“Where are all the young people?”
I’ve been at countless meetings where I have been approached by a kindly and passionate older lady who has asked me that question. Statistically in NZ the church is shrinking in people under 60 and growing in people over 60 so probability says our meetings will be dominated by older people. Many of the older people I have met genuinely want more younger people involved, many of them I have met are even willing to sit with changes to enable that to happen. I pray that in 30 years time I will have the grace to put aside my own convictions to enable a Christian faith gathering that engages the young. However despite what feels like revisiting the same issues for several years now, I am not noticing much progress in engaging people under 50 with Christianity. I started out my ministry career working with young adults and eventually moved to missions, that may seem like an odd trajectory. But as I sought to find a way ahead for the young adults I worked with I became convinced that the best research and insight was from missiology. The principles developed for people crossing cultures helped memost as I tried to find frameworks for engaging with young adults. We need to acknowledge that people under 40 inhabit a completely different culture than older people. The church as we currently have it was formed for and by people over 50. So we have a problem of crossing cultures if we are going to help younger people feel engaged and welcome in a church which is essentially a foreign experience for them. I am convinced that if we are going to re-imagine the people of God for today and the future, experience Spirit led growth and mend the rift betweenyounger and older generations we need to delve deep and take a prayerful and reflective look at our theology.
At the core of the generation gap that we are seeing in the church is the worldview shift from modernity to postmodernity. In the main NZ evangelical churches have failed to acknowledge that this creates a cultural barrier between younger people and older people, which has led to a lack of good contextualisation for the new environment of post-modernity. Meanwhile wehave experienced an increasing worldview gap between those brought up in modernity and those brought up in post-modernity. The differences in worldview, in thinking, in ideas and even in how we think about thinking run deep.
To make progress in re-imagining the church our conversations need to look beyond the stereotypes of what post-modernity is, to look beyond the style of how we do things and bring to the forefront the underlying layer of worldview, ideology and theology.
What is theology?
We all do theology all the time even if we don’t label it as such. At it’s most basic, theology can be defined as “the study of God and of God's relation to the world” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/theology). So we do theology whenever we talk about God and talk about God and the world.
Theology is also an academic discipline that most pastors and church leaders would have studied as part of their preparation for ministry. It is defined by Erickson as “that discipline which strives to give a coherent statement of the doctrines of the Christian faith, based primarily upon the Scriptures, placed in the context of culture in general, worded in a contemporary idiom, and related to issues of life.”
So it is clear from the definition of theology that it is not something that stays in the minds of academics, it comes out and rubs shoulders with the context, it engages with the current issues of the day. However because most of the people who attend church don't study as much theology as their church leaders, it can take time for thinking in the field to become the cultural norm in churches. So theology that is talked about and written about in leadership settings can be different to the atmosphere of theological thought in a local church setting.
As part of our desire to engage those who are disengaged from church we need to be asking, Is our theology worded for the society we live in? and How well does it relate to current issues of life?
Lets start by agreeing that theology is not static
As we begin to prayerfully reflect on our theology, the starting point needs to be an agreement that theology is not static. Theology is not a body of universal truth that has never changed and will never change. If we look back at the history of theology we can see how it has changed, developed and grown over time. For example the centre of theological thought shifted from the Eastern Mediterranean to Western Europe in the 1000s, this had a major impact on its flavour and development. Theology is formed in response to time and context. McGrath says “Christian theology can be regarded as an attempt to make sense of the foundational resources of faith in the light of what each day and age regards as first-rate methods. This means that local circumstances have a major impact upon theological formulations”. It is tempting to be attached to the theology that we learnt when we first came to faith as the sole articulation of truth, but we need to hold those ideas a bit looser to allow theology to continue to develop and grow and to respond to the context and relevant issues and questions of society.
At its heart theology is a poor human attempt to understand and articulate the divine. God is vaster than our human brains can describe and that means there is always more that we can know, or say, or understand at a given time. If we fail to acknowledge that theology is subjective and contextual we fall into the trap of teaching and sharing doctrine rather than encouraging life giving discourse about God.
We need to teach meta-theology
I can hear the gasps and the concern, but if we believe that theology develops over time and is contextual then how do we ensure orthodoxy is maintained. if we acknowledge that theology does not have to be static then it becomes the role of good process and method applied in a diverse community of faith, to ensure that we don’t stray too far from the boundaries of orthodoxy. I see many young people going through a process of deconstructing their faith, wrestling through the lifeless (in worst case scenarios harmful) doctrines that they were taught, but as they do this too many of them are left without any tools to begin the process of re-construction. They then develop a very reductionist idea of what it means to be a Christian. If those of us who preach and teach in the church begin to show a greater transparency that illuminates process and method then younger people will have good tools in place to help them reconstruct their faith to a deeper and more developed level than what they currently manage.
