My thanks to Jared Wilson, not only for another thoughtful book, but for expressing many of the very things I would like to express. In his 2015 book, Prodigal Church: A Gentle Manifesto Against the Status Quo, Wilson has written a book I wish I had written.
I had the privilege last week to meet a man convinced we are headed for revival. He is a gentle man, who thinks often of God, wishing for a return to some semblance of the way things used to be – minus the overt sins of racism and sexism that were so widely tolerated in days gone by. But the basic reason for his certainty is simple: We are in desperate need of revival. He had other reasons, of course; supporting reasons. Among them, through his examination of of history he has concluded that God works cyclically, and that we are presently overdue for the next revival.
I share his desire to see God bring revival. I can’t argue that we are overdue and in desperate need. And it is not just America that needs to be “revived”. More than our culture, I believe the American Church needs to experience revival. And when God works, he works through his church. So if revival is to occur, reorienting the cultural drift, renewing God as the rightful object of our collective affection, it is going to be at work in and through the Church.
But still, what does revival actually mean? Of course it means “to make alive”. But what does it look like? Do all revivals look alike? What are the characteristics?
I suspect the answer the the question “Do all revivals look alike?” is likely a “No”. Cultures are different. God seems to bless different expressions of evangelism and ministry approaches from one generation to the next; one culture to the next. So to assume when revivals hit they will be uniform seems a bit of a stretch to me.
J.I. Packer,defines a revival this way:
“Revival is God accelerating, intensifying, and extending the work of grace that goes on in every Christian’s life!”
In his book God in our Midst, Packer suggests that, among the variety of God’s ways, there are at least five constants that seem to always appear in biblical revivals:
1. Awareness of God’s presence: “The first and fundamental feature in renewal is the sense that God has drawn awesomely near in his holiness, mercy and might.”
2. Responsiveness to God’s Word: “The message of Scripture which previously was making only a superficial impact, if that, now searches its hearers and readers to the depth of their being.”
3. Sensitiveness to (Our Own) Sin: “Consciences become tender and a profound humbling takes place.”
4. Liveliness in Community: “Love and generosity, unity and joy, assurance and boldness, a spirit of praise and prayer, and a passion to reach out to win others, are recurring marks of renewed communities.”
5. Fruitfulness in Testimony: “Christians proclaim by word and deed the power of the new life, souls are won, and a community conscience informed by Christian values emerges.”
I hope my new friend is right, that God – who is always at work – will soon be at work in unusual ways. These are some of the signs I will pray will be evident in our culture, and in our church.
If our congregation were to be a church with the gospel, plus a group that enjoys being together in community, but we were not on mission to reach out to our neighbors and the Nations, for the sake of advancing Christ’s Kingdom, then we would just be another social club for people to attend.
Gospel + Community – Mission = Club
If we were to be a church with the gospel, and we were actively engaged in mission to our neighbors, but not together in community, then we would be like a bunch of silos that aren’t truly showing off the body of Christ. We could not be considered like a city on a hill.
Gospel + Mission – Community = Para-Church
If were to become a church actively on mission, serving together in community with one another, but we had no gospel, or we were careless about the truths of the gospel, we would then merely be just another non-profit organization.
Community + Mission – Gospel = Non Profit
To be the church, to be what Jesus calls us to be, what he created us to be, is a Gospel-centered, missional, gathering of people living life together, sharing one another’s joys and pains, serving together in various ways for the good of our city, expecting nothing in return, all for the glory of Jesus, the joy of being together, and love for our neighbors.
We must be a church that is gospel centered, on mission in community so that we can be the organism, the family, the church that Christ gave the Spirit to empower, and of which he said could not be stopped.
Gospel + Community + Mission = Church
I have been mulling on something the late Francis Schaeffer said:
“There are four things which are absolutely necessary if we as Christians are going to meet the need of our age and the overwhelming pressure we are increasingly facing.”
No doubt that the church, in our culture as well as other cultures, faces increasing and overwhelming pressure. Pressure to cave. Pressure to capitulate. Pressure to compromise. These pressures come from both subtle and overt threats from the culture and from the government, as George Orwell predicted in his classic 1984. Perhaps even more devastating is the subversive seductive pressure. The craving of the church to be “relevant”, to fit in, to be liked, so people will come in great numbers, so we can be considered successful, has seemingly replaced a commitment to faithfulness and fruitfulness. This mindset seems in line with Aldous Huxley‘s “nightmarish vision of the future” in his opus Brave New World. And while there is certainly nothing wrong with a desire to be liked, nor to see our churches full, these consuming desires are antithetical to the teachings of Jesus, and consequently, I fear, resulting in an increasingly impotent Church.
