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Modernizing the church

Modernizing the church

Time to get with it or be left behind, so they keep telling us

Dear friends

It’s been a pretty constant message for most of my lifetime—this call for Christianity to modernize or die—but a couple of recent instances have been notable.

In late August, The Times of London had a story about a survey of Anglican ministers, in which nearly half were in favour of same-sex weddings, and almost two thirds said that the Church should no longer teach that sex belonged only in marriage. It was a strange and probably misrepresentative survey, it must be said, but it led to the predictable refrain, along the lines of “If the Church doesn’t modernize its views on women and sexuality, it will continue to shrink into irrelevance”.

And then just a couple of weeks ago, Julia Baird hosted a discussion on the ABC (followed by an article and numerous letters in The Sydney Morning Herald), tearing into the familiar target of the outdated, misogynistic Sydney Diocese, with a similar kind of punch line—the Anglicans need to change their appalling attitudes or be left behind.

In this week’s episode, we look at why modernization is good, necessary, unavoidable, dangerous and entirely the wrong way to think about it.

Hope that eventually makes sense! (As always, the text below is a much-reduced and edited version of the audio conversation you can listen to by clicking on the player above.)

Your brother


Tony Payne: What are the sort of issues that the media wants us to modernize, when they say we’re on the wrong side of history? 

Phillip Jensen: Well, they tend to be on gender and sexuality issues, like the ordination of women, or the role of women in churches, or the inclusion of homosexuality inside the Christian church and in who we ordain and who we marry. 

TP: They seem to be very concerned about our future survival, which is strange given that it is mostly the non-Christian media who run these stories. What’s the real concern?

PJ: It's a couple of things. One is the morality issue. Certain people see these things as right versus wrong, and think that we are wrong. And that's a debate worth having as to whether these things are right or wrong, and therefore what behaviour we should follow. But more commonly, it's pragmatism; the argument is put in terms of, “Look at the declining numbers of the church. The church is becoming more and more out of touch with society.” 

TP: And especially with the young people.

PJ: Yes, especially the young people. And so they keep on saying, “Well, if you can't have young people, you won't have the next generation in church unless you change your ways.” However, I think those pragmatic arguments are really cover ups for the view of right and wrong. That is, people think our view of divorce and remarriage, our view of sexuality and so on is wrong, while theirs is right. But they argue in terms of the pragmatism saying, “You're becoming out of touch and unreal”, because the intuition of right and wrong, or the argument from Scripture, is beyond them.

TP: So from what you're saying, it sounds like this call for modernization is something we should resist. It sounds like you're against modernization.

PJ: Now, in many ways, modernization is needed, isn't it? I mean, we don't want to live in a time warp. You think of the Amish in America, and you think that they're living in a different world. And there are some churches or denominations which are using ancient languages that people no longer speak. You can go to certain churches where they use the fifth century version of the language, which the congregation does not understand. And to say nothing of technological advantages. I don't like sitting in the dark when electric lights are available to us. There are so many aspects of technology that I think we just take for granted, but it's part of modernization.

TP: And it's not just technology. Language changes too, doesn't it? And surely there's some sort of modernization that's necessary in language?

PJ: Yes. For example, one of the prayers in the Book of Common Prayer goes, “Prevent us, O Lord, in all our doings with thy most gracious favor, and further us with thy continual help ….”

It's a wonderful prayer, because at that time, the word ‘prevent’ meant ‘to go in front of’. So the prayer means: “Lord, go before us in all our doings.” But now, the word ‘prevent’ means ‘to stop’ which then becomes “Lord, stop us doing anything.” So it's a great prayer, but that first word ‘prevent’ really needs to change. We need to modernize it. 

TP: So you are in favor of modernization?

PJ: No, not really, because modernization is itself a wrong thing. We've got to follow traditions—the word ‘tradition’ is not a bad word. It's a New Testament word. There are certain traditions that have been handed on and should not be changed, such as the gospel that Paul spoke of, that Christ died for our sins and rose again. So Paul writes to Timothy about guarding the gospel, including the pattern of sound words that express the gospel. The Colossians started with Christ Jesus as Lord but were then captured off to philosophies or empty deceit and human traditions. So there's a certain sense that what has been handed on is to be retained and preserved. Christianity is not just an endless evolution of new ideas. Jesus Christ died once for all. In many and various ways, God spoke by the prophets, but in these last days, he has spoken by his son. So there's no theological development beyond the apostles.

TP: Yes, there is a finality to what was given. The ‘tradition’ Paul is constantly talking about means to “pass something on”, to deliver something to someone else. Make sure you're delivering and passing on the true tradition, he says—the right patterns of words, the good deposit—and make sure you pass it on to someone who can in turn, pass it on to somebody else. And so to change or divert from what we're supposed to pass on is just unfaithfulness.

