Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Challenges of the Twenty-First Century

By Robin G. Jordan

What are the challenges that we face as Anglican Christians in the twenty-first century? I have identified fifteen challenges. I believe that they represent only the tip of the iceberg. Many more challenges lie submerged and out of sight

One challenge we face is an Anglican Church that is deeply divided over what is Anglican orthodoxy. This division was clearly evident in the absence of fifteen primates from the last Primates’ Meeting. The issue of Anglican orthodoxy not only divides the provinces of the Anglican Communion but also the different Anglican bodies in North America. It divides the newer Anglican bodies internally although these bodies have yet to recognize and acknowledge its existence, much less its problematic nature and the extent and seriousness of the problem.

The Roman Catholic Church is taking advantage of the Anglican Church’s divisions with the erection of the Anglican Ordinariates. Roman Catholics are actively urging Anglo-Catholics to desert the Anglican Church for the Roman Catholic Church and disparaging the Catholicism of Anglo-Catholics reluctant to leave the Anglican Church.

A second challenge we face is a resurgent Islam and Islamic extremism. We see growing Muslim populations in Western countries that were formerly Christian but have succumbed to secularism. These populations are supplying Islamic extremists with fresh recruits in their campaign of jihad against the West. They are forcing beds for jihadism.

A third challenge we face is an aggressive form of atheism that is simply not content to disbelieve in God but is intent upon spreading its disbelief. In the United States the Center for Inquiry has launched a multimedia ad campaign declaring that atheists and the nonreligious can live good, meaningful lives without God. "You don't need God – to hope, to care, to love, to live," the ad states. The Center for Inquiry is a humanist group that seeks to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values.

A fourth challenge we face is a growing secularism that champions equality over religious freedom and shows a decidedly unfriendly face to Christianity. The United Kingdom is feeling its impact from a recent High Court case in which the judges ruled that Great Britain is a multicultural secular nation in which equality rights take precedence over liberty of religious opinion. Christian couples who on the basis of their religious convictions cannot teach the acceptability of homosexuality and homosexual practice and sexual relations outside of marriage have been barred from fostering children in their homes.

A fifth challenge we face is political unrest in the Mid-East. Pro-democracy movements have toppled Tunisia and Egypt’s longstanding leaders and are seeking to drive Libya’s Mommar Gadhafi from power. There is a very serious likelihood that Islamic extremist will capitalize upon this unrest to establish Islamist regimes in these countries.

A sixth challenge we face is the intensification of the persecution of Christians in predominantly Muslim countries or in countries with substantial Muslim populations like Nigeria. Earlier this week Islamist extremists murdered Pakistan’s Minister for Minorities, a Christian, shooting him down in the street. The murdered man had advocated the reform of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which Muslims have abused to pursue grudges against Pakistan’s minority Christian population. The Communist Party and the Chinese government have ratcheted up their persecution of Christians in China. Militant Hindu groups continue their attacks on Christians in India.

A seventh challenge we face the rapid growth of technology in and outside of the United States, a revolution in communication, and the tremendous impact it is having upon Western culture and the larger world. It is predicted that by the middle of the Twenty-First Century computer technology will become so advanced that artificial intelligence will become a reality. This prediction conjures up images of Skynet and the deadly killer robots of the Terminator movies, as well as the robot rebellion of I, Robot.

Whatever the future may hold for the human race, the technology explosion of today is altering lives in ways we do not fully understand or appreciate. It is having both a positive impact and a negative impact upon churches.

An eighth challenge we face is a struggling economy, reduced incomes, and rising food and fuel prices. This has not only led to a reduction of family and individual giving to churches but has also led to a similar reduction of the distance that families and individuals are willing to drive to a church of their choice. More and more churches are unable to afford a full-time paid professional pastor. The travel expenses of pastors serving two or more yoked churches have skyrocketed. Rather than attending churches closer to home, families and individuals have stopped going to church altogether. The higher cost of fuel is particularly affecting the rural church serving low-density population areas in which the population is widely scattered.

A ninth challenge we face is the prospect of overpopulation, the growing scarcity of arable land and water for irrigation, and widespread famine around the world. As fossil fuels become scarcer and the transportation of foodstuffs more difficult, Western countries like Canada, the European Union, and the United States, which import fruit, vegetables, and other foods from Third-World countries, will also experience food shortages. Third-World countries presently supplying Western countries may stop selling produce to the Western countries and divert land use to growing crops to feed their starving and increasingly turbulent populations.

A tenth challenge we face is the continuing urbanization of our society as more and more people flock to the cities. This mass migration to the cities is draining the population of rural areas and impacting the lives of the people remaining in these areas. It is reducing the quality of living both in the cities and the rural areas. Among the results of this population shift is that unchurched population of the cities is growing while the constituencies from which the rural church drew its members are disappearing. With them are disappearing the rural church’s financial base and its source of church leaders and volunteers.

