What can transform the faltering church into a redemptive force?

At an ecumenical consultation, predominantly of United Methodists, and sponsored by the Foundation for Theological Education, church leaders assembled for an in-depth study of the loss and recovery of the sacred in our society. Bishop Earl G. Hunt, Jr., delivered the concluding address, which warmed the heart of the “fundamentalist” editor of C.T. (or so he was called) and yet challenged the mind and moved the will of the more liberally oriented participants.

The apparent absence of God led Isaiah at one point to pray for a universal theophany: a manifestation of God’s presence. Isaiah implores God (chap. 64) to reveal himself in a cataclysmic invasion of the natural order. He pleads for God to “rend the heavens,” so that “the mountains might flow down” and “the melting fire cause the waters to boil.”

Then he bursts poetically into praise to the God who performs incalculable wonders for those who wait for him. “For since the beginning of the world men have not heard, nor perceived by the ear, neither hath the eye seen, O God … what he hath prepared for him that waiteth for him.”

This almost vehement supplication for an advent of God states the Bible’s faith that it is God who assumes the initiative and works in ways almost beyond the comprehension of human imagination. Here, it seems to me, is one of the most splendid affirmations of the sacred to be found anywhere in Scripture. The Christian religion is based on a revelation from God that virtually defies the categories of modern thought. On the other hand, when I was beginning my ministry the attitude of studied unfaith was most popular. In place of the idea of divine self-disclosure men almost gleefully substituted the scientific method. Many preachers, trained in this tradition, became very little more than “humanists in vestments.”

But pendulums swing. The old-time liberalism is long since bankrupt. The pity is that so many people trained under its banners are not really aware of its demise, and in their positions of responsibility and leadership are continuing to project programs predicated on its now outdated presuppositions.

The church community must now focus on the urgency of a new outcry by the faithful for divine self-disclosure. We acknowledge the loss of the sacred in Western culture. The question then faces us: What can possibly transform the faltering church we know today into a redemptive force? Spiritually sensitive people answer by calling for a genuine renaissance of the kind of belief in God and his gospel that once more will make real to us both his demanding disciplines and his precious promises. Only then can the moving phraseology of the Song of Songs describe the church: “Fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners”! How can we become agents of this miracle? Let me explore four pathways.

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The Lighted Mind

We seem to be moving rapidly into a largely unrecognized era of antiintellectualism in our own country and perhaps in Western civilization. In much of our public school system today the element of substantive content in classroom teaching and the factor of disciplined demands upon the student have vanished. This is so total as to release upon the colleges generations of young people who can neither read nor write with acceptable accuracy, and who have never been introduced to the skills of study and thought. Hardpressed institutions often believe they must of necessity admit such young people. They fear that otherwise they face economically disastrous attrition and costly litigation.

In many instances this has caused the virtual collapse of reasonable standards of quality and excellence. Dean Henry Rosovsky of Harvard (arts and sciences) said in a 1974 letter to his teachers, “The B.S. degree is becoming little more than a certificate of attendance.” The president of a distinguished church-related university in the Methodist family charged recently that the church has “accepted the pleasure principle of society without firing a shot against it. It behaves like a political aspirant looking for a public image. It forgets and sometimes seems ashamed of the Gospel.”

These are heavy indictments; and if they are true where the church is concerned, we can understand how they could be basically true where education, always intimately related to religion, is involved. What we have traditionally referred to as liberal education, or the liberal arts, may be terminally ill in our time.

This kind of education has always insisted on exposure to the great books and concepts of the centuries, including the Bible and the ideas of Christianity. It glories in grappling with the hard questions of human existence and experience, the stubborn but intriguing “why” issues. It deliberately seeks to train the student to think, and it struggles purposefully to develop an ability to make value judgments. Most significantly, it offers the option of God and informed faith, an understanding of the place of the spiritual in life that is whole.

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My concern over antiintellectualism is matched by a second concern: I seriously question whether this nation or Western civilization itself can hope to survive the years just ahead unless education recovers its sense of the sacred. By this I mean its ancient obligation to offer content that builds moral sensitivity and value response, and provides exposure to the rich religious legacy of human culture and history. I wonder, too, whether leadership for an awakened church can be supplied from the ranks of young men and women who are victims of this sweeping removal of the sacred from the learning process.

I urge two actions. The first is that Christian scholars, with the rest of us helping as we can, rededicate themselves to the strengthening of Christian liberal education. I do not believe that the merely church-related college has much hope or reason for survival between now and the year 2000. But what of the deliberately Christian institution of higher learning that is honest enough not to be ashamed of the gospel and bold enough to demand quality performance in the classroom? I believe such a school will find support among thoughtful people in the Christian community—in spite of spiraling inflation and diminishing student enrollment.

My second plea is that the Christian community speak urgently and courageously to both religion and the secular university concerning their duty to build an awareness of the holy, the sacred, back into perspective and curricula.