PJ: Yes. It is the very nature of the gospel—a gift that has come. But it's also our job as Christians and Christian evangelists not to follow society or culture, but to lead society and culture; to call upon society and culture to repent and change and live a different way. And so when we live in a society that is culturally walking away from God, to follow that culture and society is to walk away from God. 

TP: It's almost an assumption that culture is constantly evolving to a better and better form. And so evolution and modernization is always progressively upwards. So (the argument goes) if you want to be part of the future, you need to change like the rest of us. Whereas in the Bible culture is the way humans organize themselves apart from and in rebellion against God, and so it almost always has that negativity about it. 

PJ: Yes. And you only have to look at a bit of history to realize what a mistake it is. If we'd modernized and followed our culture in the late 19th and early 20th century, we’d have gone the way of eugenics, which was the scientific, evolution-based culture of the time. 

TP: But it was disastrous and awfully racist. Let's get rid of the less developed races and the less developed people and evolve our species into its superior form. Well, that hardly ended in a good place. It ended in Nazi Germany.

PJ: Yes, but Christians (including here in Australia) were ridiculed in magazines for insisting on the fact that we're all humans, we’re of the same blood. “One blood” was the great cry. And we were ridiculed for standing against the progress of culture at that time. 

But the other side of it is the pragmatic argument is also proven to be untrue—this whole idea that if we follow the culture of the day, if we modernize, if we catch up with where people are at, then suddenly our churches will be full, especially with young people. It's untrue in terms of the principle. Why would we bother going to church if church is simply following the culture, if church is following what the unbelievers believe?

And we also see that that pragmatic argument is untrue in numerical facts. Wherever churches have followed the culture of the day and modernized, while the numbers may have increased somewhat in the first moment, they declined very rapidly after that, and permanently. You only have to look at the Uniting Church in Australia, which over the last 30-40 years has been desperately trying to keep up with culture and has adopted each of the things that Sydney Anglicans have been called upon to adopt as well. The numbers of the Uniting Church have declined steadily. And the age of people going to the Uniting Church has been climbing steadily; they don't have the young people. In fact, their youth campsites are being sold off because they don't have ministries amongst those youth anymore.

And that pattern is true in Anglicanism. Those parts of the Anglican Church which have most firmly embraced the modernist culture, are the ones that are the emptiest today, and those that have maintained the traditions of the gospel in the words of God are the ones that are continuing to grow. Sydney Diocese, which is so often attacked, is the one that is growing the most in the Australian scene.

TP: It sounds like modernization is complicated, then, because in one sense, we can't avoid it. And yet modernization in terms of adjusting our beliefs and the faith and the teaching of the Bible to fit with contemporary culture is a fool's errand and not something we should be engaged in. 

PJ: Yes. And going back to our example about language. One of the great periods of change was the Reformation—but it was also a period that led to a great ‘standing still’, because the printing press and the production of Bibles led to the standardization of English (as it did to German).

TP: For example, the idea that there'd be one way to spell a word really comes post the printing press, through disseminating books that have the one spelling.

PJ: Yes, quite so. And it was much easier to have books on grammar when you had a standard thing like the King James Version, by which you could establish what English grammar is or should be. Grammar, of course, is a really important subject, because it's the logic of language—how these different words connect to each other. So the understanding of pronouns and nouns, adverbs and adjectives—the kind of grammar that was taught here in New South Wales when I was a child but has not been taught for 30 or 40 years—is connected with how we understand and describe the world with some degree of commonality, control and accuracy. And the Bible was a big part of it. We had biblical ways of thinking and had biblical language because the Bible pretty decisively shaped the way our language developed. 

TP: Yes, the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer (along with the works of Shakespeare) were the books that defined and shaped English for centuries.

PJ: And this meant that words like ‘redemption’ or ‘atonement’ would be understandable within the English framework fairly easily. But of course, grammar hasn't been taught for a generation and has led, I think, to a decline in literacy. But more than that, at the same time, there's been this wonderful rise in visual media, firstly, of course, through the picture theatres, but then through television, and now through the internet. And that weakens language considerably. Neil Postman’s book “Amusing Ourselves to Death” that came out in 1985 pointed out the decline in language and the increase in pictures in the newspapers.

