During the last few decades, books such as The Gagging of God by D. A. Carson and No Place for Truth by David Wells spoke prophetically about the church’s response to changing cultural trends. The Gospel Coalition’s Theological Vision for Ministry affirms the need for such wise assessment, because “we want to be a church that not only gives support to individual Christians in their personal walks with God, but one that also shapes them into the alternative human society God creates by his Word and Spirit.” So TGC editors asked several writers to identify the cultural trends currently challenging the church to be faithful Christians in the world and suggest how we might we respond.
We need to get more saturated in the Bible, and we need to do it now. Philip Jacob Spener wrote in his book Pia Desideria in 1678, “thought should be given to a more extensive use of the Word of God among us.” Horatius Bonar wrote in his book Words to the Winners of Souls in 1859, “We must study the Bible more. We must steep our souls in it. We must not only lay it up within us, but transfuse it through the whole texture of the soul.” Christians always need the Word of God. But there are times and places, particular cultural moments, when the need becomes acute. Spener and Bonar both spoke in such moments, and we are in another one now. The great danger of the church in this generation is that we will run a spiritual deficit, spending down the resources that previous generations have left for us, without replenishing them or leaving any for the rising generation.
By resources, I mean something specific that is part of the culture of our churches. It’s not that we’ll squander the actual “unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8), which are objectively safe from our mismanagement. God has personally undertaken the management of those infinitely renewable resources. And the Word of God itself is safely in God’s hands.
The resources that we’re in danger of undervaluing are things that previous generations of Christians wisely invented, cleverly put in place, and skillfully maintained as part of their stewardship. They are patterns of life, ways of thinking, habits of association, and even technological solutions that equipped them to live Christianly among whatever changes were happening in the world around them.
Though it won’t be the front page story, the decisive issue in coming decades will be biblical literacy. An attenuated sense of what’s in Scripture is making us all live and work in thinner and thinner air. Good preachers will say great things, but their words will be weak unless our congregations somehow become more alert and alive to the canonical resonances. When we hear of defections from biblical authority, it seems increasingly to come from a lack of saturation in Scripture itself. The commands of God in Scripture seem unpersuasive to Christian cultures that aren’t already deeply immersed in biblical ways of thinking.
The Christians who labored before us did astonishing things to get the words of Scripture into their minds and hearts, “transfused,” as Bonar said, “through the texture of the soul.” Because of the translators, we have Bibles in our own language, but there’s more to it. The chapters and verses that make Bible navigation easy were invented by very clever believers who wanted to be able to find their way around in the Bible rapidly and precisely. The ancient Christian practice of reading one text in the light of others took on new precision and detail: a vast web of cross-references was spun. Concordances followed. Only people who knew their lives depended on their ability to navigate the Bible would have put such an infrastructure in place.
Think of the tools and helps for Bible memorization that somebody thought of at some point in our past. Of the Bible verses you know by heart, how many of them were put into your mind by hymns and songs? But the classic, English-language hymn that puts biblical language into verse form was an invention of a previous generation that was thinking creatively about how to get Scripture into the minds and hearts of Christians. It is a tool that once did not exist, but came into being to answer a need.
Has the generation of Christians now living added anything as good as verses or hymns to the stock of Christian tools? Are we drawing on the resources of previous generations without replenishing? There are in fact some new and promising things being done in recent decades, which future generations, if the Lord tarries, will look back on and say, “This thing we all do now and take for granted? It was the invention of wise believers in the early 21st century.”
It’s possible to point out ways in which we are making progress and trying new things. In visionary mode, I could enthuse about the promise of new musical forms (holy hip hop, slam poetry, and various other spoken word performances are uniquely powerful for writing Scripture on the heart), new media gadgets (if you follow the right people on Twitter you have a steady stream of encouragement and rebuke flowing into your mind from brothers and sisters in Christ), and new social movements (church planting, adoption ministries, resource sharing). There are signs of hope all around, and plenty of opportunity to make the most of a fast-changing situation.
But there is also the very real risk of running a deficit spirituality, and of spending away what has been put into our accounts by those who have gone before, without even noticing that we’re doing it. If we find ourselves in that situation, we need to get off the road and get things fixed. If we’re discharging power, trending and spending downward, then even revivals will turn out to be small upward spikes on an arrow that is on an overall down trajectory.