From the Renovaré Newsletter Archive

The selection below is from a November 1999 Renovaré newsletter. Download a PDF of the original newsletter.

Dear Friends,

As the end of the cen­tu­ry — and the mil­len­ni­um — approach­es I am often asked about the the­o­log­i­cal and spir­i­tu­al sig­nif­i­cance of this mile­stone. My answer is sim­ple and straight­for­ward: absolute­ly noth­ing! The end of the mil­len­ni­um is a human cal­en­dar inven­tion (and an imper­fect inven­tion at that) and it has noth­ing what­ev­er to do with the march of Holy His­to­ry or the econ­o­my of God. So, please, for God’s sake (and your own) sim­ply ignore all the hys­ter­i­cal mil­len­ni­al hype that is going on these days. And this includes the Y2K issue. Y2K is mere­ly a com­put­er defect that will get worked out by those who deal with such things; and whether it is worked out with ease or dif­fi­cul­ty is of lit­tle con­se­quence to those whose lives are hid with God in Christ. In fact, inor­di­nate atten­tion to these mat­ters only dis­tracts us from the far more sub­stan­tive issues of ongo­ing char­ac­ter for­ma­tion into Christ­like­ness and faith­ful obe­di­ence to Christ in the midst of a soci­ety that is indif­fer­ent — even hos­tile — to Chris­t­ian things. I regret even hav­ing to devote one para­graph to so triv­ial a sub­ject. Enough said.

LOOK­ING INTO THE FUTURE

While focus­ing on mil­len­ni­al mad­ness is a waste of good time and ener­gy, care­ful and prayer­ful atten­tion to what the future may look like is of immense val­ue. Where is our con­tem­po­rary cul­ture head­ed? What influ­ences for good can we have in this regard? And what about the com­mu­ni­ty of faith, the Church? What will the Church of the future look like? What should the Church of the future look like? These are the kinds of ques­tions we do well to pon­der. Thus, as we stand on the cusp of a new (human­ly cal­cu­lat­ed) cen­tu­ry and mil­len­ni­um, it is worth our best efforts to con­sid­er togeth­er the future of our soci­ety and the role of the peo­ple of God in that society.

At the mid-point of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry philoso­pher D. Elton True­blood dubbed West­ern Cul­ture a cut-flower soci­ety”; that is, while we still exhib­it­ed a cer­tain cul­tur­al strength and pow­er, it was a pass­ing beau­ty because our spir­i­tu­al roots had been sev­ered. In the years since that per­cep­tive — even prophet­ic — char­ac­ter­i­za­tion we have wit­nessed the flower wilt and dry up. As a cul­ture we have sown the wind and we are now reap­ing the whirl­wind. Any­one who does not rec­og­nize this is sim­ply igno­rant of the harsh real­i­ties of mod­ern life. (I need not enu­mer­ate these real­i­ties — you see them every night on CNN or the BBC.) Now, I know that in say­ing this I am not sound­ing won­der­ful­ly pos­i­tive and opti­mistic. But, friends, this is what has hap­pened to our soci­ety and we might just as well own up to it.

The catch-word peo­ple use for this sweep­ing change in our cul­tur­al land­scape is post-mod­ernism,” and it sim­ply means that we have cut our­selves off from all the ancient anchors of real­i­ty, truth, and virtue. For the post-mod­ernist real­i­ty” is what we are mak­ing up as we go along, truth” is what we decide it is, and virtue” is reduced to being polit­i­cal­ly cor­rect. (Post-mod­ernism has also served the pos­i­tive role of under­min­ing the arro­gance of sci­en­tif­ic nat­u­ral­ism com­mon­ly called modernism.)

So we live in a post-mod­ern world. We also live in a post-denom­i­na­tion­al” world. We are at the tail end of a major form of Chris­t­ian expres­sion, an expres­sion we have known for near­ly half a mil­len­ni­um. Many rea­sons account for this change. One pos­i­tive rea­son is that the old (and impor­tant) the­o­log­i­cal bat­tles that gave rise to the denom­i­na­tions have been sub­stan­tial­ly resolved: wit­ness the dra­mat­ic joint Lutheran/​Roman Catholic dec­la­ra­tion on jus­ti­fi­ca­tion by faith that was signed on Ref­or­ma­tion Sun­day (Octo­ber 31) in Wit­ten­berg, Ger­many. Space hin­ders me from going into oth­er rea­sons, many of them not near­ly as pos­i­tive. Suf­fice it to say that denom­i­na­tion­al loy­al­ties no longer define the reli­gious land­scape. Now, if this fact of mod­ern life con­cerns you (and we should have many con­cerns about it) I do want to give you this word of encour­age­ment: the peo­ple of God did quite well long before the rise of denom­i­na­tions and they will do quite well after they are gone.

