One of the great quotes of the Easter story is when Pontius Pilate asks Jesus what is truth. I am not going to try to answer this, what I am going to do is look at the question itself because it is one of the key questions that people ask today. It also raises an important idea for the Church: how can we express what we know to be true in ways that people will to want to hear it? One of the criticisms levelled at the youngest and most educated parts of today’s generation is that they resist truth. This is not entirely correct, they don’t resist truth; they resist arrogance. To some extent postmodernists, but especially teenagers and twenty-somethings, long to find something solid that feels true but which is prepared to consider the claims of others. Christians don’t need to compromise the gospel with half-truth, but we need to be prepared to participate in discussion.
Intellectual doubts are almost never the final barrier to accepting the gospel. What holds people back is their fear that Christian life is somehow a net loss of value. What keeps them from exploring faith is their perception of what Christians are like. They might agree with our arguments but they baulk at making a decision that will make them “become like” us, or what they think we represent. People are attracted to Christ by the attractive lives of Christians, not by our watertight arguments. Truth used to relative, but now truth is relational: who are you that is telling me this? is far more important than is what you’re saying believable? People will do things they do not want to do, even feign interest in things that bore them, just to feel a sense of belonging or to hang out with people who accept and care for them. Often people who are searching for a gracious God will not try the Church because it does not occur to them that God can be found amidst the arrogant and unloving judges of Christianity. How sad is that?
The truth is that Jesus Christ offers the only reliable way to God. However, in a world of such diversity as ours we need to ask which expression of Christianity is the only way to Jesus Christ. Of course, no one denomination or theology is the sole answer; and it might even be true that the grace of God revealed in Jesus can be found outside Christianity as well. All paths lead to him, if only to show that there is insufficiency in any path except the one where we rely on grace. What we know about grace is that even the path of religious legalism leads ultimately to Christ. God allows religions to show up human need for a God of grace: but God also sent Christ to be that God of grace in plain sight. This is the truth in the absence of arrogance, or as Rev John Gore from last week’s novel said: sometimes it would be nice, just to be left alone with the faith.
Today’s generation has been taught to view Christianity through a distorted worldview, not out of spite but out of ignorance. Those who claim to speak for, or about, Christianity present biased or outdated views that are inconsistent with the teaching of Jesus and the attitude of many parts of the modern, local church. Their truth about historical Christianity is different to our truth about a gracious and wonderful saviour.
One of the great quotes attributed to Winston Churchill is that “history is written by the victors”. This suggests that what we know and teach about the Past is a biased view that reinforces the people already in power and oppresses the masses, women, natives, slaves, refugees; other people who are not like us. Christianity has been part of “The System” in the Past; therefore, we have a reputation for being bossy. It is correct to say that there is no unbiased history, postmodernism and liberation theologies address this and seek to find different points of view, but honest Bible study does the same thing. Some secular academics say that the composition of the Bible is not about the Word of God so much as it is about the political intrigues of the Byzantine Empire: the Bible is just another, biased view from antiquity. We need to be aware of this: what we think is the truth of scripture others think is the political spin of the Eastern Roman Empire. However, no author or teacher is purely objective or unaffected by the thoughts and opinions of others, even the secular academics. Everyone writes what he or she think is the truth and he or she writes in such a way that others will come to believe that too. (Those who point the finger at others always have three of their own fingers pointing back at them.)
A further challenge upon truth is that truth and morality are cultural. There is no such thing as absolute truth because no single society or person has all the information. Truth is subjective and interpreted through a cultural viewpoint. This is also correct, but then since we believe Jesus is “The Truth” we disagree at some level too. I don’t have all the information, and the Church doesn’t have all the information, but what Jesus revealed about God is enough for us to trust God for what we don’t know.
What it comes down to is that arrogant claims about absolute truth display what some see as Christianity’s desire to put people down, and is the cause of all great wars and acts of hatred. Arrogant truth is the greatest evil the world will ever know, and that goes for militant fundamentalists of any philosophy, religious or atheist. We know that the absolute truth Jesus proclaimed is that God is gracious to all comers, which hardly sounds like a system for keeping the natives in servitude, but not everyone knows that. Our arguments must take a back seat to acceptance when presenting truth in a postmodern context. Remember the key question is not is this true? but do I want to belong to the sort of people who believe this stuff?
So what do we need to do about this for the people who want to know about God, but are reluctant to let the local brainwashing cult loose in their personal headspace? The Church must communicate both the reasons why Jesus is the truth and the practicalities of knowing and following this truth. We need to teach how life with Christ in charge actually works. Everyone seeks purpose for his or her life and work; they are looking from a perspective of life that says this must all mean something, surely. It matters that it matters: it is easy to lose motivation if there is no purpose.
