Thursday, October 2, 2008

Our Private Faith- Why It Remains Private

In our most recent church newsletter, called Fellowship Journal, one of our associate pastors, Jay Thomas, writes about the concept of the changing church that has always been the idea of church. He cites the example of Redeemer Prebyterian Church in Manhattan that is comfortable in its multicultural, sophisticated setting and is thriving even as it holds to its orthodox Christianity. Jay also talks about the fact that the Wheaton area, long a Christian bubble, as our new senior pastor- Josh Moody- described it, is now experiencing a rapid change, with new ethnicities and nationalities coming in. He emphasizes the fact that the church that does not adapt itself to reach out to these people in its own backyard is the church that actually is changing, and in a negative sense- it is actually clinging to a tradition than to its mission.

Pastor Josh Moody half-jokingly talked about having breakfast with 5 honest pagans each week just to retain his edge in this Christian bubble. He was raised in secular England where you'd have 5 Christians among 700 non-Christians, and later went to Cambridge University and New York City, where conditions are not dissimilar. Jay is half-Indian and on-eighth Native American, while I'm fully Indian. Just to set things straight, I feel- and I'm sure he does as well- right at home in Wheaton. It is densely populated with Christians, but our church has been a sending church, reaching out to many peoples around the world with the gospel, medical and counseling care, Bible translation and other missional work. I have also felt at home in that while the churchmembers are warm and kindhearted they do not go overboard in welcoming us into the congregation on the pretext that we are Indian. I have often been on the receiving end of well-meaning but a little embarrassing outpouring of special attention in other churches, where they'd express amazement that we are Christians and Indians. After these pourparlers are done, we broach the familiar topics- do Indians still have "arranged marriages" (not that again!)? and "Isn't there more freedom in America?" and the now familiar "Just last week I talked to someone named Chris (but actually Krishna) in Bangalore about my credit card payments! If you're Indian, you are smiling wryly, having been there before. I haven't seen too much of that among College Church members, but I have seen seriousness of purpose in the Bible studies and other meetings, especially Sunday services.

Reverting to our theme, I recently went to the website of Dallas Theological Seminary and downloaded some lectures given by Dr. Mark Young, whose sermons and teachings I have been truly privileged to listen to in my short stay (8 months) in Dallas. Mark is a gifted teacher, besides being a Bible scholar and a Pauline figure by example and by his zeal, and it's a treat to listen to him. In these lectures, Mark too talks about the Latin phrase Missio Dei, meaning the sending or sentness of God. In these he passionately argues that mission is not only Biblicaly based, but the Bible itself is a missional book and that our God is a missionary God. The Bible demonstrates first God's missionary focus from Genesis through Revelation, God's purpose for his people- first the Patriarchs, then Israel, and now the church- to be missional so as to demonstrate his glory to all peoples and to draw all nations to Him. The Bible also says that we are created in God's image. Mark tells us that this can be also translated "as God's image", in that we somehow are God's agents to reveal his glory to all creation. The Bible also demonstrates Jesus' authority on Earth over sin and death, and everything there is, and how he shares his authority with us to revere Him and reveal Him to all humanity.

Mark's third lecture in this series insists that contemporary Evangelical ecclesiology is derived from the Reformation and may be incompatible for today's churches. He says that the Reformation saw an ecclesiology that sought to distinguish Biblical truth from certain errors that were practised, not with a pagan land, but within the context of Christendom. But this ecclesiology has changed little today. Our context is different. Christendom is no more, and we face vastly different environments in which to live and reveal God's truth.

We have a Hindu neighbour whose 13-year old daughter has been facing difficult issues at school and they have been looking for Christian schools to enroll her in. The two Wheaton are schools she contacted let her know that they take in only Christian students. She related to us later her puzzlement that this should be so. Her interpretation was that this was unjust discrimination, just as a Hindu school in India that exludes students of other faiths would be perceived as discrimnatory. Having studied at a Catholic school in India, she had good things to say about Christian education and institutions, but this experience left her bewildered. In a culture like India's such criteria for admission would not be even allowed.

In America, it's not tough to understand why this happened. This was no instance of a "holy huddle", but the fact that public schools sometimes have students with value systems that are different or even contradictory to what Christian kids are raised to live by, as well as sometimes real and sometimes perceived agenda in US public education to turn kids into socially liberal causes such as being pro-gay rights, non-theistic evolution, refusing private prayers or religious societies within the school system being formed by students. Sometimes these may include rampant drug use, bringing guns to school, violence, sex, dirty language, loose morals, dress code and so on, besides a lower quality of education. Christian schools try to create a morally strong environment within their sphere of influence and would seek to keep out kids of other faiths based on these desires.

I was still sad to hear that there aren't schools which are Christian in character and mission that are open to everyone- like Madras Christian College was, and is. In secular (or Hindu, whichever way you look at it) India, this institution was created 175 years ago for the purpose of evangelization, and today, though that focus is no longer the driving force, the college still witnesses strongly about Christ to new students. It was there that the Lord found me, and how thankful I am for it!

In his third lecture (out of the series of 4), which deals with how the Missio Dei relates to the Populus Dei, Dr. Mark Young ends on a suddenly somber and divergent note. I can imagine him doing this, on a whim, after his theologically powerful and passionate lecture is through. He says" Frankly this idea (of the missional church) gives me nightmares. Somehow I think that at the end of my life, I will still be standing at a pulpit, saying these same things to a church full of people who just don't care."

We lament the privatization of faith in the US. Has it occured to us that we ourselves may be partly to blame?

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