THREE DRA­MAT­IC SHIFTS

In light of these mat­ters I see three dra­mat­ic shifts occur­ring in the twen­ty-first century.

First, the Church’s priv­i­leged posi­tion in West­ern soci­ety will end. The pref­er­en­tial treat­ment many have come to expect is fast dis­ap­pear­ing and we are being pushed to the mar­gins of soci­ety. I expect this trend to con­tin­ue on many fronts, up to and includ­ing the removal of tax exempt sta­tus for church prop­er­ties in the U.S.

Now, I actu­al­ly view this loss of pref­er­en­tial treat­ment as an advan­tage. Instead of the Church des­per­ate­ly try­ing to elbow her way up to the tables of pow­er, we can instead turn our atten­tion to becom­ing — by our life and wit­ness — an alter­na­tive voice to the mad­ness around us. Since, in Christ, we have been reborn into the new real­i­ty of the king­dom of God, we can become ambas­sadors of peace in the midst of a vio­lent world, mod­els of civil­i­ty and grace in the midst of a com­pet­i­tive soci­ety, con­vey­ors of faith and hope in the midst of a cyn­i­cal cul­ture, and the embod­i­ment of agape love to all peo­ples in the midst of an adver­sar­i­al society.

His­to­ry teach­es us that the Church has always been at its best, thrived the most, had its great­est beau­ty and pow­er, and its most ster­ling wit­ness when it stood on the mar­gins of soci­ety. And, besides, I’m only talk­ing about the loss of priv­i­leged posi­tion, not out­right per­se­cu­tion which so many of our broth­ers and sis­ters in the faith must face day in and day out. In your strug­gle … you have not yet resist­ed to the point of shed­ding your blood” (Heb. 12:4). So let’s quit snivel­ing and feel­ing sor­ry for our­selves and take up our right­ful place as a pil­grim peo­ple whose real inher­i­tance is in the king­dom of God. Then we can, as one of the Desert Fathers Abba Joseph admon­ish­es, become total­ly changed into fire,” and the world in awe can watch us burn.

Sec­ond, we are, most like­ly, in the begin­ning stages of a third great ref­or­ma­tion … a ref­or­ma­tion that will inten­si­fy through­out the next cen­tu­ry. The first great ref­or­ma­tion came in the ear­ly cen­turies of the church under the lead­er­ship of church fathers like Ignatius, Poly­carp, Justin Mar­tyr, Ire­naeus, and Ter­tul­lian, and it ham­mered out our under­stand­ing of the Trin­i­ty: Father, Son, and Holy Spir­it. The sec­ond great ref­or­ma­tion occurred in the six­teenth cen­tu­ry under Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and oth­ers and it clar­i­fied our under­stand­ing of sav­ing faith: by grace through faith alone.

This third ref­or­ma­tion is focus­ing upon sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion, to use a the­o­log­i­cal term. It is tak­ing with utmost seri­ous­ness how the soul grows in grace. The love of Jesus is the mag­net that is draw­ing peo­ple togeth­er — a love that trans­forms the human per­son­al­i­ty by the pow­er of God.

Changed lives is the hall­mark of this ref­or­ma­tion. The poten­tial­i­ties of change as well as its lim­its are all being explored exten­sive­ly. How we are formed in God, con­formed to Jesus, and trans­formed by the pow­er of the Holy Spir­it is being stud­ied and expe­ri­enced care­ful­ly … prayer­ful­ly. Its grow­ing the­o­log­i­cal rig­or will increas­ing­ly inter­act with the com­ple­men­tary dis­ci­plines of Psy­chol­o­gy, Soci­ol­o­gy, Anthro­pol­o­gy, and med­ical research. I expect this ref­or­ma­tion to become vast­ly deep­er and broad­er as the cen­tu­ry progresses.

Third, the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry will wit­ness one of the great­est har­vests of Chris­t­ian mis­sion ever. I con­cur with John Paul II that in the next cen­tu­ry we will see a new spring­time” for the gospel mes­sage. Much of the ener­gy for this will be cen­tered out­side the West. Africa, south of the Sahara, will become the Chris­t­ian con­ti­nent – that is if (and it is a big if”) they can suc­cess­ful­ly over­come the triple threat of Mus­lim sup­pres­sion, the AIDS epi­dem­ic, and inter­nal trib­al wars. The Amer­i­c­as south of the U.S. bor­der will show the world how evan­ge­lism is real­ly done. Both Africa and Latin Amer­i­ca will inten­si­fy and expand their evan­ge­lis­tic efforts in the West.

