Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” — Matthew 9:37-38
Jesus calls us to participate in his mission to redeem sinners by prayer and action in Matthew 9:35-10:15. We are to pray to the Lord of the Harvest to send out laborers, and we are to participate in the harvest. Notice the following four points about Jesus’ life, ministry, and expectations for his disciples in this passage.
First, Jesus was actively involved in a ministry that demonstrated and exercised the power of his kingdom (9:35). He taught in the synagogues. He proclaimed the good news of his kingdom. And, he healed every disease and affliction.
Second, Jesus had compassion on the crowds of people who had gathered around him because they were harassed and helpless (9:36). They were weary, tired, exhausted, exposed, and dejected. Their leaders, who were supposed to care for them, had abandoned them, burdened them, and blamed them.
Third, Jesus relieved people’s burdens (9:35). He healed their afflictions in his grace and mercy. This healing, however, was not merely a physical one. Jesus proclaimed the good news of his kingdom while healing them of their diseases and afflictions. The outward healing illustrated the inner healing of the gospel in their lives.
Fourth, Jesus expects his disciples to have compassion on people as we participate in his ministry of relief (9:37-38). The harvest is plentiful. We need more laborers. And, the need is urgent.
Therefore, pray earnestly for laborers for the harvest (9:38). Pray for spiritual eyes and a compassionate heart so that you may see people as they really are and discern their needs (9:36). And, be prepared to be the answer to your prayer as you participate in the harvest by doing gospel ministry (9:35, 10:1-15).
“You’ve got to finish what you started.” is a sentence I have heard all my life from my coaches, teachers, and parents. I have a bad habit of not finishing the things I start. I start strong and then fade toward the end.
Recently, I made my way through J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy (a book I highly recommend btw). When I read the last page, I remember thinking, “Wow, I finished it.” Out of the many volumes in my library, this is one of the few that I’ve read all the way through. I tend to lose interest quickly. I don’t know why; I just do.
While struggling to finish a book is trivial, finishing other things – like our journey of faith in Christ – is not. Repeatedly, the Bible tells us that we have to finish our lives in faith with Christ. We have to persevere in faith. We have to remain steadfast in our faith. We have to walk in repentance and faithful obedience in order to receive our reward at the end. Paul instructs us to “remain steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58).
So, let me encourage you to press on in faith. Make sure you are committed to finish what you started because finishing matters. May the Lord bless you richly in his grace by strengthening you in your faith.
In 1986, the late pastor James Montgomery Boice wrote, “There is a fatal defect in the life of Christ’s church in the twentieth century: a lack of true discipleship. Discipleship means forsaking everything to follow Christ. But for many of today’s supposed Christians – perhaps the majority – it is the case that while there is much talk about Christ and even much furious activity, there is actually very little following of Christ Himself. And that means in some circles there is very little genuine Christianity. Many who fervently call Him ‘Lord, Lord’ are not Christians [at all]” (Matt. 7:21).
Sadly, I think Boice’s assessment of general evangelical Christianity is as true today as it was 30 years ago. I’ve seen it in my own life. I talk a lot (as you know) about Christ and am consumed with furious activity. However, I’ve recently been convicted of how little time, energy, and emotional resources I spend actually following Jesus – going where he went, doing what he did, thinking how he thought, loving as he loved. I wondered if you are the same way.
Therefore, I have decided to focus our teaching and preaching time along with the rest of our congregational life on growing as active disciples of the Lord Jesus. You will hear a lot about discipleship as a whole and the five elements that make up our active pursuit of Christ: obedience, repentance, submission, commitment, and perseverance, in particular. By God’s grace, I pray we will end 2018 with a greater desire to forsake everything to follow Jesus.
May 2018 will be a wonderful Christ-centered year for you and your family!
H.A. Ironsides, in his sermon on Psalm 33, defines worship simply as adoration: worship is the soul’s adoration of God Himself. All of the things we do in worship are meant to assist us in adoring God, but none of those things are actually worship. We worship God when we adore him for who he is. Period.
