“For too long the western church has occupied a throne and has abandoned the cross. The church has reigned as king instead of bowing as a servant.”
John Caldwell’s statement is not new. In fact there is very little in this wee book that is new. You can find more detailed analysis of current cultural trends, contemporary church issues, historical developments and in-depth theology elsewhere. What you will not find, and what is new, is that all these things are brought together in this one book in a manner which addresses the needs of the churches today and which is accessible to the vast majority of people.
John’s basic thesis is one that I would totally agree with. One of the reasons that we set up Solas Centre for Public Christianity was precisely because we identified the same trends that John notices. With his social and varied ecclesiastical background he is well able to comment from both an insiders and outsiders perspective, on the confused state of the Church of Jesus Christ in the United Kingdom today.
Confused is perhaps the best word to describe what is going on. There is a great deal of confusion in the general society about God, the Bible, humanity, morality and ethics. It seems as though the foundations have been destroyed and people wonder what can they do? What is even more disturbing is that the church seems to reflect the trends within the culture and therefore ends up being even more confused. Perhaps we really are at a stage where God is judging the nation and letting us go our own way? We have become the blind leading the blind.
A View From the Battlefield
None of this is new. God’s church has often existed within confused and apparently declining situations. But God in his mercy does not leave us alone, which would indeed be the ultimate judgement. He sends his word, and he sends those who proclaim his word. John Caldwell is such a person. His analysis in this book of the contemporary church scene in the United Kingdom (and therefore applicable in the wider Western world) is insightful, depressing, and yet somehow stimulating and encouraging. This is not an academic thesis looking at the sociological aspects of religion from the safe vantage point of an armchair in an ivory tower. Nor is it the story of one particular work of God in a particular location at a particular time. This is a view from the battlefield, which takes a broad sweep over the whole contemporary situation.
The branding of the church is neither radical nor biblical.
What is especially helpful about this small book is that it takes a number of disciplines and applies them in a practical way to the current church situation. John notes that in reaction to a sinful, competitive denominationalism, evangelical Christians seem to have thrown out the baby with the bathwater. We have exchanged one mess for another. Reflecting the culture more than Scriptures, we have ended up with a sinful competitive networking based on dominant personalities and advertising branding. The branding of the church is neither radical nor biblical.
Of course there are those of us who are long enough in the tooth to find ourselves cringing whenever we hear the word radical. Every new program, every new work of God is deemed to be ‘radical’. I find myself yawning and switching off when I am told to read, watch or support the latest radical initiative from the latest in-vogue Christian organisation. If you have to say you are ‘edgy’ you are not! What I love about John’s book is that it is radical, precisely because it does not seek to provide us with something new. It points us instead to Scripture, the basics of the Christian faith and the lessons we can learn from our own history.
What is more radical than the cross? And yet how many contemporary evangelicals either do not understand or water down or even deny the atonement? And it’s not just the foundational issues of the cross, the person and work of Christ, or the inspiration and sufficiency of the Scriptures, which are under attack. It is also how we apply them, and how the church lives out the doctrines of the Scriptures in the contemporary world whose world view is so antithetical to them.
The Community of the Church
Whilst there are Christians who will argue that what we need to focus on is evangelism, others who argue that mercy ministry is the way ahead, and still others who want to emphasise prayer, Bible teaching and personal devotion; far too often the church in its various manifestations is either forgotten, sidelined or dismissed. John’s ‘radical’ notion is that all of these things matter and that all of them come together in the church’. In order to communicate the gospel we need therefore to work out, not only what the gospel is, but also how we live it out in the community of the church.
As you read this book there are things that you will say Amen to! There are other things that you will question or disagree with, and gaps that you will want to fill in. But one thing is absolutely sure – every single chapter of this book deals with issues which are vital to the well-being and health of the whole church in today’s society. It will benefit you enormously to prayerfully read through and think about these issues.
Just as ‘radical’ is an overused and often cringeworthy word, so ‘conversation’ often shares the same fate. But in this instance the word conversation is very appropriate. My hope and prayer is that this book will stimulate many conversations which cause us to turn to the Lord, the head of the church, and ask him what he wants. May it be that we will be encouraged to be faithful to his word, to be salt and light in a society which rejects that word, and to once again see the renewal, revival and re-formation of the church in our societies.
Christ is on the throne. We are not. We do not tell him what he should be doing with his church. We just simply say ‘speak Lord for your servants are listening’. And then pray that he would give us strength and grace to be doers as well as hearers of the word.
The words of the Psalmist should be the prayer all who read and understand this book:
14 Return to us, God Almighty!
Look down from heaven and see!
Watch over this vine,
15 the root your right hand has planted,
the son you have raised up for yourself.
16 Your vine is cut down, it is burned with fire;
at your rebuke your people perish.
17 Let your hand rest on the man at your right hand,
the son of man you have raised up for yourself.
18 Then we will not turn away from you;
revive us, and we will call on your name.
19 Restore us, LORD God Almighty;
make your face shine on us,
that we may be saved.
Now go and buy it and read it for yourself!