Challenge of the modern church
Christmas is a celebration of the revelation of the Divine grounded in two theological concepts: “The Word” or “Logos” in the original Greek, the language in which the New Testament gospels were written and “The Incarnation”, derived from the Latin “incarnatio” meaning “in the flesh”.
These two fundamental concepts are established by the writer of John’s Gospel at the very beginning to define the persona of Jesus the Christ, whose designated rather than actual birthday forms the basis of the Christmas celebration. John tells us: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us . . . .”
Jesus, believed by early Christians to be the Son of God and also God as part of the Holy Trinity as reflected in both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, is the practical expression of both Word and Incarnation. He is the Word because his essence exhibited the “mind of God”, the Supreme Being. He is the Incarnation because, though an act of God, he was born of a woman.
This idea of the Virgin Birth –– and many others in The Bible –– naturally appear far-fetched to most people today, including many Christians. It is because we live in a scientific age, a product of the 18th Century Enlightenment or Age Of Reason, where believability is tied to factuality or reasonable proof of occurrence or existence.
We also live in an age where much emphasis is placed on the material and tangible –– what can be seen and touched –– which serve as proof of existence as opposed to what cannot be seen and touched, such as the spirit realm which is the abode of the Divine or God. Both present-day realities present a major challenge for the church in promoting acceptance and belief in age-old ideas.
In contrast, to a first century Christian audience, for whom John and the other three New Testament Gospels were specifically written, the idea of God leaving the invisible and intangible realm of spirit and taking on human form would not have been far-fetched. The dominant Greco-Roman culture of the time actually promoted such beliefs.
Just as the Gospel narratives of Matthew and Luke speak of Mary’s encounter with the Divine that resulted in the conception and birth of Jesus, there were popular fables about pagan gods producing children with mortal women.
The legendary Helen of Troy, for example, was the daughter of Zeus, the supreme Greek god, and Leda, who was the wife of Menelaus.
The late Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, who examined Jesus’ birth and the prevailing circumstances in a book entitled The First Christmas, make the point that the proof of occurrence surrounding this and other biblical events was never an issue for early Christians because truth then had a different meaning from that of today.
“. . . The truth of these stories (including their factual truth) was taken for granted. Their truth, and the truth of The Bible as a whole, was part of conventional wisdom in Christian areas of the world,” observe the two distinguished scholars. “. . . Nobody worried about whether they were factually true. All of the interpretative focus was on their meaning.”
Personal struggles with the issues of factuality, believability and also modern relevance of a lot of what is in The Bible perhaps provide the most plausible explanation of why belief in God, as presented in The Bible, seems to be declining and why church numbers around the world are dwindling, especially in more developed countries.
Of course, many churches, including some here in Barbados, will be filled to capacity for Christmas Day services. However, this level of attendance has more to do with tradition than practice of faith.
Indeed, for many people today, Christmas is the only time of the year when they go to church. In some instances where people attend regularly, it is for reasons other than to have an encounter with the Divine, such as the hope of prospering materially.
Compared with my generation, young people today find the church especially unappealing. Many describe the experience as boring, but attend under protest because parents insist. Because of the difficulty attracting and retaining young people, many churches today, especially
the traditional denominations, are made up of mostly greying heads –– a sure sign of slow but inevitable death.
Retired American Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, controversial because of his liberal views but nevertheless one of my favourite theologians, recognized and addressed the challenges facing the church in our modern age in a thought-provoking book published in 1998. Entitled Why Christianity Must Change Or Die,
it was aimed at “believers in exile”.
“Can one really worship in a meaningful way if there is no concept of theistic deity to receive that worship?” asks Spong with reference to the present world in which we live. He goes on: “Can one confess, give thanks, offer petitions or sing praises if there is no personal being to whom these acts of worship are directed? These are crucial questions and demand a serious answer.”
A major problem with the church is that it is an inherently conservative organization resistant to change. But Jesus himself, the inspiration of the church, was the embodiment of change. His earthly ministry was characterized by a new approach to almost every aspect of Judaism which he sought to reform.
A key element of change for the church today must involve the embrace of a modern approach to packaging and delivering the Word made flesh.
The essence of the Word, which is the product of the church, remains unchanged because God is the same yesterday, today and forever. The declining appeal of the church stems from its growing perception as a tired product, especially among young people who represent the future.
Just as tired consumer products are rebranded and relaunched to rekindle and retain market interest, the same must happen to the church which is facing stiff competition from secularism and materialism.
My continuing study of theology, following a good Codrington College initiation, along with a professional background which has provided exposure to the application of highly effective modern marketing techniques, convinces me that the church, especially my own Anglican Church, would benefit tremendously from such an intervention. I raised this issue in a presentation
at a clergy retreat in another regional diocese a few months ago.
The need for Christianity as a path to God will always remain. Even though times and circumstances will change, human beings today are no different than 2,000 years ago. They have the same basic needs, one of which is to commune at a spiritual level with the Divine for which we all have been genetically programmed, whether we develop a consciousness of it or not.
Wherever we are, God –– the Immanuel –– is always with us and among us. The problem is that in the fast-paced environment of this modern materialistic age, most people are either too busy or distracted to attain a level of spiritual consciousness to sense the Divine presence. Hence, the importance of retreating occasionally to experience moments of silence in order to hear
that still, quiet voice.
The church must provide such an oasis.
A reflective, spirit-filled Christmas to you!
(Reudon Eversley is a political strategist, strategic communications specialist and long-standing journalist.