Nat Van Cleave went to heaven about two years ago. He was 95 years old, and had been a pastor, missionary and teacher for over 70 of those years. He was the man who, for me, taught and modeled the essence of what preaching is all about. Besides being a master expositor and communicator, he was a theologian-a co-author of the classic Foundations of Pentecostal Theology. By every standard, from his preaching and teaching to the way he dressed, he was as current and “in touch” with the world around him as anybody I’ve ever known.
That’s why, when I joined the faculty and administration of my alma mater in the mid-1960s, I asked him a question since he was an esteemed member of that faculty. “Doc, what would you think about helping frame a course in Contemporary Theology here at the college?”
When he asked “why,” I made a few summary observations. Beside the fact Christian journalists were constantly featuring discussions on the ideas of Tillich, Bultmann, Barth and he like, a recent issue of Time magazine had shocked everyone! Its cover-blank black-screamed three words in stark-white, two inch letters-“God is dead!” In classic secular journalistic style the nation’s dominant news magazine had platformed the latest in contemporary theological thought. It was clear: if you wanted to get the public’s attention you had to be in touch with the latest religious dialogue and verbiage.
Of course, I wasn’t buying into the liberal propositions of the feature article or the philosophical notions of the principal proponents they heralded. But I did wonder if those we were training for church ministry might be better equipped to address their moment through exposure to a course like I’d mentioned to “Dr. Van,” as we called him. I’ll never forget his answer.
He paused pensively, glancing slowly from side to side and meeting my eyes briefly on each pass. Then, he answered in the slow, droll near-gravely sound of his seasoned voice: “Well, Jack. I guess I’ve always thought of contemporary theology as temporary theology.”
I chuckled at his epigrammatic response, understanding his point completely. He wasn’t so much criticizing me as pragmatically confronting the relative waste of effort in pressing too hard to keep “contemporary.”
Just as he did with me, I probably run a risk of being misunderstood. The older are always in danger of seeming “out of it,” critical or even threatened by new or come-lately trends, ideas or practices of younger leaders. But in fact, neither antiquity or inflexibility is the source of such caution or hesitation to grab very quickly when flashy notions or clever techniques for the church’s life capture current thought or gain publicity–even in Christian media.
Decades of experience, attended with reasonable fruitfulness nonetheless, have verified for me that it isn’t necessary to be trendy in order to be timely. I’ve learned that to snatch too quickly for what’s “cool” can easily freeze spiritual reality out of that aspect of my ministry, while deceiving me with the notion that I’ve found a nifty secret to contemporary spiritual vitality.
There’s an ever-present potential “con” in any situation where I’m tempted to suppose that something “contemporary” is likely to increase the prospects of my success as a spiritual leader. As a culturally sensitive leader (a worthy trait in it’s own right) I’m always vulnerable to being charmed by the supposition that the latest is the greatest. But in actuality, the “latest” is no guarantee I’m touching the ultimate, and often becomes a dubious contributor to my birthing anything of durable substance. For example:
- A new paint job won’t release joy in an unfed, praiseless congregation (though it might brighten the setting of a room where living worship has established an atmosphere welcoming God’s presence).
- All my technological savvy applied to spice up the production of services won’t substitute for from-the-gut, passionate intercessory prayer as a power source for regenerating lost souls from death unto life.
- Downloaded sermons, cleverly titled, filled with sharp quips, fascinating stories and attended by great punch line slogans, cannot replace diligence in study, dedication to exegesis and intensity of a passion to draw from God’s Word that transformational truth and hope-filled promise that will shape disciples and keep young believers coming back for more.
There are irreducible costs to be paid by any leader wanting to lead people into the lifestyle of Christ’s unshakeable kingdom. This isn’t an argument against you or me being tuned to today or to being mindful of the neighborhood or market place where the people we serve live and work. But as soul-shepherds, whether senior pastor, worship leader or trying to generate a response from a half dozen teens, I’m essentially called as a voice for the Eternal.
Sure, I have to connect the timeless to the “now” of those I lead. Yes, I need to communicate in a way and words consonant to my listeners’ world. Absolutely. I’m wise to use whatever resources might assist my goal of engaging my audience. But the values compelling my quest must not be how clever or contemporary I’ll seem, but rather how spiritually impacted and timelessly changed those I’m ministering to will become.
I hold no disaffection toward any leader who, like the Apostle Paul, is seeking “by all means to win some” (1 Cor. 9:22). But the “means” are only that–the vehicle used toward a valid “end”–the vehicle, not the fuel or the destination. Our “ends” require the fueling of Holy Spirit-empowered prayer and preparation, which alone produces that darkness-shattering penetration of human hearts that brings rebirth to sinners, revival to saints and the replication of Jesus’ Person and ministry life of Jesus as it produces true disciples.
At the bottom line we’ll ultimately find it hard to be so creative that we out-do the Creator; and we’re sure to end up discovering it’s impossible to become so “current” we improve on the “I AM.”
There’s nothing temporary about Him!