Today you set out on a journey that is glorious, but also daunting. This graduating class will have to minister in large degree to a culture that, perhaps like never before in American history, is alienated and skeptical with respect to the values and claims of Christianity and Christian institutions.
This state of things, of course, is nothing new. It has been intensifying with each passing year, and may continue to increase for years to come. This hostile spiritual environment will make it increasingly difficult to carry out ministries that will be attractive to the prevailing ethos and at the same time biblically faithful.
The challenges and temptations you will face over the course of your ministries will be subtler and more perilous, the nuance that will be expected of you will more delicate, the inner tensions and ambivalence you will experience will be more intense, than perhaps that of other ministerial generations that have gone before you.
The fact is that we are in the middle of a period of frenzied social, moral and cultural experimentation in America that becomes progressively more intense. These social experiments take ever greater risks. They also grow more and more ambitious in their scope, as well as in the degree to which they reject the constructs and moral foundations established by past generations.
Modern science and technology, a pervasive and sophisticated media with a decidedly secular orientation, the pluralistic outlook of our globalized world, among many other factors, have provided our culture with the analytical tools to be able to deconstruct and neutralize the most sacred and long- held assumptions of society.
The traditional understanding of time, space and eternity is increasingly unsettled by ambitious scientific speculation that includes exotic concepts such as string theory, dark matter and parallel universes. Evolutionary psychology, neurobiology and the exploration of the human genome lead us to question traditional understandings of moral responsibility, free will, love, altruism and even the human soul. Militant homosexuality and the advent of gay marriage send sensitive, reflective Christians into a tailspin of self-questioning and anxious reexamination of our traditional understandings of the creation narrative, human sexuality and the inerrancy of Scripture. Freud, Darwin, Marx and Einstein, and the thought systems they have spawned, have entered the collective consciousness, and made the journey of faith much more complicated and laborious for everyone.
While it is true that most Christians don’t necessarily process these fundamental conflicts in the crisp, lucid way that we are presenting them, the fact remains that they do experience their net effect in an implicit, general way. The white noise created by all the questioning, discordant voices that continually bombard our culture produces dazed, disoriented believers who no longer know what to believe. Their Christian world-view has received devastating body blows, and often they cannot pinpoint exactly why they have lost the sense of clarity and passion about their faith, or why they cannot bring themselves to trust their Christian institutions and spiritual leaders.
Of course, there is also that vast mass of individuals in our culture who simply remain unreached by any kind of Christian influence. Millions of Americans look at Christian culture and teaching from a distance, through a thick glass, darkly and suspiciously. They are truly pagan in the historical, technical sense of the word—untilled spiritual soil, their sensibility essentially untouched and unprepared to process the complexities and paradoxes of the Christian faith.
These modern skeptics, however, are not virgin soil, waiting neutrally and objectively to consider our claims. They are possessed of an intellectual armor and an analytical arsenal that renders them almost impermeable to traditional evangelistic approaches. Their spirits are sealed. They are like the walls of Jericho, securely shut against the preaching of the gospel.
If they are to be reached and their armor penetrated, this will not be accomplished by winsome preaching or polished apologetics alone, important as these are. It will require anointed ministries, saturated with the principles of the Kingdom and profoundly yoked to the person and power of Jesus Christ.
We may feel tempted to get depressed by this picture, but it’s simply a point of departure. This ministerial reality that we inhabit is stark, but it is not hopeless. It’s not the first time in history that Christianity finds itself against the ropes, and ironically, it seems to be our best position anyway. Jesus has promised that the gates of hell shall not prevail against his Church. Adversity and complexity is merely the backdrop for a God who clearly loves drama, and who delights in stepping in at the last minute to rescue drowning disciples.
What we do need to ask is: In the light of these insights about our culture, what ministerial outlook and philosophy do we need to adopt? How do we confront the sterile, spiritual landscape that awaits us as we transition from the relatively safe confines of seminary to concrete ministry? How do we build, creative, faithful ministries, whether we go on to do theological reflection and teaching, or pastoral work, or Christian counseling or urban missions?
