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Has The Church A Future?


Matthew 4:1-11    Matthew 16:13-20    Deuteronomy 8:1-4

“Has the church a future?” “Of course it has a future”, the astute person says immediately.   “The church is the earthly manifestation of Christ’s body.  The body will live as surely as the head lives.  Christ is the head of the church.  He has been raised from the dead and will never die.  If the head lives, the body lives.  Therefore, the church will never die.  For this reason Christ has promised that the powers of death will never prevail against the church.”

I agree completely. The church is the earthly manifestation of Christ’s body.  The risen one is its head. As surely as the head lives, the body will live. And no destructive power will crumble it.

To say this, however, is to say that Jesus Christ guarantees that the community of his faithful people will never perish. The community (not a building or a congregation or a denomination); the community of Christ’s faithful people (faith-filled people: we’re not talking here of membership rolls or baptism registers or Christmas and Easter drop-ins); this is what our Lord has guaranteed.  But buildings? They are crumbling all the time. (Until the advent of fire alarms and sprinkler systems any one church building could be counted on to burn down every fifty years.)   Denominations? History is littered with the dry bones of long-dead denominations.         Congregations? Congregations come and go every day.

So — does the church have a future?   We need to put the question more precisely.  Does the community of Christ’s faithful people have a future?   Whether or not the fellowship of Christ’s people has a future is related to whether or not Jesus himself had a future when he began his public ministry. At the outset of his public ministry (and many times thereafter, we may be sure) our Lord was tempted; wrenchingly tempted.  Whether or not he had a future thereafter depended on his response at that moment. In similar manner whether or not the church has a future depends on our response to the same three temptations that assaulted our Lord.


I: — The first temptation Jesus faced was the temptation to be relevant.   What, after all, could be more relevant than turning stones into bread? Stones abound; bread is scarce. Jesus looked at hungry people every day. Surely a little more bread would have gone a long way.

At the same time, there were many ways that bread could be made in Palestine and should be made. But it wasn’t going to be made as it should until some men and women were moved to make it and share it; and they weren’t going to be moved until they had undergone heart-transplants at the hand of the master himself.

When our Lord was tempted to collapse his entire vocation and ministry into meeting instantly immediate physical need he fought down the temptation and shouted at the tempter, “One doesn’t live by bread alone but by the truth and reality of a living engagement with the living God!” When the three waves of temptation had abated (temptation, I find, usually comes in waves, like nausea) he emerged from his lonely spot, the wilderness, because the temptation to renounce vocation and ministry for immediate relevance had passed — for the time being.

Several years ago Robertson Davies, a novelist and playwright who never pretended to be a theologian, insisted that there is nothing more pitiable, nothing more pathetic, and nothing more irrelevant, than a church that tries to be relevant. A church that tries to be relevant, said Davies, holds up its finger to the wind, and then hoists its own sail to be blown in the same direction as everyone else. The church’s vocation, said Davies, is always to sail against the wind; to beckon others to its counter-culture, to sound the beat of a different drummer. The folly of a church bent on relevance, of course, is that it tries to out-world the world. It adopts the world’s agenda; it thinks with the world’s self-understanding; it parrots the world’s pronouncements.  It then succeeds in two things: it renders itself useless to God and neighbour, and it makes itself a laughing-stock.

Not for one minute am I suggesting that the church bury its head in the sand and ignore what’s going on all around it or remain unaware of the sorts of suffering people endure in our era.   But I must insist that underneath what’s going on in our era, for good and for ill, there remain in every era the deepest human need, the profoundest human heartache, the most frustrating self-contradiction. Regardless of the era the deepest human need is for God.         The profoundest heartache is for intimacy (genuine intimacy with our Lord and also with fellow-creatures).  The most frustrating self-contradiction is the ingrained futility born of our fallen nature, born of our systemic sinnership.         All of this is precisely what the world calls irrelevant.  And all of this is what the church knows to be supremely relevant.

