Communicating Christianity in context


Declining church attendance in most European countries is no clear evidence for reduced appreciation of Christianity. Nor is it an obvious indication that people turn to other faiths or abstain completely. While Sunday services are generally poorly attended, free concerts in church buildings on Sunday afternoons are highly prized and attract an interested audience across all age groups. On almost any Sunday during the winter months two to five concerts are offered nearby.

The first may be due to taking Sunday literally as a day of rest not to be interrupted by a scheduled service. More likely it has something to do with the diluted content from Scripture. A focus on inner illumination, spiritual feelings, and orientation to something other than daily obligations can also be achieved by hiking in the mountains, watching the wind curl ripples on the surface of the lake, or enjoying the larger family on walks and at play.

The second is unsurprising and satisfying. It reflects the power to communicate a specific Christian content in the context of the church buildings. Even if the words of sermons have been robbed of their meaning, the building, the stained glass windows, the presence of an open Bible refresh the knowledge of Christianity in the minds of people.

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Compulsory religious education in public schools has given everyone a basic knowledge of Moses, the Prophets, and Jesus Christ. Visual reminders of the truth surrounding these personages are not only found in church architecture (where the events portrayed in the windows are once again teaching tools of biblical content), but also in civic life enormously influenced and widely colored by centuries of Christian teaching. Respect for others, tolerance, civil arguments, a solid work ethic, social responsibilities taken seriously, and a good educational grounding in schools result from a biblical view of life and people.

A concert on a recent Sunday was in the church of La Tour-de-Peilz near Vevey, Switzerland, built on the foundations of an earlier 12th century church building, with its simple white walls, light gray tuft stone choir section, a balcony all around for additional seating. The table with an open Bible (replacing the altar after the Reformation), the cross suspended from the ceiling, the chancel for the exposition of the Word, and the dry vine roots in a bed of gravel as floral arrangement-all speak of and give visual substance to one reality: the truth of the Bible's message.

The choir, accompanied by a single piano, gave verbal content to the setting, leading the people to comprehension and worship. Among much else, Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Easter Song" has these words:

Rise heart; thy Lord is risen.

Sing his praise without delays,

Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise

With him may'st rise;

That, as his death calcined thee to dust,

His life may make the gold, and much more, Just.

His "Love Bade Me Welcome" used a variation of a familiar Reformation choral theme, known to almost everyone, to tell us:

Truth, Lord; but I have marr'd them:

Let my shame go where it doth deserve.

And know you not, says Love; who bore the blame?

My deare, then I will serve.

You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat.

So I did sit and eat.

The understanding and acceptance of the basic biblical message is not expressed in the demonstrative and personal forms we may expect and look for, but it is rooted deeply in the perception and faith and life habits of this intergenerational audience. Church attendance and commitment as evidence of belief is less frequent than a deep confidence in the truth of the message of the Bible . . . when it has not been outright rejected and replaced by a more personal religion and frequent preference for Buddhist prayer flags. Here the failure of an intellectual engagement of the population by the church brings in a tragic harvest.


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