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Church ministers need to find balance between old and new styles

By Clifford Smyth

Published 22/04/2015

Clifford Smyth is a historian and writer
Clifford Smyth is a historian and writer

Was Jesus Christ a traditionalist or a moderniser? The answer is radical: Jesus Christ is the very Son of God and as such He is above and beyond our frail and sin-stained cultural values.

The message Jesus preached set Him on a collision course with religious elites and the political establishment but the gospel tells us that many ordinary people heard His word, turned their backs on Jesus and walked away too. Not everyone heard Him 'gladly'.

Yet the scriptures are silent about what Jesus looked like or what He wore. The contrast with the superficiality of modern celebrity is striking.

The followers of Jesus have been less restrained, and we can think of the elaborate garb of the orthodox, the Romans Catholic or Episcopal churches or the severe attire of the Puritans or even the Amish communities in the United States.

There are dangers in being 'cool' and fashion-conscious or favouring an ensemble that marks you out as a holy person.

The clash between tradition and modernity goes much deeper than outward appearance and touches on that raw nerve - what we actually believe.

St Paul warns against a lifestyle that becomes a hindrance to others or brings the gospel into disrepute because our conduct is so outlandish or outrageous that folk turn away.

Christian churches drew up creeds and doctrinal standards to help their adherents know the boundaries in worship and behaviour. But the creeds served another purpose - security for church members. They knew where they stood and these religious roots formed a vital part of their identity. Today, secularisation, relativism, globalisation and family breakdown are contributing to a society which is rootless, unsure of its identity, captivated by technologies, often alienated, and profoundly lonely. It is both a serious philosophical error and a theological one - to attempt to create the polar opposites of tradition and modernity.

What is important is firstly our relationship to Almighty God and secondly, our relationships with one another. Given our self-centred natures this is not easy - but it is important not to look on the outward appearance but to try to establish heart-to-heart relationships.

Churches have to balance worship and public testimony so that they do not drive out the older generation or ignore the needs of young people living in an age of 'selfies', celebrity, deep anxieties and insecurity.

The words of Jesus Christ electrify, they give life, but the life Jesus lived was unobtrusive, even nondescript. Would we have known Jesus had a robe, had not the gospels told us?

Jesus commanded His followers: "Follow me!"

His footsteps cleave a path beyond tradition and modernity which is both intellectually challenging and socially relevant: "Love thy neighbour."

That includes the grumpy oul man in the back pew who doesn't 'get' praise bands and yearns to sing one of those psalms that are now in exile in modern mainstream churches.

He'll just have to wait till he dies, but he won't hear the mourners sing the 23rd Psalm. The next thing he hears will be his Lord's voice: "Lazarus, come forth!"

Clifford Smyth is a unionist historian and former politician

Belfast Telegraph

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