So what are Schaeffer’s four things?
Schaeffer labeled them Two Contents and Two Realities.
There are times I feel somewhat like a sea captain who took charge of a ship that had experienced unprecedented prosperity under the direction of his predecessor, and then sprung a leak a few months into his tenure. Don’t get me wrong, I love the church where I serve, but some of the challenges came as a bit of a surprise. Chiefly a decline in attendance and a corresponding budgetary strain.
In some ways this was inevitable. In some ways this is circumstantial. And in other ways it is personal.
It was inevitable because nothing stays the same forever. No organization, or organism, experiences perpetual increase in prosperity. Sooner or later, changes, challenges, and a period of decline is certain.
It is circumstantial, if for no other reason, the nature of the community where our church is located is a very fluid, very transient community, Many who live here are in the military, and so they are only here for a short time. Others who live here have retired – often early – and come to enjoy the wealth of cultural, historical, and natural amenities. However, there seems to be a pattern – when one member of the marriage, husband or wife, experience injury or become ill, the couple moves away, back home, or somewhere near their children. Understandable. While Williamsburg is a beautiful place to settle, they have no roots here, so they move on.
It is personal in the sense that whenever a church changes pastors there is almost always some turnover among the members. No matter how capable the new minister is, his presence is a constant reminder that things have changed; that this is not exactly the church that they had joined anymore. And as American church culture becomes increasingly more consumeristic, the less likely folks are to stick around to get used to the changes. After all, if they have to adjust to change, why not use it as an opportunity to trade in for a new model that has some amenities that they had not been looking for a few years ago, but would provide a pleasant upgrade. Consequently new pastors are often not treated like people, who might have feelings, but rather as a commodity to be embraced or discarded at the whim of the customer. Or another aspect of the personal – some church members just don’t like the new pastor’s personality (or lack of it).
I suspect differing measures of all three of these played a part in our initial decline. Fortunately we remained stable. We have a good cohesive staff; wise and godly officers who work as a team, a band of brothers; and no panic or finger pointing from the congregation. So despite our leak our ship has remained in pretty good shape.
As we move forward it is essential to assess where we are, and to map out where we are headed.
At present we are in what Thom Rainer calls the Chrysalis Period. According to Rainer, during the Chrysalis Period a church or organization undergoes changes beneath the surface that are necessary to become what we will inevitably become.
The chrysalis is the pupa of a butterfly encased in a cocoon. It is the former caterpillar and the future butterfly. It is the stage when the worm-like, slow-moving caterpillar becomes a beautiful, free-flying butterfly.
I like the imagery. It seems apt. We are a work in process. And not all that is going on is evident to all who take a look.
As I reflect upon the need of our church to constantly cultivate community among those within our congregation, as well as between those already part of the congregation and those who have newly arrived, I am pondering the poignancy of this statement by Stanley Grenz, from his book Theology for the Community of God:
“Only in our Spirit-produced corporateness do we truly reflect to all creation the grand dynamic that lies at the heart of the triune God. As we share together in the Holy Spirit, therefore, we participate in relationship with the living God and become the community of Christ our Lord.”
As a pastor it is not only requisite to be a student of God’s Word, but it is also essential to be a student of the people to whom I preach and teach. This is true for any church or ministry leader. If we do not know the Bible, and sound doctrine, we have nothing to offer. But even if we have voluminous knowledge, if we do not know the people with whom we are called to share these truths, then we will not know how to apply these truths. It would be as ineffective as a medic possessing all the medicines but without enough biological understanding to make a valid diagnosis.
In a recent post, 9 Questions for Ministry Leaders, Paul Tripp identifies nine helpful questions to ask ourselves, and to discuss with the other leaders in our churches or ministries, as we attempt to become effective students and exegetes of our people:
- What are the cultural idols that are particularly attractive to my people?
- Where do they tend to buy into an unbiblical worldview with its accompanying hopes and dreams?
- Are there themes of spiritual struggle that I need to speak to?
- Where do they tend to get discouraged and need the hope of the gospel?
- What is the level of their biblical literacy and theological knowledge?
- How many of them are actively involved in service, and how many are “ecclesiastical consumers”?
- What do they tend to struggle with in the workplace?
- What do they wrestle with at home?
- What are they reading, watching, and listening to, and how are they influenced by it?