How does this relate to the welcomed resurgence of historic evangelicalism? If it is to have permanent meaning and value, that very evangelicalism is required to be more than casually conversant with the best in human culture. Yet much of it fails here, as we see in many presentations on television and radio, and even more in utterances in local churches and in print. I know we must take into consideration the general decline in the public’s willingness to study and reflect for itself; the gospel must be served up to this kind of intellectually limited constituency also. But unless the church can continue to discover and train an informed nucleus of believers able to relate the gospel excitingly to the wisdom of the centuries, the church will lack that quality of viable leadership required to accomplish God’s will now and in the dangerous tomorrows. In the spirit of the text I plead for our prayers in behalf of a new divine self-disclosure that can restore, in this moment of history, the glory of the lighted mind.

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Hell Shall Not Prevail

The church is in deep human trouble, its fabric tattered by many current agonies. It is being blitzed by the community of homophiles and sexual aberrationists. Even a multitude of worthy human causes, seeking a significant forum for their pleas, are badgering the church to compromise its fundamental roles as Scripture defines them. A strangely sanctified worldliness, the product of economic affluence and its concomitant problems, has invaded and polluted Christian motivation, discipline, and commitment. And in the midst of it all, happily engaging in the oldest dodge there is, the church in too many instances avoids addressing its real problems by tinkering awkwardly with its structure and machinery!

By God’s grace the institutional church still occupies a unique position in our society and, oddly enough, its presence awakens certain expectations on the part of a population not always or even often religiously sensitive. But just beneath the surface of public consciousness lies a subterranean perception, possibly placed there by the Holy Spirit, of what the church ought to be and what it ought to be doing. This should alert Christians to the dangers that confront them. I suspect that the general patience of society toward the institutional church may be running out. I also have a conviction that those of us who have positions of leadership in that church need to recognize this sobering fact honestly and immediately.

I plead for us to learn again how to “let the Church be the Church,” as Elmer George Homrighausen wrote nearly four decades ago. This will call for Christian courage that may prove professionally costly. For example, I think we must begin to apply without compromise the principles of biblical teaching to all the problems of human sexuality so prominent in public thinking today.

To be sure, we must have compassion for the deviationist, whether homosexual or heterosexual. And we must endeavor with Christian love and with gentle but informed evangelistic skill to offer redemptive help. But we must declare, always without judgmental malice but always with unmistakable clarity, that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching; and that the celebration of the joys of sex itself, a nearly sacramental act ordained by God in his love for human beings, is always to be reserved for the marital relationship. This is the unequivocal teaching of biblical religion and to compromise it is to injure mortally the witness of the church.

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Moreover, while continuing to cultivate an acute awareness of all human problems, we must never allow the church to slacken its preeminent emphasis on bringing men and women into newness of life through faith in the saving grace of Christ. Historically and biblically this is our primary function; but it is a function involving both the whole person and the whole gospel. So conversion must include not only a person’s right relationship with his or her heavenly Father but also with his or her fellow human beings. Confession of the Savior and bold implementation of social justice are indissolubly interrelated in the economy of grace.

Again, I am persuaded that the church, in order to recover its essential servant role in the human family, must deliberately throw off the unfortunate accouterments of affluence that have caused its critics to accuse it of mercenary objectives and luxurious self-aggrandizement. Its leadership and membership, to a large extent, must be willing to change their lifestyles and impose upon themselves once more those time-honored and sacred disciplines of austerity, prayer, study, meditation, and utter self-giving which, through the centuries, have been the most precious hallmarks of Christian dedication and commitment.

What I am saying is simply this: the church—beginning with people like you and me—must be willing to pay the price involved in the recovery of its authentic character in our world if men and women are to hear its ancient evangel again with open minds, and to respond to it.

Besides this, we must consider as part of a new evangelical commitment the miracle of worship. By the Spirit’s action it is the gathered congregation, come into one place to glorify God and receive his message, that becomes the energizing event for all the church’s activities. Perhaps there are two ways to look at it:

First, the act of worship has meaning for God himself. Years ago Sören Kierkegaard used an illustration taken from the theater. He pointed out that ordinarily a congregation regards itself as an audience before which the minister and the choir give their presentation or performance—with God identified in the process as a kind of unseen playwright or producer. However, the great Danish theologian reminds us, the true picture is quite different. The congregation actually is the cast of actors, with the minister and the choir serving as directors and prompters, offering cues from the wings. The audience is God, and the entire presentation is offered for his good pleasure and everlasting glory.

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We need this corrective thought to make us bring God back into the center of things and to help us realize, in the old catechetical language, that our chief end is “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever”! In some way we cannot altogether comprehend, our recovered effort to delight the Almighty’s heart may prove of substantive importance in the fresh release of his saving power.

