Rejuvenation Series: Some theological notes. Steve Taylor

Rejuvenation in the Church: some theological notes

Much of my thinking about a theology of rejuvenation was shaped during the early days of a difficult change process. I was working with a traditional church experiencing steady decline. Expecting resistance, I referred often in my sermons to the numerical decline of the last few decades. After a few months, an older gentleman commented quietly, “It wasn’t all bad you know.”

The comment got me thinking. Were my references to decline working against our shared desire for rejuvenation? I found myself reflecting on the change images used by Jesus in the Gospels. Jesus begins his ministry by declaring himself an agent of transformation, anointed by God to initiate shalom. [Luke 4:18-19] He describes his ministry using images of mustard seeds, yeast and grains of wheat. [Matthew 13; specifically 31-32; 33; 45-46; John 12:24]  He commissions the church – as the Father sent me, so I sent you – as an agent of rejuvenation, to partner with the shalom of Jesus. [John 20:21]

Challenged, I threw away my graphs of decline. Instead, I gave out sunflower seeds.  Creation grows and changes. Humans grow and change.  I found myself tapping into what I now understand as a Trinitarian theology of rejuvenation.

As Christians we understand God relates to us in relationships: to create, reconcile and make all things new. Let me apply this pattern to rejuvenation.

In Genesis 2, God is pictured as creating a garden. The words used to describe the activities of God include

Maker,

Former of people,

Breather of life,

Planter,

Pleasant to look at.

Into God’s garden, humans are placed, to work and care. [Genesis 2:15] Rejuvenation begins when we recognise ourselves as gardeners with God, creating environments of visual pleasure and practical nurture.

On Easter morning, the first encounters with the Resurrected Jesus are in a garden. A body is transformed, hope is updated, all of creation is reconciled. [Colossians 1:20] At the same time resurrection challenges a theology of rejuvenation. We see this clearly in John 12:24. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” In Christ, rejuvenation is only entered through death.

Revelation ends in the garden.  Behold, I am making all things new, is a song of rejuvenation. The verbs of Revelation 21:5, when placed alongside the list of verbs in Genesis 2, there is a sense of the Revelation garden completing the Genesis garden.

Maker -> Making

Former of people -> All things new

Breather of life -> Healing

Pleasant to look at -> No curse

The harmonies begun with Creator God, heard in Re-creator God in Resurrection, are completed in the Revelation making of all things new.  The trees are for rejuvenation, the “healing of the nations.” [Rev 22:2]

This provides a theological and relational pattern for rejuvenation. It is one based on the three persons of the Trinity. Another pattern is present in the processions of God in mission. In the Creeds, the Church declares both “God from God, Light from Light” and the Spirit “who proceeds from the Father and the Son.”  This is how God rejuvenates, in the mission of the Son in the incarnation and the inspiration of the Spirit who draws creation together in grace. This pattern allows us to discern what it means to participate in God’s rejuvenation, whether inside or outside the church. [I am summarising the work of Paul Fiddes, Perspectives, 31. Bonhoeffer, Ethics ed. Eberhard Bethge, trans N. Horton Smith (London, SCM, 1971), 66-68]

Let me end by returning to the story I began with.  Three months after I gave out sunflowers, I was shown a photo, of the older gentleman’s grandson, standing dwarfed by a sunflower, planted from one of those seeds.  Such is the power and potential of a theology of rejuvenation.  For the church, it means that

  • Rejuvenation has a theology when it finds itself within this arc of creation, redemption and the making of all things new.
  • Rejuvenation has a shape, as it expresses the patterns of the mission of God in Incarnation and Integration.
  • The rejuvenation of the church is a subset of God’s work in creation. The Genesis garden is for humanity, God loves the world redemptively in Jesus, Revelation is for the healing of the nations.
  • God is the active agent, initiating and sustaining rejuvenation. This was the good news my church needed to hear, not my bad tidings of great decline.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal of Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Dunedin. This article is developed more extensively in his forthcoming Built for change: innovation and collaboration in leadership (Australia: Mediacom). 

9 thoughts on “Rejuvenation Series: Some theological notes. Steve Taylor

  1. I agree the church needs rejuvenation. It also requires a relevant theology that speaks to the modern mind and that distances itself from the traditional dogma of the past. If it doesn’t appeal to the intellect it won’t appeal to the heart of a younger better educated younger generation. Sorry, Steve, but I don’t find your statement very helpful.

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    • Thanks Russell. I’m intrigued to have you label this “traditional dogma of the past.” The two books that most formed my thinking in writing this were Paul Fiddes, Seeing the World and Knowing God, which offers an engagement with modern science; and David Kelsey, Eccentric Existence, which at 1200 pages seeks a theology based on modern anthropologies. Fiddes the holder of two honarary University doctorates for his work, Kelsey published by University Chicago. Fine examples of affirmation from the young better educated younger generation.
      You use the word “intellect”, which is such an interesting word. If used in the context of modern secularity, then we are left with a very narrow way of being human, (I think therefore I am,) an anthropology that struggles to find a place for intuition, creativity, love, mystery, awe and environmental concerns. It seems to me that doctrines of creation in fact allow us to engage identity stories that celebrate creation care, healing, wonder and wholistic life. In saying that, I tried to engage in this piece these doctrines poetically, as identify forming founding narratives, not as “intellectual” treatises (which they are making no claim to be).
      I’m surprised you feel you need to say sorry. I thought robust discussion was at the heart of Presbyterianism. I have greatly appreciated you taking the time to respond and see no need for an apology and hope we can continue to engage in ways that mutually benefit the next generation, which I think, based on your comment, we both share a passion and concern for. Steve Taylor

