I went to university more years ago than I care to remember. As I entered the legal profession after uni, life was good. Economically, my friends were easily finding jobs with clear long-term futures. Politically, it was the time of Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and the Good Friday Agreement. The general attitude amongst my non-Christian friends was: if you want to follow Jesus that’s fine, but I don’t need Him. Twenty years ago the world felt a lot more politically and economically certain.

Today we live in a world of much greater uncertainty, chaos and fear. Few are saying that life is good, economically or politically. A job for life is a thing of the past. Politics changes by the hour, let alone the day or the week. I have no idea who will be Prime Minister, or even which party will be in government, by the time you read this. At the same time, faith is much more likely to be contested or actively resisted in the public square. And yet, the declaration that God is good news” has never been more relevant. It has always been true, but in many ways these turbulent times make the good news of the gospel all the more important.

Faith in crisis?

My dad recently suffered a severe stroke. We were on holiday in Canada at the time and had to rush home as he was put into an induced coma. On the flight home I wrote my notes for the funeral. The words flowed easily and quickly: Dad was a legend who loved Jesus, had lived life to the full and influenced the lives of many. It was a strangely cathartic experience. What struck me most was the variety of people getting in touch about Dad. 


The responses were in three broad categories: those who shared our belief that God is good news and so were praying for Dad; the second also said they were praying but were hesitant – they wanted to believe in prayer, or perhaps used to or knew that we did; the third seemed at a loss in this moment to know what to say – and so they resorted to thinking of you” and wishing him well”. I don’t doubt their sincerity, but there was a hollowness to their words. Wishing is not the same as hoping, and thinking is definitely not the same as praying. There is so little to say in moments of crisis if you don’t believe there is something more, if you don’t believe in God and His goodness.

A secular age

Charles Taylor is a Canadian philosopher and theologian who has written extensively on living in a secular age. He explores how we moved from a time 500 years ago when not believing in God was unthinkable to today, when belief in God is almost unthinkable. Taylor paints a picture of how we have become disenchanted, stuck in our limited perspectives with no room for the transcendent.

I think of it in terms of the film The Truman Show. Jim Carrey plays Truman, who is the star of a reality TV show broadcast live and continually. Finally, suspecting he is caught in a tiny artificial world, he gets into a boat and keeps going until he finally bumps into the edge of the set and climbs out and discovers a whole new larger and more real world. People today, like Carrey’s character, live in a metaphorical enclosed little dome but are haunted by the sense that there is something more.

Taylor points out that we used to live much more porous lives, open to the spiritual and the supernatural. But over the last 500 years we have discarded, sometimes willingly, though more often not, our spiritual clothes and beliefs. Everything now has a scientific, rational or natural explanation. In short, people don’t see any need for God. But most people want there to be something more. When a tragedy happens, as with my dad, or death strikes, no one
wants to say that a collection of cells have simply come to end in their current form.

Instead, they go on social media proclaiming #prayforManchester despite not believing in God or the power of prayer. We might be inclined to critique the incoherence of their actions, but this reflects the hope for something more – what Taylor calls a sense of haunting. He notes, The secular age is schizophrenic, or better, deeply crosspressured.” All beliefs are more fragile and contested as each of us feels pushed and pressed and tugged by alternative, rival stories of who we are and what we are for. Julian Barnes, the English author and atheist, comments, I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.” 

This seems to me to be the cry of so many. There are cracks in the foundation of secularism, and it won’t work in the long term. The world awaits a people who can recover the frightening beauty and awesome truth of the gospel. Not a privatised, personal faith hidden from view. As theologian Tom Wright reminds us, The whole point of Christianity is that it offers a story which is the story of the whole world. It is public truth.”

Prayerful hope

So, how do we live into, and incarnate, the good news and hope of Jesus today? Brexit is causing deep division in our society. I live in Northern Ireland, but I can look out the window of my house and see Donegal in the Republic of Ireland. The backstop and the threat of a hard boarder are very real. In the midst of all this, Westminster has
liberalised abortion law in Northern Ireland and redefined marriage without the consent of the people, circumventing our democratic processes.

As regular readers will know, we have sought to reframe the abortion debate in Northern Ireland, partnering with others to set up Both Lives Matter and emphasising the importance of mother and baby. We have run a positive campaign showing that 100,000 people are alive in Northern Ireland today because we did not bring in the 1967 Act along with the rest of the UK. In response to the proposed changes, we have encouraged others to send more than 100,000 postcards to local members of the legislative assembly, encouraging them to get the Northern Ireland Assembly up and running again. We have also gathered people together to pray. With others, we filled St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast, with hundreds more kneeling on the street to join us. Thousands gathered at Stormont for a silent protest for those who have no voice. 

Prayer is key. In the first days after my dad’s stroke we prayed that if it was time God would take him, and if not that we would see healing. Dad is slowly on the mend, but the staff are intrigued as we pray over him each day. Moments of crisis often lead us to contend in prayer in a new way. So, we need to contend for our country, for our politicians, for reconciliation regardless of our views on Brexit, for the unborn in Northern Ireland and across the UK. Prayer opens a portal for the presence of God to break into the secular. 

It is easy to despair with all that is going on in the world around us. If you are stuck living in Truman’s enclosed little dome, this is all there is, and despair is hardly surprising. But as the night gets darker, the light shines brighter. In one sense, it has rarely been easier to be missional – to stand out. Our role is not to fold, to fight or to take flight. Instead, we must be formed and fortified to call others into the flourishing, thriving, hope-filled life found in Jesus. 

This is no easy task; the good news of Jesus jars with the plausibility structures of our world. He disrupts, de-centres, convicts and reforms. But in the chaos, uncertainty and fear, the secular story is starting to crack. There is a deep spiritual aching. Doubters are tempted to believe. And God is and always will be good news.