Thoughts on Awakenings and Revivals

I’ve spent the last six weeks preaching on Sunday mornings about spiritual awakening, both individual and corporate. I mentioned at some point my own experience of becoming a Christian in 1970 during what many regard as “the youth revival of the early 1970s.” That’s why this article got my attention when my wife Becky passed it on to me. This confirms that the Holy Spirit was up to something big back then. I pass it on for your encouragement and as an incentive to pray that the Holy Spirit would do something big in our time and place.

Revival. This word makes Christians light up with excitement. Or roll their eyes with suspicion. Regardless of where you lean, might revival be something God’s people ought to pursue, not with frenzied pragmatism, but with chastened, prayerful hope?

There is, after all, a Reformed heritage of revival, Don Carson notes in a new roundtable video with TGC (The Gospel Coalition) co-founder Tim Keller. And revival for both men, it turns out, isn’t just something they’ve heard or read about. It’s something they’ve experienced.

Keller was converted in 1970 at a central Pennsylvanian college where the InterVarsity chapter experienced an unprecedented “awakening” that they soon realized was occurring on other campuses throughout the region. Likewise, Carson witnessed “a singular movement of the Lord” while pastoring in Canada around the same time. Almost two decades later, Keller witnessed in his first couple of years at Redeemer Presbyterian Church (1990–91) a reminder of what he experienced in college. “We grew to almost 1,000 people in about two years in the middle of Manhattan at a time when people were leaving the city because of a recession and high crime.”

Though Keller and Carson could both be described as “pro-revival,” they are clear about unique dangers that have historically attended outpourings of God’s Spirit. “There is the danger of domesticating, of packaging, that can often end up making it feel phony,” Carson observes. As Keller adds, “Some are attracted to the glitz, others just want the attention.” He cites Jonathan Edwards’s little-known Thoughts on Revival for a sober-minded reflection on the false experiences that sometimes attend revival because of human sin.

You can find this article and a video discussion between Tim Keller and Don Carson at: http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/keller-and-carson-on-revival.

Good stuff.

Chris Edwards

There’s a War On

In a recent Newsletter article, “The Good News of Low Participation,” I referenced a study from the Claremont School of Theology on why fewer people participate in a church today than did 20 years ago. Nine reasons were listed. An additional reason came to mind several nights ago while watching a movie about World War 1.

A soldier in the movie was knocked unconscious when a shell exploded nearby. When he woke up hours later in the darkness, he was alone. Around him lay dead horses and men among the smoldering debris, but he saw no signs of life and no sign of his unit.

What do you think this soldier did? Did he sling his rifle over his shoulder and casually stroll through the woods, whistling a happy tune, enjoying the night air and admiring the beauty of the starry sky? No! Holding his rifle at the ready, he found cover, and then immediately began looking for his comrades. His first priority was to find his unit. Why find his unit? He had to find his unit because he knew there was a war on. He knew survival depended on getting to his unit. Alone, he was in danger. The enemy wanted to kill him, capture him, or do him harm. Rejoining his unit was his first priority.

It occurred to me as I watched this that another reason for low participation in churches today is that many Christians don’t know that a war is on. They feel no need or urgency to join in close fellowship with other believers because they feel no danger. Instead, many of us have a peace-time mentality. We stroll through life, whistling a happy tune, and trying to enjoy the scenery. We don’t realize that Satan is at war with God, and since the believer belongs to God, we are Satan’s target. He hates us and wants to do us harm.

In the New Testament, we see this war “world-view.” For example, the apostle Peter urged his readers: “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour,” (1 Peter 5:8). The apostle Paul wrote, “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds,” (2 Corinthians 10:3,4) . He wrote the Ephesian Christians: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.… put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand,” (Ephesians 6:13). Paul writes Timothy, urging him to “Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs, but rather tries to please his commanding officer,” (2 Timothy 2:3). Latter, he encourages Timothy to “fight the good fight of faith,” (2 Timothy 4:7). The apostle John describes his vision of a warrior Jesus: “I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war… The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations,” (Revelation 19).

There is a war going on. Satan wants to devour God’s people. He wants to hold people captive in his dark power (Acts 26:18). He wants to defeat the mission of Jesus Christ. This war makes it dangerous to be separated from your unit. An isolated Christian is easy to deceive, easy to discourage, and easy to defeat.

However, there is safety in numbers. Together we can encourage one another, help one another, and pray for one another. We can help each other to recognize and stand against the “devil’s schemes.” Together we can fend off “all the flaming arrows of the evil one.”

There is a war on. Life is dangerous. We cannot survive and accomplish our mission in isolation. We need each other. We must stick with our fellow soldiers. We need the church.

Response to Responses

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true,” (Acts 17:11).