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      • I believe our faith must be relevant to life and how we live in and for the community. Our liturgy must feed that process. It’s finding the language that makes sense today given our current state of knowledge. It’s affirming the worth and dignity of all humans regardless of how different they are from ourselves. Traditional church language can be very off-putting and tends to create an ‘us and them’ situation.I think I have been very lucky to live through childhood and adolescence without the distractions of modern gadgetry. It was distressing to get to mid-life before I heard anything about biblical research and scholarship.I am now one of many who can’t say the historic creeds and who finds Kupu Whakapono quite inadequate to express my beliefs. Fortunately the experience of Mystery and the opportunity to worship occasionally in a progressive church outside our parish keeps me in the PCANZ, and in our local parish.

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    • Thanks Russell. I’m intrigued to have you label this “traditional dogma of the past.” The two books that most formed my thinking in writing this were Paul Fiddes, Seeing the World and Knowing God, which offers an engagement with modern science; and David Kelsey, Eccentric Existence, which at 1200 pages seeks a theology based on modern anthropologies. Fiddes the holder of two honarary University doctorates for his work, Kelsey published by University Chicago. Fine examples of affirmation from the young better educated younger generation.
      You use the word “intellect”, which is such an interesting word. If used in the context of modern secularity, then we are left with a very narrow way of being human, (I think therefore I am,) an anthropology that struggles to find a place for intuition, creativity, love, mystery, awe and environmental concerns. It seems to me that doctrines of creation in fact allow us to engage identity stories that celebrate creation care, healing, wonder and wholistic life. In saying that, I tried to engage in this piece these doctrines poetically, as identify forming founding narratives, not as “intellectual” treatises (which they are making no claim to be).
      I’m surprised you feel you need to say sorry. I thought robust discussion was at the heart of Presbyterianism. I have greatly appreciated you taking the time to respond and see no need for an apology and hope we can continue to engage in ways that mutually benefit the next generation, which I think, based on your comment, we both share a passion and concern for. Steve Taylor

      Like

      • I look at the world and cosmos and marvel at what has been created out of nothing but energy. What I would like to hear you and others clarify is what it means to think of God as Creator when My head tells me that what I marvel at has evolved over 14 billion years and that that evolvement is the product of both creaton and destruction. So in the one breath I say that in God, the name I give to the Mystery behind life itself and particular human life, I live and move and have my being, and I also say the concepts we have of God are the product of human imagination – seeking an explanation for what we cannot understand but what we know and experience in our life journey. Contrast the example of the man Jesus and the history of the Christian church which seems more of a power struggle than an example of discipleship of the man who gave everything – but that’s a wider issue.

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    • Russell, I am not sure your assumption that an intellectually rigorous Christian orthodoxy being off-putting to a so called better educated younger generation, is in fact the nub of the problem. There may be issues with re-cycling dogmatic postures of the 5th or 16th and 17th century in our theology, which is to fail to contextualise theology (and this does not necessarily equate to throwing away a Trinitarian metaphysics as post-theists supposed). As father to to three ‘orthodox’ believing young adults who are actively trying out what it means to know God’s immanent presence and live faith wholistically in the world, advocating on climate change, societal inequality, curating artistic endeavours and creativity, keeping faithful friendships, and testing out their Christ-centric identity in the midst of being human in our society, it is about an integrative life. Its about a lived and practiced ‘knowledge’, not a knowledge that is limited to the intellect and this is where our classical practices as church have fallen down, and where intelligent young people have switched off. Many of the contemporary churches who are engaging young people, appeal to an equally truncated view of knowledge, one that is highly affective, but sadly if there is no integration with their lived experience, this is also problematic. The practiced knowledge need not be any less intelligent and it is interesting in circles I connect to internationally, through my children, (e.g. http://www.venn.org.nz) and through some of our interns in KCML, a fresh and satisifying intellectual engagement with traditional Christian doctrine is underway. The rejuvenating depth that figures such as Rowan Williams and many others (See literary doyenne Marilynne Robinson for someone who reads Calvin approvingly, with Locke and Quantum physics) have brought to those ‘old dogmas’ demonstrates to me at least, that we are not without theological discourse that is sufficient to the age.

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  2. I agree an integrated knowledge not limited to intellectual knowledge is what we all need. I acknowledge that some younger people find this within an orthodox theology. I’m concerned for those who don’t but who are committed to following the example of Jesus and in whom I see the Christ/God even when they don’t.

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  3. Thanks Russell. I’ve enjoyed running this conversation past my daughter. She’s at University wanting to do medical research. She has not felt that her pursuit of science has been at odds with Christian Creator language. She sees science as a how subject and is enjoying reading philosophy as a why subject. She sees both disciplines taking “faith” leaps and inviting her deeper into mystery. She was delighted to give me a book written by a scientist about how they integrate faith as wisdom with their vocation.

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