Three months ago the office across the corridor from the ChristChurch London team was empty. Now it houses Tunepics, the fastest growing social network app in the world, which is currently adding 100,000 new users a week.
It’s one small example of the sheer pace of change that is going on in our world. Technology is not just changing the way we process information but the way we live. Thinkers are shaping whole new philosophical outlooks on life and globalisation means most of us work or live alongside people with very different views and faith from our own.
Pluralism, with its many different voices, has replaced Christendom as the overarching culture in which we live.
Many people find this new world exciting with its fresh attitudes and opportunities, whilst others are left disconcerted or overwhelmed as old certainties seem to disappear and cherished ideas and attitudes are undermined.
How should churches respond? What can we learn from faith communities who have faced similar situations in the past?
There have been several different postures that people have taken historically:
Some have sought to accommodate to the culture around them, but in their quest for relevance have lost their distinctiveness and slowly disappeared as a result.
Others have moved onto the attack: asserting their rights and demanding that nobody criticises or speaks out against them. However, they have found that intimidation does not lead to lasting change in people’s convictions although they may change the way they act for a short while.
Others have cut themselves off from surrounding society but in the process have sacrificed any opportunity to contribute to the wider world.
None of these approaches seems very attractive. We do not want to accommodate, intimidate or retreat from the world in which God has put us.
So are there any other options?
There is one; an option that Jeremiah gave to the exiles in Babylon 2,500 years ago.
These men and women, recently torn from their homes in Jerusalem, would have felt disorientated by the change they were experiencing. But Jeremiah’s appeal was that they should contribute with faithful and creative presence. (See Jeremiah 29:4-9)
To be ‘faithful’ meant to be true to their faith as it has been given to them: it was a gift that they had received and one they were responsible to maintain, it was not theirs to change.
To be ‘creative’ was to find new and fresh ways to contextualise their message: to work for the common good, to show the value of faith and to help people find faith themselves.
‘Presence’ meant that they were to dwell in the city, because they could not influence from a distance, but only from up close.
This challenge is also relevant to us. To contribute in this way is much more demanding than other approaches but much more rewarding too.
It requires courage and faith.
It is often complex and does not provide easy answers.
It is not for the fainthearted but for those who are willing to live with a certain level of discomfort.
But it will lead to a hugely challenging and fulfilling ride.
There are countless men and women who have lived in this way in the past, which has resulted in people coming to faith and society as a whole benefiting from their lives.
Dr Barnardo and George Mueller cared for vulnerable children, building orphanages and schools; Martin Luther King and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in very different situations, challenged racial superiority, and Mother Teresa gave her life for the homeless of Calcutta.
The effect of St Francis of Assisi’s life was even more far reaching. G.K. Chesterton says of him that he created poetry that paved the way for Dante; that he shaped fine art so that Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Raphael were standing on his shoulders; and that he cared for the poor in a way that defined the standard for future generations who cared for those in need.
‘From him’, says Chesterton, ‘came a whole awakening of the world and a dawn in which all shapes and colours could be seen anew.’
This is our dream too: that it may be said of Christians in this generation that people have been cared for, new habits have been created, new values affirmed and faith celebrated in such a way that there was ‘a whole awakening in the world and a dawn in which all shapes and colours could be seen anew.’
For more on this theme and on Jeremiah 29:4-9, check out David’s talk from Love London Sunday.
Image by Ed Yourdon, used under CC