November 9, 2013

Theological College Commencement Class of 2063

With the invention of inexpensive time travel just four weeks ago (must have missed that one, it’s always been priced out of my wage bracket  – Ed) took the opportunity to go forward fifty years in time to see what life would be like for the average church planter/ministry worker in the year 2063, by visiting a local theological college commencement service.  For those of you who are completely hooked on what the future might look like there were a few surprises; Billy Graham is still alive; Rob Bell  and Damien Hurst are working on a London/New York instalment called Lust Wins;  Facebook is now literally implanted into your face – you “friend” people by smiling, and post status updates by looking supercilious.  There are a few things that won’t surprise you; Arsenal finished a distant fourth in the Premier League after a promising start with Arsene Wenger Jr saying he will not bankrupt the club by spending on big names; Hillary Clinton is running for President of NUSA (the New United States of America – a confederation of mostly east/west coastal and northern states); Holden Australia is manufacturing just 32 cars a year that no one wants to buy at a cost to taxpayers of 75 million dollars each.

But the most revealing thing about what life is like in 2063 is just how much the  face of the Christian church has changed in 50 years. With a whopping 26 per cent of Australians now evangelical Christians it is clear that something must have gone right for all of those church planting and evangelism efforts over the previous decades.    At least that’s what I thought when the dean of the aforementioned (but nameless? – Ed) college  Dr Calvin Spurgeon mentioned it in his opening remarks.  But it was the transcript of his speech to students that most interested me – a transcript I managed to get hold of when Dr Spurgeon left his Google Glasses MK 10 on the podium after his address. Attired as I was, in hipster skinny jeans, One Star Chuck Taylor Cons and several tattoos, perhaps the organisers assumed I was simply senior faculty from another college and took no notice of me.

So without further ado here are the first few pages of the speech (with more to come in subsequent posts).

“Commencement class of 2063, in the name of the one true Lord, Jesus Christ, come in the flesh, crucified, raised, ascended, reigning and coming soon, welcome!  It gives me great pleasure to deliver this address to you today, an important date in the history of Australian gospel ministry. Today ladies and gentlemen, is the tenth anniversary of the Federal Government’s Anti-Coercive-Faith Act, an act who many thought – and hoped – would sound the death knell for Christian evangelism in this country. Who could have foreseen that, with the removal of all government subsidies for faith-based schools, the scrapping of non-declarable FBT for church workers, and the introduction of all-reaching anti-Conversion legislation, that the gospel, rather than falter, would march on powerfully. Yet it has, and here we all are, in this borrowed warehouse to celebrate that fact.

Please open your Bibles to John 15:18 – our commencement verse for 2063. John, chapter 15, verse 17.  It’s good to hear the rustling of pages once again, not least of all because it indicates how many of us are in this building tonight.  Since the Digital Subversion Act precludes crowds of more than eighty individuals from utilising digital technology for faith based books, it is encouraging how often I hear that familiar paper shuffle when I attend midnight network meetings. Who would have thought that a government initiative to shut down larger churches would simply reinvigorate smaller, more flexible communities who formed non-aligned, but Jesus-centred, networks throughout the vast suburban wastelands of this country.  God is doing something great, evidently.      

Let me read that verse for us from John 15 tonight:

“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.”

Now what is going on here? In this verse, Jesus is in the upper room speaking to his disciples the night before going to the shame of the cross. It is a slap in the face to the disciples. They are about to embark on a life in which their master tells them that their normal experience will be persecution and derision, and all for aligning with him. And so it proved to be, with all by John suffering and dying at the hands of those who hated Jesus.  

So what this verse reminds us of firstly is this: Opposition to the gospel of Jesus and the people of Jesus is normal.  Did you get that? That’s the norm, and what Australia experienced for many years – antipathy bordering on ennui – was the exception. And, despite my initial fears, I for one would not have it any other way. Who would have realised what good the growing hatred of the gospel would have proved to be? Of course this has not come without its costs – some we know have been to prison – but I suggest these are costs that we should be more than willing to bear – YOU should be more than willing to bear, if the time comes.

It may surprise you that I have no desire to go back to what it was like in my final year of university in 2013.  There I was looking at a Master Degree in Theology and an academic career.  None of you here tonight, however, is looking at a future which includes what many of the retired folk here tonight remember well – a paid full time ministry position. Oh, those were the days eh? (I see that hand!)  There was a time when even the most ardent, edgy evangelist who turned up to study theology expected he or she would find some gainful employ, if not in a church, well at least in one of the para-church organisations. That, patently, is no longer true.  As an aside, it fills me with great sorrow to see how the para-church groups turned not just against a peculiar brand of evangelicalism in particular, but orthodox Christianity in general, instead seeing their future in the inter-faith movement – a step the Government has positively encouraged through special funding for any Christian groups who give up the “exclusivity clause”, as it is called.   

Anyway, where was I? That’s right – the loss of full-time ministry work.  Who would have thought that government restrictions would flood the gospel market with such diversity?  Plumbers, carpenters, roofies, – all sorts of other tradespeople -, housewives, nurses, all have realised that God’s church needs bi-vocational church planters, people with employable skills outside of the Christendom, and middle-class model. The flood of Chinese missionaries to these shores in the past thirty years, ostensibly as middle management workers, has taught us some great lessons, toughened as  they were by Christian lives forged in the cauldron of Government suspicion. This new model has been a game changer, with the previously unreached people groups of our nation – namely the working class – hearing the gospel for the first time from people just like they, and in everyday language they understand.  And very often they hear it whilst working side by side  on a housing project with the likes of some of you!  So praise God for that!

The second thing we are reminded of isn’t contained within this verse, but the verse prior to it, verse 17.  Let me read that verse to you.  Jesus says to his disciples:

“These things I command you, that you love one another.”

Do you see it? Love!  Butted up against a verse that says how much hate will be thrown the way of Jesus’ followers is a verse that commands nothing less than love between Christians.  And it is a love that flows out of Jesus love for us.  And it is a love, I dare say, that does not stop with each other, but flows out into the world, even as that very world ratchets up its hatred of us, with its coercive government policies, public derision, and show trials. Hatred is not the answer and never will be.  It saddens me to see how several national theological institutes stopped focussing on the gospel and started focussing on political agitation as a means to further the gospel cause. Of course it garnered some attention, and looked for a while like it might gain some political clout, but with the exposure of moral failure within the “Right and Righteous” movement that hope came to a shameful end. We are reminded by St Peter – himself living in a setting in which following Christ was costly – that God’s people should never suffer for being a criminal.  Much damage was done back in the 30s, a damage that is only being undone now. All that movement did, at the end of the day, was attract zealots more interested in the culture wars than the battle against sin and Satan. This college stands for the costly love that Christ demonstrated for his enemies – enemies such as us. A love that took him all the way to the cross. A cross that each of us is called to bear if we truly love like…. 

(At this point Dr Spurgeon was hushed by an attendant at the door.  All of the lights went out and the room sat in silent darkness for five minutes. The tension was palpable  I heard noises and lights outside, but when these had stopped, and no one had approached the building for a further ten minutes, the podium light went back on, and Dr Spurgeon resumed his place at the podium.)

In my next post I will resume the transcript, as well as reveal some of the conversations I had with the students. It was all very revealing and is a lesson for us back here in 2013.  Till then…

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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