It is important that we really do believe what we say we believe, and that we are prepared to defend it in conversation. But it goes beyond that. Our arguments may be well structured and well presented, but is what we are promoting a viable alternative to the ways of life offered outside the grace of God today? The quality of life the Living-Truth produces must be evident in our church or we will continue to lose the battle for the individual souls of this generation. The way we know God produces such freedom and eternal quality of life: Jesus taught the world to know the truth and the truth will set you free (John 8:31-32), yet this great asset is unknown in the world because it has not been seen in the weekday lives of many Christians. Our goal is not to get people to pray “The Sinners’ Prayer” but to love God and to love people, and to show people how they too can love God and know God’s love for them as we do. Salvation opens the door, but life in Christ is the real goal. We exist to help people trust God in mundane and practical ways.
The Church can make the Truth practical by telling stories of matter-of-fact faith and by teaching how to do life with God. We must be doers of the word so that those who are learning from us are not just hearers but are doers themselves, and therefore enter into the life of freedom and grace that we know, and are learning more about ourselves. Even those who are not seeking for “The Truth” are still looking for “The Life”, or rather what is life giving. Postmodernists will often try God on like a suit before they buy into Church; acting like God is real before accepting the claims of their Christian friends and taking the plunge into belief for themselves. We could match their risk in doing so by taking our own risk and encouraging them in this: go ahead, we say, try Jesus and see that life really is better when lived by faith. This is equally valid for those who have lived within the local church by obedience to The Law or a cascade of meritorious service. By first experiencing The Life, a life better than what they had without God, a life of joy, peace, better relationships, less worry, they are then open to considering The Truth. For this generation truth is pragmatic, it is not true unless it can be seen to be functional. Not only must it be right, it must be seen to be both beneficial, and workable. However, even this is not enough in itself: there must be reasons why Jesus is the Truth.
The important truth, which we must never lose sight of, is the person of Jesus Christ. The other issues will often sort themselves out as new Christians embark on the journey, but in focussed discussion beforehand they can confuse the issue. The central question, and the best starting point in rational discussion about truth, is who is Jesus and the answers that can be found in the Old Testament where God foretold Jesus’ life.
Many people in Generations X, Y, and Z process truth in community. Today’s young people are returning to tribal ways of thinking where individuals are not likely to break away from the group decision. The implication is that conversion is more than just a philosophical or logical decision, it is a social one. People are unlikely to commit to Christianity if they don’t feel comfortable changing tribe and all that includes in terms of friendships and lifestyle choices. It is a change of way of life, of way of expression, and of friends and family. Emerging generations are not likely to want to throw away their tribal loyalties to seek truth alone, but if they can be shown the authentic, relational aspect of what the Church is, and if they feel involved and loved by serving on team or joining small groups, then there can be a subconscious decision to change tribes which precedes the decision to follow Christ. In the belong-before-they-believe model, spiritual seekers usually change tribes before they change beliefs. It is also important to consider this tribal nature in terms of reaching the friends of those newly coming to Christ. If new Christians can maintain their friendships in their old tribes the Church may see whole groups of friends finding faith together. Conversion can therefore be a matter of one-in-all-in like when the Philippian gaoler was baptised along with his entire family (Acts 16:31).
Sometimes decisions are made more by ideas and images than by facts. If seekers associate Christ with friendly and confident people who are enjoying their lives, this may sway them more than a good telling of the gospel story. Once again, the big question goes beyond believing in a set of ideas to does the hearer want to be like the evangelist and his friends. Does he reflect what I would like to become? This is why when we begin to incorporate new belongers into our congregation, and especially into a small group, it is important to match people who are at the same or similar life-stage. Otherwise the newcomers will not connect. The members of the group may well be polite and respectful of the idea behind connection, and of the spiritual leadership, but they will not feel safe to be open. People need to know that it is okay to have trouble and that they can feel safe in sharing these day-to-day experiences with their group. As mature Christians, we must create an ethos where everyone can be vulnerable. By displaying some of our own vulnerability and transparency, we can help people to connect with each other and journey together towards a deeper faith. Another quote from Richard Kelly’s Crusaders:
It made a magisterial case for faith, this old Cathedral, no question…People would always come – for the sense of time and lineage, the efforts inscribed in the walls. They would come and fill the place, to visit or study, to be quiet and thoughtful or just to say they had seen it.
What if we didn’t need to go out and find “Lost” to save because they want to come, and they want to belong, because of what they have seen while silently and secretly watching the Christians in their world?
How do we welcome the uninvited who are in fact the very ones we want to encourage? How do we handle them coming in on their own terms? What if they are already coming and going from the back few rows of Sunday church, or the friendly tables of Tuesday fellowship?
What if the truth [that] will set you free is the truth that you are loved and valued by God, rather than the truth of some theological standard? Is this the truth that our congregation proclaims? Is this the truth that undergirds our mission and vision statements?
The truth is that you are welcome to come as you are, because that is what the Cross and all the serious doctrines of Christendom are all about. (Isn’t it?)