For well over a decade now, I have been reading articles and books on the question as to why our modern Irish church is in such serious decline and there seems to be widespread agreement around a twofold answer. More times than not, the demise of our Irish church is blamed on changes in the culture around us, and our abject failure to live out what is preached amongst us. Our primary missiological difficulty, we are told, is that those in our culture are caving in to the materialism, secularism and self-interest of modern Irish life whilst those of us in the church are woefully failing to live up to the message we believe in. The exposing of child and adult abuse within church led organisations is perhaps the most obvious pointer to the latter.
But what if both of these answers are only partially correct?
What if the problem with our churches is not really ‘them’ at all, but rather lies primarily with ‘us’? Could it be that people are leaving the church today not because of what our culture has become but because of what the church has become? And, secondly, what if our painful slide into church decline is not primarily caused by our failure to practice what we preach but, rather, the opposite? What if beneath the surface the reality of our situation is that our demise has occurred because the gospel we are now proclaiming and incarnating is nothing but a shadow of the gospel, the ‘euangelion’, first proclaimed by the Apostles? I suppose what I am asking is whether the woeful dichotomy that exists between the ancient teaching of Jesus and the modern reality of our Churches reveals not just a shift from pre-modern to post-modern in our culture, not just a rot in our praxis, as we have always thought, but also, and much more seriously, a tragic rot that has occurred in the theology that lies at the centre of our proclamation? At the end of several hundred years of assumed faithfulness in kerugma and confidently expressed certainty in orthodoxy, I am wondering if it is possible that many of us find ourselves in the situation where the gospel as we now understand it is not the gospel as Jesus taught it at all? Personally, I think it must.
Jesus says that “a good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit” (Matthew 7:18) and His prognosis for the latter is somewhat worrying! If these words were true when he first spoke them, are they not just as true today? And could they not just as powerfully be confronting us as they once did the Pharisees and Sadducees? Could it be that it is us who are now the religious leaders who love the praise of men more than God, who have substituted relationship with God for knowledge about him, who are passionate about the keeping of the laws but who have failed to rightly offer and proclaim the grace of the Law-giver?
I think the answer to most of the above is, sadly, yes! Jesus clearly warned us to watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. It is my growing conviction that those of us in the reformed churches, myself included, have woefully failed to heed Him and if we would see Ireland transformed once more by the gospel of Christ then we must first reclaim that gospel from the many influences that have diluted and altered it.
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