A Brave New World
Interpreting the Signs of the Times
Our future is unclear with the potential of a COVID outbreak only intensifying the uncertainty. But we need not be afraid.
By Stephen Baxter
We know we live in chaotic times, that's obvious. Interpreting and understanding our times, well that's a different matter. There are so many voices in media and social media. Some are calm, some are far from calm, and all are trying madly to make sense of it all.
Understanding the times was something Jesus expected leaders, particularly the religious leaders of his day, to do. Although they could predict the weather, he was critical when they could not "interpret the signs of the times" (Mathew 16:3) and so missed their historical moment (Matthew 16:1-4). God's Messiah was among them but they "did not recognise the time of God's coming" (Luke 19:44).
The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven.
He replied, 'When evening comes, you say, "It will be fair weather, for the sky is red," and in the morning,
"Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast."
You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. Matthew 16:1-3 (NIV)
A Very Long Cycle
So how are we to understand our moment in human history? While on leave recently, I read a couple of books exploring our context and the Church's place within it1.
One suggested that roughly every 500 years the Church, and the culture around it, undergoes a time of re-formation and change. Jesus lived and ministered in such a moment, and so do we.
The Church engages in something akin to a "giant rummage sale"
Yes, we live amid one of these 500-year shifts.
This change is a process taking about 100 years to settle. During that time, the Church engages in something akin to a "giant rummage sale". It's a process of deciding what to keep and what to dispose from the past, before it moves into a new period of renewal and new growth.
Change, change, change
September this year marks 20 years since the terrorist attacks on 9/11 by al-Qaeda against the United States. Much has changed in the years since--smartphones, social media, online streaming such as Netflix and even online churches. Today, nations and people contend with a surge in militant Islam; the threat of changing climate; the loss of faith in Western institutions, including the Church; and the rise of 'cancel culture'. Added to this is the increasing numbers of deaths due to the Covid-19 virus.
Putting all these together we can begin to appreciate the significance and chaos of our times.
Jesus wept over the people of Jerusalem because they did not recognise him as God's chosen Messenger (Luke 19:41). They were not bad people. In fact, the majority of the Jewish leaders Jesus criticised were good people--both God-fearing and God loving. People like Nicodemus, Barnabas and eventually Saul of Tarsus were among many of them who received the message and believed. (see Acts 6:7)
The majority of the Jewish leaders Jesus criticised were good people--both God-fearing and God loving.
Survival in this Climate
It's the same in our churches today. Every church includes people and leaders with good hearts, minds and hands, who work tirelessly and diligently. Yet, for all our hard work, often we see little fruit. There is a wide gap between our aspirations and reality.
Although we've tried innovation and creativity, toiled harder and longer, we've discovered that difference and efficiency are just not enough.
Is that a sign of the times? Is God trying to get our attention? Could it be that the gap between aspirations and reality is widening because of changing times, not because we've got it wrong?
One author made the bold claim that it is impossible for our inherited congregational and denominational structures to thrive in this current environment. Times have so changed as much as that. The challenges facing churches are not due to the Church gone wrong, but a world grown different.
Navigating the Waters
Troubling and challenging times are not new to God's people. We have been in similar, even worse, situations in the past and God has brought us through. Key to navigating these difficult times is the ability and willingness to "interpret the signs of the times" and be alert to what God is up to. This is what the religious leaders of Jesus' time failed to do. Within a generation Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed.
There is a job ahead of us as our Tasmanian communities and churches live amid this moment of profound change. Our future is unclear with the potential of a Tasmanian Covid-19 outbreak only intensifying the uncertainty. But we need not be afraid.
God uses times like these to reform and renew his Church. Jesus Christ continues to build his Church. The march of history is towards the day when the nations will bow and acknowledge as Jesus Lord of all.
Our Tasmanian Baptist theme for this year is Reengage, Reimagine and Realign. It is a call for each church, and every person in them, to reengage with God's mission in the world; to reimagine God's call of what it means to be the Church in this hour; and to realign our resources, structures, time and finances with that call.
May God enable us to be those who can interpret the times, to hear what God is saying to the churches, and allow God to do a new work within us.
Mission Director, Tasmanian Baptists
1 Quietly Courageous: Leading the Church in a Changing World by Gilbert R. Rendle (Rowman and Littlefield 2018); and Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why by Phyllis Tickle (Baker Books 2008)