The Challenge of the Third Millenium

Dr. J. I. Packer is known the world over as an eminent theologian and preacher. He is Board of Governorsí Professor of Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. Born in Gloucestershire, England, he has degrees in classics, theology, and philosophy from Oxford University. A prolific writer, he is well-known for Knowing God, The Sovereignty of God,and A Quest for Godliness. His most recent publications include Knowing and Doing the Will of God, Great Grace, and Great Joy. He has preached and lectured widely in Great Britain and America and is a frequent contributor to theological periodicals. He is also a Senior Editor and Visiting Scholar of Christianity Today.

Q.     What is the biggest challenge for Christian ministers in the 21st century?

A.     I think every minister must insist that each member of his congregation be involved in ministry. Then the local church can become a body of serving people and united as a team of ministers. We have too many people who say, "I support the church with my money, and I'm there every Sunday. What more do you want of me?" And the answer of course is, "We want a great deal more of you! Have you awakened to the fact that you are in the ministry? Are you trying to take responsibility to help someone else move forward spiritually?"

However, we must emphasize every-member ministry in a way that does not undermine the pastor's authority. Some go too far, saying that the Holy Spirit leads the congregation, that all the members are ministers of the Word in some sense, and the pastor should not see himself as the one who brings God's message to the church through the preaching of the Word. Thus, the pastor's role is diminished.

On the other hand, many churches have succeeded in putting most of their congregation into service in a balanced manner. Members in these churches have accepted the idea that everyone has a spiritual ministry, a responsibility for other people. They have been able to help people hone their gifts by creating situations in which they can use them without diminishing the role of the pastor.

Q.     How should the church address the post-modern culture in the 21st century?

A.     It must not buy into the despair and desperate condition of our society. Despair is something that's felt and the desperate condition is something that's observed. Our condition is indeed desperate and will grow worse in the next century.

Children are growing up without any knowledge of the Bible or its morality. Sometimes they are taught the Gospel but not the law. They are not being raised in stable, nurturing families. As a result, the middle-aged adults of the next century will have grown bodies but stunted characters. They will be quite infantile in their emotional lives and incapable of steady commitments.

The despair is the bewilderment in the hearts of people who see this alienation and waste of abilities. They know themselves to be part of the scene and they will grow to dislike themselves more and more. American euphoria will eventually dissolve away.

But Christians can have much hope because the Gospel speaks to the despair and desperation! Ministers of the Gospel must appreciate this and begin to preach the Word of Christ correctly as the Word of Hope, not as the Word of happiness as we have been doing for the last fifty years. They must help people learn that Christ can make sense of life. In a world where people are increasingly hopeless, Gospel ministers must present Christ and the new life in Him as the only beacon of light in a very dark cultural situation.

It could be that we will see massive inroads into the West by Islam. As a religion, it is not suffering from the distress of the post-Christian West. Islam has a high morality and despises Christians for their post-modern condition. They feel they are God's people for the 21st century. Islam will be a major challenge for Christians because it is integrated, homogeneous, and morally strict. The tragedy is that it is anti-Jesus and hardhearted with no Gospel. They don't know the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Christians will have to find a way to meet the challenge and evangelize Muslims, showing them that through Christ we have something they desperately need.

Q.     Your book, A Quest for Godliness, is an in-depth look at the Puritans. What does the church need to learn from them as we move into the next century?

A.     It would probably be the Puritan understanding of God as holy and almighty, great in awesome and fearful judgment. You can't break up the truth about God. The church today has a scaled-down understanding of Him that is shallow, sentimental, and incoherent. Such inadequacy in our thoughts about God is causing a great deal of suffering among Christians. It's the legacy of liberal theology, which diminished God right from the beginning; God's holiness, His active judgment, and His sovereign providence began to be eaten away years ago. I fear the greater part of the Christian church has ingested this. People today don't stand in awe of God. They don't tremble at His Word. They believe God is great -- a great pal. Even when preachers emphasize it, the congregation often does not hear it. Out of the pulpit, few preachers enforce the awesomeness of God in their counseling, instruction of people in the faith, or directing the leadership of the congregation.

Too many preachers spend the majority of their planning time thinking about programs which will enlarge their church's membership or income; in America, no institution is healthy unless it is expanding. Practical performance is emphasized -- how to manage your family, how to manage your budget, how to do anything as a Christian. But all this centers on human relationships and the business of living with other people. It doesn't have much to do with growing downwards, as Christians must do, in the knowledge and adoration of the Lord.

We should focus on our relationship with God in light of His greatness, holiness, and awesomeness. If we'd appreciate these qualities more, we'd be a humbler lot of people than we are. And our hearts and consciences would be more sensitive to God's glory.

Q.     How do you feel about the way we worship today?

A.     First, I applaud the fact that we are concerned about worship as a corporate congregational activity. I recall the time when everyone routinely sang the hymns and prayed just to get to the sermon. I'm glad we have come to feel that that is not good enough. Second, I feel that our worship should be heart-felt. But I don't agree with some who feel that the best way to achieve this heart-felt worship is to leave behind the older hymns of the faith to concentrate on praise songs. I think we need both.

The two kinds of music do different jobs. The lyrics of the old hymns celebrate who and what God is and what He's done; one can meditate on a line of thought throughout all the verses. They call us to become aware of God's awesomeness and holiness, to know that we are very small and unworthy, while He is very great and glorious. On the other hand, the praise song stirs the emotions as you look toward God, with some sense of Him on your heart and words to express that but without a line of thought involved. Both can be used; after meditating on an old hymn, you might quietly sing a praise song, expressing in song what God has generated in your heart.

In most churches, worship is in a state of transition. Both the pastor and the people know by now that worship is important and what we come to church to do. But most ministers are nervous about proposing changes to ingrained patterns and many congregations do not want to accept them. Churches are experimenting, and I feel that at times congregations are a bit bewildered and uncertain. Many times they don't have enough criteria to determine what constitutes reverent worship of God; all they're clear on is what helps them feel good and strengthened. I don't think congregations have a strong corporate sense that the greatness and holiness of God is what we should be seeking above all.

What will change this confusing situation is a renewal of the kind of preaching that gives congregations a strong sense of God. Here I think we need to learn from the Puritans. The strong preaching of the glory of God, of His holiness and awesomeness, will create a sense of how we ought to worship Him. I can't see a congregation ever agreeing on how to worship unless they become united with a deeper and stronger sense of the greatness and glory of God.




Last updated 6-28-1999.