The Challenge of 2021

It is the beginning of 2021 a number that sounds futuristic! Well it does to me, as someone who can remember the news flash on the TV of President Kennedy being assassinated in 1963! Before writing this I re-read my blog post from the beginning of last year entitled “The Drama of 2020.” Little did I realise that a Global Pandemic was only two months away; an event which has changed so much in the political and social landscape and presented us with considerable challenges. Nonetheless, I stand by much of what I wrote then and would urge readers to consult that article as a good background to this one. My main emphasis then was on the need to understand, appreciate and promulgate the Christian Story. The battle in the modern world is about which worldview or grand narrative has dominance and influence.

Over this past year I have reflected long and hard on my life: my first awakening to faith in what was a very different age; my subsequent call to Ministry; the heady days of University; the passion, enthusiasm and chutzpah of my contemporaries and myself; the strong conviction that we were a generation that was going to lead the Church gloriously into the 21st century. What happened!!??

None of us predicted, nor I suppose could we have, the direction our culture would take and the incredible societal changes that have occurred these last 40yrs. Nor could we have imagined that the Church would become a shadow of its former self, become increasingly marginalised, and then go into melt-down demographically. But here we are. The jury is out on whether the Church as we know it will survive this pandemic. Of course the Future will have a Church because the Future belongs to God. However, what form that will take in the 21st Century remains to be seen.

In my very first blog post entitled “The Making of the Christian Mind in the 21st Century” I began with the following quotation:

The Christian Religion is inescapably ritualistic…uncompromisingly moral…and unapologetically intellectual. Robert Louis Wilkin

The intellectual heritage of the Christian faith is truly admirable and impressive. Few of our members realise this and even some of our Clergy do not adequately reflect this. However, over the years I confess to being distracted by the adrenalin rush of debate and polemics. These days I realise more than ever, that promotion of the Christian worldview is not just about the “mind” and passionate and persuasive argumentation, it is also about the recognition that this is a “spiritual” not just an “intellectual battle we are engaged in. Now it is certainly true that secularisation has affected the Church more than we realise and many Christians are, at the very least, a little uncomfortable with this theme. Yet it is clear from the Ministry of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels and especially in the writings of Paul that the early Church saw reality this way (e.g. Eph. 6: 12).

During one national crisis in Ancient Israel, the tribes gathered together armed for battle before David. It is said of the men of Issachar that they “understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1Chronicles 12:32). We certainly need to be like them both in understanding our context and situation and responding in a suitable and effective manner. However, our battle is not a physical one but a spiritual one.

The use of the “war” metaphor is appropriate here, for we are all born into a world in conflict. In the natural world, biological innovation and adaptation emerges from the struggle for survival. The same is true for the moral and the spiritual. Human history and culture is a battleground for the establishment of higher values and each individual fights strenuously to overcome “inner demons” and respond to the “better angels” of a divided and conflicted psyche. Often, it must be said, without a great deal of success! Nonetheless, it seems that almost everything of value in our world is the “fruit” of struggle in one way or another; nothing is just given or happens effortlessly.

Throughout the Bible, the “war” motif plays an integral part in the story. From the theme of Creation in the Old Testament portrayed as God’s mastery of the forces of chaos, through to the spiritual clash of opposing “kingdoms” witnessed in the ministry of Jesus, the metaphor of conflict is to the fore. Allied to that are the many stories of Biblical heroes like Moses, Gideon, David, and Elijah whose “battles of faith” have always provided Christian preachers with dramatic and vivid material.

Famously, C.S. Lewis, influenced by events in the Second World War, was attracted to the metaphor of the Church being a resistance movement in occupied territory. Let me imaginatively explore that -

1940, Europe: France has fallen to the Germans and the British have retreated back across the Channel. A dark cloud now hangs over the continent. From the Atlantic to the Russian border, and from the Artic to the Mediterranean, the Nazi Swastika flies triumphant over a large swathe of occupied territories. Within these areas local populations are waking up to face a new reality. The fighting is over but a different “war” is just beginning. Armies have been defeated but not hearts and minds and national spirit. All over Europe, subversive resistance is organized in a host of creative and imaginative ways as some people refuse the easy option of collaboration with the occupying forces. In the years that lie ahead, many people will show great fortitude, courage and self-sacrifice in this struggle. Figuratively speaking, is this any different from the situation of the contemporary Church in Western Europe? We are now a resistance movement!

