The world is a constantly changing place. We live in an age of a 24-hour news cycle, with new news, information, and reports flowing in all the time from across the globe. There are new species being discovered, different varieties of plants being created, wars and conflicts and scuffles breaking out and we can hear about them nearly instantly. New cars, websites, games, recipes, books, songs, movies, and technology. An overload of new information, new ideas.
The message of the Gospel stands plain and unchanging against the backdrop of modern culture. “Plain” and “unchanging” aren’t bad things. The message of the Gospel just hasn’t changed like modern culture. For nearly two thousand years the belief that God came to earth in the form of Jesus, lived and walked and breathed among us as a human, loving humanity so much that he died on a cross so we might have a relationship with God, then rising from the dead to show that death has no power over God, and now us, has remained. That message hasn’t changed. It’s been corrupted at times, it’s been misused, misspoken – just as it is at times today. But the main message stands firm.
This plain, unchanging message is now being proclaimed in a world of “new new new”, “change change change”. In a world that shouts of new products and services to make life better – vacuum robots, driverless cars, instant translation video chat, etc – it seems like the Church’s voice is drowned down to the mere whisper of a wind, still saying there is nothing you need to buy to be whole. (I use “Church” here to designate the whole universal body of believers, not one congregation.)
And so how, as the Church, do we speak this in our modern world? How do we get our message across, speak into the shouting match of products and services, show that we aren’t selling something to make people’s lives instantly better, cleaner, more efficient? How do we portray the message we believe, teach the faith to new believers, get a deeper message across than “if I trust Jesus everything will be ok”, and show that the Bible written thousands of years ago and the Church are relevant in these modern changing times? And, in the US context, how do we do this in an increasingly more diverse society?
In addition to this, the Church is dying. Not dying and going away – I fully believe the Church will not entirely disappear (though some denominations might). But “dying” meaning that fewer and fewer people are claiming membership at churches, fewer and fewer of those members are going to church, and fewer and fewer are making it a multiple-times-a-month commitment to go to church. Shrinking, depleting, being less populated – I suppose I could use those instead of “dying”. It’s not just the shrinking that worries me – it’s the lessened energy, the turning inward, fighting against other Christians, which in turn increases the downward trajectory. (One example, though there are many of these in the States, is my own ELCA. Founded by merger of multiple denoms in 1988, it had over 5 million members. Now, that number is around 4 million – and it not uncommon to see congregations having only 30-40% of members worshiping on a any given Sunday.)
Those are some of the questions and thoughts I decided to focus on in this Graduate Preaching Fellowship. In one question: How does the church speak in modern society without compromising the unchanging message, and grow in depth of faith and numbers? Katie and I have been to a lot of places and seen a lot of different things in our time so far in South Africa, itself a very diverse society. Here are some snippets of what I have been learning about the Church as it relates to our changing and increasingly diverse world, and how we preach (read: talk about Jesus in daily life/proclaim the message of the Gospel/preach from a pulpit).
Change: When we arrived, I thought I would be spending time at a school multiple times a week, tutoring kids, playing with them, learning about administration, how they do school in South Africa. I thought I would learn about the culture through one or two schools, in this educational system, by immersing myself in it, and then be able to preach more effectively. I thought I would see most of the cultural diversity and needs in the schools. But upon arriving, I learned that the educational system issues are just one facet of a very complex set of issues in society here as a whole. And so I have shifted my focus from finding out about that one system, and exploring how to preach in light of that piece of society, to learning about preaching in various contexts.
In doing that, I have been experiencing different social contexts, issues, locations, people, and ways of preaching. This is allowing me to more fully grasp South African society, church, and the confluence of the two. The South Africa portion of my proposal used this quote from Nelson Mandela, “If I cannot change when the circumstances demand it, how can I expect others to?” The circumstances here have called for change, and I have had to respond to meet them. In the Church, Sunday after Sunday and through the week, we experience change – maybe our wording proves to be too medieval, or so modern that it sounds fake. We have a new service venue, different people in worship, something big has happened in the community – and these we will have to respond to not for our own sake of survival or comfort, but so that the Gospel can impact peoples lives…so people can actually hear the message we tell. Change happens – so how do we respond to it?