I preached two controversial sermons in March: “Ready When Sex Destroys” and “The Bible and Same-Sex Attractions.” Responses have been mixed.  Here are paraphrases of six responses:

  1. “Why did you preach on these divisive topics during Lent?”
  2. “It’s about time you preached on these subjects. It’s something we needed to hear.”
  3. “I knew what you were going to say, so I stayed home.”
  4. “Whatever.”
  5. “The Bible teaches lots of things we don’t believe anymore.”
  6.  “I think you’re wrong. The Bible can be interpreted in many different ways.”

With the exception of #1, I’ve heard responses like this to sermons on a variety of subjects over the years. That means someone was paying attention.   Let me respond to these responses.

Why did you preach on these divisive topics during Lent?” We are following the Bible Studies for Life curriculum, and these topics were next on the schedule. We had three choices: (1) skip them because they were controversial, (2) rearrange the schedule (is there ever a good time to address divisive issues?) and (3) stick with the schedule and take the heat.  We decided to go with the warm option.

It’s about time you preached on these subjects. It’s something we needed to hear?” Thank you.

I knew what you were going to say, so I stayed home.”  No comment.

“Whatever.”  No comment.

The Bible teaches lots of things we don’t believe anymore.” Let’s be careful with this. We dare not pick and choose from the Bible like a dinner buffet: “I’ll take a little of this, a little of that, but I’ll skip this stuff.”  And I’d like to hear some specifics. Are these things “we don’t believe anymore” clearly taught in the Bible or are they interpretations taught by some church or denomination? Are these things taught in the Bible, or are they simply described? For example, the Bible describes slavery as a reality in the ancient world but nowhere tells people to go out and have slaves. Also, the Bible acknowledges and describes conditions for divorce, but nowhere says divorce is a wonderful thing and anyone with desires to divorce ought to try it.

Yes, there are things taught in the Bible that no longer apply today, but we must all be careful lest we use this reality as a pretense for dismissing uncomfortable truths.  There are clear principles for determining what applies to today and what does not. To ignore these principles may just be an excuse to do what we feel like doing. We all must examine our hearts.

I think you’re wrong. The Bible can be interpreted in many different ways.”  Yes, I could be wrong, and true, people interpret parts of the Bible in different ways. Does this imply that no interpretation is correct or that all interpretations are equally valid?  Does this imply that any text in the Bible can mean whatever the reader wants it to mean?  Of course not.

The proper response to questionable preachers and multiple interpretations is modeled for us by the noble Bereans; they “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” These Bereans demonstrated a hunger for truth.  They knew God was truth, and they knew that God’s Spirit reveals his truth in Scripture.  They knew that the Scriptures had meaning and that they could discover that meaning.  Consequently, when they heard the Apostle Paul preach, and wondered if his interpretation of Scripture was correct, they examined the Scriptures; they studied hard to see if Paul’s message was the Scripture’s message, and therefore God’s message.  They didn’t let the possibility of multiple interpretations stop them from looking for the truth of Scripture.

Preachers never get everything right.  But when people disagree with a sermon and respond, “The Bible can be interpreted in many different ways” and when they offer no alternative interpretation of the text, and when they make no effort to actually read, study, and interpret the text, this response sounds like a way to avoid an uncomfortable truth.  It sounds like a rationalization. We all must examine our hearts.

How do we find God’s truth? Everyone has an opinion. The internet swamps us with masses of unfiltered information, data, and ideas.  How do we find truth? Many people today have quit trying (“Whatever”); they’ve decided to just go with their heart. That’s understandable. But the Lord has given two resources: the Scripture and his Spirit, and these two are always in harmony. The Spirit inspired the Scriptures, and the Spirit opens our minds to understand the Scriptures.  Let’s imitate those noble-minded Bereans and prayerfully search the Scriptures. It’s our only hope to find truth, and it’s the only way to keep those rascally preachers honest.

The Good News of Low Church Participation

People today are less interested in participating in a local church than they were 20 years ago.  A group of denominational leaders gathered at the Claremont School of Theology to explore the reasons. They came up with nine reasons why people today are less interested in participating in a local church.

  1. “People no longer believe that church attendance is socially necessary, that is, necessary for the social health and perhaps even the economic survival of individuals and their family…”
  2. “People no longer believe that church attendance provides the only or the most important means of establishing and maintaining a sufficiently strong connection with God.”
  3. People no longer join institutions. Participation in Boy Scouts, Kiwanis, etc. is also down. People spend their time with family and friends, use electronic entertainment, shop, or go online.
  4. The classic modes of church teaching–sermons, responsive readings, hymns– are no longer effective models of communication for Americans.
  5. Traditional churches geared their ministry to the family unit consisting of mom and dad and three kids. Fewer people today come from or live in such family units, and so they are less motivated to participate in churches with these assumptions.
  6. People no longer live in one place long enough to put down real roots. “When three generations of your family were hatched, matched, and dispatched in your local church, that was a pretty strong magnet to keep you involved.  Now families may move seven times or more before the kids leave for college.”
  7. There are fewer churches today, and since people today have fewer church options, it is harder for them to find a church where they feel they “fit.”  Churches must accommodate people with more diverse beliefs, values, and social identity. Since people are uncomfortable with diversity, they stay away from places where they must mingle with people who are not like them.
  8. People no longer view pastors as moral authorities in their communities. Christian theologians no longer have an influential role in the larger American culture.
  9. People no longer look to churches to be their platform for social and humanitarian contributions. Today, many institutions and charities give people the opportunity to donate time and money to people in need.

