A Tree, a Cliff, a Lens
The Church's Mission in New Zealand
New Zealand society is in a sorry state. The way we think has a lot to do with where we find ourselves. Paul Windsor shares three 'pictures' which help us see what's going on and how Christians can make a difference.
The purpose of the trip to KMart was to buy a car stereo. Nothing less. Nothing more. Scott and I soon found the wall of options near the back of the crowded store. However, good keen man that he is, Scott quickly saw an opportunity to proclaim Christ. He went to every one of the two dozen display radios in that public place, tuned them to the Radio Rhema frequency, and turned up the volume.
Wow - what a novel way to conduct mission! After all, God does not receive much airtime today. But it made me pause and think about the missionary challenge facing the church in New Zealand today. How should we proceed? Talking louder needs to be supplemented with thinking deeper. Three images can point the way ahead . . . .
A Tree: Imaging our Culture
Our culture can be pictured as a tree with shoots and roots. The shoots are the crises we see and to which we respond. The roots are what nourish these shoots. They tend to be things we do not see and to which we are making very little response.
Cataloguing these shoots is an endless task. In West Auckland the shoot which is suicide is ever present. A handful of years ago suicide was a monthly occurrence - in 1997 it became a weekly one.
According to police statistics, there are 500 thefts, 50 serious assaults, and 10 sexual attacks every day in New Zealand. Children are themselves giving birth to children and 40% of New Zealand children are born outside marriage.
We have a casino culture which is infiltrating our society; dishonesty becoming a billion dollar drain on the nation; families which dysfunction; and drug addiction still being glorified in widely-acclaimed movies such as Trainspotting. Stress and depression is such that prescriptions for Prozac now appear commonplace. Furthermore, the word 'rage' is seeping into the vernacular just as 'abuse' did a decade ago. And that's only the start . . .
The focus must never leave the shoots. Attention to them is what makes mission credible. However, if mission is to prevail another focus must be added. The roots which nourish these shoots must be identified and treated, or we may find ourselves merely pruning the shoots and despairing over the way they bounce back stronger than ever.
These roots (that which remains unsaid in the Fraser interview, unwritten in the Sunday Star Times editorial, and largely unthought by most citizens) are the hidden assumptions in our culture. They are the intangible 'where people are coming from' which drives their lives. And they are also responsible for the tragic shoots referred to above. Inevitably, when we focus on the roots we encounter an -ism underground.
Naturalism: slamming the door in God's face
Naturalism affirms that nature (or the cosmos) is, in the words of Carl Sagan, "all that is or ever was or ever will be". The 'super-' prefix of 'supernatural' has been removed. God has been shut out of his own world. There is no Mind behind it all. Life has been horizontalised. In our universities, where the nation's minds are shaped, this -ism is ascendant as ever-increasing areas of the world are explained without reference to the living God of the Bible.
Technicism: savouring the salvation of science and technology
There is nothing inherently wrong with science and technology. However, in our culture they have become ideologies and been given quasi-divine status with salvific importance.
"While scientism holds out the promise of omniscience, technicism offers us omnipotence . . . science and technology have become autonomous guides, lifted out of their place in God's creation and absolutised, elevated into idols."1 As James Sire expresses it, every time we have a problem we turn to technology for a solution. "The prophecy of technicism is simple: if it can be done it will be done . . . the ethics of technicism follow immediately: if it can be done, it should be done. In fact, doing it constitutes progress."2 Technology has become the mediator between 'god' and humankind.
Narcissism: soaking up to the self
Rene Descartes' little ditty - "I think, therefore I am" - may have seemed innocent enough at the time. However, as Copernicus did with the sun, it caused a revolution by restructuring the world so that it revolved around the individual. "I am self-sufficient. I need not, I ought not, depend on anyone but myself. I am in charge of my life. Who am I? Whatever I make myself to be. I do not get my identity from being part of a group, whether humanity, nation, tribe or family."3
As the centuries have passed narcissism has proliferated. Today, to be narcissistic is to pursue, as the focus for my attention and commitment, myself in the place of God and to become absorbed with my image, my fulfilment, my rights, and my actualisation. A whole vocabulary has been invented to cope with this epidemic and psychotherapists now acknowledge a 'narcissistic personality disorder'.
