Last summer Jan and I visited Ireland for the first time. Landing in Dublin on a Saturday afternoon was the beginning of an adventure that included locating churches in which to share and celebrate the presence of God in our lives. Our first Sunday morning found us in the heart of Dublin at Christ Church, the Church of Ireland’s cathedral and the oldest building in the city. In midafternoon the tourists were sent away and those of us there to worship were invited into that magnificent place for Evensong--a time of prayer, the singing of ancient anthems, and spiritual reflection.
Yet we couldn’t help wondering how long this cultural anomaly will persist. Only a handful of others were around us in that large, centrally located cathedral. It was then that Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization came to mind. In it he sketches out the important role Irish monks played in preserving Christian culture after the fall of Rome. As Germanic tribes overran one region after another on their way toward Rome, monks fled in the opposite direction, carrying their treasured manuscripts to safety. Eventually these monks had no place to go but Ireland, itself a distant outpost of civilization and vulnerable to attack.
The best-known of these Irish monks was Patrick, an escaped shepherd slave turned missionary from England. He and his fellow theologians, historians and Christian writers hid their treasures in Irish monasteries and in high towers that dotted the coastal regions of the Emerald Isle. It almost seemed the few Irish believers in the pews with us were, like Patrick and his fellow monks, still charged with the daunting task of saving civilization.
The next Sunday we worshipped at All Souls Church, Langham Place, London, a Church of England worship center with an evangelical heritage instilled by Dr. John Stott, who served as rector there for decades. All Souls now has a praise band and an easy, friendly informality. Take away the location and the accents and you have a budding megachurch. At least half the worshippers were from African or Asian countries, reminding us how the Global South is setting the tone and the agenda for the evangelical Church once dominated by the Northern Hemisphere.
After returning home to New England, we continued to think about the contemporary evangelical Church and its challenges. Invited to the Coast of Maine for a weekend with dear friends, we joined them at their small church, housed in what might have once been a roadside bar. The congregation numbered perhaps 40 men, women and children. Their bivocational pastor sported a long ponytail, shorts and a T-shirt, and the service reflected his life as a West Coast composer of worship songs. But it was his teaching that was the most striking thing about him. It was anchored in deep fidelity to God’s Word and to the work of the Holy Spirit.
I thought, “Here is yet another Christian outpost amidst a sea of secularity.” As president of Gordon for more than 15 years now, I have seen firsthand that our students rarely come from vibrant churches shaping the culture; too often the culture is shaping their churches. More and more it is falling to us to help shape our students’ ethics, values and behavior without resorting to narrow indoctrination. There are fewer and fewer places in our culture where learning to see all truth as God’s truth is faithfully and creatively taught.
We have no precious manuscripts hidden away here in Frost Hall, but we have living treasures. I remain convinced that if we are going to save civilization, we must begin at home. Right here at Gordon.