The other way to think of this has to do with the redemptive transaction which, again by God’s Holy Spirit, occurs in the act of worship. John Wesley often said that in the Word and in the sacraments, as they are proclaimed and celebrated in the church, an objective holiness produces a subjective holiness in the people, or else the church is not actually the church at all. He also taught that faith itself is a gift of the Holy Spirit that enables a man or woman to comprehend spiritual realities, the things that belong to God. It seems to me that the entire theory of corporate worship is here: when the Holy spirit informs the message of the minister and instructs the worshipers, he produces a redemptive interaction between pupil and pew, so God again and yet again performs his wonderful works in the lives of people.

When you put together these two ways of looking at worship, the objective and the subjective, you have at least a faint suggestion of the power we ought to find in this event.

A Quality of Life

An essential corollary to the recovery of the sacred must be the renewal of that elusive quality, “holiness,” in our lives. I know that any real goodness must be imputed by God, who is the source of holiness in daily personal living. But we must long to be holy, and strive for it, if God is to use us.

Professor Leroy Loemker, long-time dean of Graduate Studies at Emory University, exemplified this holiness. In scholarship, his brilliance was mesmerizing; but in addition, he was constantly probing our lives as young theologues to determine the quality of our spiritual integrity. With gentle but penetrating courtesy he made us realize how awesome is God’s call to preach the gospel. He sent us to our knees to examine the authenticity of our Christian experience.

The pursuit of holiness, the New Testament ideal of personal excellence, is not just a human enterprise; rather, it is a clear prescription of the gospel, as these passages suggest: “… this is the will of God, even your sanctification …” (1 Thess. 4:3). “According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love …” (Eph. 1:4). “… as the elect of God, holy and beloved …” (Col. 3:12a). “God is love and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him” (1 John 4:16b).

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We need desperately to lift the grand New Testament term “saint” out of disrepute. Those who embrace the disciplines God uses to impart his holiness are constantly presenting to the world Christianity’s most convincing credential: the transformed life. Very few happenings could possibly cleanse the church and inform its witness with new vigor like a sweeping resurgence of New Testament quality in the lives of believers. The Loemkers and such others helped me to an inescapable rendezvous with God and started for me a divine tremor that not all the “desacralization” of three decades has stilled. Should not each of us give the Holy Spirit fresh regnancy in our lives so he may reach through us to others?

Earthen Vessels

Responding to an overly elaborate introduction, Dr. Buttrick once retorted rather shortly, “There are no great preachers; there is only a great gospel!” And that gospel, purely and simply, is of God himself. I believe in all the historic doctrines central to the Protestant Christian tradition. It has not been easy for me to come to this point for I have known my personal ordeal of doubt and bewilderment. Many years ago Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said he would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but that he would give his life itself for the simplicity on the other side of complexity. I know what he meant, for I have struggled to that point in my faith.

I believe that God is able to save to the uttermost all those who come to him in penitence and childlike trust. I believe that Jesus Christ died for my sin and rose again from the dead to become the first fruits of them that sleep. I believe in the power of prayer and the gift of the Holy Spirit. I believe in life everlasting. I believe that the kingdoms of this world shall become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ. I am still supremely confident that the church belongs to God, not to any of us, and that he will guide those of us who are in it. I have failed him many, many times, but he has yet to fail me.

Dare I suggest that individual commitment to Jesus Christ and the entirety of his gospel is what finally will give any new insights permanent meaning?

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We wrestle with ideas wholly beyond ourselves, ideas that have to do with the forces of almighty God. They relate to his spiritual energies and activities and are therefore mightier even than his powers in the natural world shown by the rays of the sun, the tides of the ocean, the furies of the storm, the procession of the seasons, the germination of seeds.

We handle, though with heavily-padded gloves, what an unpolished but Spirit-filled preacher in my denomination calls “the forked lightning of the gospel.” We know the church is in mortal trouble today because much of it has lost touch with the explosive dynamic of that gospel. The church’s recovery of this divine and elemental energy in our nearly apocalyptic moment of history could set in motion a series of social, political, and religious forces potent enough to bring new life to the body of Christ—and to the nations of earth.

And Beyond This

We must, however, do more than consider and implement our Christian responsibility in education, the church, our own lives, and the interpretation of the gospel. Professor James S. Stewart of Edinburgh puts it: “Bring everything you have and are to your ministry—bring it without reserve. But when you have brought it, something else remains. Stand back, and see the salvation of God!”

Beyond all of our awareness, praise God Almighty, we believe in the salvation of God. We believe also in the possibility—even the probability—of an imminent new epiphany, a fresh divine self-disclosure such as the prophet long ago prayed for: “For since the beginning of the world men have not heard, nor perceived by the ear, neither hath the eye seen, what He hath prepared for him that waiteth for Him.”

Carl F. H. Henry, first editor of Christianity Today, is lecturer at large for World Vision International. An author of many books, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.

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