Jesus: A Missing Person?

By Stephen Chester
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I joined the faculty at Wycliffe in 2019 only a few months before the start of the pandemic. I was in Toronto first, and visited a number of churches in-person, but by the time my wife joined me the city was in lockdown. We found ourselves trying to decide on a new church home in a world where we could only experience churches in virtual form. We were blessed by the online services we attended and as the lockdowns eventually came to an end, we were able to visit many of these churches in-person. It was wonderful to be able to worship with God’s people face to face again.

But back in the lockdown period, the fact that worship was online was not the only issue. Before we actually attended an online service we had to decide, from the many hundreds of online services offered by Toronto churches, where to log on. That decision itself was to an unusual degree determined by virtual realities. For our impressions about churches were very strongly shaped by how they presented themselves on their websites. The websites of a large number of the churches whose online services we chose not to attend had something in common. They had a missing person or, if this person was not entirely missing, then he was marginalized. It astounded us that, when taking the opportunity offered by the internet to present themselves to others, many Christian churches had very little to say about Jesus.


Communicating their stand

Mostly churches seemed instead to want to communicate where they stand on controversial contemporary issues as if to attract only those of the same mind. This is a problem, because the only thing that the church has to offer to the world that the world cannot find elsewhere is Jesus. It is only if people encounter Jesus in its life that the ministry of the church has any point. True, the conviction that Jesus is Lord and that final authority rests with him (Matt 28:18) means that there is nothing in the life of the world that lies outside the scope of the gospel. It is right and of great importance that churches are engaged with contemporary issues, but if that engagement functionally replaces Jesus, then we have everything back to front. We blasphemously make Jesus the servant of our own cultural and political agendas rather than our engagement with the life of the world expressing his Lordship and our commitment to being his disciples.

In a post-Covid world the challenges faced by churches are significant. In a recent blog, Scripture Readings for Church in Trouble, my colleague Judy Paulsen reported on her conversations with discouraged clergy. A significant minority of those in congregations are not returning to church after the end of pandemic restrictions, many clergy are weary and close to burn out, finances are a pressing problem, and there is the depressingly regular round of scandals in which church leaders turn out to be wolves in shepherds’ clothing. We would not be human were we not dismayed by all of this, and it is not easy to discern the pathway forward for our churches to refreshment and renewal. But I do know that whatever the specifics of such a pathway, it will involve churches being communities where people experience Jesus. It will be that or the churches will be nothing.


Central to our purpose

Judy puts it like this: “These remain our two tasks; to hear and proclaim our hope in Christ Jesus, in these troubled, anxious, grace-filled times.”  This is very close in spirit to what was said towards the end of his life by the great theologian of mission, Lesslie Newbigin: “The specific responsibility that has been given to the church and to nobody else is the responsibility to bear witness to the reality of Jesus’ victory. Of course, there is an enormous amount that we also must do … justice, peace, and the integrity of creation – these are things in which we can share and must share with people of all faiths and ideologies, whoever they may be. They are part of our common responsibilities as human beings and insofar as we neglect them, we certainly contradict the gospel that we preach. But that which has been committed to the church exclusively, and which no other agency will perform, is the responsibility to tell this story … Whatever else we do for people – to come to know Jesus, to love Him, to serve Him, to honor Him, to obey Him – that is the greatest thing we can do for anyone.”[1]

The ways in which we frame what we have to say about Jesus may vary but, whether it is on our church websites or in all the other aspects of the lives of our congregations, the desire to help others to encounter him must be central to our purpose. Thanks be to God, without Jesus we have nothing at all to offer.


[1] Lesslie Newbigin, Signs amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 115.