The real­ly piv­otal con­ti­nent (and the one that will deter­mine whether or not this third pro­jec­tion will actu­al­ly come to pass) is Asia. Through­out the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry Asia will be the ris­ing cul­ture, no doubt about that. The real ques­tion is whether the Chris­t­ian wit­ness in Asia is strong enough to ride the rise of Asian cul­ture, or whether Bud­dhism — which is also a mis­sion­ary reli­gion— will win the day. I believe the Chris­t­ian wit­ness is strong enough. Chi­nese Chris­tians have suf­fered tremen­dous­ly and are deep­er and stronger for it. They will teach the rest of us how to live for God. Korea (south and north, although the north has yet to expe­ri­ence its day of divine vis­i­ta­tion) will teach the entire Chris­t­ian world how to pray. And the signs of spir­i­tu­al vital­i­ty in the Philip­pines, Sin­ga­pore, Malaysia, India, and numer­ous oth­er places are so encour­ag­ing that I believe the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry will be viewed as the great cen­tu­ry” of advance for Christ and his king­dom. Let us pray that it may be so.

STEPS TOWARD RENEWAL

In light of these dra­mat­ic shifts which will be occur­ring through­out the next cen­tu­ry I want to sug­gest sev­er­al steps toward renew­al” for our life and faith before God.

  1. Let’s become ever more inten­tion­al­ly God­ward in our ori­en­ta­tion. Not self-ori­ent­ed, not suc­cess-ori­ent­ed, not church growth-ori­ent­ed, not seek­er-ori­ent­ed, but God-ori­ent­ed. May we be known as a pas­sion­ate wor­ship­ing com­mu­ni­ty — ador­ing God, lift­ing up Jesus, pray­ing and preach­ing and offer­ing up sacra­men­tal gifts to one anoth­er in the pow­er of the Holy Spirit.
  2. Let’s stop using a mar­ket­ing approach to church life. The Church is not a ven­dor of reli­gious goods and ser­vices but the Com­mu­ni­ty of Faith, liv­ing in faith and through faith and by faith alone. We do not need to mim­ic the enter­tain­ment indus­try of our cul­ture. We win peo­ple to Christ not by enter­tain­ment but by the pow­er of the Holy Spirit.
  3. Let’s become inten­tion­al about learn­ing the habits of the heart” for bib­li­cal holi­ness. We need dai­ly spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­plines rather than spo­radic bursts of inspi­ra­tion or enthu­si­asm. We need to pro­vide the space, the time, and the resources for peo­ple to unlearn old pat­terns of sin and take on new pat­terns of right­eous­ness and peace and joy in the Holy Spir­it” (Rom. 14:17).
  4. Let’s quit using the strut­ting pea­cock CEO of con­tem­po­rary cul­ture as a mod­el for Chris­t­ian lead­er­ship. The work of Chris­t­ian lead­ers is hard work, grimy work, hum­ble work. Christ’s dis­ci­ples are the ser­vants of all, and sta­tus seek­ing and priv­i­lege have no place among us.
  5. Let’s make cer­tain that our God­ward ori­en­ta­tion is always for the sake of the world. The Church exists for the sake of the world — which at the very min­i­mum means less stress on pre­serv­ing our insti­tu­tions and more stress on serv­ing the poor.
  6. Let’s get rid of our god-awful edi­fice com­plex.” Build­ings are not bad, but nei­ther are they the sum total of every­thing impor­tant either. Let’s use build­ings to help and serve peo­ple and not as mon­u­ments to our own egos.
  7. Let’s engage in vig­or­ous, cul­ture-sen­si­tive evan­ge­lism. All peo­ples need to hear the good news of Jesus and his love. They also need to be respect­ed as per­sons. Under the guid­ing hand of the Holy Spir­it we can do both.

Wel­come to a new millennium!

Peace and joy,

Richard J. Foster

Text First Published November 1999 · Last Featured on Renovare.org May 2022

New Online Course: Liv­ing Inside the Lord’s Prayer

Author, teacher, and song­writer Car­olyn Arends pulls back the veil of famil­iar­i­ty to throw fresh light on the bril­liant­ly suc­cinct prayer Jesus taught his dis­ci­ples to pray. Launch sale: 30% off through May 17.

Watch the Trailer >