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The shrinking umbrella of faith

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*This article is from the MB Herald archives, originally published May 17, 1985, in the column “Christian Mind.” Author Walter Unger (1936–2018) served the church as a teacher, administrator, and board member.*

To keep in contact with the Canadian scene I eagerly peruse various British papers with an eye to news from “The Great White North.” However it was in reading a Canadian periodical, Maclean’s, that I received a rude jolt regarding the supposed “upbeat mood” in Canada.

In an extensive poll of Canadians, summarized in 33 pages of the January 7, 1985 issue of the magazine, the claim is made: “in this 33-page package, Maclean’s explores how Canadians feel about everything from sex and marriage to their jobs and the economy and reports on the nation’s upbeat mood.”

I searched diligently through the reports – several times, in fact, to see how Canadians felt about religion or the church or belief in a higher being and I never found as much of a sentence. Apparently religion is a non-significant factor in Canadian life. If this is true (and I’m certain it is not entirely true), the Maclean’s poll is nonetheless a reflection of the fact that Christians have not allowed their faith to make a significant impact on the world around them.

What is intended to be a broad umbrella of faith, encompassing all aspects of life, has, for many shrunk to a personalized, privatized head covering.

In our churches and Christian schools we must teach and model the social dimensions of faith. We define spirituality in terms of devotions, church attendance, family prayer, and personal evangelism, and this is good. But the Bible doesn’t limit spirituality to the personal and private spheres. Christians are to live their total lives obediently before God – in mind development, in vocational pursuits, and especially in wider social involvements in the world, with all its evil and injustice.

We dare not box our Christian convictions in so they operate nicely in the personal and private spheres but are not relevant in the larger world of economics, education, politics, and social injustice.

The task of our churches and especially our Christian schools is to prepare believers to go out into the marketplace, well trained in the various disciplines – but more than this. They must go out not only remembering which discipline they are in, but whose disciples they are, and how that discipleship bears on their public life.

We need more good teaching and more insightful Christian literature on the social dimensions of faith. We need books to help the scientists, the politicians in their decisions, and the business people on how the Christian faith is applicable to their world. There’s an amusing cartoon in Os Guinness’ Gravedigger File of a puzzled customer, briefcase in / hand, newspaper under arm, speaking to the proprietor of a Christian bookstore who is arranging his nice display of books. The customer asks: “Do you have any books on understanding politics?” As he puts a book entitled The Full Life in place, the proprietor replies: ‘‘I’m sorry sir-this is a Christian bookshop.”

Christian indeed – dealing with the real issues of life. The book display carries titles like Joggin for Jesus, Slim with Him, and Meal Time Graces. Beside the book display is the gospel frisbee box. It says: “Fly High! With Favourite Gospel Text. Choose From John 3:16, John 8:36, Genesis 27:1l.” Not only have we personalized and privatized faith; in many instances we have trivialized it!

We are not going to make much of an impact on the world with books on the latest self-help fads or with our holy hardware. (Jesus baby bibs, Christian tea bags, etc.).

We need a deeper understanding of Kingdom principles as we move into the broad spectrum of public life. Os Guinness, writing from Oxford about the charismatic renewal generally and the American renewal in particular, observes that their weakness is not that renewal starts in the private world, but that it ends there too.

The founder of McDonald’s hamburgers, the most successful fast-food chain in the world has been quoted as saying: “I believe in God, family and McDonald’s – and in the office that order is reversed.”

Guinness challenges: “Look for a place where the Christian is thinking ‘Christianly’ and critically about the substance of work (about, say, the use of profits and not just personnel; about the ethics of a multinational corporation and not just those of a small family business; about a just economic order and not just the doctrine of justification). You will look for a very long time …. A Christian’s priorities outside the office may be God, family, and business, but once inside the office that order is reversed.’

Let this not be said of us as Anabaptist-Mennonite Christians – at one time known as “Sermon on the Mount people.” The application of our faith must be as broad as is the concern of our Heavenly Father for the totality of his creation.

—The writer, Walter Unger, has spent the winter months at Regent’s Park College, Oxford, England, as scholar in residence.  

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