Pluralism: sitting down to the belief buffet
Pluralism has been described as the background noise in our culture. It is a deep tap root. It is the -ism which asserts not just that diversity is a good thing but that "in the religious and philosophical arenas no position has the right to declare another position wrong."4 Every opinion deserves an equal share in the market place of ideas.
Tolerance is the highest virtue and openness of mind the grandest pursuit. To be caught imposing a viewpoint on someone else is the only heresy. There are many roads up the mountain to God, and no one travelling on any of them need 'give way' to any else. Christian uniqueness is a myth. Truth becomes "a pudding you concoct with a recipe rather than a rock you lay bare by scraping away the soil".5
Other -isms exist in the underground. Splitting the world with dualism, scorning all authority with postmodernism, sifting every decision with economicism . . . . My purpose, however, is not to provide an inventory, but to alert the reader to the need for a particular skill as we look at this tree which is our culture: the skill of being able to trace a particular shoot to its root(s).
Can we see the damaging obsession with fate and luck and astrology and new age eccentricities to be an outgrowth of naturalism? Can we see the chronic relational inabilities of increasing numbers of people to be rooted in technicism? Can we see the abuses and the suicide rates as an outgrowth of narcissism? Can we see domestic violence as, in part, rooted in pluralism? Or talkback radio, political correctness, and MMP as nurtured by this same pluralism?
It is this capacity to link shoot with root(s) which is needed. And yet, in New Zealand we have not cherished the 'deep 'n distinctive, clear 'n creative' thinking that is required to make these links. In his day Martin Luther King Jr longed to see a tenderhearted, toughminded Christianity. A tender response to the shoots must be matched by an equally tough response to the roots. Sadly, what we too often battle with is a toughhearted, tenderminded Christianity.
A Cliff: Imaging the Church's Mission in our Culture
The cliff, with ambulance at the bottom and fence at the top, is often employed to describe the twin priorities of urgent cure and strategic prevention. Ambulance driving alleviates symptoms, while fence building addresses causes. The image also shows us that unless the fence is repaired, the ambulance work will prove too stressful.
As Figure 1 demonstrates, when the cliff is placed next to the tree, two arcs emerge which describe the mixed metaphors of mission. The first is the arc of compassion which sees ambulance driving as the appropriate response to the crisis-laden shoots. This is then supplemented by the arc of truth which views fence building to be the strategic means of treating the roots.
The Ambulance at the Bottom
This has been and always will be the role of the church. From the provision of specialist crisis counselling, through to the structure of formal support groups and on to the offer of simple friendship, this is where 'it is at'. The day our compassion dries up for these situations is the day we are washed up in terms of our impact for Jesus.
The Fence at the Top
However, as we move deeper into neo-paganism, driving ambulances must not be the sole focus of mission. We may be hard at work in an 'ER'ish frenzy, but it will not be enough to pick up the victims!
The fence needs attention. It has been in a state of disrepair for too long. Of what is this fence made? The truth: known and lived! And what is the truth we need? When we follow the arc of truth the -ism underground is revisited.
If the naturalism root looks to shut God out of his creation, we must take every opportunity to stress his involvement in that creation. There is a Mind behind it all and there is a Hand in it all. Fate and luck must be exchanged for sovereignty and providence.
We must be overtly supernaturalist, worshipping the big God in spirit and in truth. People must be encouraged to tell their stories about the transforming power of the supernatural Spirit of God at work in their lives and these stories must be related privately and publicly, formally and conversationally. In addition, we must celebrate God in control of history - a history moving to a climactic end, the fulfilment of the Christian hope.