How do we engage and listen to the voices of the culture, its internal monologue, its exquisite ambivalence, its sometimes valid criticisms of Christians and institutional Christianity, without going ourselves over to the dark side? How do we become more sensitive to the harrowing predicament of the homosexual, for example, without abandoning the biblical, orthodox understanding of human sexuality? How do we integrate the complexities posited by Darwinism, modern cosmology, feminism, postmodernism — without losing our resolve and the clarity of our message or the crispness of our convictions? How do we expose ourselves to the siren’s call in order to inoculate ourselves against it, without succumbing to its spell and ending up dashing ourselves against the rocks? How do we get into Hamlet’s mind without becoming like Hamlet ourselves?
The fact is that we cannot afford to ignore the powerful intellectual currents of our time and still expect to have ministries that are credible and relevant. Our ministries must be contextualized, and reflect a familiarity and an appreciation of the struggles and questions that our seekers and parishioners wrestle with every day.
We must be able to speak the language of the culture. We must be winsome and sympathetic. Our sermons must reflect compassion toward the gay couple that visits us on Sunday, or the Christian businessman that wrestles with complex ethical dilemmas every week, or the conflicted premed student that oscillates agonizingly between creationism and Darwinism.
The contemporary ministerial dilemma, however, lies in the fact that even as we carry out ministries that reflect grace, justice and cultural sensitivity, we have to remain resolutely orthodox and biblical in our preaching, our discipling and our methodology. It is a delicate balancing act, almost impossible to carry out well and to sustain. The natural temptation will be to go toward one extreme or the other. But by maintaining a firm posture of faith and with the help of the Holy Spirit, there is no doubt that we can succeed in presenting the world with ministries that are both cutting edge and faithful to God’s Word.
My greatest fear for this new ministerial generation is that as it seeks to be faithful in ministry to the values of the gospel—values of love, tolerance, mercy, justice and compassion; that it will end up abandoning, the orthodox, historical, biblical understanding of these exalted principles, and that it will end up gradually absorbing instead the infantile, superficial interpretation of these same values, presented by a disoriented secular culture.
The modern, secular mind has very little understanding of the essential mysteries of the Christian faith; of conscious, personal evil, a fallen cosmos, a holy, sovereign Creator, a purposeful universe, or a God that sacrifices himself on behalf of His creatures. These mysteries, as the apostle Paul reminds us, are to be discerned spiritually, and the natural mind simply doesn’t have the spiritual components to process these things.
The secular sensibility challenges us to be sensitive and affirming, but in so doing, it often expects us to throw overboard almost every distinctive and every paradox of our Christian faith. It offers to come into our churches on Sunday, but only if we suppress the scandalous claims of Christ and his Kingdom. This, of course, is a condition that we cannot fulfill.
We are dealing here with a modern version of the archetypal bargain that Satan offered Jesus in the desert: "I will give you the world without having to go to the cross, but first you have to worship me". If the American evangelical Church accepts this Faustian bargain, like the European Church did centuries ago, it will do so at the cost of its collective soul.
We find ourselves at a fateful crossroads in the long journey of American evangelicalism. It is possible to discern something like a theological paradigm shift taking place in the evangelical sensibility in our nation.
(The very fact that even as we employ the term “evangelical” we’re keenly aware of how problematic that term has become is already an indication of how far we have gone. For the truth is that in our day many Christian leaders and even denominations that have long abandoned the confines of orthodoxy still consider themselves evangelical. They would react violently to the idea that they do not take a high view of Scripture, or that they have strayed from the path of historical Christianity. Perhaps because they have managed to retain the most obvious components of Christian doctrine they have failed to notice that their orthodoxy has developed subtle structural cracks that in time will inevitably lead to its complete collapse.)
American evangelicalism has developed a kind of structural fatigue that threatens to lead us into spiritual compromise and theological capitulation. We have held the fort of orthodoxy for such a long time that we now find ourselves feeling lonely and exhausted, increasingly inclined to fudge the doctrinal edges, and to dampen the call to biblical obedience and personal holiness.
We find it increasingly exasperating and inelegant to insist on the simple truths and the well-worn metaphors of previous generations of believers. We have become overly deferential to the tastes and mores of the time. More and more, we lower the content of our sermons to the lowest common cultural denominator, or hide the cross with embarrassment in order not to alienate potential converts. We make an idol of false love, and allow false dichotomies to develop between justice and mercy, between compassion and truth. We value relationships more than biblical fidelity, and found our ministries more on sociology than on theology or solid biblical exegesis.