Like any great song book, the Psalms have an order. It is:
The order is as divinely inspired as the hymns. As we read the Psalms, we often see the flow of thought from one psalm to the next. This is certainly the case with Psalms 32 and 33.
Forgiveness Leads to Worship
Psalm 32 is primarily about confessing sin and the gracious forgiveness that God offers to us. David is consumed by the effects of his sin, which he feels in the very core of his being. He suffers spiritually and physically. He confessed his sin before God and found joy in the blessed forgiveness of God. And the psalm concludes with verse 11.
Now, we begin Psalm 33 with these words:
Do you see the connection there? I hope so. Psalm 32 ends with a call to shout for joy and Psalm 33 begins with the same call. It is as if the psalms were ordered to flow after one another. They were.
We have a variety of ways that we think about worship.
All of these things assist our worship, but are they worship? No. H.A. Ironsides, in his sermon on Psalm 33, defines worship simply as adoration: worship is the soul’s adoration of God Himself. All of the things we do in worship are meant to assist us in adoring God, but none of those things are actually worship. We worship God when we adore him for who he is. Period. Ironside continues:
“It is occupation not with His gifts, not coming to Him to receives something, but occupation with the Giver; the heart going out in gratitude not only for what He has done for us but also what He is in Himself.”
This is true worship. We adore God for who He is.
Let me ask you: Can your worship of God be defined in this way? Do you come before Him simply to adore Him for who He is? Or, do you come to get something from Him? Do you do your devotions into order to ensure that you will continue to get your blessing from him?
I’m convicted. Maybe you are as well.
Why Do We Adore Him?
The Psalm gives us four reasons the Psalmist gives for adoring God. They are:
Jesus is the Word of God.
This all points to Jesus. He is the Word in the flesh. He is the creator. He is the king. He is our salvation. He is love. The word of God is central to this Psalm.
The Apostle Paul sums the point well.
The number of Americans not affiliated with Christian Churches is rising, and the Christian Church’s influence in our society is declining. This reality gives many Christians, myself included, a great sense of burden for non-Christians and for the future of the Christian Church, which we dearly love.
What can we do? The best thing we can do, out of the many possibilities, is to plant more Christ-centered churches. Planting new, biblical, Christ-centered, and confessional churches is the most effective way to impact the lost world for Christ. Period.
I have experienced this first hand over the past 4 years as I have overseen the church planting and revitalization efforts of Catawba Presbytery of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARPC). God has worked mightily and wonderfully in our church plants.
As the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church moves into the future, we must view our church planting efforts as intentional missionary endeavors of the denomination and our presbyteries. To do that, we must make the following three commitments.
1. We must commit to planting more churches.
Tim Keller has written, “The vigorous, continual planting of new congregations is the single most crucial strategy for (1) the numerical growth of the body of Christ in a city and (2) the continual corporate renewal and revival of the existing churches in a city. Nothing else — not crusades, outreach programs, para-church ministries, growing mega-churches, congregation consulting, nor church renewal processes — will have the consistent impact of dynamic, extensive church planting.”
He’s right. New and reclaimed Christians are often better served by new congregations because, unlike older, established ones, they do not have long-standing traditions, leadership and social structures, and other baggage that must be adopted, broken into, or carried. Additionally, new churches can think creatively about ministering to our diverse and transient society more so than established, mature congregations can. Research bears this out, indicating that 60-80% of attendees of church plants do not have any affiliation with other Christian congregations.
2. We must commit to viewing our church planters as missionaries.
Our church planters are missionaries, and they are planting in a “foreign” culture, full of idols with constantly changing norms. This is true even though their mission field oftentimes is within a 30-minute drive of our existing congregations. Planters must learn how to effectively communicate the gospel, the essence of the church, and the principles of the faith in a complex and changing environment. This takes time, and time takes a long-term financial commitment from those who support them.