This year, let us thank God for the formation of GTN and for the dedication of those who undergird it with patient and loyal service. Let us also thank God for the Christian Intellectuals who contribute so much to challenging the dominant materialist/atheist worldview of our contemporary culture and those at the sharp end of Christ’s Mission to the world. But let us never forget the need for powerful, persevering and persistent prayer for all that GTN does this year. Our battle is a spiritual one.

by Rev Dr Russel Moffat

37 Responses

  1. /January 21, 2021/ by John Spence /

    In response to your last year’s Drama of 2020, Tony Foreman wrote, “I see no signs of it (the Church) ‘regaining its confidence’ .. but….  events may well overtake us. If they do and there is financial collapse, or war, or totalitarianism, or something; if society fails significantly and life becomes unbearable, then people may look for other options”.  Well “something” in the shape of Covid 19 certainly overtook us.  Is this an opportunity for the resistance movement to get to work?  Church Services on-line initially seemed to attract greater numbers than normally attended Church but that did not last.  What went wrong? Have we blown it again?

  2. /January 25, 2021/ by Russel Moffat /

    Hi John

    Thanks for your comments. I think it is too soon to evaluate the consequences for a changing landscape post-pandemic we will have to wait and see about that. There is much talk of a “new normal” in the aftermath of this crisis and that may well be the case.
    I have always thought that the evaluation of numbers online was seized on too quickly by the Church at large and we must be prepared for a lack of fulfilled expectation here. Nonetheless, I think seeds of the Kingdom have been sown during this past year in ways that would not have happened without this crisis. May the Spirit bring these to germination in God’s good time. We should also be ready to accept that many of our elderly may not return to Church in the future for a variety of reasons which given the demography of the Church is a concern.

    To return to the blog post, it may be, following the metaphor of “resistance in occupied territory,” that things may get worse before they get better. That’s why honesty and realism are so important for Christians. There are no quick fixes. That said we should not be too hard on ourselves and remember hope not optimism is central to the Christian life. The latter is a mood or feeling the former is, in the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, an “active virtue.” The Christian community has to cultivate “hope” and we do that through refection on and remembrance of the great affirmations of our faith. The wonderful story GTN over the last 5 years also gives us ground for hope.

  3. /January 25, 2021/ by Alan J F F Fraser /

    I like your metaphor of “resistance in occupied territory”.  For this we need to understand our times. New atheism is indeed faltering .  It promised much, like modern populists in politics. Like them its confident assertions won followers. However, its aggressive offensive strategy fails to hold the ground won, by failing to provide positive meaning in life. Secularism is still very strong. Modern idolatry is still very materialistic. It has left seed thoughts that continue to germinate like weeds in my garden.  These (seed thoughts, not garden weeds) need to be challenged by gentle reasoning backed up by genuine concern for real people suffering from the loss of hope and meaning in life,
    Sadly there are many other voices speaking into this spiritual vacuum. I find the resurgence of neopaganism quite extraordinary in our educated, scientific age.  Along with this other faiths are making gains in Scotland.
    As a resistance movement we need to equip our people with a stronger belief in the hope of the good news in Jesus and an understanding of the varied and kaleidoscopic thinking that forms of “Scottish values” in the 21st century. I was greatly encouraged by the GTN presentation on Saturday and look forward to introducing more in my church to the tools being produced to help us point others to the positive truths that do give a solid and lasting basis for life.

  4. /January 26, 2021/ by Russel Moffat /

    Hi Alan

    Thanks for your response. I appreciate your reference to “seed thoughts” in contrast to “weeds.” As concerns about militant evangelicals, Trump and the recent events in the States highlighted, there are dangers in Christians using military or war metaphors in case they are misunderstood. Therefore l really appreciate your wisdom in referring to the response of “gentle reasoning” in this situation. That said, I am pleased you still find the “Resistance” analogy helpful.

    Resistance movements need four basic things.

    The first is a clear sense of identity and mission. The second is discipline and training. The third concerns resources and equipment. Last of all, the building and sustaining of morale especially in the midst of inevitable set-backs.
    I think it is fairly easy to translate these into “spiritual” categories for today’s church and for organisations like GTN. Far harder to put them into operation but we have made a start.
    The task ahead of us is daunting yet exciting. But this is something we must “feel” as well as think and talk about. Perhaps a suitable text here is 1Corinthians 15: 58, the first part of which some commentators think Paul was envisaging a Roman Legion standing shoulder to shoulder –

          “Therefore my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding
            in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.”