Preaching: I’ve preaching twice while here – once in a Lutheran church in KZN (the ELCSA-NT, a congregational-based denomination), and once at a village in Lesotho. The listeners were entirely different – at the KZN church, mostly white, church-going, English-speaking, with disposable income. I could use some cultural examples, and preached about the love and faithfulness of God throughout the ages, of believers past, present, and future. At the Lesotho village, all were Sotho people, no church building in the village, Sotho-speaking, mostly subsistence farmers or shepherds and mostly to women and children, as the men were away at the mines or the fields. I could not use any cultural examples, but only examples that I could see – rocks and clouds, dirt and grass. I talked about God’s love in each of our lives, how God loves people even before they want to follow God, and that God has been doing this for a long time (I told the story of Samuel in the Old Testament, and part of my own call to be a pastor). I had to speak in short sentences to be translated, and use simpler vocabulary (but not content). The sun beat down and the wind blew hard, so I had to strain to speak. The two messages were very similar, but had to be tailored to each group. The KZN message would not have fit in Lesotho, and the Lesotho message probably would not have fit in KZN. But both spoke of God’s love and faithfulness.
Songs, Prayers, and Names for God: I spent a while looking at what names are used for God in songs at the growing non-denominational churches. And I was overwhelmed by two things – first, of the twenty songs I looked at, just more than half the references to God were “You”. Second, of the remaining names used, 37% were mighty/warlike/power-oriented, 55% had no power connotation, and 8% I considered kind/nice. So what’s that mean? God is portrayed as personal, as one to whom we can relate, talk with, be close to. And second, that God is a mighty king, a champion, a defender, one who is war-like and powerful and avenging. And the idea of God as Counselor, Peace, Love, Shepherd is nearly absent in the non-denominational churches we’ve visited.
This same language is present in sermons and especially in the non-denominational churches’ prayers. Ex. “My King”, “Lord”, “pray some warfare”. And in their prayers, they use names for God all the time. Here is a composite example: “Father we just thank you Lord for all God of your works Lord in our lives. Father God, Mighty King, we just pray that you God would come into our lives, My King, and God that you would change things there, Lord, and that there would be energy and strength, my God. Father just come and show us the way, Lord, and my Savior destroy everything that keeps people from knowing you, God, amen.”
Warning: there may be no correlation here at all. But these non-denominational churches are growing and vibrant. People want to come, and they invite people to come with them. And not just their closest friends – but the food vendor at the local outdoor market (no joke), and other people they meet.
Liturgy: It’s entirely absent from non-denominational churches. The Presbyterian church we went to had some, and the ELCSA (Lutheran) church body had it in spades. This ELCSA is a very “high” church body (see my post on the Six Hour Service for an explanation) – but is also very charismatic. They use liturgy and spontaneity at the same time. But at the non-denominational churches, they sing, have prayer, someone may bring a “word” they have heard from God, and there is a message/sermon/preach (and occasionally Communion).
I come from a church body that is losing members. Don’t get me wrong – there is real energy and deep faith and clear conviction about Jesus and the message of the Gospel in the ELCA. But the numbers are falling – and this is true across most mainline denominations in the States. We cannot keep doing the exact same thing we have done every year since the 1950’s in a changing society and hope for a different result today. I’m not saying change everything, but something has to give so we can get our message across.
The message of the Gospel doesn’t change, but I think the delivery method can. The message doesn’t change, and I don’t think that is boring at all – it is freeing, and refreshing, a constant in the world of chaos. The message doesn’t change – but the message does change lives. And so we need to tell it – but how?
Here ends Part 1. Part 2 may come soon…I hope. Thanks for reading!