If the technicism root is confident in its provision of salvation, we must live knowing that, with respect to the deepest problem in need of salvation, both science and technology are impotent.
The deepest ill is sin and a salvation from that sin is found only in the sufficiency of the death of the mediator, Jesus Christ. In those areas where scientism and technicism are flush with confidence, we must understand and live in the confidence that only God is omniscient and omnipotent. What's more, he is also transcendent and mysterious and cannot be fully explained.
If the narcissism root feeds on an autonomous self, we must starve it out. We cannot be truly human apart from others. "I do not know who I am until I know whose I am." Ours is a relational identity, not an individualistic one.
We must fashion congregations which give priority to the development of intimate, interdependent relationships as well as to the lifestyle which chooses service and responsibilities ahead of fulfilment and rights. At a pastors' conference in London in 1984 John Stott pleaded with us to teach the "most needed doctrine of our time: the doctrine of man". At a pastors' conference in Auckland in 1995 Gordon Fee pleaded with us to teach the "most needed doctrine of our time: the doctrine of the church". They are both right.
If the pluralism root affirms that no one has the right to declare another person wrong, we must stress the areas in which a gracious intolerance is required.
Tolerance is not the ultimate virtue. When it is, the end result leaves society with 'no defence against nonsense' and so the nonsenses proliferate. We must affirm both the existence of truth and the possibility of knowing it truly in the self-revelation of God in Scripture and in Christ. It is the rock we lay bare by scraping away the soil.
The great debates always return to the authority of Scripture and to the person and work of Christ. We must stand firm. In the sure knowledge that we will be called narrowminded, self-righteous, and bigoted we must winsomely witness to the fact that while there may be many roads up the mountain, only one leads to God. We can still roll down the window and chat with others going in a different direction! Indeed, some of the great steps forward in the understanding of Christian truth have taken place when it was prepared to engage in such dialogue.
These are some of the truths which comprise the fence at the top of the cliff. These truths, so central to the Bible and so systematised in the theology textbook, are the truths which if known and lived within the church will provide us with a testimony that will attract the emerging generation to Jesus.
As Figure 2 illustrates, the '-ism' underground is matched quite precisely by the '-ology' fence. And how is the fence made? Through educating and equipping people in the truth over a lifetime. Through systematic, inspirational, and applied biblical preaching over a decade or two. Through an investment in theological training over a year or two.
It is often felt that these have been tried and found wanting. No! They are wanted and have not really been tried. We must not turn from them, we must return to them and do them better than ever. We must strengthen our trembling convictions.
In addition, to move along the arc of truth in this manner impacts the arc of compassion. An investment in fence building lessens the pressure on the ambulance driving. Furthermore, it weakens the roots which, in turn, shrivels the shoots. It may take a generation, but it will happen. And so, we must select pastoral leadership who have a capacity to love along the arc of compassion as well as a capacity to teach along the arc of truth - and who are able to move along those arcs with patience.6
A Lens: Imaging a Personal Commitment to the Church's Mission in our Culture
Anyone who wears sunglasses recognises that a lens can be responsible for shading their entire perspective on life.
If the twin images of tree and cliff are to move off this page and impact our missionary work in New Zealand we have to be committed to reshading those perspectives. Our worldviews, our guiding vision of life and for life, must change. It is the -ologies, not the -isms, which must provide the shading. For that to happen a biblical indwelling, as well as a theological instinct, must be nourished.
Everyone has a lens through which they look at the world. It is something we look through, rather than look at, and so we hold to it uncritically. In summarising the view of Michael Polanyi, Lesslie Newbigin states it like this: "the fundamental point which he makes is that knowing any reality is impossible except on the basis of some 'framework' which is - in the act of knowing - uncriticised".7
Faith-commitments are unavoidable. Even the scientist has them. And so, the question becomes not whether I have a lens or not, but which lens will it be? What will we, to use Polanyi's word, 'indwell'?
