Dead Words

When we wonder why the language of traditional Christianity has lost it’s liberating power for nuclear man, we have to realize that most Christian preaching is still based on the presupposition that man sees himself as meaningfully integrated with a history in which God came to us in the past, is living under us in the present, and will come to liberate us in the future. But when man’s historical consciousness is broken, the whole Christian message seems like a lecture about the great pioneers to a boy on an acid trip.

– Fr. Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer

Tonight I listened to a few clips of old sermons (Because apparently that’s how I spend my Friday nights) and was struck by one common feature: The rhetoric of Evangelicalism in the last century was dominated by a concern for the future. The ultimate future. The great end of things.

“If you left here and were hit by a bus, where would you go?”

“With every eye closed and every head bowed”

And so as the youth group sniffles and the band plays “turn your eyes upon Jesus” one more time, everyone signs a commitment card and they go home, assured that their hearts belong to Jesus and their future looks bright. Their past has been re-narrated as a downward spiral from which they have just been delivered, and the future they can expect is one of ever increasing sanctification until the day they see God.

And that one moment of ultimate existential terror passes.

I think many of us might see several issues with such a rhetoric, no matter how common it is in our churches (not least an ethical objection). However I want to bring Nowen’s words to bare upon it.

If we presuppose a broken historical consciousness, one of two things is likely to happen:

1. The story is collapsed into that one singular moment, and so the young person is simultaneously crushed with guilt and offered the escape from such a feeling.

2. The story is instantly rejected because the past has no value and the future is fixed in it’s uncertainty as to make the narrative meaningless. Or at least unworkable.

The first, I suggest, is a common response for those who have at least some understanding of history, possibly a second hand knowledge.

The second might be a common reaction of those with more experience, who have the ability to see their present as an overall positive result of their past.

By no means are these all the ways someone might respond to a Youth Group evangelistic talk, but I think you get the idea that a person’s pre-existing interpretation of their existence shapes how the rhetoric is accepted. Or even if it is at all.

However true it might be that Christians were once lost in sin and are now saved and headed to the Everlasting Kingdom (Colossians 1:21-22), that Biblical truth rests upon an understanding of human life as being more than the experience of it in the present.

The instant availability of every kind of media content to many people at little cost has altered this irreparably.

I think some find this a challenge to their faith and so decry it, warning of the evils of media consumption and being over-available and the rest. It is apparently evil to have too many good things available in one moment. What we need to do, it is argued, is to return to a prior mindset, one which already has a well developed Christian narrative to cultivate discipleship and foster community.

I almost see the point in that.

But I must disagree. The loss of the power of the Youth Group Story does not mean the power of the Gospel is lost. Nor does it mean the young people of today are any more lost than the ones who held a different set of assumptions. As if, somehow, the generation you were born into makes you less able to be saved.

Thats exactly what we communicate when we tell young people that their cultural norms are somehow worse than the ones of their parent’s generation.

This is simply not the case. It is God who does the saving and God who does the sanctifying and God who redeems all things to the glory of his name. With this liberating story to quench our souls in, perhaps we would no longer feel the need to have names on cards or butts on pews, but tell the thirsting souls around us of the great, rich, beautiful and blessed life beyond any one imagination and outside any one person’s power to create.

Because if all that matters is this present moment, then I think the Christian story has a great deal more to offer to this present moment than even the varied voices and faces I can access from the palm of my hand.

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One Comment

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  1. The message vs method debate as ever. May the good news be proclaimed in a way people can understand (even if it is to understand that they don’t understand, and accept that).

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