it’s working through my system and over the course of the day. Slowly but surely working.

When we come to the Bible we’re being transformed by the Holy Spirit, slowly but surely, more towards what God intends of us, not what we intend of us. This is where it gets a bit difficult. Part of the problem as I see it is that the relationship between the Church, that’s us and the Bible has become confused.

The Bible today is by and large considered a product of the Church and as such is treated rather poorly as being viewed as only one of the many tools available to achieve their aim. Let me say that again. Many churches just look at the Bible as another tool to achieve their aim. Along with worship. Along with children’s ministry. Along with 40 Days of Purpose or whatever it might be – it’s just another tool.

Samuel Escobar notes ‘It was not the Church that gave birth to Scripture but it was God’s Word in the Apostolic preaching recorded later in Scripture that gave birth to the Church. If the Church lives by the Word, ministry of the Word is the heart of Christian ministry.” It is not a tool. It is at the heart of what we do. It is not a tool. It is at the base of what we do.

Let me share another part of my story. Eventually I stumbled into church ministry. I was the children and youth pastor for a period. Now remember I told you that through my theology training the Bible had moved from my heart to my head. Well part of my role was surfer.jpgpreaching and I had a reasonable size youth and children’s group and I remember sitting there at my desk preparing my sermon. The next part is another bit of confession. I’m not joking, this is my sermon preparation methodology: I thought, “right, I need a title. I need something really catchy.” So I come up with a title – something really funky. And then I spend an enormous amount of time – maybe 4 or 5 hours working on an angle. What I mean by an angle is something that grabs your attention. Something that will grab them, would entertain them, will draw them in. And I remember I did ludicrous stuff. I remember one of them – I had a surfboard out the front, under everyone’s chair was a bottle or glass of water and I invited one of the young people out the front, and we put a wetsuit on him. Four burly blokes put him on the surfboard and they surfed him around the church while people threw water on him.

I had no idea what I was trying to say. But every week there would be this sort of bizarre act. You may be thinking, “I would never do that.” But I hope in me being open and honest with you, that there are little self stories popping up and that that you are starting to think “maybe he’s got a point, maybe the place of the Bible has slipped”. So I would come up with an angle and that would take 4 to 5 hours. Then I would think … I remember it clearly, and this is sermon after sermon, , “I better have a Bible verse as that is what Christian Preachers do…”

It is shocking to even think about it. But I can assure you this is not uncommon. The number of church sermons that I have sat through that hardly mention scripture is significant.

The Bible needs to return to being used and understood and being at the heart of what we do. Not just an add-on tool – but a central part of what we do.

The Bible has to be the heart of what we do. It has to under girth all our ministries. The outworking of this involves as N T Wright notes, “….People listening to, Strenuous wrestling with, humble obedience before and powerful proclamation of Scripture.” Now I said before and I want to dwell a bit deeper. I said before, I going to talk about the culture. I think all that I am describing here of how this is happening is attributable to the culture that we are immersed in. There is no one in this room who is not affected by the culture around us, unless you live under a rock somewhere out in the bush. I am affected by the culture. All of us is affected by what I’m about to describe.

According to the World Value Survey done every four or so years, and just been completed. It says this about New Zealand. New Zealand is considered, you may have heard this quote and wondered where it came from. This is where it is from. New Zealand is considered to be amongst the most post modern, post Christendom nations in the world. And if you are a visual like me, there is secular and traditional and …… Tonga and Pacific Islands are over here, traditional, and way over here is New Zealand much more secular than US, UK, Australia, on par with Sweden and Japan. Its way out there. Now I’m going to un pack that. I’m not just going to leave that there and assume you know what post modern and post Christendom means because before I start this research, I didn’t know what it meant. If you know what it means you can just turn off.

I’m going to briefly explain. In 1950, 50%, this is in New Zealand, of primary school students were enrolled in Protestant Sunday Schools here in New Zealand. Fifty percent. By 1985, this has decreased to 11%. Many years later, we don’t have contemporary data but I have a stab and say it is much less than 11%. Neither the Church or Christianity is viewed with the same level of respect it was just 50 years ago.

To understand post modernism, we have to first consider modernism – makes sense. Post means after. We have to understand the modernism part first. Modernism elevates objective knowledge and a belief in progress. I’m explaining all of this because this is the culture we are in. Modernism is a product of 18th century enlightenment. Facts and uniformity provided a clear set plan for growth and expansion and it sought to weaken the place of religion and to view the world in terms of quantifiable facts. Truth was a product of fact. It is could be explained with science and it was questionable. By the 1950s and 1960s the focus on only facts began to ring hollow as the quality of life didn’t actually progress as far as they were expected. Thus post modernism was born in reaction to the modernist obsession.