3. We must commit to rethinking the timeline and funding paradigm for our church planters.
Our (ARPC) current funding paradigm was designed for a time when Christianity was the dominant influence in general culture. The social, political, moral, and intellectual landscape has changed drastically in the last 15 years, leaving Christianity to be simply one of the many voices being heard around the table of American religious and public life. Therefore, we can’t expect our planters to plant on the same timeline and have the same financial expectations now as they did in the early 2000s.
Presbyteries and the General Synod through Outreach North America should continue to support church planters financially with a lump sum to be disbursed over a period of 3-5 years. In addition, local congregations and individuals should be strongly encouraged to partner with the planters’ efforts by making long-term commitments to pray for and financially support our planters in much the same way as they partner with missionaries in foreign countries.
Furthermore, we must consider the church planting model that the planter has chosen and the context in which he will be planting when developing a timeline for his church plant. For instance, a church planter planting among the rural poor should take longer to develop solid leaders and become financially solvent than a planter planting among highly educated, upwardly mobile suburbanites. Any timeline that disregards these realities will be insufficient.
Christ will be faithful.
We plant churches expecting that Christ will be faithful to bless the work of his people as we go into the world and make disciples of all nations. Making disciples cannot be done completely apart from planting new churches. May we go forward and plant many churches for Christ’s glory, trusting him in his sovereignty.
 “Why Plant Churches,” Redeemer PCA, http://download.redeemer.com/pdf/learn/resources/Why_Plant_Churches-Keller.pdf
Here are a few thoughts on praying the Lord’s Prayer from Bishop JC Ryle. I shared these with our congregation last Wednesday evening as we prayed our way through the prayer. Take a moment to read them and then pray through the prayer the Jesus taught us to pray.
Petition 1: Hallowed Be Thy Name
The [first petition] is a petition respecting God’s name: “Hallowed be thy name.” By the “name” of God we mean all those attributes under which He is revealed to us, — His power, wisdom, holiness, justice, mercy, and truth. By asking that they may be “hallowed,” we mean that they may be made known and glorified. The glory of God is the first thing that God’s children should desire.
Petition 2: Thy Kingdom Come
The [second petition] is a petition concerning God’s kingdom: “thy Kingdom come.” By His kingdom we mean first, the kingdom of grace which God sets up and maintains in the hearts of all living members of Christ, by His Spirit and word. But we mean chiefly, the kingdom of glory which shall one day be set up, when Jesus shall come the second time, and “all men shall know Him from the least to the greatest.” This is the time when sin, and sorrow, and Satan shall be cast out of the world. It is a time when the Jews shall be converted, and the fullness of the Gentiles shall come in, and a time that is above all things to be desired.
Petition 3: Thy Will Be Done on Earth as it is in Heaven
The [third petition] is a petition concerning God’s will: “thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven.” We here pray that God’s laws may be obeyed by men as perfectly, readily, and unceasingly, as they are by angels in heaven. We ask that those who now obey not His laws, may be taught to obey them, and that those who do obey them, may obey them better. Our truest happiness is perfect submission to God’s will, and it is the highest charity to pray that all mankind may know it, obey it, and submit to it.
Petition 4: Give Us This Day our Daily Bread
The [fourth petition] is a petition respecting our own daily wants: “give us this day our daily bread.” We are here taught to acknowledge our entire dependence on God, for the supply of our daily necessities. As Israel required daily manna, so we require daily “bread.” We confess that we are poor, weak, wanting creatures, and beseech Him who is our Maker to take care of us.
Petition 5: Forgive Us Our Debts
The [fifth petition] is a petition respecting our sins: “Forgive us our debts.” We confess that we are sinners, and need daily grants of pardon and forgiveness. This is a part of the Lord’s prayer which deserves especially to be remembered. It condemns all self-righteousness and self-justifying. We are instructed here to keep up a continual habit of confession at the throne of grace, and a continual habit of seeking mercy and remission.