Let me repeat. Our Lord never belittled material need.  He healed the sick and fed the hungry and assisted the storm-tossed. But he resisted the temptation to do this in any way that would inhibit even those he helped from coming to see their deeper need and their profounder predicament. He resisted the temptation to be immediately relevant in any way that would render them even less sensitive to the provision God has made for what ails them most. He resisted the temptation to conform to the world’s opinion of relevance in order to acquaint them with the ultimate relevance.  We don’t live by bread alone; we live by an encounter with the Holy One himself in which the human heart is transfigured eternally.

The church has a future, in the first place, as long as it too resists the temptation to be relevant.


II: — The church has a future, in the second place, if it resists the temptation to be spectacular. Jesus was tempted, in the second place, to throw himself off the highest pinnacle of the temple and alight upon the ground unharmed.         Think of the following he would have had if he had done that.

Yes, just think of the following he would have had.   There wouldn’t have been so much as a single disciple among them; there would have been only gawkers and rubber-neckers and sensationalists who wanted another look at the best sideshow trickster of them all. Sideshow trickery doesn’t induce people to repent and trust and love — and follow.

There’s a non-biblical legend about Jesus that speaks of our Lord fashioning clay pigeons out of clumps of wet clay.  When he has finished sculpturing these clay pigeons he animates them and they all fly away. If he had done such a thing people would certainly have flocked to him — for 30 minutes. They would have gathered around him and asked him to do it again.  A few instances of this, however, and they would have wearied of the magician’s show and gone home.  Who is induced to love and follow and adore — even give herself up for — someone who belongs in a C.N.E. sideshow?

For this reason I remain unimpressed by so much of which the church boasts. Cathedrals, for instance. The tour-guide tells us that this or that cathedral is the oldest or the largest or the best instance of this or that kind of architecture anywhere in the world. No doubt the tour-guide is right. He doesn’t tell us, however, that right now it costs fifteen million dollars per day to maintain all the cathedrals in Great Britain.   (Wouldn’t a dozen cathedrals be enough for museum interests?)   What does such spectacularity have to do with the vocation and mission of the church? Jesus repudiated spectacularity.

For years the cheerleaders at football games have bothered me.  I go to the game to see football.  If the game itself can’t draw enthusiasts then there’s something wrong with the game. There’s manifestly much wrong with the game if the event has to be augmented by a bevy of 22-year old females whose attire is provocatively “minimalist.” Things got worse with the Blue Jays — where there are no cheerleaders.  The spectacular electronic scoreboard is plainly the entertainment, the event, the game of baseball being less entertaining for most spectators, apparently, than the electronic displays, the beer concessions and the public washrooms.  Worse again with the Raptors, where the basketball game is merely a footnote to the extravaganzas unfolding everywhere in the building, not to mention the rock music that throbs throughout the game.

The church is always tempted to do the same thing.  We are always tempted to bring people onto the premises by something other than an exaltation of our Lord himself.  The problem is, what we deploy to get people onto the premises contradicts the nature and purpose and thrust of the gospel.

Recently the president of one of America’s largest seminaries “lit up” as he told me about a multi-million dollar bequest that would fund the newest technology in interactive T.V.  With this wonderful new technology there was no need to bring a visiting professor to the seminary; now a student could sit in front of a T.V. screen and listen to a lecture from a professor in England or Australia, even “talk” (as it were — but in fact is not and never will be) to the same professor. As the seminary president glowed to the point of spontaneous combustion I realized that what had “hooked” him was the spectacularity of the technology. A question occurred to me: “This technology and what it does; is it all of a piece with what we know of our Lord and how he acts and what he does for us in restoring us before God and reconstituting our humanness, or does it contradict this?”   You see, the incarnation means ever so much, but it means at least that God meets us most intimately where our humanity intersects the humanity of others. What does interactive T.V. have to do with the intersection of our common humanity?   I thought next of 2nd John 12 and 3rd John 13, two brief verses from the two tiniest books in the bible: “…I hope to come to see you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not an old-fashioned “Luddite,” someone opposed to technology in principle. I do think that surgery is a genuine advance on the application of leeches, and I’d rather fly to England than endure two months of seasickness in a sailing vessel.