The direction in which the nation seems to be going has become more important to many evangelical leaders than the fixed coordinates of “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints”. Often, we find ourselves embracing social justice not so much because it is a biblical mandate, but rather as a way of gaining points with the culture. We grow increasingly impatient with awkward “culture warriors” that denounce abortion and homosexuality as sin, even as we admit privately in muted tones that they are precisely that.
Perhaps I exaggerate a bit, but you get the picture. With respect to contemporary secular culture, American evangelicals are beginning to reflect a curious version of the Stockholm syndrome, where a victim, after repeated battering and abuse, begins to adopt the perspective of its captors as a means of psychological defense.
What then is the correct ministerial posture that we need to adopt with respect to the complex spiritual environment that we inhabit? Where is the point of greatest leverage for us? How do we lift this culture from the spiritual morass into which it has fallen, without falling ourselves into the pit of subtle unbelief and spiritual compromise?
In this respect, we do well to take some ministerial pointers from the apostle Paul. When he had to address the intellectually sophisticated Corinthian culture, he adopted a totally counterintuitive approach. In 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 he states:
And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
Paul decided to rely less on cultural acumen and his considerable intellectual resources, and more on the unassuming but ultimately irresistible power of Jesus Christ. He got to power through the weakness of the cross. He sought influence by making himself insignificant. He refused to put on the armor of Saul, and to depend instead on five smooth stones and a sling empowered by the Spirit of God.
I alluded earlier to contemporary American culture being similar to the walls of Jericho, securely shut against the preaching of the gospel. We should remember that the strategy that God gave Joshua to bring down these walls was eminently spiritual, absolutely ridiculous, but ultimately elegant and spectacularly economical. This is the way of the Kingdom. It is repeated over and over again in the narratives of Moses and Pharaoh, David and Goliath, Gideon and the Midianites, Jehoshaphat and Moab.
The world invites us to engage it intellectually and sociologically, but if we make of cultural relevance and intellect our primary ministerial weapons, we ourselves will be defeated and consumed by them. He who kills by the sword dies by the sword.
We must refuse to fight with the weapons of the world, and instead choose to use the ridiculous, deceptively foolish weapons of the Kingdom. We must resolutely bear in mind that “the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty in God for the pulling down of strongholds.”
In this time of trial and testing for the American church, we should find our directives in the clear, unchanging teaching of the Scriptures, not in the fickle inclinations of society or the vain speculations of disoriented unbelievers. The surest way to end up like Europe, with a decrepit Church and almost complete spiritual irrelevance, is for American evangelicals to adopt a posture of cultural appeasement and theological camouflage.
Against impossible odds such as the ones we face today, our only hope is to revel in our weakness, and to cultivate instead the power of God.
The spiritual shell that encases the mind of so many modern individuals today cannot be penetrated by mere cultural or intellectual arguments, or by being a discreet, winsome presence blended with its surroundings. By engaging in these futile intellectual attempts we only succeed in fueling the insatiable appetite of this culture for intellectual argument and controversy. Instead, we should lay ourselves on the cross, and through our crucifixion generate enough spiritual fire to tear down every spiritual wall that the enemy has erected in our culture.
The safest ministerial posture at this time for American evangelicals is to remain inside the boat of orthodoxy and biblical fidelity, with the cultural storm raging all about us and threatening to drown us, but with the Master inside it, confidently present and ensuring not only our survival, but our safe arrival on the other side, with an enhanced faith and a much deeper understanding of the power and lordship of Christ over every cultural shift and every spiritual conspiracy of the enemy.
As I contemplate our present fear as the Church of becoming irrelevant and slinking into insignificance, I can almost hear the gentle rebuke of Jesus to his panicked disciples: “Why are you so fearful? How is it that you have no faith?” (Mark 4:40)
I firmly believe that the greatest days of the Church, not only in America, but all over the world, are still ahead of us. Even as we acknowledge the daunting complexity of ministry in this modern world, we should look to the future with great hope and excitement. God loves to set up impossible odds, to disqualify us completely, that we might be forced to depend exclusively on Him, and that ultimately He might receive all the glory.
Our present situation in America has all the makings of a glorious biblical narrative. Let us make sure that we enter into this struggle with biblical weapons, and with a resolute biblical outlook.
I declare God’s blessing on you, as you engage in that glorious undertaking.