    Amen! Let it be so!

  5. /February 3, 2021/ by Iain Morris /

    Thanks to our blogger for his preceptive analysis!
    Being realistic can be depressing but what’s the alternative? Delusion or the hope that it might not be true?
    Russel in your response to Alan you say that ” The task ahead of us is daunting yet exciting”.  Why do you find it exciting?  That is intriguing at a time when we know our national church is strategizing for survival.
    Is it possible that a sense of realism can be so enthused with frustration and the sense of ‘this ain’t right’ to the point where the determination to resist emerges?  What is required? The response above notes four things. Hopefully GTN can contribute to the full quartet.  Apologetics is the fuel needed in the tank.

    Are folk familiar with the Lausanne Movement, started by Billy Graham and John Stott in 1973?  Very active in the global church,  the movement is calling for apologetics to have a high profile for leaders as well as for the folk in the proverbial pews.  It calls for engagement about the rationale of the Christian faith to be at the ready in the public square but also at the level of everyday conversations.
    But preparation involves teaching and learning. These in turn require planning, structure and content; in short, we need a curriculum.  When will enough people take this seriously enough to make a difference?
    Many are happy to see the John Lennox’s of the Church go out to battle against the Goliaths of atheism but that is not how wars - literal or metaphorical - are won.

  6. /February 4, 2021/ by Russel Moffat /

    Hi Iain

    Thanks for your comments and questions. First, the bad news. I firmly believe that things in Church terms can only and will only get worse before they get better! The good news is they will get better.
    1 You ask why I find the task ahead exciting although it is daunting? Let me answer that in relation to Winston Churchill. When he heard news of the Japanese bombing of Pearl harbour he was elated. A strange response? Given what a terrible year 1941 had been for Britain militarily the last thing that was needed was another war in the Far East. But Churchill knew then that the war was won. With America in play no matter how many long years of struggle lay ahead victory would be won. He therefore went to bed that night not despairing but “sleeping the sleep of the saved and thankful.”
    As Christians we know that “The battle belongs to the Lord.” The end game is God’s. What Christ wrought on the cross will be consummated at the culmination of history. This is an episode along the way. We must not feel sorry for ourselves but neither must we be complacent and indifferent.
    In my response to Alan I quoted 1 Corinthians 15:58 which should be our new motto and certainly a banner under which we watch, pray, serve and plan.
    2 You ask what is required? I would prioritise by saying we must first recover our sense of identity and destiny as a church. In the paper I presented at the Council of Advisors conference I referred to the illustration Michael Griffiths used in 1974 of “Cinderella with Amnesia.” I was taught Systematic Theology by J.B. Torrance who never tired of saying that for the Christian the “Who” question is prior to the “what” and the “how.” That is on two levels. First, who is this God and who is this Christ that we say we believe in. Secondly and arising from our answer to the first question, who are we, who is the church? Recapturing our sense of identity is paramount. Without this we will never get off the ground. We will never even begin to understand our calling and mission. There can be no morale building and boosting without these affirmations in place.
    3 You stress the need for apologetics. I agree because it is one thing to know what we believe and another to know why we believe and since Christianity is not about having a private faith but about mission, apologetics is a very necessary tool.
    4 You mention the need for a curriculum. I heartily concur. An item for some near future agenda perhaps?
    5 I think Iain there is a lot to take heart from in the 5yrs of GTN. It has been a grand vision which has put much needed flesh on the bones of apologetics and the nurture of faith. You have a lot to proud of and pleased with. If the next 5yrs match the same amount of progress it will all be worthwhile. May God bless our collective journey.

  7. /February 4, 2021/ by Iain Morris /

    ” The ’ Who question is prior to the ‘What’ and the ‘How’.”  I like it!
    There is much to encourage us in GTN.  People are catching the vision and joining in. This is not the time for the Church to give up. “Many of life’s failures are experienced by people who did not realise how close they were to success when they gave up.” (Thomas Edison)

  8. /February 9, 2021/ by Iain Morris /

    Prompted by the issues raised by Russel here, Chris Packard has sought to extend the agenda in a further GTN blog article “Understanding the times”, which you can read here.

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