Petition 6: Forgive us Our Debts, as we Forgive Our Debtors
The [sixth petition] is a profession respecting our own feelings towards others: we ask our Father to “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” This is the only profession in the whole prayer, and the only part on which our Lord comments and dwells, when He has concluded the prayer. The plain object of it is, to remind us that we must not expect our prayers for forgiveness to be heard, if we pray with malice and spite in our hearts. To pray in such a frame of mind is mere formality and hypocrisy.
Petition 7: Lead Us Not Into Temptation
The [seventh petition] is a petition respecting our weakness: “lead us not into temptation.” It teaches us that we are liable, at all times, to be led astray, and fall. It instructs us to confess our infirmity, and beseech God to hold us up, and not allow us to run into sin.
Petition 8: Deliver Us From Evil
The [eighth petition] is a petition respecting our dangers: “deliver us from evil.” We are here taught to ask God to deliver us from the evil that is in the world, the evil that is within our own hearts, and not least from the evil one, the devil. We confess that, so long as we are in the body, we are constantly seeing, hearing, and feeling the presence of evil. It is about us, and within us, and around us on every side. And we entreat Him, who alone can preserve us, to be continually delivering us from its power.
One of the aspects of my job that I never thought I would enjoy as much as I do is reading. I read a lot. I read for sermon prep. I read for Bible Studies. I read for ministry vision. I read to understand what’s going on in this world. And, I read for personal enjoyment and edification.
My reading takes me through the centuries of Christian history all at one time. One of the things that I’ve noticed is that the devotional emphasis of the authors from different centuries has changed. In earlier writings, there is an emphasis on enjoying communion with God through one’s relationships with God personally and with his people, the Church. Many modern authors, however, emphasize experiencing one’s relationship with God through activities of personal devotion and individual discipleship. They tell us that we need to pray more, tithe more, evangelize more, volunteer more, etc.
I think this modern emphasis on doing more things to enhance our experience of our personal relationship with God is a reflection of the contemporary understanding of Christianity. In my opinion, Christianity has become an adjective of our lives that describes the activities that we do rather than a noun that defines us. The more devout we are in participating in Christian activities (prayer, bible study, church, missions, evangelism outreaches, etc) means that we are more Christian than those who are less devout in those same activities. And, since devout equals Christian, we want to be more devout so that we can be more Christian (as if that’s possible). So, we readily accept the challenge to do more things for God, at least on the surface.
I find this to be exhausting. I can’t do everything that I keep reading modern Christian authors telling me that I need to be doing. You can’t either. This mindset creates an insane fury of activity in our lives that we can’t keep up.
The ancient authors, taking their cue from the Bible, offer a helpful reminder to us. Christian is not something (or many things) that we do; it is who we are in Christ. He’s done everything for us. We can’t improve upon his work. Therefore, we are to enjoy our secure life in him by enjoying our time with him and our relationship with his people. We glorify him by using the gifts he has given each of us to do what you can do to serve him in the context of our daily lives as we walk with his people. Then, we trust him to do the rest through the gifts and opportunities he has given to the other people in his church. In modern parlance, we are to “keep calm, and trust Jesus.”
I want to begin this post with a confession: I struggle with self-centeredness occasionally. Ok, you got me, I struggle with it a lot. That should come as no surprise to you or anyone else reading this post. You know that I am no different than you and are well aware that we both struggle with self-centeredness. Like the Apostle Paul, we fight the fleshly temptation to honor ourselves rather than God (Rom. 7:15-19). This is true for us even after our hearts have been transformed by the gospel of grace in Christ.
I don’t know about you, but my self-centeredness is periodically seen in my attitude before, during and after corporate worship. This was true before I became a pastor, and sadly it’s still true. (Shh, don’t tell anybody. Pastors are supposed to be super-spiritual.) There are times when I don’t want to get out of bed, don’t want to get dressed, don’t want be around people, don’t want to sing the selected songs, don’t want to lead the prayers, and certainly don’t want to preach the passage before me or hear it preached. Simply, on those days, I don’t want it to be about God; I want it to be about ME!
