Publication:Pastoral Letter, April 2019
Dear Friend in Christ:
When I entered the ministry, the largest churches were downtown, on main streets, or on the city square, central to the culture. Now most large churches are in the suburbs, peripheral to the culture. The migration of churches to the suburbs is symbolic to what has happened to its influence, not because it moved, but because both Church and Culture have changed. I want to discuss some of those changes with you, and how they contribute to our loss of influence in the culture. Let’s begin with some of the cultural changes.
- The Bible and prayer, once central to education, are now ignored or banned.
- Family life has changed dramatically.
- Parental responsibility has shifted to institutions no longer teaching traditional values.
- Technology has changed the nature of community.
- Faith in technology and science has replaced faith in God for many.
- Celebrity and entertainment have become social gods to many.
- History has been neglected, altered, or ignored.
- The vacuum of Judeo-Christian thought has been filled by alien philosophies hostile to traditional culture.
These are only a few of the cultural changes that have occurred in the last two generations. Now let’s look at some of the factors in Church life.
- Our divisions (see John 17:20-21).
- Success is measured by size versus affect upon community. Size may be good, but influence upon culture is lacking and declining.
- Church has become about what happens in the facilities (theater), not what happens in the city.
- Many Christians do not have real community within the church.
- The message too often is market driven, neglecting repentance and discipleship.
- Affirmation, motivation, and self-esteem have often replaced the biblical Gospel.
- As a result, many Christians lack a personal mission to the culture and have never led anyone to faith in Jesus.
- Style has become more important than substance.
- “The Light” is at church, not in the world.
Of course the accuracy of this assessment is not true of all churches and varies in degree. But these assessments may help explain our lack of affect upon our culture. My position is not as an outside critic, I am part of the problem—we all are.
Ezekiel was true to God’s Word and yet saw a decline in his own influence. So were other prophets who saw the decline. So, one can be true to God yet lose influence with culture. In fact, the Lord warned Ezekiel that would be the case. To try to be true, yet lose influence, can be disappointing, depressing, and highly frustrating. Ask Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, or Jeremiah about that. It is estimated that 20,000 ministers are quitting each year. Many leave because they have realized that they are not making much difference.
Here is what the Lord told Ezekiel: “You are like one who sings a lovely song with a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument, for they hear what you say, but they will not do it.” (Ezekiel 33:32)
They may say, “He is a good preacher” or “they do worship well” but will not act upon it. In other words; it is entertaining. That lack of response has left a vacuum in the culture that is being filled by others who will become increasingly hostile to our values, virtues, and mission.
Daniel was a great man and great prophet. He had influence, even in Babylon, but he saw something that was coming. He saw an eventual ruler whose purpose would be to destroy truth and cause deceit to prosper (see Daniel 8:25).
The Apostle Paul echoes Daniel in 2 Timothy 4:1-5, warning that the time would come when people would not endure sound doctrine, have itching ears, and turn away from truth. True prophets and apostles are not market-driven, nor are they personally ambitious. They have a healthy reluctance because they know the cost. They do not conform to the culture, they confront the culture. Jesus is the standard for that.
God loved the world (see John 3:16). Because He loved the world, He sent His unique Son Who was and is the Living Word, to bring truth to the world which crucified Him. Nevertheless, He was raised again. Here are three lessons: 1) Love brings truth; 2) The unregenerate mind attacks truth; 3) Truth always returns. True revival is a revival back to truth, not just emotions.
I am deeply grateful for the powerful revivals that have swept over nations and affected the cultures. The “Great Awakening” that occurred in the mid-1700s is a prime example. George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards were primary leaders in the revival that reshaped our culture. Their focus was on the Word of God, repentance, and holy living. These men and others affected our founders and reached an estimated one-half of the U.S. population. I join you in praying for another such revival so that the Church can once again be the light in the world and culture.
