logo Practical Dreamers

Ministering the Gospel
in a time of change

Selwyn Dawson

There are some advantages in growing old.   Whatever happens to the body,  one's memory bank becomes ever richer with the passing of time.   What most people regard as history,  we can remember as personal reminiscence  -  sometimes much more clearly than what we had for breakfast yesterday.   I was born in 1918,  at the end of the Great War,  grew up in the depression years,  during the rise of fascism and Nazism and the Second World War.   I can remember my own refusal to believe the first emerging reports of the holocaust,  the thunderclap of the Hiroshima bomb.   Within a couple of years I found myself in war-shattered Japan as a padre with J Force.   On the day we arrived, I walked among the packing case shacks of that city as new life struggled to emerge.

My generation experienced the coming of the first Labour government and the introduction of the Welfare State.   Great world events have happened in our time  -  and in yours;  the dissolution of the British Empire,  the rise and fall of communism,  the Cold War with all its consequences,  the re-creation of Israel after 1900 years,  the fall of the Berlin Wall,  the end of apartheid in South Africa,  the emergence of a united Europe after centuries of strife,  and the emergence of communist China,  and subsequent change.   We have seen the economic pendulum swinging from the old socialism to the new Right  -  and wonder if it may not be swinging back again.

The dominating feature of our lifetime has been change.   Nothing has stood still.   Much of the change has been driven by science and technology.   As a schoolboy,  I well remember how our class was suddenly suspended and we all rushed outside to see  -  a Gypsy Moth plane flying overhead.   Since then I have flown many times,  twice around the world.   Men have stood on the moon,  and are confidently working towards landing on Mars.   The advance of science has touched every aspect of life.  Sit down and count how many features in your home have a microchip buried in them.   Have you a computer,  a cell phone,  a video recorder,  a fax or answer-phone?  -  for that matter,  a pop-up toaster or microwave oven?   I had to conduct my whole ministry without any of them.   The whole IT revolution has hardly got started,  but it has already changed our daily lives beyond our wildest dreams when we were young.   What is more,  the rate of change is speeding up  -  growing exponentially,  as they say,  because the most important discoveries and inventions are themselves tools of change.   Invent the transistor or the microchip,  or the pill,  or discover penicillin;  plot the human genome or hoist the Hubble telescope into space  -  any one of these and some huge area of life is ineradicably set for change.


But technical change does not stop there.   It invades the way we think.   Compare modern art,  poetry,  literature,  music,  philosophy,  history,  biblical scholarship and the very vocabulary we use,  and you will see that there is no area of life which has not been subject to radical change.   It is as if we  -  all of us  -  are fish swimming in the sea, and the character of the seawater is constantly changing around us,  so that we either adjust our ways of living or we find ourselves profoundly uncomfortable and hardly able to function.   I will mention only two words or phrases to describe these changes  -  secularism and post modernism.   These prevailing ways of thinking have their roots in the past,  but are now in full flower in our western world.   If we apply ourselves to our ministries as if they did not exist,  we will not be heard by the great majority of those to whom we are trying to minister.   Our ministry will become increasingly irrelevant.   We may have started our work bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,  armed with comfortable certainties,  but unless we move with change we can end up like refugees in an alien land.   Truly the past is another country.   Or as Heraclitus wrote long ago,  "You can't step twice into the same river".   Sometimes our people,  stressed by constant change in the world outside,  turn to the Church as a place where time can be counted on to stand still.   They are irritated and indeed rebellious when they discover that in worship,  in the preaching they hear,  and in doctrine and ethics,  their church is not immune from change.   It may indeed become itself an agent of change.   This anxiety can help to explain the emotional intensity of some conservative reform movements within the church.

We must be careful here.   We are not preaching to the world in general,  but to these people who have taken the trouble to gather for worship in this place at this time.   We might wish they were better informed,  more flexible,  more up to date in their thinking,  but they are what they are,  and will not be too willing to relinquish ideas and convictions which have served them well.   It is their church too.   We may have moved beyond the pictures and stories and myths and aphorisms which go to make up their apparatus of faith,  but in trying to move them a step forward,  we must be careful not to move them too swiftly and drastically beyond their capacity to receive.   Faith works on many levels,  and those we sometimes call simple Christians continue to move mountains for God,  and intuitively know things about God's kingdom which escape the learned.   It is a matter of pastoral judgment how far and how fast we can move them to accept and live by new insights.