When I feel this way, I find myself drawing strength from the Spirit of God as he enables me to obey the command of God to remember the Sabbath day and to keep it holy. He provides me with the strength necessary to obey the will of God, not just the inspiration to be obedient. I believe that on those days this same Spirit also brings to my mind a biblical lesson about worship, which I learned as a young man by watching and listening to my dad (Big Rick) on Sundays.
Worship is about Jesus, not you.
Big Rick taught me that when we gather on Sunday with the church congregation we are worshipping Jesus, and Jesus alone. He is the one who was, the one who is and the one who is to come (Rev. 4:8). He is our creator, our Savior, our head, our peace, our hope, our king and our glory. He is the “image of the invisible God,” and the one in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col. 1:15-20). Without him, we are nothing but hopeless sinners without the hope of everlasting life. But, with him, we are children of the living God (John 1:1-13; 1 John 3:1-3). Without him, we do not know God. But, with him, we see God because he, “the only God, who is at the Father’s side,” has made him known to us (John 1:18).
This understanding of Jesus puts our self-centeredness into its proper perspective. It makes it seem pretty pathetic, doesn’t it? It’s insane to think that we can compete with the marvelous brilliance of the glory of Christ, the Creator of the world and the King of Glory. He commands the angels. His birth was announced by the angelic host. Not mine. Not yours. Not anybody else’s. He has given you and me the privilege to enter into his courts of praise and to stand in his presence in his grace (Ps. 100). Doesn’t he get to demand, then, what we do in worship and when we do it, regardless of whether or not you and I always like it? Yes, he does. So, ultimately, it’s really of question of who we worship, isn’t it? Are we going to worship Jesus or ourselves? Self-centeredness is nothing less than self-worship. Are we really going to say that we are more important than Jesus?
Through the years, I have learned that Christ-honoring Christians get out of bed, dress, go to church, sing the songs, pray the prayers and expectantly listen to the sermon each week solely because Jesus is worthy, not necessarily because they always want to do it. To them, it is Jesus who matters most. He is the one who deserves their praise. The same should be true for all of us who profess faith in Christ. He is the one who sits enthroned in the heavens. He is the one who gave himself for us. He is the one who will return to judge the living and the dead. He is the one who promised and secured our eternal destiny by his precious blood. If that doesn’t make you want to get up to worship him, then nothing will — no friends, no music, no preacher, no enticing atmosphere, no nothing. While friends and entertainments may draw us to worship for a while, they will not last. The only thing that will cause us to worship regularly is a heart devoted to the Lamb who is worthy to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing because he was slain for the sins of the world (Rev. 5:12).
On October 6, 2015 Rick Davis turned 66 years old. For 36 of his 66 years he has been my dad, and somewhere along the way he affectionally became known as Big Rick. He has a rich legacy as a man who has lived a consistent, principled and hard-working life of devotion to our Lord Jesus Christ. And so, I dedicate the next several posts to him. After all, he taught me most everything I know about being a man, about being a husband and about being a father.
Out of all the lessons that Big Rick has taught me, I believe the most important have to do with the proper way to worship our great God. The Bible clearly tells us that we were created to worship God and that worshipping him is the most important thing we will ever do. The Westminster Divines famously stated that our chief end as humans is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever” (WSC Q1). And, though I can’t remember Big Rick ever quoting that statement to me directly, he certainly believes it. His belief demanded — and still demands — that he and his family set aside the Lord’s Day as the day for the corporate worship of our Triune God.
Sunday is the Lord’s Day.