Neither am I opposed to educational technology.  In fact I have instructed scores of distance-education students by means of audio-recordings. Of course it’s better that the student in New Guinea pursue the needed course by means of electronic sophistication than not pursue it at all.  But we must remember at all times that such methods are always a distant second best. We must remember that what is communicated in a ‘live’ classroom isn’t chiefly information; what’s communicated chiefly is a person (who happens to be informed.) What is mutually communicated is the person of the teacher and the person of the student in a profound reciprocity. Information can be garnered from a book; persons can be communicated to each other only through personal encounter.  It’s little wonder that John writes, “I hope to come to see you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.”         The personal must never be surrendered to the spectacular.

What’s the alternative to spectacularity?  It isn’t dullness. The alternative to spectacularity is simplicity; simplicity that is at the same time vulnerability. Like the incarnation, the cross of Jesus means eversomuch.  But it means at least that there is no limit to the vulnerability of God’s love for us. If the cross means that there’s no limit to God’s vulnerability in loving us, then what does resurrection mean?  It means at least that there is no limit to the effectiveness of love’s vulnerability. If the cross of Jesus and the resurrection of Jesus together mean that there is no limit to the vulnerability of God’s love for us and no limit to its effectiveness, then it’s plain what the Christian community must be about. Forget spectacularity.

Let me point out that simplicity doesn’t mean simple-mindedness. Neither does simplicity mean naive ignorance of life’s complexity.  Life is complex.  Any simplicity on ‘this’ side of complexity is a false simplicity; the simplicity on the ‘other’ side of complexity, however, is profound. The simplicity that we find on the ‘far side’ of complexity; the simplicity that’s suffused by vulnerability – this is where the Christian life unfolds, repudiating any temptation towards spectacularity.

Speaking of vulnerability; Gerald May (M.D.), is a psychiatrist in Washington whose books and personal correspondence have helped me immensely. May’s psychiatric work has taken him to Viet Nam with the U.S. Air Force, to city streets on behalf of the drug-addicted, and to prison hospitals as well as state hospitals. May says, “Some wisdom deep inside us knows that we can’t love safely; either we enter it undefended or we don’t enter it at all.”  May is right. Some wisdom deep inside us knows that we can’t love safely; either we love recklessly, defencelessly, vulnerably or we don’t love.

Henri Nouwen, Dutch Roman Catholic priest (now dead), whose works are known to many people in every denomination; Nouwen had a glittering career as university professor, first at Yale then at Notre Dame and finally at Harvard. Twenty years ago Nouwen left Harvard and went to live and work at L’Arche (in Richmond Hill), Jean Vanier’s facility for men who are severely intellectually challenged. Nouwen said that during all the years he lived and worked at L’Arche the question he was asked most frequently was — what question do you think intellectually challenged men would put to Nouwen most often? It was, “Are you home tonight?” “Are you home tonight?” didn’t mean, “Are you going to be in the building at 6:00 p.m.?” It meant, “Are you going to be available to us?  Are you going to be ‘present’ beyond being physically present? Are you going to lay aside your armour, surrender your defences, and grant us access to genuine intimacy?” To be sure, intellectually challenged men couldn’t wrap such words around their question, but the question deep in their hearts was profound: “Are you home tonight?”

The opposite of spectacularity isn’t dullness; the opposite of spectacularity is simplicity, a simplicity that invites rather than protects, forges intimacy rather than armour, cherishes vulnerability rather than victory — and knows that when all of this is suffused by the Spirit of the risen one, love’s vulnerability will be vindicated as the efficacy in God’s economy.


III: — Does the church have a future? It does if it can resist, like its Lord, one more temptation, the temptation of domination. Jesus was taken to a vantage point from which he could apprehend at once all the powers and forces of this world.  They were his for the taking — even as this entailed, of course, his forsaking of his cruciform vocation.         He spurned the tempter and affirmed his vocation.  He would serve, not domineer; he would trust his Father, not tyrannize to see instant “success”; he would even go to the cross before he attempted to coerce.