Nevertheless,  preachers and pastors must squarely face the fact of change.   Perhaps we think that,  because we are servants of the eternal gospel,  we can claim some sort of exemption from change.   We quote from Hebrews,  "Jesus Christ is the same,  yesterday,  today and forever"  as if the package deal we received in our Christian upbringing,  and theological education have rendered us immune from the virus of change.   We may even imagine that the Bible is an infallible book which answers every question,  and we need never rethink the fundamentals of our faith.   Secure on firm land,  we can call out instructions to our people,  struggling in the cross currents of the stream of time.   This is of course a caricature.   We are in there with them,  facing their dilemmas,  meeting new and unprecedented challenges,  unable to come up easily with relevant answers to newly emerging problems,  with no infallible book and no infallible pope to bale us out.

I may sound discouraging,  but we must clear away the comfortable misconceptions before we can find our way to the new certainties.   Israel had to leave Egypt and face the wilderness before God could disclose himself to them.   If we want to meet God at all it must be in the torrent of change.   Had they stayed in Egypt they would have been absorbed in that alien culture,  and all thoughts of a Promised Land would have faded from their memories.   By our very calling and ordination we are committed to being with our people as they face whatever change is born from the womb of time.   Only so can we help them to experience God and find their way forward.

To do that,  we must try to look at life through stereoscopic eyes.   On the one hand,  we have the job of being very down to earth,  keeping up to date with life as people have to live it today  -  its politics,  its economics,  its scientific and technical profile,  the sporting and entertainment and artistic climate which dictates so much of our thinking,  the mores of the society in which we live.   We must not only live in it,  but try to understand its hidden dynamics.   Perhaps our task might be more like that of the America's Cup crewman who swarms up the mast and keeps his eyes open for the distant signs of changes in the wind patterns,  the ruffled surface far out,  or the uncanny calm to starboard,  so he can alert the tacticians and helmsman on the deck far below.

But that is only half our task.   Our eye should also be fixed on that other picture  -  the eternal world of which we are by our calling and ordination examplars and custodians.   We have the whole apparatus of the Church to help us  -  its liturgies,  scriptures,  sacraments,  hymns and prayers,  theologies and pastoral disciplines,  as well as the institution which employs us to do this very thing.   The lectionary and church calendar are there to help us deploy the whole spectrum of the gospel.   We have a weekly opportunity to help our people look at life through this stereoscopic perspective,  to help them see,  as it were,  through God's eyes.   If our services invite them to escape into a world where nothing of the real world they face on Monday intrudes,  we will have failed them.   When Karl Barth told us we should pray with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other,  I cannot think he was wrong.


No one can tell,  in this age of accelerating change,  what agenda we and our people will have to face.   Futurologists always get it wrong,  and the theory of chaos explains why long range forecasts can never be trusted.   We can make educated guesses.   Already on the horizon are great issues like climate change,  globalisation,  biotechnology,  the gap between the rich and the poor both locally and globally,  caring for a sick planet,  the spread of information technology.   Each of us can add to the list.   We cannot expect to be experts in any one of these or a hundred other emerging fields,  and the last thing I am suggesting is that our sermons become muddled commentaries on public affairs.   Yet unless we deal with real issues of the world in which our people have to live,  we cannot minister to them  -  especially the young.   Unless we have some living word for them we fail them.  If we regularly dodge the big issues we may turn our church into a cosy religious asylum,  offering a sort of chaplaincy to refugees who have opted out,  but it will not be the church as a living embodiment of Christ.

One thing is certain;  we are also priests and prophets,  custodians of a faith which has weathered the storms of time and change.   We have to know in our hearts the nature of the Church we serve,  the gospel we preach,  and our place within it.   The Church is not a do-gooder friendly-society,  whose sole job is to pick up stragglers,  nor is it a society for the preservation and propagation of an ancient book.   It does not exist to make people feel good or promote a woolly spirituality,  or as a society dedicated to the reform of politics or economics.   It is not an agency devoted solely to the saving of individual souls,  or to offer the anxious the hope of life after death.   The Church is not there primarily to be the custodian of middle class values of thrift,  honesty and hard work and to help the down and out,  though plenty of respectable non-churchgoers want it to be just that.   It is not even called to proclaim and defend a whole structure of orthodox doctrine,  since the faith expresses itself within the living culture of the day,  and that changes decade by decade and is changing under our eyes.