This is an idea that I am applying from missiology where it was popularised by Heibert who referred to it as meta-theology. He points out that this was a stance taken by the Ana-baptists who saw “theology as the application of biblical truths to the situations in which people found themselves.” They had three criteria to test theological processes for error, firstly was it biblically based, was the person/people interpreting the bible responsive to the leading of the Holy Spirit, and was the person open to the responses of the Christian community. So meta theology is “a set of procedures - by which different theologies, each a partial understanding of the truth in a certain context, could be constructed. These had to be rooted in the scriptures, particularly in the person of Jesus Christ; they had to arise our of the questions of everyday life.” (Heibert, 1988)
Developing Theology for the Future
There are three main areas in which we need to develop the theological atmosphere of our churches.
Our theology needs to become more holistic, theology that engages with the whole of life and the whole of the created order, it is not just about our spiritual state. Unfortunately most of the faith systems that western NZers have inherited developed out of a Greco-Roman thought pattern that created and maintained a separation between the spiritual and the worldly or material. In this way of thinking going to church is spiritual and cooking dinner is not. This creates compartments that make it difficult for our faith to interact with the rest of our life, and it can leave our faith with nothing to say to current issues. A holistic theology takes in the whole sweep of the biblical narrative from creation to re-creation. It acknowledges that after God created the world, everything in it and humans, he declared it good. We too can see all these things as good, as worthy and valuable. Of course the relationship between God and people, people and the earth, and people with other people was harmed at the fall so we no longer live in perfect harmony. I recently had it pointed out to me (thanks Gisela Kreglinger) that God’s covenant after the great flood was with every living thing. Theology does not just deal with the spiritual piece of humans, theology encompasses the totality of how the world works. It means that our work to care for creation, is just as spiritual as going to church as it is part of our call and vocation from God. It allows us to experience God though our senses, through creativity and through creation.
A holistic theology allows us to delight in the world God created, and care for it as a spiritual act.
The Gospel revisited
In the evangelical circles that I used to frequent, it was assumed that we all knew what “The Gospel” was. It was held in high esteem and it was assumed that we all wanted to share it. The term “The Gospel” was really a term for the main message of our faith. Usually for people who use that term it covers a reductionist statement of what Jesus did, and it is all about individuals sin and guilt.
We need to ask does this as the main message of our faith resonate any longer?
I know that many mission agencies that focus on evangelism struggle in the NZ church because younger people have lost confidence in “the Gospel”. Certainly our evangelism efforts within NZ need to start at a point further back in the biblical narrative than Jesus, as people don’t have the basic understandings that they once did.
The main message of our faith needs to start way back at the beginning with a good and loving God who created the whole world and gave humans a special place in it. This gives us more to work with when we try and understand the main message of our faith. Once again we can turn to the world of missiology for help to consider how to contextualise well the main message of our faith for NZ today. As the messages of sin and guilt no longer resonate, perhaps it is time to start talking about shame, as many in the missions world do.
As I consider the world that we inhabit in New Zealand in 2017 as we formulate a main message of our faith to this world, I am convinced it needs to be a message that is centred on holding out hope to people who are struggling with hopelessness. As we develop this main messagewe need to find, claim and articulate the hope that our God holds out for us to grasp. We need to find ways to be living hope bearers connecting the world to the greater hope onto which we cling. As we develop our main message of hope, we need to keep in mind that if it is not a message of hope for all, then it is not really hope for anyone.
God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
We have a God that is three in one, and it strikes me that during different periods in the history of the Christian faith emphasis has been placed on different persons of the trinity. Different denominations focus on different persons of the trinity, and as individuals we seem to be captured by or stumped by different persons of the trinity. Personally I struggle with the Holy Spirit, how the Spirit works and interacts with the rest of the Trinity has always baffled me. I hope you will forgive me a generalisation but it seems to me that before the reformation the focus was on God the father, then post reformation and with the rise of evangelical rationalism we seemed to emphasise the work of Jesus. In some situations of more traditional evangelicalism this has almost led to the exclusion of the Holy Spirit.
As we develop a theology that resonates with the questions of today and gives us a vibrant and relevant faith, we need to put the trinity back together. Our developing theology needs to place an equal emphasis on God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. We are moving into a time in the church where there will be a greater emphasis on the work of the Spirit, and a well grounded understanding of the trinity will be required. Pentecostalism has always emphasised the work of the Spirit, this has been in some cases to the extreme of neglecting God and Jesus. A holistic theology avoids some of the pitfalls that Pentecostalism can fall into such as prosperity doctrine and an ant-intellectual stance. Third Article theology has a lot to offer us as we develop a more Trinitarian approach. Third article theology is named after the third article of the Apostles Creed that states “conceived by the Holy Spirit”. Third article theology refocuses us on the transformative work of the Holy Spirit in the world and in our communities. It helps us develop a theology through the lens of the Holy Spirit. To read morea bout third article theology go here.
Theology needs to promote discourse, rather than shut it down, it needs to provide a framework for exploring questions not provide answers to questions that aren’t being asked. It is time that we started a discussion about changes that are needed at the theological level if the church is to have a future. Our theology needs to offer hope for all and support a vibrant well contextualised faith.
How often have you had a conversation at church about theology?
How often have you had a conversation with someone younger than you about theology?
Do you think that theology is static? Why or why not?
How would you tell the main message of the Christian faith? How does that relate to NZ society?