I was in seminary when I first read section 21.8 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, which states, “As it is of the law of nature, that, in general, a due proportion of time be set apart for the worship of God; so, in his word, by a positive, moral, and perpetual commandment, binding all men in all ages, he hath particularly appointed one day in seven for a Sabbath, to be kept holy unto him…” The Confession goes on to say that “the first day of the week, which in Scripture is called the Lord’s Day” is “the Christian Sabbath.” This language was fresh and new to me, but the concept wasn’t because Big Rick had instilled in me from a young age that Sunday is the Lord’s Day. Therefore, we worshipped the Lord on the Sunday. We devoted ourselves to him on that day. We ordered our family’s schedule to ensure that we were available to worship the Lord each Sunday.
I remember faking an illness one Sunday when I was about 11 or 12 years old because I didn’t want to go to church. I wanted to stay at home. I’m confident that Big Rick sensed that I was faking, yet he didn’t stand strong in opposition. He and my brother went on to church while my mom stayed home with me. Later that afternoon, my friend from up the street invited me to come play basketball with him and some of our other friends. I wanted to go. So, I got dressed, laced up my shoes and headed out the door. As I was leaving, Big Rick asked, “Where are you going?” I said, “I’m going to play basketball.” He responded, “No, you’re not. You’re sick.” I protested, “I’m better.” He said, “No, you’re not. You’re still sick. You were too sick to go to church this morning, and you haven’t gotten well enough to go play basketball.” I shot back, “But Dad…” He graciously replied, “Son, you need to understand that if you’re too sick to go to church, then you’re too sick to do anything else. That’s the rule in our house.” That was the end of the conversation. It was over. I was staying at home. Point made.
Sadly, that little episode will seem harsh to many in the Christian church today. It shouldn’t, but it will. I was not negatively effected by Big Rick’s rule on church attendance. In fact, the opposite is true. By refusing to let me go play basketball after I faked an illness to get out of worshipping the Lord, Big Rick made me realize that worship is important. It is a matter of obedience to our God who sits enthroned in heaven, who loves us, and who has drawn us to himself in his grace. It was a priority for our family. That was a lesson that I desperately needed to learn and one that helps shape to this day. (I also needed to learn that lying was wrong, but that’s for another post.) Worship is imperative for God’s people because God commands and deserves our worship. Sunday is his day.
We Need More.
I wish we had more fathers and mothers who made the corporate worship of our great, Triune God a priority with their families. We can say that our faith and worship is most important to us, but our actions speak louder than our words. Big Rick didn’t need to tell me repeatedly that Sunday at church was the axis around which our family rotated. He made it plain by his insistence on worshipping alongside of my mom, my brother and me each Sunday. I thank God for him and pray that he will give us more Big Ricks. If God answers that prayer, the Church will be much stronger. That’s a guarantee!
Thanksgiving is upon us, and Advent is on its heels. These two wonderful seasons bring great joy and thankfulness into our lives. This is always an exciting time of the year. As you prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving, Advent, and then Christmas, take a moment to pause and give thanks to the God who is good beyond measure to his people — to you and me. I read a devotional once that said the following, in regard to the part of the Lord’s prayer where we pray for daily bread:
“God is good. He is generous with His gifts. The Bible tells us that God sends His sun on the evil and the good and causes it to rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. God is so good that He freely gives animals, birds, fish, and people all that they need to live. He gives food and possessions even to people who never ask Him for them. So why should we include this things in our prayers? For one thing, although God generously gives many things to many people, He gives His promise to supply needs only to those who depend upon Him. Another reason to ask God for what we need is that asking shows that we know and worship God as the One who provides for His creatures.”
I would add a third reason to why we pray for daily bread. This prayer trains our hearts to be thankful to the God who graciously provided those things for which we asked. If we ask the Lord for the things needed to meet our daily needs, then we will be full of thanksgiving and gratitude when He gives them to us. So, as you sit down to partake of your Thanksgiving meal on Thursday, take a moment to thank God for the bounteous ways He has answered your prayer for daily bread throughout your life. I bet it will blow your mind. The bounty of food before you is only a representation of the bounty God has given you in Christ.
