Esther and Ruth
My wife and I are loyal viewers of the television quiz Twee voor Twaalf. It is a classic program that has been on the tube for over fifty years, and has been presented by Astrid Joosten since 1991. In each program there are two teams of two people who must answer twelve questions on a variety of topics. The initial letters of the answers must then be put in the correct order to form a twelve-letter word. If one does not have a direct answer to a question, one may search a series of reference books and, in some cases, consult the computer. One earns points with correct answers, but loses points for long searches for answers and in the process of assembling the final word. All in all, a lighthearted, but interesting, and often exciting game.
Many participants really know a lot, and some are also skilled at quickly looking up the answers to what is asked. But with regard to biblical questions, that come up with some regularity, they often fail miserably. Such was the case last night. Rather simple questions were asked about women in the Bible, after whom a book of the Bible is named. These were Esther and Ruth, respectively. The first team gave a wrong answer, and the second team also did not know who was meant, but managed to look up the correct answer. In the past, we also regularly watched the BBC quiz program University Challenge, in which student teams from various British universities compete against each other. In this, the questions are usually much more difficult than in Twee voor Twaalf, and it is amazing how much the students often know. But when it comes to simple Bible questions, they fail as a rule.
Our society is thoroughly secularized and only a small part of the population still has a solid knowledge of the Bible. Knowledge of the content of the Christian faith and interest in the church as an institution has steadily declined over the past decades. And, unfortunately, we must conclude that the church–and also most individual believers in the church–have no answer to that problem. This was also evident at the constituency meeting of the Dutch Adventist Church that is currently being held.
During a quintennial congress, the main issues are electing the church leaders and reporting on the work of the previous five-year period. The Corona pandemic did cause many things to go differently than planned! What struck me most during the reporting was the recognition that too little has been done on evangelism in recent years. Several delegates urged that this point should be given a much higher priority in the coming years. But how this should be done? That remained rather vague! The Dutch Union president rightly noted that we live in a highly secularized society and that reaching the secularized people is a huge challenge. Yes, indeed, how do we reach the people with the biblical message, when they don’t remember Esther and Ruth, and when they admit they never read a Bible?
For now, it remains a matter of searching for new ways. The traditional methods of evangelism no longer work in the Western world. The challenge is to “translate” and “package” the core of the gospel in such a way that our words will relate to the fundamental questions the people around us have. The church’s past can inspire us, but cannot serve as a model to be followed in everything. Unfortunately, that is too often still a starting point for many. To explore new ways requires faith, together with expertise and creativity, as well as boldness and a freedom to experiment. A growing church in our time, and in the future, is an open community, where people feel safe, even if they are “different,” and even if they have questions to which there are no immediate answers. Ours should be a church where secularized people are welcome, and where they feel comfortable because of the atmosphere of being accepted as they are.
The goal of reaching out to the secularized people around us will not be achieved overnight in the new administrative period ahead of us. But it all begins with the understanding that as a church we must, at all levels, be (and in many cases: we must become!) an open, welcoming community that attracts people and does not repel or leave them indifferent-as still so often happens. This is a prerequisite for keeping a larger portion of our youth on board and offering a place of faith, hope and love to those seeking meaning and security in their lives.
I continue to hope (sometimes against my better judgment) that in the coming years the church I love will take that path more clearly than is often the case today, and that the desire of reaching out to our secularized fellowmen will prove to be more than a pious slogan without real content.