Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Massage the Message

Romans 10.12   ... there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles; God is the same Lord of all and richly blesses all who call upon him.

The treasurer of a nearby congregation has recently written to the members of his church. There is a crisis, he says. The people are no longer giving enough money to keep things going. He harks back to days when Christians paid their way. No more cuts can be made, he writes, "... without doing massive damage to our church's mission".

Mission is what Paul addresses in this section of his letter to the Romans. On the surface, his remarks are unexceptionable. Proclaiming the message is a primary concern of the Church. The treasurer's emphasis reflects a long-held Christian tradition. As Paul puts it, "How can the message be proclaimed if the messengers are not sent out?"

But let's take a step backwards and review. Paul could assume that everyone calls upon God as a matter of course. The vast majority in his day perceived God (or the gods, for many) as constantly intervening in nature and in the affairs of humanity. They thought that God held the key to health, wealth and happiness. This was an unquestioned truth for everyone, an unexamined way of perceiving the world. It was so much part of normality that it was beyond awareness. They could not conceive of the world any other way.

Jesus thought along the same lines. He said, "... not one sparrow falls to the ground without your father's consent" (Matthew 10.29). In other words, even the tiniest animals are God's moment-by-moment concern.

This is good news for those whose lives are controlled, as they see it, by the divine. But our time is radically different. Neither Paul nor Jesus would be likely to reach the same conclusions if they lived in the West today.

First, it is no longer the norm to call upon God. This is not merely willfulness or sinfulness. Few now think that God micro-manages the world. It's starkly obvious, for example, that millions of human beings - never mind a sparrow or two - die each year in circumstances largely beyond human control, and presumably beyond God's.

Second, many Christians - perhaps a majority - instinctively recognise that they don't have the right to preach at other people. And as they travel more widely across the globe, many recognise that those of other faiths (or none) don't want or need to be converted. The "Jesus saves" message Paul writes about doesn't work as well as it used to. It often fails completely.

However, the prospects are far from gloomy if we open ourselves to new possibilities. For example, one thing is now known for sure about human nature. It is that if people want and need something they invariably respond positively when they see it. So if people today don't welcome the traditional Christian message, it is because they have good reason not to. It's not something they see a need for. They don't differ from us in this respect, nor we from them.

If the way so many people perceive the world has changed, then perhaps we in turn need not be bound by traditional "musts" and "shoulds" from the past. It is possible to meet the challenge. But how? As Christians rack their brains for an answer, a seldom-asked question is: What should change? And a frequent response is, "They should!"

Some thirty years ago a communications specialist called Marshal McLuhan was briefly famous for saying, "The medium is the message". In other words, a good message put across badly or using the wrong medium will most likely fail. Politicians and advertisers know this all-too-well. No matter how relevant party policies may be, if they are poorly communicated nobody will listen. Similarly, even the best, cheapest product will stay on the shelves unless properly presented.

If McLuhan is correct, then Christian congregations under the whip for more money might do better to examine themselves. If they are the message, perhaps the message needs to change.

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