Freshers’ Day, Baptist Theological College, Pfutsero, 29th June 2013
|By Lipok Dzuvichu|
Much of what I want to say to theological students have been said when I recently spoke at Oriental Theological Seminary, Dimapur. It is uploaded in the internet, so please have a look there. If you type in google, my name or title of the talk, ‘Taking Theology to Bazaar’; you will be directed to my blog (www.thatchhouse.blogspot.in) which has the talk.
Today is a special day and I thank the Students’ Association here for inviting me. As a local chokra here, I would like to extent my invitation to the new students. As you have read on your way in to the Mission Centre here, ‘There are no strangers, only friends you haven’t met’.
(Pause)‘How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?’(Romans 10: 14,15a). Today, you freshers have responded to that call and said, ‘here am I, send me’. So, I not only welcome you, but I congratulate you for deciding to give all of your lives in the service of God, the Almighty. But for our reflection today, let me stretch those Bible verses and problematize our situation. (Pause) Even if they are sent, how will they believe if they are not interested? How do we preach a message of salvation when people are not interested to be saved? How do we make them repent when they don’t feel the need for it? How do we speak of heaven when they don’t want to go there? How do we convince people to read the Bible when they don’t have the time for it? That is the situation we are in today. There are atheists who are opposed to the idea of God. But worse are the people who simply don’t care. They are not asking the big questions of life. They may not antagonise religious people so long as they don’t get on their way. They’d be rather left alone to do what they have to do. They think religion is for people who are interested in those sorts of things but it is not their cup of tea. They think religion may be psychologically helpful but not interesting enough for them to give it a try.
Such people are increasing in our Naga society. We have a lot of Christians who don’t go to church. On special Sundays like Mothers’ Day, even if you go to church on time, you can’t get a seat. And you wonder, ‘where did all these people come from?’ That is just one example of how interesting our regular Sunday worship services are. Minus the people who go to church on special Sundays, and you have the regular church goers. How many among them live as Christians? Week after week, they are in the church, some even very busy; but where is the substance to mark their discipleship to Christ? So, church for many simply becomes like a cultural centre where people come to socialize. Thinking people who can see through such hypocrisy of our church people are put off even farther. So, we have many intelligent people who are consciously moving away from church. They think church is for simpletons who blindly believe anything without questioning. Sadly, we find that people outside the church seem to be more broad-minded, more accepting, and more forgiving than church people.
Before I suggest how as theological students we may recapture the interest of people to follow Christ, let us look at the possible put-offs; things that we might have been doing wrongly as Christians and as church people.
Have we got the Gospel wrong? What is the Gospel? We evangelicals will be very quick to respond by saying out loud the so-called four spiritual laws: God loves you and has a special purpose for you; but you have sinned the punishment of which is eternal death; Jesus paid the price for your sins by dying on the cross; if you believe in him, you’ll be saved and you’ll go to heaven. We have reduced the Gospel to that personal salvation formula. The Gospel is so packaged so that if we tick the right boxes to those set questions, we can have salvation delivered to us in full. By taking up Theology, if you are here to learn some set formula, to master the techniques of soul winning, my friends, you are in trouble. We are so used to it and it doesn’t seem to be working. Research shows that only 22% of people who had born again experience continue as disciples of Jesus Christ down the line, not more than Christians of other denominations who had no born again experience. This is quite revealing to me of how we view the Gospel. I have always thought that to become a Christian must always be accompanied by saying yes to that formula. I knew of no other way the Gospel can be preached. Scot McKnight, the Baptist New Testament scholar says that pressing people with such formulaic Gospel to precipitate a decision is a post-1957 evangelical revivalist construction. The Gospel was never preached that way before. Even during the protestant reformation, Luther or Calvin did not press for people to make a decision. Mcknight contents that if Apostle Paul were told that that is the Gospel, he’d be shocked.
So, before we take up the challenge of taking the gospel to the world, we need a reality check. What actually is the Gospel? We need to question. We need to dig deep.
Have we got the church wrong? We hear people say, ‘I love Jesus but I hate the church’. The church as an institution has done grievous harm to the cause of the Gospel that it tries to champion. It has lost its distinctiveness from other social organizations and has become a kind of spiritual health club. It has colluded with worldly powers. The church is hand-in-gloves with the civil rulers and has become mute in the face of injustice and corruption. The construction of the NBCC Convention Centre by the Nagaland government is one such instance and it has shut the mouth of truth in the face of evil. The Clean Election Campaign was nothing more than a car sticker campaign as the dirtiest election of all times happened under the nose of it. Our Bolero Baptist Churches don’t do well either, by not challenging the status quo but only legitimizing it. Instead of being a subversive force to be reckoned with, our churches are the most unequal places to be. Rich donors get all the extra attention and special seats. Preachers make sure that they don’t inconvenience anybody with the sour truth. We have bowed down to the idol of material prosperity over justice & righteousness.