The Church's mission may well contain or touch on all of these elements and much more,  but it exists first and foremost to be the Body of Christ,  speaking his word and doing his work.   Without Jesus Christ at its centre,  it cannot be itself, and it has nothing distinctive to say about God or man amidst the clamour of the world's competing loyalties and divinities.


Even here we must be careful.   Christ has been conscripted to bless every banner,  and give victory to every sectional interest,  even that of the Ku Klux Klan.   Many who invoke his name to bless their cause will eventually hear him say,  "I never knew you."   Yet it is Jesus Christ alone who gives us our charter to be the Christian Church.   Many  -  perhaps most people  -  say they believe in God,  but that can mean anything or nothing.   What kind of God do they believe in?   Our distinctiveness comes from the fact that a man called Jesus of Nazareth lived,  taught,  healed,  died and rose again  -  and became for those who followed him the Christ.   He is the lens through which we see God,  the very image of his glory.   At the same time he defines for us what it is to be a human being,  the template against which every human life  -  and social system  -  is to be measured.   He is the word made flesh.   God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.   God so loved the world that he gave his only son.   That is the open secret which constitutes the Church.   He is its heart.   That is the truth we try to express when we speak of the Holy Spirit.   Without him we have nothing distinctive to say.   With him as our examplar,  saviour and guide,  we can face the world of constant and sometimes menacing change  -  and bring a true ministry to our people and to the world around us.

But you may say,  there's the rub.   Who and what is Jesus?   There is such a pile of scholarship and doctrine built around him,  so many huge tomes dealing with every aspect of his life.   There are so many conflicting schools of interpretation,  that it's hopeless for any ordinary parish presbyter to hope to find his or her way through them.   Where does one start?   The Gospels are as good a place as any.   They were written down within thirty or forty years of the events they describe,  long before theologians and scholars had constructed towering theological systems and rigid hierarchical organizations.   The gospels are our basic sources,  and are available to each of us in a dozen translations even if,  like me,  you have little Greek and no Hebrew.   The Gospels do not comprise the whole of the Bible,  but they are,  for Christians,  its true centre,  and we work outwards from them  -  not the other way round.


I have spent the last year or so doing just that  -  writing a short story of Jesus of Nazareth as told in the gospels,  not to please the scholars,  but to try to see clearly for myself the man who started it all  -  and to see him against the background of his own times.   I wish I had done so many years before.   We cannot worship him as the Christ unless we first come to terms with his humanity,  see him in his own setting,  and understand how,  following his death,  his followers came to understand that under the homespun of a Galilean working man,  was a living spirit who would be their constant companion to the end of the age.   In some special sense which they tried to define,  God was in him,  irrevocably committed to his human family.

As we work through those pages we discover that his whole life mission is summed up in one phrase,  the Kingdom of God,  and his whole nature that of agape,  love.   Follow that thread and you will find the themes of healing,  of liberation,  of forgiveness and reconciliation,  of grace and peace and power come alive no matter what one's circumstances or culture,  no matter how intimidating the pace of change.   We can preach Jesus Christ and his Kingdom in a way that is inescapably personal,  but we distort the gospel message gravely if our preaching deals only with personal salvation and personal ethics.   When we preach the Kingdom of God in all its fullness,  our preaching allows Jesus to step out of the pages of an ancient book and become an active participant in our people's daily lives as they step out of their door on a Monday morning.



Let me be personal.   Almost forty years ago I went to minister at Durham Street in Christchurch,  and found myself ministering to a congregation which included five aging ex-presidents,  and a whole cross section of people,  including young people,  some of them university students.   They formed an after church youth fellowship.   Last Labour weekend,  all those years later,  the then members of the after church youth fellowship held a Reunion and invited us to attend.   Some sixty of them spent the weekend together,  most from Christchurch,  but others from all over New Zealand and some from Australia.   It was fascinating to meet these "young" folk thirty and forty years later,  and hear their stories.   Many are now grandparents,  and some hold or have held responsible jobs in government and university.   What became clear was that those years had meant a great deal to them.   One told us that she had come to think of Durham Street as her Turangawaewae,  where she had formed her values.

