Karl Marx once complained that philosophy has “only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” What about theology? Does it have a better track record with effecting change?
Some today blithely dismiss theology as having long passed its use-by date. That view is short-sighted. The truth is that pastor-theologians are the ascended Christ’s gifts to the church (Eph. 4:8). Informed by the Word and empowered by the Spirit, Christ uses pastor-theologians both to interpret the world and to transform it. Like first responders, they enter the crisis of our post-Christian world and train disciples to address its most dire needs.
We’re not in a Christian Kansas anymore. Tell-tale signs of our post-Christian world include Christianity’s declining influence, declining church attendance numbers, a decline in respect for the church, and the diminishing Christian influence on the main ingredients of our culture—its beliefs, values, and practices. In our post-Christian world, there’s also been a shift in how people understand and react to “Christian” as an identifier.
Sometime in the 20th century, the Western world awoke, like the minister in John Updike’s novel In the Beauty of the Lilies, to find it had lost its faith. The speed at which the “post” has staked its qualifying claim on Christianity is mind-boggling. What just happened?
No single argument or scientific discovery is responsible for the end of the Christian era. Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age suggests the revolution was interior, in the way society images the world and humanity’s place in it. The reasons are complex, but the result is palpable: we inhabit a world where God’s existence isn’t felt to be obvious, intuitively correct, or plausible. The world feels this-worldly.
One of the many consequences of our post-Christian culture stands out: post-literacy. From the beginning, and even more so after the Reformation and the printing press, Christianity has been word-centered. In a post-literate culture, however, people communicate through a variety of multimedia platforms; the written word no longer holds pride of place. In a culture saturated by TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube, attention spans need to be only a few minutes long (sorry, long-winded preachers).
Combine post-Christian and post-literate, and the result is biblical illiteracy: the inability to grasp the grammar, story, or logic of biblical Christianity. It’s one thing to have a high view of Scripture, quite another to know how to read the Bible’s diverse books and genres all as part of a unified canonical story. In our post-Christian culture, even Christians struggle to know how to read the Bible well, or how to navigate interpretive disagreement.
People still consume news, but the gospel (good news) is largely unintelligible in a post-Christian world. Information overload and continually breaking news desensitize us to what we truly need to know: the real breaking news that God’s kingdom is breaking into our world through the Spirit of Jesus Christ. No better news can be conceived.
Pastor-Theologian as First Responder
For a secularist, the world is matter in motion—meaningless unless and until humans can make something of it. Dystopian stories abound, and there’s a general disenchantment in the air. Instead of panicking, however, many are amusing themselves to death.
The present situation is a disaster in which pastor-theologians serve as first responders, people who are ready and able to show up and help in emergencies and crises.
When we hear “first responders,” we tend to think of firefighters, EMTs, and search and rescue personnel. Yet pastor-theologians are in the trenches too—dealing with broken lives, fractured families, death, and despair. They’re on the front lines of debates about ethics, spirituality, and politics.
Arguably the most important crisis pastor-theologians must confront is biblical illiteracy in the church. The church is the society of Jesus, and pastors are charged with ensuring the story that rules the congregational imaginary is the story of what the Father is doing in the Son through the Spirit to unite all things to Christ (Eph. 1:10) and renew and reconcile all things in him (2 Cor. 5:17–19).
Pastor-theologians respond to the exigencies of life and the exegetical challenge of reading the Bible by ministering Christ: proclaiming, teaching, and celebrating his new “already but not yet” reality.
The Local Church: Place for Biblical Literacy and Born-Again Christianity
This is no time for despair. We don’t need to reinvent the church but to rediscover it, for the church is God’s creation. This is no time to abandon theology but to drill down deeper to take every thought, and every social imaginary, captive to Christ. The local church is the place to cultivate biblical literacy, to learn what every Christian needs to know to represent Christ and his kingdom.
The local church is the hope of the world, but only if it remains the domain of the Word, a place where habits of reading are cultivated and where the Word that’s read is heard and done. Pastor-theologians are catalysts of Christian literacy who minister the Word, in part by helping people to read it as their primary identity narrative.
It’s in the local church that we learn the story of the Christ whose name we bear. It’s in the church’s life together that Christianity is made to feel socially plausible. It’s the local church’s place in the post-Christian world but not of it where Christianity must be born again.
Christ’s rule becomes visible as he calls, gathers, and reconciles the avant-garde of a new humanity. Can you see the Spirit blowing?
With apologies to Marx who thought moving past Christianity was a must, the post-Christian world can never be anything more than pre-Christian, for the world is already and always the Lord’s: “The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof” (Ps. 24:1).