What is the way out? In the light of the two problems raised, let me first suggest that we unlearn how we have always understood the Gospel so that we may read and learn it afresh. The Gospels are not primarily about the fact that you are a sinner and that it contains a plan for your personal salvation. The Gospels tell the story of Jesus. So, the question to ask as you read the Gospels is, ‘Who is this Jesus?’ And as we proclaim the Gospel, we tell the story of Jesus. You may question, ‘Is there anything new to know about Jesus? Haven’t we figured him out and known all there is to know?’ Well, we have been holding on to caricatures and modern constructs of Jesus rather than the Jesus of the Gospels. We do not pick verses as if they are separate pieces of timeless proverbs but we need to read the whole story. When we are selective in our reading, it appears as if Jesus was born only for the purpose of dying; to die for our personal sins. His teachings in between his birth and death get sidelined. Also we must remember that the four Gospels are the climax to a much larger story. It is the story of Israel. If we ignore that, we get a truncated Gospel. I keep thinking about this: What if we ban preaching from the New Testament for a year? If we start from Genesis, preach the story of God with the nation of Israel found in the 39 books of Old Testament for the whole year, then bring in the New Testament only during Christmas, the Birth of Jesus Christ; preach on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ till Good Friday and Easter when we listen to the stories of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection; wouldn’t that be interesting? Scot McKnight argues that we have created a salvation culture with overemphasis on the need for personal decision on salvation that has distorted the Gospel itself. Professor N.T Wright, another New Testament theologian also on this account points out the fallacy of interpreting the resurrection. When we say ‘Jesus is risen’, we tend to take it as meaning, ‘now, we can go to heaven’. But Wright says that resurrection doesn’t mean that. Instead, it is, ‘Jesus is risen, therefore new creation has begun’. The Gospel is so much more than personal piety. It is nothing short of the total transformation of the whole cosmos, not excluding the social and political order. To proclaim that even Caesar has to bow down before a crucified Jewish carpenter-preacher was scandalous. It sure must have caught the attention of so many people in the Roman Empire. Now, that is interesting. If we are true to the Gospel, we don’t have to worry about sensationalizing it in order to garner people’s interest. We only have to be authentic and preach the Gospel as it really is.
As Jesus would angrily clear the temple, there are a lot of tables to turn and dirt to sweep in our churches. We need courageous church leaders who value holiness over church budget. Churches must stop their abuse of privilege and come down from the pulpit to meet with the common people. The community of believers through love and care for one another must be an example of counter-culture; an abnormality, if you like, amidst the existing class, linguistic, ethnic, gender and such man-made divisions and barriers. If the church exists as church, there is no need for a publicity department. The warmth of the fellowship, the truth of the message, and the exemplary living of its members will be enough to attract people towards our churches.
Let me add some more general suggestions on how we may make our conversations of theology interesting.
Alister McGrath in one of his talks on atheism thanked the new atheists for starting the conversation on God. In our modern times when talk about God seem to have been fading out, the challenge of New Atheism the proponents of who are much more vocal and hostile has created an opportunity and a platform for Christians to talk about God. New Atheism is a term given to modern atheist writers like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens who are of the view that Religion should not be simply tolerated but should be countered by rational arguments. From this example, I want to make a point that one way to talk meaningfully about the Christian faith is to join in the conversation that others have started. Jesus lived this style of communication about the kingdom of God. By the well, the Samaritan woman offered Jesus a drink. He carried on the conversation to talk of another kind of water. On the way to Emmaus, the resurrected Jesus joined in the conversation of the two men. Only after they broke bread did they recognise him. That is an interesting style of communication. When Jesus preached, he’d use very simple examples that people are familiar with and are talking about: A Sower who sowed seeds on different types of soil surfaces, a son who ran away from home, and a widow who dropped two copper coins into the offering box. He was very much alive to the people around him. That is a very important trait that we must emulate. What is the word on the street? What are the congregation thinking? It pays to be observant and to be alive to the surroundings. And if we join in the conversation that others have started, we can never be accused of forcing our way to push the Bible down someone’s throat.
My last point is something that I have not properly grasped yet. It is from a book with a very interesting title called ‘Conversion of the Imagination’ written by again a New Testament scholar. He says that Paul was imaginatively interpreting the Old Testament in the light of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The Jews had their Psalms of the Old Testament. Paul read them as well. After his conversion to Christ, he read them differently. He now read the Psalms Christologically. The laws of the OT captured new meaning as Paul did what Hays called ‘revisionary interpretation’ to them. Paul also drew his teachings on ethics and church from the OT. So, Paul was using Israel’s scripture (OT) but he was giving them new meanings through the lens of Christ’s resurrection. If we care to study, listen and imagine, we will find fresh new ways to preach the Gospel in a whole new way. The Gospels are the same, but each generation has the challenge of interpreting the Scripture to the times in which they live. And if conversion to Christ is the conversion of our whole selves, it involves even the conversion of our imaginations.
To study theology, as I have stated earlier, is not to learn the methods or formulae on how to win souls. Our education system is based on memorisation and swallowing of facts without chewing. To be able to vomit in the exam hall what we swallowed in the class room is called getting an education. As soon as you step out of BTC to start your ministry, the world will have changed and your memorised formula rendered useless. That is when what you have learned has to be imaginatively interpreted to the new context that you find yourself in. While you are here in BTC, read, read and read. Reflect even more. Build a discussion atmosphere in your class rooms, hostel rooms and dining rooms. Be teachable. Learn from your lecturers, classmates, and juniors who will come. Start early on which line you would want to go. Will academics be more suitable for you or church ministry? Missiology or Systematic Theology or Applied Theology? Decide early and groom yourself in the line you want to go. While you are a theological student, keep your pursuits of theological learning above all interests and hobbies. Be observant; keep your minds open; be alive to your surroundings. Climb a mountain, go to the cabbage fields of Pfutsero, and make friends with the local kids as the old BTC students did those days when we were young. Learn from the community. See how you may contribute your service to the people here as if it were your own hometown. Make lasting memories of your stay here at Pfutsero. God bless you.