The temptation to dominate is with us all the time.  Because we are fallen creatures we assume that we are the measure of everything and therefore there’s no reason why we shouldn’t impose our will on others. What’s more, because we are impatient we want to impose our will on others now.  The older I grow the more I realize how much human distress, how many tortured relationships, can be accounted for by one matter: control; the craving to control; an obsession with control.  The point or matter or item that’s at issue can be small.  (Usually it is.) Nevertheless, the smallest matter is the occasion of life-or-death struggle for control.

It appears to be life or death for the two parties in the struggle.  The truth is, where human relationships are tortured it isn’t life or death, with one party emerging triumphant. Control-issues are death and death; death for both parties.

The temptation to dominate is a temptation that laps at us relentlessly. After all, it’s always easier to dominate than it is to love, isn’t it?  Love ultimately means that we abandon the safety of our fort; domination, on the other hand, means that we thicken the walls of the fort: ‘Fort Self-Preservation.’   But it never works, finally.  All attempts at control, all attempts at self-preservation, finally issue in such widespread destruction that no “other” remains to control and no “self” remains to preserve.

The church should know better.  God’s way with his people has always been different.  God’s way with Israel was never the way of coercion.  God’s way with Israel has always been the way of a lover who gains his beloved only by wooing her.  God’s way with Israel, says Hosea, is the way of a husband who is always grieved and frequently angered by an unfaithful wife but can never bring himself to give her up.  In struggling to bring forth a people who mirror him in faith and cherish their neighbours in love God likens himself to a woman in obstetrical distress over the resistance of her dream-child in coming to birth, a child who now pains the one who conceived it in joy.  She longs only to have her joy completed in the safe arrival of the new-born. However distressed she might be at her protracted obstetrical difficulties, there is no thought of aborting the enterprise.

But it’s easier to dominate, isn’t it?   The church has enormous difficulty resisting the temptation to dominate. So many of the tragic ruptures in the history of the church — like the schism between the Eastern and Western churches in the 11th century, and the schism within the Western church in the 16th century Reformation – these have been issues of domination.

There was a time when the church controlled Quebec politics.   There was a time when membership in the Orange Lodge was the ticket of admission to Toronto politics.   There was a time, one of my Scottish professors told me, even during his lifetime, when you had to be a member of the Church of Scotland if you wanted to get work in schoolteaching (in Scotland), in banking, or in the civil service. Today the Church of Scotland, the national church of the land, is dying so fast it’s expected to disappear virtually by 2040. And in Quebec? Any sociologist will tell you that Quebec is the most thoroughly secularized region of North America. The church in Quebec, I have found, is the outfit that young Quebeckers loathe.   When are we going to learn that the lust for domination spells death?

Does the church have a future?   The church relishes the chance to flex its muscles and roar like a lion and coerce people in our society whether physically or socially or psychologically the way the church has coerced people so often in the past. Even the people of the bible are quick to speak of the lion, the lion of the tribe of Judah, the symbol of God’s power. The problem, if problem it is, is that whenever the people of God think they need the lion most urgently, the lion never shows up.  What shows up instead is a lamb — over and over in scripture, right to the end.

In the book of Revelation, the last book in Holy Scripture, John is with his fellow-Christians who have been flayed by yet another wave of persecution. Desperate for relief, they all look for the lion once more.  Opening their tear-blinded eyes they see the lamb, bearing the marks of slaughter, and together they sing a new song, says John. Why new?   Because they know that their Lord’s faithfulness in the face of temptation ensured him a future. Their faithfulness will ensure them a future. And they know that “future” and “genuinely new” are one and the same.         Then it’s no wonder they see the lamb mangled and yet break forth into a new song.


Has the church a future? To say the same thing differently, to whom does Christ’s promise of protection against the powers of death apply?   In the last book of the bible John speaks of “a great multitude which no man can number, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the Lamb and the throne….”
Yes, the church has a future, a glorious future. And this future includes a great multitude which no one can number, for this multitude will be those who resisted temptations to be relevant, to be spectacular, to dominate; this multitude will be those who instead cherished intimacy with their Lord, exemplified his vulnerability, even lived and died for others so that these others too might be numbered among those gathered before the Lamb and the throne.


                                                                                                        Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                                     

January 2010