Promoting Christ-centred Biblical Ministry

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reprinted from the March 2001 edition of Essentials  

  Where In a World of Pragmatism is Theology?

Stephen Abbott

  I am of a vintage that can still remember singing the old protest song, "Where have all the flowers gone? Gone long time ago." I personally think its time to revive the song but with a few word changes, "Where has theology gone? Gone long time ago." I have had the privilege of ministering over the past ten years in both Australia and the USA and have observed that when it comes to organising the life of the Christian community there is an ever increasing trend for pragmatism to take priority over theology. For example when it comes to working out an evangelism strategy the sort of questions which too often receive priority are: Does it work? How much does it cost? What do Bill Hybels, Rick Warren or Phil Jensen do? What would John Chapman or Peter Adam think? Each one of us will have our own Christian 'gurus' from whose altar we readily feast. But these are the wrong questions.   Stephen Abbott works part time as the EFAC Vic Training Officer and part time as lecturer at Ridley College
  There are prior questions which need to be asked. Questions of a biblical and theological nature such as: What is the Bible's understanding of evangelism? What does the Risen Jesus' Great Commission call us to? How does the nature of God impact mission? What role does the Spirit empowered believer play in the presentation of the gospel of God?  
  If Christian leaders stop asking such questions and merely opt for the pragmatic approach of: 'Well it worked for Jensen at St Matthias, Centennial Park or Corney at St Hilary's, Kew.' we will find ourselves on a dangerous slippery slide which has the potential of landing the Christian community in a sand pit of both theological and biblical shallowness, and evangelising and disciple making irrelevance.  
  Theological and biblical shallowness ensues because we have failed to adequately reflect on the Word of God as our primary, Holy Spirit breathed blueprint for gospel ministry. When the pragmatism takes hold of simply embracing secondary sources without considered theological/biblical reflection, as I would argue it does today, we establish a pattern which removes us from our centre as evangelicals, the Bible. Christian leaders who do this fail to model for their congregations the vital importance of theological reflection on life. The Lord God knew that we would be reading the Scriptures in 2001 and he has ensured that they continue to "thoroughly equip for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:17) both God's overseers and those they train for ministry. The Word of God must continue to set the agenda for all gospel ministry.  
  Pragmatic prioritising also runs the risk of leading to evangelising and disciplemaking irrelevance. When we buy into some methodology or strategy of evangelism which has worked in another context without carefully reflecting on the particularities of our own setting we may well discover that it does not engage significantly or appropriately and is therefore largely irrelevant. This does not mean that we can never use tools and techniques developed by others, rather it simply means we need to cast over them a watchful theological, biblical and practical eye so that we can make any adjustments necessary for our specific context.  
  Why do some say, "Well I don't agree with all the theology of Alpha but it has been used by God so we will give it a shot" or "Two Ways to Live helped me become more confident in sharing my faith so its the tool we will use to train believers in this parish"? There are probably many reasons. For some it is the fact they are so exhausted by the demands of ministry they feel there is no time to investigate new tools and it is easier to use familiar ones with effective track records. Sadly for some the honest answer is laziness while for others there is a sense of personal inadequacy, so it is easier to plop a video in and let some guru teach (in an English or American accent) than develop our own or search for more appropriate resources. What is the answer? Let me suggest a way forward.  
  It is my great concern that every Christian, not just church leaders (shepherds, elders, pastors) learn to think biblically and theologically, and so over the past ten or so years of my ministry I developed and still continue to refine three core lenses for examining life this way. The following three theological categories provide a God-centred and biblical framework for examining any aspect of human and Christian enquiry which when implemented supply a healthy safeguard from the dangerous creeping cancer of pragmatism which is evident in churches today. When learnt they equip 'rank and file' Christians with a tool for analysing the ethical and relational decisions they must make every day in their marketplace and neighbourhoods. The three lenses are: God's Sovereignty, Biblical Integrity and Human Creativity. The figure below is an attempt to represent the three lenses in an orientation which indicates the primacy of the first two lenses (the top two circles), while maintaining the necessity of all three (the circles overlap), for establishing a thorough and balanced theology of whatever element of Christian life is under consideration (the shaded area). In this case the letter 'E' at the centre represents Evangelism, which will be the focus for the present discussion.  
  It is my contention that it is only after we have established an understanding of evangelism, which firstly acknowledges God's sovereign activity and secondly is exercised in a way consistent with both the Bible's message and morality, that the third lens is brought into the picture. Then and only then is it time to allow the Christian's God-given creativity and imagination to run free in fashioning and exercising a particular approach to evangelism. As the old adage goes,  
  Methods are many, Principles are few.  
  Methods always change, Principles never do.  
  It is my intention over the next three issues of Essentials to unpack something of the implications of applying these three lenses specifically to Evangelism. To help in this process we will look through each lens and attempt to answer three questions:  
  1. God's Sovereignty: How will this strategy/technique give expression to God's sovereign activity in evangelism?  
  2. Biblical Integrity: What do the Scriptures teach about the nature, content and proclamation of the gospel?  
  3. Human Creativity: What role does imagination play as we seek to evangelise our present generation?  
  I have found it helpful to use a simple metaphor for communicating how these lenses are to be employed. The choice of describing these three theological concepts as lenses is deliberate in order to convey the notion that they provide for believers a way of looking at the whole of life and in this particular case are a way of viewing gospel ministry. The first two primary lenses should be understood as operating like the lenses of our eyes, which, when functioning normally, operate in dynamic harmony enabling us to see things clearly. Our eyes are such wonderful creations that they are able to take in both the big picture, like a landscape, and the small details, like a flower. The two lenses of God's Sovereignty and Biblical Integrity also should be employed in dynamic harmony enabling the Christian to examine human existence from God's perspective. Like our eyes these two lenses when used properly will enable us to observe the wide landscape of God's purposes and how the various aspects of God's truth are integrated to make up the whole scene. Yet they also allow us to bring into sharp focus particular elements of theology (for example: the atonement or evangelism) and life (for example: marriage or money). Of course our capacity to use these lenses will increase the more we employ them just like the trained lifeguard becomes a skilled observer in discerning between the playful swimmer and the distressed one.  
  However, what of our third lens? The Human Creativity lens acts like a kaleidoscope providing colour, shape and variety to the focus of the other two lenses. This lens enables us to take the truths already discovered by looking through the first two lenses, and work out how to communicate and implement them in a way which is clear, relevant and even entertaining, without destroying or tampering with each truth's integrity. This lens declares there is a human responsibility to translate the eternal truths of the Bible into language and ministries which will be intelligible and appropriate for each generation and culture. This can be risky. In our endeavours to employ the third lens we could become so fearful of irrelevance and unpopularity that we imitate the fads and fashions of our generation and compromise the gospel message. On the other hand, failure to use this lens at all will lead us increasingly into isolation from the very culture Christ has called us to engage.  
  It is my conviction that the dynamic application of these three lenses along  
  the lines suggested, will go a long way to equipping Christians and local churches for a gospel ministry which is both uncompromisingly true to Scripture and authentically relevant to our society. Why not put your mind to answering some of the following questions:  
  • What might be the foundational elements of an evangelism strategy which acknowledges God's sovereign activity in evangelism?  
  • How might the Bridge to Life tract be modified in order to ensure that the gospel message presented reflects biblical integrity?  
  • How might an Anglican clergyman set about planning a week of local church mission which took seriously human creativity and flexibility?  
  In the next three articles I will examine each lens in turn and seek to answer these and other such questions. In the meantime may we all remember Paul's injunction to Timothy, "Watch you life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save yourself and your hearers." (1 Timothy 4:16 NIV).  

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