What will be the unquestioned lens which shapes our perspective? Will it be provided by the world's presuppositions or will it be shaped by the Bible's? Will it be the -ism underground or will it be the -ology fence? It needs to be the latter.
Learning to drive a car or play the piano can be a clumsy affair - we study and practise, practise and study. Then, over time, we move past the clumsy stage and find that the pedals are becoming an extension of our feet, the keys an extension of our fingers. We are indwelling them. They become a part of us.
This is how it must be with the Bible. As we study and practise it feels clumsy initially. But we keep looking at it heaps! Gradually, it becomes like the pedals and the keys. It becomes an extension of who we are and something we look through: our lens on life. We indwell it. It shades all attitudes and behaviour.
Then, as we continue to grow in it, our worldview becomes increasingly truth-full as the Bible becomes our framework, which in the act of knowing, remains uncriticised.
Theologian Tom Torrance says it all:
"I have been wonderfully blessed with a mother and a wife who have a profoundly Christian, and indeed a remarkably theological, instinct. My mother never had any academic training in theology, but her life is so tuned into the mind of Christ that she knew at once where the truth lay and was quick to discern any deviation from it. This is also very true of my dear wife who is imbued with an unerring theological instinct, evident again and again in her reaction to ideas put forward by preachers or teachers. At the end of the day that was the test I used to put to my students, as I read their essays and examinations . . . 'Has this person a genuinely theological instinct or not? Is their thinking spontaneously and naturally governed by the mind of Christ?' That is much more important than being theologically learned . . . . What really counts in the end is whether a person's mind is radically transformed by Christ and so spiritually attuned to the mind of Christ, that he thinks instinctively from the depths of his mental being in a way worthy of God."8
One of the realities of living in 'post-Christian' times is that this testimony of an 'instinct' will become increasingly remote and distant. Yet, in these ethically confusing times, we need it more than ever. People no longer imbibe theological truth with their mother's milk. The -ology fence is dilapidated. We have to rebuild it intentionally if this instinct is to be regained.
The aforementioned educating, preaching, and training ministries need to be prioritised. Christian young people will need to be challenged to soak in the scriptures and theology to the same level as they have soaked in their chosen profession. "Have you done an engineering degree - why not now do a theology degree? Not so that you can lead Bible Studies in your church, but so that you can be a truly Christian engineer that indwells the Bible and then goes out and does a truly professional job in your career directed by a strong theological instinct."
Without a commitment to developing this indwelling and this instinct, no matter how impractical and irrelevant they may appear to legions in our churches, we will simply continue to make naturalist, technicist, narcissistic, and pluralist Christians. This is syncretism at its worst. No wonder we are struggling in our missionary task!
The indwelling, the instinct - yes, the lens - which is so pivotal in our personal commitment to the church's mission in our culture needs to be looked at. Then, as that develops, we begin to look through it.
And where are we to look? We are to look at those crises-laden shoots and that frenzied ambulance work. We are to get stuck in! To our compassion we have added truth. To our commitment to meeting people's needs, we now add a perspective that is truly bibline, the perspective of God himself. As we move along the compassion arc there is a real world in which to dwell and for which to have a caring instinct. As we move along the truth arc there is another real world to indwell and for which to have a theological instinct.
6 A study of every pastors favourite reading material (me included!), Leadership magazine, revealed that „less than 1% of its material made any clear reference to Scripture, still less to any idea that is theological [see David Wells, No Place for Truth (Eerdmans, 1993) 114]. A diet of Leadership alone will not a countercultural missionary movement bring!
Paul Windsor lectured at BCNZ 1991-1997. He now serves as Principal of Carey Baptist College in Auckland where trees, cliffs and lenses are amongst his passions as he leads a college that trains people for mission and ministry in New Zealand and overseas. The rest of his time is consumed with joining Barbara in the joyful challenge of raising a family of five children.