An eleventh challenge we face is the real or imagined prospect of global warming due to natural or human causes and a public divided into two camps—believers and skeptics. If it is indeed real, then it is going to impact our lives in ways that we may not imagine. Among the possible consequences are rising oceans, the loss of arable land to the sea, and the incursion of salt water into river estuaries.

A twelfth challenge is the changes through which our society is going—the breakdown of community and family and the isolation of individuals from each other, the radicalization of politics, the normalization of homosexuality and other forms of sexual orientation (considered to be forms of sexual deviancy by the psychiatric community in the last century and still considered to be forms of sexual immorality by Christians, Jews, and Muslims), and the disinterest in and even antipathy toward organized religion.

A thirteenth challenge is a large aging population of Boomers and the divide between this population and the younger generations, the insolvency of the social security system, the rising cost of health care and the very real possibility of health care rationing and mandatory euthanasia.

A fourteenth challenge is the price of real estate, the cost of construction, and a spate of church foreclosures that has churches reconsidering plans to buy land and construct a building. Zoning laws are preventing churches from leasing buildings or even meeting in apartments or houses. The church with its own building is becoming a thing of the past.

A fifteenth challenge is competition from other denominations and other religions. While two of the largest Christian denominations—the Southern Baptist Convention and the United Methodist Church—are losing ground in the United States, cults like the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints and the Jehovah’s Witnesses are gaining ground. The rate at which Wicca and other forms of Neo-Paganism is growing in North America is not yet documented.

The Anglican Church faces other challenges. One challenge I did not include in this list is the spiritual myopia of Anglicans in North America. We cannot see beyond our noses. We face a number of the Anglican Church’s toughest challenges and we choose to adopt a 1950s style of ministry and worship that ill-suited to the challenges that we face. The world is changing rapidly around us, and we act as if The Honeymooners is still on TV and TVs have black and white pictures and antennas on the roof. It is time for Anglicans to face up to reality. Ozzie and Harriet are dead and Beaver is in his early sixties. There is no going back.

If Anglicans are going to serve the cause of the gospel in the new millennium, they need to start thinking out of the box. They need to stop thinking in terms of dioceses, parish churches, full-time paid professional clergy, chancel choirs, and Sunday schools—what has for Anglicans been the conventional church. Retreating to the familiar is not the way to cope with a changing world. The conventional church model is not the best model for these times. It is going to work in fewer places and with fewer people. Some Anglicans may be content for the Anglican Church to become smaller not only in size but also in impact as longs as things do not change. They remain—at least from the standpoint of these Anglicans—as they have always been.

In the sixteenth century the English Reformers undertook the reform of the Church of England. The primary reason that they undertook this reform was so that the English Church would once more serve the cause of the gospel. They stripped away everything that they believed would prevent it from accomplishing that purpose and retained what they thought would help it carryout the same purpose.

They restored the Bible to a central place in the teaching and life of the Church of England. They recovered the gospel of divine grace and did away with the Medieval beliefs and practices that had displaced it—purgatory, the sale of indulgences, the invocation of saints, the sacrifice of Masses, and prayers for the dead.

They retained elements of the Medieval Church—bishops, archdeacons, rural deans, the parish system, and the ecclesiastical courts, believing that they could serve the gospel cause. They kept the liturgy and thoroughly reformed it.

We need to undertake the reform of the Anglican Church in our own day. This reformation must be both church-wide and local. In some areas changes need to be made at the denominational level, for example, changes in the recruitment, training, deployment, and licensing of clergy. In other areas they need to be made in a particular church, in a particular community. A church may need to rethink how it does gospel ministry.

One thing that should be on the top of our list is the recovery of the doctrine of salvation by grace alone by faith alone in Christ alone. It was for their support of this doctrine and their rejection of the Medieval doctrines of the eucharistic sacrifice and the substantive presence of Christ in the eucharistic elements that Cranmer, Latimer, Ridley, and others suffered martyrdom. It was the linchpin of the English Reformation as it was for the Continental Reformation. If North American Anglicans cannot agree on this doctrine, it does not matter whether they agree on other basic Christian doctrines.

While fronted with numerous challenges, Anglican Christians are also faced with numerous opportunities. God has put the world’s largest English-speaking mission field right outside the front door of North American Anglicans. They live and work in it. It encompasses their friends, relatives, neighbors, colleagues, and fellow students. This is the mission field in which God has placed them and it is in this mission field that God expects most of them to serve Him—to fulfill the Great Commission.

Jesus said go out into the world and make known the good news to everybody. He did not say this just to the disciples, to the clergy of his future Church, to the more zealous of her members. He said it to the whole Church—to all Christians in all places in all times.

When your parents presented you for baptism, they dedicated you to God and set you apart for God’s service. When you presented yourself for confirmation, you ratified the vows they made at your baptism and said, “Here I am, Lord. Send me.”

You did not sign on to be a hearer of sermons. You did not sign on to be a partaker of communion. You signed on to be a missionary for God—to be a bearer of good news.

Why then are you staring at a computer screen and not going about God’s business?

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