Millard Erickson, in his Christian Theology, speaks of two different approaches to contemporizing the message of Christianity. One is to translate the message, and the other is to transform it.
Translators try to keep the integrity of the biblical message intact but seek to translate it as far as possible to the target audience, separated from the Bible not only by distance and language but also by centuries of cultural change.
Transformers, on the other hand, believe that the message itself must be changed to be applicable to the culture at hand. They believe that the message was so melded to the ancient culture in which it was given, that to merely translate it is to distort it. They believe the message must be “re-imagined,” re-invented, and essentially re-written. This applies to worship, the roles of men and women, evangelism—indeed, the entire Christian faith.
Of course, Christians who obey 2 Timothy 2:2 are translators. To receive the message, faithfully conserve it, and pass it on, is to keep transmitting and, where necessary, translating the original message. This approach to the Christian life, incidentally, is also what we call conservative: to receive, conserve, and propagate the faith once delivered to the saints.
Conservative Christians believe that the very things we want to conserve are permanent things: the gospel, Christian doctrine, New Testament worship, and appropriate affections for God. Many parts of the Christian faith are timeless, transcendent, permanent truths that exist in spite of any particular age or culture’s understanding of them. They do not need to be transformed. Indeed, they cannot be without distorting the meaning of the faith.
We do not believe we have the right to transform permanent things, because we believe that is an arrogant position to take. To completely re-write the Christian message, worship, or tradition is to set ourselves up as authorities: authors rather than stewards.
The difficulty we face is the widening gap between secular culture and an authentic Christian faith. The more distant a culture grows from the permanent things of biblical Christianity, the greater the work of translation to make it even comprehensible to them. As our culture descends deeper into relativism, pragmatism, nihilism, hedonism, intellectual apathy, and aesthetic decay, the very things people need are the things becoming more and more incomprehensible to them.
The response of some Christians is to resort to transformation. Since the gap between Christian affections and modern sensibilities seems like an unbridgeable chasm, they transform Christian worship into entertainment, use kitsch instead of beauty, turn Christian fellowship into therapeutic exercises, replace slowly-learned Christian affections with immediate sentimental ones, and end up with something resembling modern secular culture with a lot of Jesus-jargon. Thinking Christians should repudiate this approach, for it amounts to apostasy by incremental concessions.
But the conservative Christian’s approach has its own problems. The problem is especially acute in Western countries, where a transformed Christianity competes alongside with conservative Christianity. In the effort to conserve biblical worship, Christian affections, and Christian doctrine, we find we are often speaking a different language to the average person who walks through the church doors. The ambient culture has made us all midgets next to the giant of the permanent things.
If we do not translate true Christianity to those walking in the door, we may as well be singing in Latin to peasants in 13th-century England. The beauty might be faintly recognized, but it will not be appropriated and reproduced.
What is needed in our churches is translation, and a lot more of it. Before people are shaped to love what God loves, they have to understand it. The answer is not to dumb down the message, warp the affections, or find short-cuts to popular comprehension. The answer is to slowly, steadily, patiently explain the meaning of biblical doctrine and sound theology, the meaning of the hymns and poetry we sing, the meaning of the music, the meaning of the Christian affections, the meaning of Christian art or works of devotion. The answer is to take a very long view. Not months, but years. Not even the years of one pastor’s ministry, but perhaps two or three generations.
Transforming is quick and brings immediate results, but what you have may not be Christianity anymore. Translating is time-consuming, pain-staking work. For the conservative Christian—the steward of the faith once delivered to the saints—there really isn’t a choice.