When my turn came to speak,  I reminded them of how turbulent that particular decade,  the sixties,  had been.   The sixties had been a decade of unremitting change,   The whole question of race and civil rights had come to the boil in the US,  and Jack and Bobbie Kennedy and Martin Luther King had been assassinated.   Men had landed on the moon.   The Vietnam war spanned almost the whole decade.   The Cold war overarched everything else with its nuclear shadow.   Feminism arrived on the scene,  the pill came into widespread use,  and freer attitudes to sex were abroad  -  and not only at Woodstock and among the flower people.   The thaw between Protestants and Catholics began with the Second Vatican Council,  and the book  Honest to God  set the cat among the theological pigeons.   We suddenly became aware of the ecological threat to our planet and the whole conservation movement took off.   Pakeha New Zealanders became uneasily aware that all was not well in Maori Pakeha relations;  the invisible and unmentionable gay community suddenly surfaced and a good deal of painful rethinking had to be done all round.   All through that period I had to climb the heavenly stairs each Sunday and preach a relevant gospel.   Of course I had no clear and definitive answers to all that ferment of change,  but I had a pulpit and a timeless gospel which allowed me to bring the issues under the scrutiny of the Kingdom.   All these years later it seems that,  without remembering any one sermon I had preached,  they felt they had been helped to think their way through these unprecedented issues which would not go away.   Should our ministry today be any different?   Are the new millennium's events likely to be any less surprising and disturbing?


But there is more to preaching and ministering than helping our people to see the world around them through Christian eyes.   As presbyters,  we are not just ethical and doctrinal advisers;  we are mediators and servants of the New Covenant.   The word Covenant is of enormous importance both in the Jewish scriptures and in the New Testament.   In the Old Testament the unknown God reaches out and initiates a thoroughly unequal partnership between Himself and Israel.   "I will be your God and you will be my people."   It is a personal relationship of love and trust and obedience,  and through it they will learn the nature of the God who for his own purposes has taken them under his wing.   It will be an uncomfortable partnership,  and they will disobey and backslide and follow other gods and suffer the judgments of defeat and exile.   But the sense of being chosen has followed the Jews ever since,  and made them a singular people.   As preachers,  we must be careful not to suggest that somehow God has abrogated that original covenant.

But there was a New Covenant,  not inscribed on stone tablets,  but written in the human heart.   He spoke of it on the night of his betrayal when he served them with bread and wine.  This was a covenant of grace and,  unlike the first,  embraces all humankind.   The Church with all its faults is the community constituted by that covenant.   Our task is to recognise and celebrate it,  and invite all to enter and find new life.   The New Covenant is the heart of the Church's life,  its binding and constituting factor,  the very source of its being.   We celebrate it in our central sacrament.



Since retirement we have worshipped at a Cooperating parish church whose services are eucharistic.   At the culmination of every service,  we move forward and receive the bread and wine in remembrance of him.   By this simple action we endorse our own commitment to Christ and the covenant.   We take our place in that long succession which reaches right back to the Upper Room and to Christ himself.   At that moment we recall that we are not just admirers of Jesus' teachings,  but are his friends and servants,  bound to him by the most sacred and personal of ties.

Whether we find ourselves administering the sacrament or receiving it,  we do not expect to be given glib answers to the vexing questions of how to live in a changing world.   We do know however that our Lord revealed and initiated that new Kingdom which God intends in the fullness of time to bring to fruition,  and that here and now we can be its citizens and servants.   Holding that conviction,  we can turn to the changing and demanding and sometimes bewildering world around us,  and begin to make sense of it,  knowing what to reject and what to welcome and retain.

Our communion service often ends with the words of the presbyter:  "Go now to love and serve the Lord.   Go in peace."   To which we answer:  "Amen.   We go in the name of Christ."   Is there any greater privilege or responsibility than that of the Christian presbyter,  to mediate an eternal covenant in a changing world?

This reflection was offered by Selwyn Dawson at
the Auckland Methodist Synod in March, 2000.



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