So, picture modernism – you know those buildings, they’re all square and plain and plumb. Ever seen buildings like that? They’re all the same. That’s modernism. A more creative, free expressionpostmodern.jpg prevailed in reaction to the modernism and feelings and attitudes took precedent over facts and hard science. New Zealand is amongst the countries where it happened the most. Now this post modernist shift has resulted in general suspicion of institutions. As one young leader pointed out – “Young people are increasingly cynical of institutions, parliaments and churches and universities, and schools are increasingly seen as inadequate, inaccessible, irrelevant to their functions. These institutions are leaving and losing a lot of their relevance to young people. The most common phrase associated with post modernity is deconstructing the grand narrative. What does that mean? The overarching story, accepted truths such as the authority of Scripture. They are questioned and challenged with their assumptions pulled apart and examined.

Now you’ve may have heard of the term “relativism”. All relativism means, just to unpack that briefly, we’re getting pretty dense here so hang with me. It’s where my understanding of truth though it may differ to your understanding of truths – yours is equally acceptable as mine is equally acceptable. This is relativism. This is the post modern way. It’s not appropriate for me to impose on you, my view. What you believes and what I believe are both cool and it is totally not cool for you to go over to me and tell me I’m not cool. That’s the post modern reality. Relativism – what I believe may be different to what you believe. We’re both OK with that.

Let’s just reflect that against this Bible here. This cultural reality affects Christians daily. We are not exempt from this post modern reality and I’m an example of that. There is a guy in a snowstorm and he wants to leave the tent to go and gather something, and there is a blizzard outside. Anyone who’s been in a snowstorm knows you have to put a stake in the ground, you tether yourselves to the stake and you head out to do your business because you know that if you don’t have a stake, it’s highly unlikely you’re going to find your way back to the tent. The Scriptures are like that. Putting a stake in the ground, tethering yourself to the stake, having a point of reference. Now if you don’t have this, which I did not have for a long, long time, what’s my point of reference? What is it? A kind of – how do I feel today, I’ve got a good feeling about this, I like the look of him or I caught something on the radio, or or that I am the point of reference. Post modernism taught me, and I’ve still got it. It teaches me that whatever I think is cool, is cool. It’s OK. It is insidious.

The classic post modern question of the Bible might be – “what relevance does this have to me?” Why do I need this? What is the point of this. I know it’s important. That was what I was taught in Sunday School and that’s what I’m meant to say because I’m a pastor or a church leader or an elder but I don’t actually believe it. I’m not connecting with it. I’m not acting on it.

Now there is one other thing. As well as decline in the value in this, post modernism is contributing to what I call the fragmentation of Scriptures. This is the process whereby we expose ourselves only to those passages that support our particular point of view. I’ll say that again. We only read the stuff that makes us feel cushy and warm inside. That supports our point of view. In churches -it is sad that even the public reading of Scripture in churches has now diminished. There are a huge number of churches where people don’t even read the Bible out aloud. There aren’t Bibles in the pews, and the pastor generally doesn’t encourage their congregation to read the Bible. The only Scripture you might hear is a small segment embedded in the sermon around a funny anecdote involving a horse and a trip over to Italy. It’s embedded. It’s like the type of weird relative we have, you know, at the Christmas party. You don’t want to introduce your mates to him because you might get embarrassed. When we fragment the Scriptures, we lose the complete biblical narrative. We lose the complete over-arching story. In selecting only fragments of the Bible, we lose the complete biblical narrative. Without this context the rest of the Bible is ultimately reduced to a collection of clever sayings that compete in a marketplace of self gratification. In other words we just grab the warm fuzzy stuff which competes with all the other warm fuzzy stuff out there.

To paraphrase Soren Kierkegaard, we kept the Bible at arms length as being exposed to the really difficult parts of the Bible might require us to change our lives. Isn’t this another part of hypocrisy? We might have to change our lives when we read the really tough parts? And that includes me. I’m not exempt from this. Are we going to be convicted to sell stuff and give it to the poor? Intellectually or mentally I don’t want to have to do this. I’m going to keep away and focus on the stuff that keeps me warm and comfortable.


Part three.. the final installment will consider what we need to do to counter this crisis…




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