Also, by the following this link — ADVENT CALENDAR 2015 — you will find an Advent Calendar for you to use during the season of Advent, which begins on Sunday, November 29. The calendar is designed to help us fulfill our mission of “growing in Christ and witnessing to the World of his glory” in an intentional and practical way. Each day you will find a specific “action” for you to take either by yourself or with your family. The actions all fall under one of the four discipleship components of our congregation — worship, nurture (education), care for others, and gospel witness. My wife, Patti, and I developed the calendar for our family, and we offer it to you to use as well (please make it specific for your congregation and family). Advent is a time of preparation for the celebration of Christ’s birth. Participation in his mission is the best way to prepare.
May the Lord richly bless you in his grace. Happy Thanksgiving!
In an attempt to pen an anthem for change, Bob Dylan wrote, in 1969, “Come gather ’round people wherever you roam; and, admit that the waters around you have grown; and, accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone. If your time to you is worth savin’, then you better start swimmin’; or, you’ll sink like a stone for the times they are a-changin’.” He accomplished his goal. For over 4 decades those words have shaped peoples’ views on society — “The times they are a-changin’.”
For the Christian church in America, however, the times aren’t a-cahngin’; they have changed. We presently live in “post-Christian times.” That does not mean that there aren’t plenty of churches and many Christians in our country. Actually, the opposite is the case. We have one of the highest rates of churches per capita in the world, and we have more churches now than we’ve ever had in our history. And, though mainline Christian denominations have experienced decline in recent years, the number of evangelical Christians has steadily grown. This means that the Christian church, as a whole, is actually growing numerically. Yet, this growth can be misleading because other religions have steadily grown as well. America is more religiously diverse than ever.
This rise in religious diversity indicates that a a drastic shift in the prevailing influence on the mind and heart of our culture has occurred. Our social, political, moral, and intellectual landscape has changed, causing Christianity to no longer occupy a place of dominance. It is now just one of many voices being heard around the table of American religious and public life. This shift causes us to make a choice: We can romanticize the past, lament the change, refuse to accept it, and withdraw (even bitterly) from society. Or, we can accept the reality of the change and live our lives in the gospel in a way that ensures that our voices will be heard. You and I both know what the only biblical option is — to accept it and live so our voices are heard.
What has Happened?*
We have been overrun by barbarians. But, these contemporary barbarians are not like those who attacked ancient Rome and threatened its women and children with violence, or who stormed its borders and climbed its walls. They are far more civil, so civil that they are unrecognizable and have gained significant influence in our society and culture. Charles Colson explains:
“…[T]he invaders have come from within. We have bred them in our families and trained them in our classrooms. They inhabit our legislatures, our courts, our film studios, and our churches. Most of them are attractive and pleasant; their ideas are persuasive and subtle. Yet these men and women threaten our most cherished institutions and our very character as a people” (Colson, Against the Night, 23-24).
These new “non-threatening” barbarians see themselves as catalysts for building a better society — an inclusive society which they will build by making truth relative (relativism) and by elevating the rights of the individual (narcissism). This philosophy is nothing new. It is, however, more prevalent now than it has ever been in America, and it is leading to our demise, signaling “the death of a culture based on objective truth and civic virtue” (Ryken, City on a Hill, 18).
Simply put, relativism is the rejection of absolute truth, which leads to the opinion that reality itself depends upon one’s personal perspective. Reality adapts as each person finds what is true for him or her. Everyone has his or her own story, but there is no divinely ordained story that ties them all together. Thus, no one knows anything with objective certainty; it all depends on a particular point of view. A person’s worldview is only a matter of his or her opinion.
Because of its prevalence in all generations, relativism has had and continues to have tremendously negative effects in American culture and society. Perhaps the most troubling effects are seen in the areas of ethical and intellectual standards of science, law, medicine, and journalism, as well as the way our culture understands religion. At best, Christianity is just one of the many religious options for people, and, at worst, it is to be rejected because of its exclusive claims such as, “the Bible is God’s authoritative Word” or “Jesus Christ is the only Savior.”
