Archive for January, 2014

A theology for uncertain times

January 21, 2014 3 comments

Over the past few years I have increasingly found myself being asked to provide some input to, or work as a consultant with, a variety of parishes and local churches, presbyteries and dioceses, who are struggling with their futures. It is very clear that a good number of churches in New Zealand are no longer sustainable, at least in anything like their current form, and are under threat of closure. Largely this is a consequence of the aging demographics of so many churches, but has been heightened by all the earthquake issues now facing many buildings. This has caused a great deal of anxiety, anger, conflict and grief among many people for whom their relationship with God has been significantly tied to a particular building. Without their buildings sadly many disappear from church.

As I have come to understand the issues found in these places I have come to realise that at a basic level it is a theological issue, and as I have reflected on that two comments from insightful church leaders have rumbled around in my mind. The first was shortly after I had come into the Presbyterian church and my role at Knox, from Kerry Enright while discussing with him what he had done on study leave. His comment was that far too many of our people have an inadequate theology for the twenty first century. They have a theology centred around place rather than a journey theology. The other comment was from the person who has been the most influential in my own faith and ministry journey, Murray Robertson. In interviewing him for the book I am writing on his remarkable forty year ministry at Spreydon Baptist Church, I asked him what was essential to sustain that. His immediate response was “well, first you have to have a theology of journey.”

I think these perceptions are profoundly true. Too many who see themselves as followers of Jesus have a theology of place rather than a theology of journey, which following implies. Their understanding of what it means to be God’s people is defined around the building where they gather for perhaps a couple of hours a week. Place implies stability, security and permanence, although the heightened awareness that we do indeed live in the shaky isles has shaken that a bit. Journey on the other hand implies change and uncertainty, a willingness to leave some things behind, that you have no fixed abode. If there is one thing true about living in the world that has emerged in the twenty first century, it is that it is full of change and uncertainty, and a theology that is founded on permanence and stability is quite unsuited to that.

Of course we should always have known this, because it is the theology we find for God’s people in both the Old and New Testament scriptures, from the call of Abraham in Genesis, through the gospels and ministry of Jesus with those who followed, on into the ministry of the apostles. My thoughts on this came to a head while preaching through the lectionary readings in Hebrews 11, 12 and 13 in August, where we are reminded that “we walk by faith and not by sight,” living as “aliens and strangers on earth… looking for a better country.” I am sure it was the faith with which our “pioneers” set out from Scotland, not knowing what lay ahead, but trusting in God as Abraham had. In all the security and stability we thought the modern world had brought for us, we seem to have forgotten the theological foundations that underpin our existence as God’s people, our trust in the God who is always moving ahead of us, and have instead come to place our trust in some of the temporary way stations we have established on route. For many it requires a re-digging of our theological foundations from the quarry of scripture.

Categories: Uncategorized