It’s easy to read this list and see only bad news.  But think again. If the nine items above are the reasons why people are not coming to church today, then they also indicate the reasons why many people came to church in the past.  For example, many people participated in a local church because of the social advantages (1), or because they were “joiners” (3), or because they wanted to help people in need (9), or because they wanted to be good moral Americans (8), or because it was a family tradition (6).  Maybe in the good old days, churches were more full because more people were there for lots of wrong reasons.

Consider these words to the church of the first century: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light,” (1 Peter 2:9).

Maybe we are entering a new time in American history when the only real motivation for people to participate in a local church is because they know Jesus has called them out of darkness into his wonderful light, because they know Jesus has incorporated them into his chosen people, made them part of a royal priesthood and his holy kingdom, and because they know Jesus calls them to declare his praises into a dark world.

Maybe the American church is being pruned. Pruning is painful, but necessary. Pruned trees bear more good fruit.

Maybe it’s time to give up on the good old days and get serious about being Jesus’ disciples in this new era, time to quit assuming  people will just show up on Sunday morning, time for us to pray, time for us to put aside any embarrassment about the Gospel, time for us to talk up that Gospel.

Maybe the bad news of low church participation is really good news. Maybe through this pruning we can become more like the church Jesus intended.

– Pastor Chris

The Vision Thing

 

A question was asked toward the end of the congregational meeting in January. The same question was asked on two separate occasions by two “stewardship” consultants, each from different companies, both interviewed as part of an exploration into retiring our mortgage with a capital campaign. The question: What is our vision for Northampton Presbyterian Church?  Both consultants discouraged us from launching a capital campaign until we could define a “compelling vision” for NPC, a vision attractive enough to inspire sacrificial financial support from the congregation.  Since we had no such compelling vision, the Session tabled the campaign.

The Session decided at our last meeting to give serious attention to the vision thing.  All agreed that our ministry together needs focus and energy.  We need a compelling vision.  These are my preliminary thoughts.

The vision thing originated in the business world. A vision sets the direction for an organization, describing where an organization wants to go, how it intends to get there, and why the destination is important.  A clear vision helps keep an organization focused and people motivated.

The church is not a business, so we go about the vision thing differently.  The big difference is the source of the vision. For the church, the vision is discovered not created.  Since the Church is created, owned and operated by Jesus Christ, Christians look to Jesus in order to discover his vision for them.  Since the church belongs to him, since he bought it with his blood, we have an obligation to discover his vision, not create one ourselves.

We need look no further than the Scriptures to discover God’s vision for NPC.  Jesus said, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age,” (Matthew 28:19:20).  The vision for any Christian congregation begins with this commission.  Our primary task is to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

Disciples are devoted followers of Jesus.  And they live out their devotion to Christ in the fellowship of other disciples; they are “baptized” into this fellowship. A disciple (literally, a “learner”) worships, learns from and follows Jesus in all aspects of life.  Disciples reproduce themselves; they help others live as disciples of Jesus.  God’s vision for NPC is that we would be a congregation of disciples who are helping others become disciples.

We know this.  But congregations and their pastors get distracted and side tracked by other concerns, like running the programs, maintaining the facilities, or filling the committees.  In their book The Trellis and the Vine, co-authors Colin Marshall and Tony Payne describe the ministry of discipleship as a vine and describe the supporting institutional structures as a trellis.  They argue that many congregations exhaust themselves maintaining the trellis to the neglect of the vine. Churches become pre-occupied with organizational issues intended to support the ministry of discipleship and lose sight of the goal of making disciples.  Trellis work is important and necessary, but vine work, the work of helping people grow in discipleship, is the essential and primary work of the church.  The trellis serves the vine, not the reverse. 

God’s vision for NPC is that we would be a flourishing and fruitful vine, rooted in Jesus Christ, a vine that speaks the gospel of Jesus Christ to people near and far, inviting them into the discipleship life of Christ, a life of worship, trust, and joy.

Yes, NPC needs a fresh vision, we need focus and energy. The vision starts with discipleship.

– Pastor Chris

 

Be A Neighbor

October 23, 2011
Luke 10:25-37

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Go! I Am Sending You Out

October 16, 2011
Luke 10:1-21

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Your Calling

October 9, 2011
Luke 5:1-11

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Get with the Program

October 2, 2011
Luke 4:14-30

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Superior Wattage

September 25, 2011
John 1:23-37

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