by Phil Andrews
A little while ago, when “preaching” to a small congregation at the Church (I prefer the term “speaking” in consideration of my relative lack of theological grounding) I gave a 500-word address between hymns on the subject of “Why Do Some Christians Fear Change?”. It is hard to say whether or not it was well received as by definition preaching/speaking is not really an interactive experience, but those present were politely attentive all the same. Later during the sermon proper I confessed that the address I had given had in fact been written by a robot, using ChatGPT! I did it to emphasise the extent to which the world was changing, and how close that change is in fact to all of us, whether we welcome it or not. I don’t think anybody guessed. The grammar and sentence structure was certainly of an exceptional standard.
A source of some reassurance
I felt inspired to ask this question because I had been thinking about a sermon that had been delivered at our Church the previous week, and also about a conversation that I’d been involved in with another member of the congregation over coffee a short while afterwards. I had also been thinking about the Church itself and its place in the world, and in our local community. Ostensibly, we’re not a Church which has changed very much, relying very much upon our own long-established ways, our traditions, our routines, doing things the way that we have done them for as long as we can all remember.
And for me, that is a source of some reassurance. I’m not a big fan of change. Aside from my faith, one of my great passions is nostalgia writing. It is one of the things that brings me an income – enough in fact to keep me in car parking. I write usually about the 1970s, about what a glorious time it was, when everyone was happy and nothing ever went wrong. Indeed, my recollection of all my teenage years is that it never even rained.
When I came back to our Church at the tail end of the 1990s I was delighted to see that not very much had altered. It had probably had a lick of paint here and there, but the layout was pretty much as I’d remembered it. Even some of the faces were familiar. Had it undergone some huge transformation I would have been discombobulated. Sure I would probably have got used to it eventually, but it would have been disorientating. I am the kind of guy who used to feel anxious for days when my local pub put down a new carpet.
Of course for some the glory days happened long before the 1970s. Usually, our perception of these things tends to depend upon how old we are. Most of us are okay with colour TV or the motor car, because we’ve pretty much all grown up with it, but some find the Internet daunting, or mobile phones. Change is, at once, both a curse and a blessing. When Covid struck and we were all consigned to our homes, we were able to stay in touch through our Zoom meetings. Not a good substitute for real fellowship, for coming together in person, but surely better than not being in touch with one another at all?
Sadly for people like me, there is no such thing as no change. Twenty years ago our Carols by Candlelight services were filled with people with whom we had little contact at any other time of the year. Of course I would have liked to have seen them here more often, but I guess it was better than never seeing them at all? Last year I don’t think we had a dozen people here. No outsiders, no strangers to welcome to our portals. Just a handful of old faithfuls, and not even all of those came. That’s change. By doing precisely nothing, and not being proactive, we have brought about change – the change being that people who were once there are there no longer.
Societal breakdown and declining congregations
Much of the societal change that we see around us today is undoubtedly for the worse. We see a breakdown of law and order on our streets. We see a lack of respect for authority and our institutions. We see selfishness, the “it’s all about me” culture that is sadly all about us. We see knife crime on an alarming scale. We see the collapse of communities, where nobody knows any longer who their neighbours are, let alone cares how they are. We see declining congregations – it’s not just us.
Greed, poverty, exploitation, conflict, man’s war on his own environment – none of these are new, but there is a particular nastiness about the way they are rampant in today’s world that was absent a few years back, within most of our lifetimes.
And yet there is a tenderness of spirit too. People march for peace in conflicts in which they have no personal stake because they value human life. It’s not necessary for us to take a side in these conflicts to be respectful of that fact. We have a different way of looking at humour, at how we engage with one another, which is simultaneously both irritating and caring. It is no longer acceptable to target or to victimise a person because of their colour, or their sexuality, or their disability. Most would consider that a good thing. Many of us would acknowledge too that some of the causes fought for by the Church in the past have been causes closer to its own heart, or to the hearts of those it served, than to God’s. We no longer champion slavery. We no longer champion segregation, as some powerful churches in the US once did. We no longer think the Earth is flat. These were never God’s battles, but those of men. We changed – thank goodness, and by the Grace of God – and that is why we are still here.
Purity of the message
This is my opinion, it is not everybody’s. There is still a view held by some that any attempt to better understand God’s word is to deviate from doctrine, to make mischief and to undermine the purity of the message, for reasons which are not quite clear. There is no need to understand the Word nor to feel the spirit of God’s laws as explained to us, painstakingly, by Jesus – all we need to do is read scripture and to chant it like a mantra. Was it not precisely this attitude on the part of the Pharisees which incurred the wrath of Our Lord?
To the charge that trying to place the Word of God in the context of the modern world is compromising with sin in the hope of appearing agreeable in the eyes of the unholy, I would say this – ought we to measure our own righteousness by the number of people we manage to alienate and exclude?
Of course we must not deviate from Christ’s teachings in the name of expediency, that much can never be in dispute. But maybe we could be a little less arrogant in presuming for ourselves a unique and exclusive insight into those teachings? Our Christian faith is about change. Jesus came to us to change our understanding of the sacred Word, not to change the Word itself. Even baptism is about renewal. And certainly the ultimate change is about the journey from mortal to eternal life. For us there cannot be any greater change than that. Our reassurance is that Jesus remains constant and unchanging (Hebrews 13:8). Truth remains constant and unchanging. The Word remains constant and unchanging. But our comprehension of the Word must be open to change with our greater understanding.
For better or worse
Change can be for better or worse, but it is inevitable. And if it is inevitable, then to resist it or deny it is not only futile and frankly silly, but ultimately self-destructive. Our duty is to take ownership of change, and channel it into something positive, something which serves us rather than threatens to overwhelm us. The question we must ask ourselves when considering change is, surely – are we moving closer to, or further away from God? We must be ruthless in embracing that which serves God, and in soundly rejecting that which questions or challenges Him.
The great irony of Artificial Intelligence is that it could be said to have brought us full circle. Things that just a couple of generations ago scientists would have told us were impossible, but men of faith would always have believed to have been the prerogative of God, are coming to pass. AI has already achieved the healing of the sick. Who knows whether one day it will give us the ability to move mountains?
We must remember though that all this comes from God. God gave us the ability to move mountains through faith, just he gave us the ability to build robots so intelligent that they can write addresses in Church which can fool the most discerning.
Change which we own is our best defence against that change over which we have no control. We should not reject it, nor hide from it. We should remember that our ever loving God remains constant, as it was in the beginning so is it now and will be at the end. For God’s love never changes.