True revivals revive the embracing of truth. Change comes when a people face God and face the truth about themselves. It is not the truth about others; it is the truth about “me.” Charges and accusations about others do not bring revival, and even worse, add to our self-justification. Judgment must begin at the house (family) of God (see 1 Peter 4:17).
Our current cultural and religious divisions will not bring revival unless they show us the serious need for revival. I pray that our failure to solve serious problems will point us back to God who will first address our own personal issues.
There is something else that revival will do: bring back a sense of personal mission. When the Holy Spirit falls upon us, a renewed sense of mission comes to us. When people are ablaze with the power of God, they do not have to be told to share their faith or address the culture, it becomes the natural thing to do (see Acts 2).
I was involved in the “Charismatic Revival” of the 1960s and 1970s. It was contagious and happening everywhere. I believe that it did affect the culture to some extent, and had an impact upon other nations. A lot what is happening now in developing nations grew out of that revival. But transitions happen. Revivals morph into structures and grow inward. Many charismatic groups seem to have morphed into successful contemporary churches or organizations, but the loss of influence upon
culture still continues and even grows.
Will another revival be enough to change this trend? Can the church go back “downtown” and become central to the culture? (See Habakkuk 3:1-2; 17-19.)
WHAT SHOULD WE DO?
It is my conviction that the times and seasons are in God’s hands. I should be faithful and consistent in all seasons. My task is to obey and let Him determine what should happen. That doesn’t mean that I am passive. I should actively and aggressively seek Him, pray, and fast to know His will and do it – specifically. He is leading us somewhere that we have not been before.
You know the old saying, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result.” If we want to influence the culture, we must change what we are doing. Of course, we must continue in what we have already learned (2 Timothy 3:14). But, there are more things to learn as we follow on to know God and His ways (see Hosea 6:3). So, let’s follow Him to where He is taking us. That will tell us if we truly trust Him. Real trust results in obedience.
- Be faithful in the church where you are—support it.
- As we study the Word of God, the Holy Spirit will speak to us. Listen.
- He is the Navigator; we are just the crew.
- Keep the “Awe of God.” Don’t get casual with God; He is serious.
- Take personal responsibility for obedience, don’t shift it to the pastor or church.
- Repent where the Holy Spirit points to our need.
- While being faithful to your church, begin to look for close community with like-minded friends (see Matthew 18:15-20).
- Pray and study the Word of God with like-minded friends.
- Don’t be introverted, but stay focused on our mission to the world; the light is for the world.
- Ask God for the courage to do what He is calling us to do (see Acts 4:13-29).
- Speak the truth in love, but avoid religious clichés.
- Try to avoid “talking down” to people. Realize that none of us know all that we need to know.
- Love, truth, and humility are important and powerful in reaching others.
- When you err, don’t waste your failures; learn from them. The Lord will not condemn us when we try to follow the Holy Spirit (see Romans 8:1).
What might happen if we take some serious new steps of obedience? I don’t know if there will be another “Great Awakening”, but I pray for it and believe that it must begin in the Church. If it does, it will not remain there; it will affect the culture.
WHAT IS GOD SAYING?
Remember, if the trend continues, the Church will be moved “out of town.” Then we will face an even more hostile culture foreign to our foundations. Then we will ask, “What happened?” It will happen if we remain passively programmed to mere routine instead of being led and empowered by the dynamic and energizing Holy Spirit. It will happen if we omit the need for repentance before God. It will happen if we remain an audience instead of an army. It will happen if we keep “looking for love in all the wrong places.” It will happen if we continue to shift our personal responsibility to some institution, church, or government.
But it need not happen if we listen to the Lord and do what He is saying. That is our prayer. Please continue to remember CSM in your prayers and giving during April, as we seek to equip and encourage individuals across North America and around the world. Also, I hope you’re planning to join us May 14-16 for our 20th Annual CSM Leadership Conference in Gatlinburg, TN. To register, visit csmpublishing.org.
May the Lord bless you and all of your loved ones as you seek Him and reach out in His grace!