It wasn’t long ago that I read in Os Guinness’ book The Call these important words:
Our challenge is not just to see the mistakes of a previous generation, obvious because not ours, but to see as well the problem of our own time, far closer and therefore harder to see.
Those words have hung with me now for months. I’ve contemplated them as I’ve considered my own place in time, my place in the church, and my position in the world. I’ve heard different assessments of the time that we live in, from doomsday prophecy to pronouncements that there has been no better time to be alive. I’ve wondered if there is a posture that can assign proper gravity to the pitfalls of our era while upholding the true marvels of our age. To do so would not be easy, and would require serious, deep thinking, careful discernment, and humility in spirit.
My thoughts on this matter have been furthered by the recent completion of David F. Wells’ book No Place for Truth or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? The book is full of challenges. Wells depicts contemporary evangelical faith as quite bankrupt. He is amazed that theology has in large measure disappeared from evangelical thought, and has passed away with little notice. His book chronicles the shift which has occurred as churches have become professionalized in their ministries, with seminaries pushing the trend. The church’s institutions of higher learning have become more focused on equipping pastors to be friendly personalities and effective conflict managers, and have left them devoid of the ability to think biblically and theologically about how they might lead. Pastors serve the role of psychologists and managers, addressing felt needs, soothing damaged egos, and managing congregations according to the direction of popular opinion. His observations apply mainly to the church in North America. He notes different trends which have taken place over the past 100 years, such as the decreasing tenure of many pastors. He claims this has had the effect of depersonalizing the ministry and removing the pastor’s connection to any particular place, making it difficult for the pastor to have an incarnational ministry. The book ends with a thundering challenge for the reclamation of theology and an open invitation for dialogue on how people called “Christian” speak concerning truth and error.
On the other extreme, as I have mentioned, have been those (all voices I’ve heard in the U.S.) who claim that all is well, and in fact, the world has never been better. This has been a direct counter in North American Christianity to the widespread perception that the world is soon coming to an end. I find this a bit hard to swallow. This reaction reminds me of the words found in the book of the prophet Jeremiah, “They have healed the brokenness of my people superficially saying, “Peace, Peace,” but there is no peace.” (Jer. 6:14)
Yes, technological wonders abound. Medicine has advanced beyond what might have been imaginable over the last 100 years. Transportation is now incredibly diverse and easy–from North America we can travel anywhere in the world. And the internet has put everything at our doorstep. We have some wonderful and incredible stuff at which we can marvel, which, when used responsibly, can increase enjoyment of life.
On the other hand, the last century has seen two World Wars, outbreaks of genocide, and the development of the most deadly weapons produced in human history. We’ve seen some of this centuries most notable philosophers wrestle with deep existential angst, questioning the meaning of existence and whether or not life is worthwhile. The thought of Camus and Sarte are good examples of philosophers whose existentialism reveal deep despair. As for other issues, poverty is still very real. Racism is still a plague. Things are better, sure, but it seems we still have work to do–as will be true throughout this age.
What to do in the meantime? As a person who calls Jesus “Lord,” I believe that we exist in “the time between the times.” Jesus has been raised, signaling the onset of a new age. The church waits patiently for his return. ”Come, Lord Jesus” remains our prayer. As we wait, we are called to participate in the Kingdom of God as disciples, declaring allegiance to our King who is Jesus. Discipleship to Jesus will entail an adjustment of vision, which will enable his followers to both see and exist truthfully within the world. This will include the demythologization of the times in which we live, naming the powers and principalities which stand in opposition to life in the Kingdom.
The Kingdom of God cannot be established by our own efforts, as Karl Barth rightly asserted. It must be patiently waited for and received. I’m not claiming that waiting is easy. I’m not claiming that while I wait “all is well” or “the world is going to hell.” My theological perspective leads me to look for those places where God is remaking, renewing, and redeeming our world. I’m trying to acknowledge those places in our world where the Reign of God is being made manifest, while going to places of pain where the Kingdom of God needs to be announced. It seems as though life following after Jesus requires that I attempt to do both, striving with the community called Church to assess the times we live in a manner which we humbly submit is truthful.