Over the last week or so, I’ve had the opportunity to think quite a bit about the nature of church ministry in these days as compared to what it was in former years. Part of this has come through conversation with a person who is both a Christian scholar and recent Asian immigrant. Part of it has been through attending church services this last while or reflecting on what I know to be very common in church ministry these days.
For some time I have tried to understand the large changes in current church ministry in terms of the shift in post-modern thought with its impact on the culture of our day. It most certainly is the case that the current youthful generation thinks and acts differently than my generation. Deconstruction of previous societal forms and structures is happening everywhere. Today’s generation has basically abandoned the idea of being able to determine matters of origin or destiny. This has resulted in a huge emphasis on existential experience — or making the most of one’s daily existence. Accountability is at an all-time low and tolerance is at an all-time high. The evidence of this way of thinking is obvious and it is helpful to realize that this kind of mentality calls for understanding and modification in how church ministry should happen.
But in thinking about these matters recently, I have also found it helpful to reflect on the changes that have similarily taken place in theological perspective over the last century or so. In this regard it is noteworthy that evangelicalism developed as a more specific form of Protestantism in the middle of the 18th Century and was popularized through the preaching of John Wesley and George Whitefield. The main features of evangelicalism were the importance of biblical authority, the centrality of the person and work of Jesus Christ, and the necessity of the new birth for assurance of personal salvation. In the late 19th and early 20th century, evangelicalism became identified with Christian fundamentalism. The latter developed as a reaction to theological liberalism which was largely characterized by hyper-critical views on the origin and literal interpretations of the Bible. Fundamentalism, in turn, was characterized by a strong defense of the authority of Scripture as well as an emphasis on retaining a strong sense of separation from “worldly pursuits.” It is worth noting that such distinctions also gave rise to a whole variety of Christian church denominations.
Neo-evangelicalism developed as a reaction to fundamentalism in the mid 20th Century in an effort to legitimize original evangelical emphases. People like Carl F. Henry, Harold J. Ockenga, and even Billy Graham were most instrumental in dissociating themselves with some of the negative aspects of fundamentalism. They tried to demonstrate that the evangelical perspective was academically valid and that Christians should engage the world rather than being separate from it. After-all, they reasoned, if the Gospel is going to make an impact on people’s lives, if it is going to change the world in which we live, we need to demonstrate its relevance to every aspect of life. These well-intended Christian leaders emphasized ecumenism and cultural relevance.
It’s easy to see how this well-intentioned emphasis of cultural relevance has become one of the most important values in evangelical church ministry today. It is important to recognize the significance of cultural factors in evangelical ministry. The problem is that churches have become culturally relevant to a fault. But the loss has been, especially in these post-modern times, a clear commitment to the authority, accurate interpretation and consistent application of Scripture. For all its good it seems apparent that in the name of cultural relevance the Gospel of Jesus Christ has often lost its meaning, and the salt that should characterize the church has lost its savour.
As a result, particularly in these post-modern times, it is difficult for the church to be effective. Biblical authority has given way to personal preferences and marketing strategies. True worship has given way to cultural idolatry. And evangelism has been reduced to showing deeds of kindness in a context of extreme tolerance. One might well ask where we are headed in the next 10 – 20 years if this trend continues or unless there is a return to biblical authority and a consistent proclamation of the whole Gospel. There is much more to be considered on this topic but these thoughts are offered here to stimulate thinking and discussion on this matter.