One approach lies in increased use of the printed word, through better church libraries, Christian book centers

The longer I live the more truly I am convinced that events are a commentary upon the Bible, even more than the Bible is a commentary upon events. It seems to me that in my lifetime I have seen many developments that make the words of the Bible come alive. For example, in the dread days just prior to the Second World War, the Book of Revelation came to mean much more to me when I knew something of what went on in concentration camps, in the strategy of terror, and in the consequent development of a secret underground movement. Nero suddenly seemed modern, because modern men were Neronic.

Now we are in a time different from that of the Second World War, yet in some ways equally disturbing. We are in a time that is especially hard for anyone who seeks to be a faithful Christian. Never in my life have I known a time when the attacks on the Gospel were as vicious as they are now. I see about me a far more militant atheism than I have ever known, and I see it pressed with evangelistic fervor. I recognize that some of the most damaging attacks on the validity of the Gospel are coming from those who claim some kind of marginal connection with Christianity. I see a widespread impersonalism that is frankly based on the idea that Christ was wrong in addressing the heavenly Father as “Thou.”

At the same time that I note these vicious onslaughts and hear them almost every day, I also am aware of an exceptional vitality in the Christian cause at certain specific points. I see a marked growth in the concept and practice of the lay ministry. I see a development in the direction of reality of membership, according to which, in a few congregations, it is beginning to be expected that every member should participate seriously in the Christian cause, engaging in witness, in financial sacrifice, in daily ministry, and in study. There are, indeed, a few churches in which a small number undertake to conduct a highly demanding experiment for a limited period of time, with the thought that it may become continuous after a trial period.

Another great thing I see is the acceptance, on the part of some, that the Christian faith cannot be genuine unless it includes both the inner life of devotion and the outer life of service. A good many now realize that inner devotion can be self-centered or even self-indulgent, while mere service can become sterile and superficial. It is good to know that some can see that social protest without a tender and moving spirit is essentially self-contradictory. In short, in the brightest spots in the Christian cause it is truly understood that the roots and fruits of the Christian faith must be held together in one context. Many of the far-out people reject prayer and engage only in what they call “action.” Others so emphasize prayer that they have no energy left for action. The hopeful spots are those in which people see that prayer and action are two sides of the same Christian coin.

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When I think of the attacks upon Christianity and the small groups that represent great vitality, I have a better insight than ever before into the great biblical passage of First Corinthians 16:9, “The wide door for effective work has opened to me and there are many adversaries.” What this text says has always been true of the Christian cause, but the events of our bad time make the truth unusually evident.

It is well known that we usually need to see more than one thing in order to tell the truth, because the truth is essentially complex. This is especially the case when we talk about the prospects for the Christian faith. The coming year and years will be dark times and they will be bright times, and they will be both at once.

One of the most important things to say about the Christian movement in the time immediately before us is that Christianity is bound to be a minority movement. It is important that we should know this, because any failure to know our true situation will be bound to lead to weakness. As Lincoln taught us, we are more likely to know what to do if we know where we are and whither we are tending. Nothing makes for weakness more than does optimism or complacency when the conditions do not sustain it.

The superficial judgment of most of our people is to the effect that Christianity is strong in our country. This judgment is based upon the number of church buildings and the number of members on the church rolls. We do not need to have very much experience, however, to know that this strength is nothing like as great as it appears to be. Vast numbers who call themselves Christians are not participants in the ongoing work at all. Most are not regular in prayer or Bible reading, or do not think of themselves as called upon to minister for Christ and their fellow men. It is also important to see that the majority of men in any large city quite evidently think that what goes on in the churches is truly irrelevant to their lives. There is more open ridicule now than there has been for many years. The characteristic faculty members in characteristic universities are openly contemptuous of anyone who takes the Gospel seriously. The general idea is that those who do so are back numbers.

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Some have supposed that the protest marches about the war in South Viet Nam were chiefly an evidence of Christian opposition to war. This, however, is a really erroneous judgment. A great many of those who are protesters against the war are openly atheistic, and some are frankly Communists. For example, the leadership of the protest at Berkeley, California, is now known to be admittedly Communist, with no reference to the Christian faith whatever.

If Christians can know that they are in a minority, they will be better prepared to take their right places in the struggles of the coming days. They can be helped by remembering that the most glorious periods of the Christian faith have often been those in which the faith has had a minority status. This is conspicuously true of the Christianity of the New Testament period, which has, in many ways, never been equaled. If we know that we are surrounded by many enemies, we are far more able to understand the words of Second Timothy 2:3, “Take your share of suffering as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.” Our great call is a call not to popularity or to ease but to loyalty in the face of persecution. It is important to know that there can be real persecution, even without physical violence. There are many places, especially in the intellectual life of America, in which it takes real courage to stand up as a loyal follower of Jesus Christ.

I do not mean that Christians should get out and wave banners and draw attention to themselves by letting their beards grow. One makes his Christian witness not by drawing attention to himself or by censorious and self-righteous judgment of others, but by the humble and unostentatious firmness of one who tries to do a decent job in the ordinary world and to put as much as he can of the spirit of Christ in his daily conduct.

As we honestly face our minority status, we shall soon learn that we have to carry on Christian work in new ways, or at least in ways new to us. I believe we shall carry on for a long time the Sunday morning gathering of the Christian forces, and for this I am glad, since it is better than nothing; but my prediction is that other expressions of Christian life and thought will tend to be relatively more important. It may be helpful to try to state what these are.

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One is the increased use of the printed word. Churches have long had libraries, but only a minority have had regular book tables presided over by informed persons who make the spread of good books a genuine ministry. I think we shall see in 1966 and in subsequent years a significant growth of this particular form of Christian ministry. The sad truth is that most people do not know how to buy books and very few ever order them. The only practical alternative, therefore, is to put books where people are almost forced to encounter them. They must be made to understand that ownership is important because it permits both marking and lending to others. The really vital congregations will be those in which the characteristic members build up excellent libraries. Only by such an operation will they be able to have answers to those who challenge them about the hope that is in them.

Important as book tables in church buildings may be, they will never be sufficient, because great numbers of those who need the ideas represented in the books will never darken the doors of the church buildings. Therefore, the Christian book service must be taken to the places where the people are. Perhaps these will be airports, perhaps shopping centers. A Christian book center in a busy airport in which people are often forced to spend unexpected hours may become a far more effective way of penetrating the world than is the conventional building on the corner with the pointed windows and the doors locked on weekdays. In any case, the Christianity that is effective in the coming time will be the Christianity that can leant imaginative ways of making its message understood.

An ideal setup, which we are already beginning to see in a few places, is that of combination lounge and bookstore. It is a combination of a Christian Science Reading Room and a commercial bookstore minus any denominational label or intent. Many will respond in a situation in which books can be purchased but need not be. Those who do not wish to buy anything may sit and read, wholly without embarrassment, while for those who want to buy there will be the possibility of frankly commercial transactions.

There will, of course, be a good many Christians who will try to proceed with business as usual, as though there were no cultural storm; but their effectiveness will be less and less. The effectiveness will be shown by those who, on the one hand, are firmly rooted in a living connection with the Living Christ, but who, on the other hand, are not willing to keep this experience to themselves. The novelty, which is important, will lie not in the field of theology but in the field of effective witness. There is enough of this already to make ours a time of greatness.

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