Narcissism is radical individualism and/or an infatuation with oneself. Though there has always been a general narcissistic tendency in human culture because of human sinfulness, contemporary American culture has taken it to a new level by removing the constraints of an objective reality built upon objective truth. We now live in a time of unbridled individualism. Such an individualism, which emphasizes self-love, is quickly becoming a foundational virtue of American culture.
As is the case with relativism, narcissism effects the majority of Americans, not just the younger generations. And, the toll it is taking on our culture is equally pronounced. When people make value judgements and decisions regarding their behavior on the basis of self-love, they feel justified to do whatever is in their self-interest, without respect to their spouses, children, co-workers, and neighbors. This leads to the development of a consumer culture full of takers and critics, not givers and creators. Our culture is devoid, for the most part, of any notion of self-sacrifice, so even the simplest of tasks that require cooperation have become increasingly difficult.
As ancient Nineveh was, America is filled with people who do not know their right hand from their left (Jonah 4:11). They do not know what is true (if anything is true) and they are unable to do what is right, just and good. Essentially, they do what is right in their own eyes (Judges 21:25). And, we should not be surprised at this. Intellectual skepticism quickly leads to moral relativism because the standard of truth upon which morals are built is eroded by our skeptical presuppositions. People feel, therefore, alienated and abandoned because they are unable to connect to loving and living communities. Their skepticism causes doubt regarding the possibility of love and romance, not to mention marriage and family. Consequently, we live in a time when people are skeptical about the possibility of truth and serve themselves, causing them to be hesitant to engage and connect with other people.
What is Our Response to the Shift?
As I mentioned earlier, our only biblically acceptable response to this cultural shift is to accept it and to commit to living our lives in the gospel in such a way as to ensure that our voices are being heard. That means that with respect to the evangelical Christian Church we are to resist the temptation to think that we need to either: find a new way of “doing” church or to become more set in our traditional way of “doing” it. On one hand, we want to be relevant so that we are able to engage the people we have been called to reach for Christ. On the other hand, we don’t want to be so relevant that we do away with the distinctions that make us a church. We have to find that proper balance between these two extremes.
The Acts 2 Balance
The earliest Christians lived and breathed in times that were very similar to ours. They were certainly no strangers to relativism and narcissism. They also suffered from another deadly “ism,” syncretism, which wreaked havoc on their spiritual and religious climate. Yet, they found their balance and we are to learn from them.
Acts 2:42-47 gives us a remarkable description of how they built their church on the Lord Jesus in such a way as to have a tremendous impact in their world. This description also sheds light on their congregational and ministry priorities in the way that it reports the congregation’s activities. They devoted themselves to “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (vs. 42), and they involved themselves in ministries of mercy, generosity, and outreach.
A Brief Discussion of the Essential Components
If we were to break each of those congregational priorities and activities found in Acts 2:42-47 down in detail, it would take pages upon pages to complete. And, that is NOT my desire! I want to give you a brief overview of, what I believe are, the essential components of the early church’s life. These are the things that must be emulated if we are to be faithful and effective in the 21st century. The Bible and our culture demands a church that is focused on worship, community, service and outreach.
Keep Plugging Along
As our culture continues its downward trajectory, our biblical responsibility is to continue doing things that we have always done, which are: standing strong on the Bible and the gospel and involving ourselves in worship, nurture, service and outreach. I am confident that we will experience organic and sustained spiritual and numerical growth as we maintain our biblical focus. We will also find that what God has given in the church is exactly what the post-Christian culture needs.
Therefore, congregations are to renew their commitment to being a congregation that exists to glorify God by developing mature, worshipping disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ for the advancement of His Kingdom to the ends of the earth. May God bless us and make us more devoted disciples of Christ personally and establish our congregations firmly as congregations devoted to “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).
*My line of reasoning originated while reading Phil Ryken’s book, City on a Hill