Pictures weaken logic because they replace logic with feeling, with buzzwords, images, memes, virtual signals and brevity. And so modern English has moved very much to brevity. Even our Bibles don't have long sentences any more, as the original Greek does or as our old translations had. Now we just have sentences of subject-verb-object, and the connections between the sentences have been lost, just replaced with a full stop, which means the logic of the argument has been seriously undermined, made worse by the kind of postmodern deconstructionism which rejects that there is a logic to language. The logic is Donald Trump; you just say whatever you want to say to win the audience over to your viewport.

TP: So modernization is complicated. Every development within our modern culture, even seemingly neutral developments that are not inherently evil, like how we interact with media to communicate with each other, have an influence on how we think and how we communicate and the direction of our culture. For example, we’ve moved away from a culture that was built on the King James Bible, so to speak, towards a more visual culture, or a more affectionate, feelings-based culture that's expressed in how we communicate and so on. This means that modernization isn't always a neutral topic. It's sometimes a move away from a way of thinking and talking about our world that's shaped by the gospel.

We must come back to this at some point, because you're triggering off a little rant I wouldn't mind having about the use of PowerPoints in sermons. But let's get back to the complications of modernization.

PJ: Yes, and it's been made more complicated because language used to change from the bottom up as people spoke differently, and took on new words; and gradually, over time, the dictionaries noticed these changes. But today, from the top down, we're being told how to speak. Government departments, the ABC and the like are putting out statements about which pronouns we’re allowed to use or not allowed to use in accordance with their ideologies and philosophies. And the language is being destroyed in this. So the pronoun ‘they’ is plural, but now it's being used so as to avoid gender. So we now have an individual being called ‘they’, which has changed the logic of how we're supposed to think, by the government. It's a different kind of change.

TP: So is modernization the wrong way to think about it? The wrong category?

PJ: Yeah, I'm sure it is. Traditionalism is not always right. In Mark 7, Jesus attacks people for following the traditions rather than the Word of God. And those who want to just go back and hang on to traditions are not actually walking by the Word of God. On the other hand, traditionalism is right. So Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11 that he's really pleased they followed the traditions that have been handed on to them. And in 2 Thessalonians, he talks not only about the traditions of words, but also behaviour. So traditionalism is neither right nor wrong. And I think modernization is neither right nor wrong. So therefore, to divide what we're doing in terms of modernism or traditionalism, is the wrong way to think.

TP: How then should we think as we confront a constantly changing world, changing language, and changing technologies? How do we think about what should and shouldn’t change? 

PJ: Well, certainly not in terms of modernization in a pagan world or as the media pushes us, because they're always pushing us away from God. And so we don't want to go that way. Also, we don't necessarily want to follow cultures, because some cultures differ from us. And our own culture keeps changing.

But there are certain things about life which never change, like creation; we're still having babies. You know, there are fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, but sin destroys and distorts everything, even family life. And so the church is to be led by shepherds who teach the Word of God. By and large, most of the cultural symbols, such as the music and the kind of way you wear your shoes don’t matter. The Bible doesn't talk about it. In fact, the Bible allows a lot of freedom on those matters. We have enormous amounts of freedom to live in accordance with our families and in accordance with our culture, but we have to preserve gospel truths. And we have to preserve the worldview that comes out of those gospel truths. And even more, we've got to promote and teach those gospel views in opposition to the world. We need to evangelize by living a life of holiness, living differently for God, and so the church must be edifying us in Christ-likeness of life.

TP: Language keeps shifting and changing as we find new ways to talk about reality. But the reality doesn't change because it's a created reality. And our problems with the reality we live in are all different in their manifestations, because our sinfulness and our rebellion against God has all kinds of shapes and takes all kinds of forms. But underneath it all, there is a stability to the way the world is because God created it that way and created us that way. And it's why the gospel is so translatable. It's why you can go to a different place, to a different culture with a different history, and before too long, you can find words to talk about the reality that you share, because, in a sense, the words are called forth by that shared reality of God and the world and who we are and how we relate to God. 

PJ: Yes, but it is easier in some cultures than others, because of the way those languages have developed. Actually, because of the role of the Reformation, it has been easier in English than in other languages. But as English shifts and moves and with media pushing away from the gospel, it's becoming harder.

TP: And there'll be some biblical concepts that get harder to talk about in English because of the way our culture is changing. That doesn't mean we stop talking about those concepts and those realities, but we just have to work a little harder.

So the way forward really is the way that Paul calls for in 1 Corinthians 12-14—to keep pursuing edification in a language that's intelligible for the people.

Whether it's modernized, or whether it's traditional, it's the truth expressed in language that people can understand, so that hearing the sound of the trumpet clearly, they can hear the call and respond to it. And very often that call for modernization is not the call we need to hear.


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Two Ways News
Two Ways News
Gospel thinking for today, with Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen.
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