Alister McGrath Amsterdam Lecture, 22 September 2014 The Future

Alister McGrath Amsterdam Lecture, 22 September 2014
The Future of Protestantism and the role of preaching within it
Lecture summary.
The lecture opens by noting some of the challenges Protestants face to today in western Europe,
especially rapid cultural change, including erosion of traditional roles for the church in our culture.
How can we face such an uncertain future?
My role in this lecture is both to encourage you and to challenge you!
1. We need to see things in an historical context. The church has faced major cultural changes in the
past, and we need to learn from their examples. Many American Protestants now turn to Augustine of
Hippo for inspiration, seeing him as a figure of faith coping with a major moment of transition – the
collapse of the Roman empire. We have to face change, and work out our role in the new situation
that is unfolding, trusting that God will help us find a new role and a new place. Protestantism has
always been good at adapting to new contexts. Some familiar examples from the United States will
illustrate this point – Willow Creek Community Church, and Saddleback Community Church. What
possibilities await us?
2. We need to realize that things are changing, and that many of our traditional models and
understanding of ministry are rooted in a cultural context that is now changing. We must see this as
an opportunity for rethinking and creativity. Example: the social role of the churches, which is
especially significant in the case of the Netherlands. But is this an essential element of the church, or
a role that emerged during a specific period in your history, which is now past? If so, what new roles
can you discover and claim. The rise of Faith Based Organizations in the United States illustrates the
possibilities. Here, a valued social function is claimed and enacted by churches, rather than being
bestowed upon them by an historical establishment. Influence arises from serving! How might you
reflect on the situation, and the new possibilities that are emerging?
3. Cultural changes mean that we need to rethink our engagement with culture. Many people –
especially younger people – no longer understand what Christianity is all about, or the historical role
of the churches. The following themes are of particular importance, and will be addressed in the
a) The shift from rational to functional criteria of evaluation. Or, to put this more simply, the question
being asked by many people in western culture is often not “is this true?”, but “does this work?” We
need to be able to give an answer to this – and there are most certainly answers that can be given.
The churches must able to connect up with the big questions being asked in our culture – such as:
how can I lead a good life? What is the meaning of life? How can I cope with failure? Christianity as
something that is real, not just something that is true.
b) The transition from modernity to postmodernity causes problems for reason-based approaches to
apologetics. We need to be able to show how Christianity appeals to the reason, imagination, and the
heart. There are many we can learn from here – Pascal and C. S. Lewis, for example. We need t
make sure that we have grasped and appreciated the role of stories and images in preaching.
Example: The “undragoning” of Eustace Scrubb in C. S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
Showing versus telling. We live in a story-shaped world. So how does this affect our preaching? Our
catechesis? Discovering versus being told. How is our own story shaped, nourished and sustained by
the Christian story?
c) We need to be able to translate the core ideas of the Christian faith into our cultural vernacular.
Ideas like “sin”, “salvation” and “redemption” need to be explained and interpreted. C. S. Lewis on
“cultural translation” – important role model for preachers today. This quote is especially helpful and
We must learn the language of our audience. And let me say at the outset that it is no use at
all laying down a priori what the “plain man” does or does not understand. You have to find
out by experience. … You must translate every bit of your Theology into the vernacular. This
is very troublesome, and it means that you can say very little in half an hour, but it is
essential. It is also of the greatest service to your own thought. I have come to the conviction
that if you cannot translate your thoughts into uneducated language, then your thoughts were
confused. Power to translate is the test of having really understood one’s own meaning.
How might we develop this process of translation in our sermons? Coming to see preaching as the
interpretation and application of Christian ideas to a local community. The preacher as the interpreter
of the Christian faith to a specific group of people. Stanley Fish’s idea of “interpretive communities” as
a model for thinking about the churches.
Finally: don’t feel discouraged. The churches have had to navigate moments of cultural transition
before. We need to construct our own future, not have one imposed upon us. Each of us has a role to
play. We can be rooted in the past, without being trapped by the past!
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