Keeping Faith in Seasons of Church Decline
Growing up we used to sing –
Stand up, stand up for Jesus, ye soldiers of the cross;
Lift high His royal banner, it must not suffer loss.
From victory unto victory His army shall He lead,
Till every foe is vanquished, and Christ is Lord indeed.
We sang this hymn all the time in church when I was growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s, and it’s still in the hymnal (Chalice Hymnal – #613), but it’s been an awful long time since I can remember singing it.
Like most martial hymns, “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus” has fallen from grace. Wars and rumors of war have made it increasingly difficult to use military images to describe “the kingdom of love and light” that Christ, the “Prince of Peace” is ushering in. Even if you can make the case for it being a spiritually appropriate and theologically legitimate expression of Christian faith, hymns like “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus” still have to be explained, and that takes a tremendous amount time and effort, and so it’s just easier to skip it and sing something else. I’m not saying that it’s right; I’m just saying that it is.
Beyond the moral sensibility and sensitivity issues that “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus” poses for some these days, there’s the equally perplexing question of its “fittedness” for our lived experience as a church. C.S. Lewis said that he always felt a certain dissonance when he stood up to recite the historic Creed with its lofty affirmation of the “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church” while looking around at the motley crew of his fellow worshippers in church on any given Sunday morning. It’s hard to wax eloquent about the church of Divine intention when the church of human reality is embodied in the truck driver sitting next to you in the pew who is in desperate need of a bath. The gap between theological ideal and that kind of lived reality can be dizzying, and I’m pretty sure that this is how many of us would feel singing “from victory unto victory His army shall He lead” on a Sunday morning in this era of church decline in North America (see “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” – http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/ ).
A more pertinent image for the church today might very well be that of the two witnesses in Revelation 11 –
And I will give power to my two witnesses, and they will be clothed in burlap and will prophesy during those 1,260 days. …When they complete their testimony, the beast that comes up out of the bottomless pit will declare war against them, and he will conquer them and kill them. And their bodies will lie in the main street of Jerusalem, the city that is figuratively called “Sodom” and “Egypt,” the city where their Lord was crucified. And for three and a half days, all peoples, tribes, languages, and nations will stare at their bodies. No one will be allowed to bury them. All the people who belong to this world will gloat over them and give presents to each other to celebrate the death of the two prophets… (11:3; 7-10)
Now, I understand that much of the book of Revelation reads like a spiritual Rorschach test. How people read it says as much about them as it does about the text, and that being the case, I can’t help but read what Revelation 11 says about the two witnesses lying dead in the street against the backdrop of the decline of the church in the west. Oh, I certainly get some encouragement from the fact that the two witnesses eventually get up again (11:11). But they’re dead and derided before that happens, and increasingly that’s what the present state of the church feel like to me.
These are real hard days for the church in the west. We are not moving “from victory unto victory.” I certainly cling to Jesus’ promise that the powers of hell will not conquer the church founded on the rock of His person and work as the Christ, the Son of the Living God (Matthew 16:17-18), and I truly believe that His light that shines in the darkness will not be overcome by that darkness (John 1:5). But I make those two affirmations fully and painfully cognizant of both the very real force of those powers and the very deep gloom of that darkness. Whoever those two witnesses in Revelation 11 are, they serve as timely reminders that the faithful witness of the church is never going to be easy or popular. The message of the Gospel will finally prevail and the people of God will be eventually be vindicated, but on our way to that future there will be times when the church will look, to all appearances, dead, and the world will be hosting victory dances over our grave. This isn’t the final word, but it is a timely word. So, what do we do in days like these? Well, I draw counsel and comfort from the observations of several folks who have been down this road before, or who are on it beside me right now.
First, there’s Martyn Lloyd-Jones, one of the giants of the 20th century pulpit, the pastor of London’s Westminster Chapel for 25 years. In his book Revival (1987), after noting that “it is obvious to us all that the Church is patently failing” and “that she does not count even as much as she did in the memory of many of us today” (9), the “Good Doctor” made this observation from church history –
If you look back across the history of the Christian Church, you immediately find that the story of the Church has not been a straight line, a level record of achievement. The history of the church has been a history of ups and downs… When you read the history of the past you find that there have been periods in the history of the Church when she has been full of life, and vigor, and power… And when you read of these tremendous periods of life and vigor and power, what you notice is that these glorious periods of revival and of re-awakening have often followed periods of great drought, great deadness, apathy and lifelessness in the history of the Church. In every case, as you find these great peaks, you will find the troughs. You will see that the Church has many times been as she is today, counting so little in the life of the world and of society; so lacking in life, and vigor, and power, and witness, and all that accompanies it. You will find that has happened many and many a time before. There has been the same desperate, urgent need as confronts us today. And then, after that, has come this mighty uplift, this outpouring of the Spirit of God. (26-27)
This is the first thing that I try to keep in mind and heart in seasons of church decline and difficulty, the church’s march to Zion does not unfold in a straight line. It zigs and it zags. It dips and it rises. It ebbs and it flows. And often, when to all appearances, the church looks lifeless, lying dead in the street, the Spirit suddenly shows up and gives new life to the valley of dead bones (Ezekiel 37:1-14). The history of the church shows us over and over how this happens, and reminds us that this is in fact how the church often makes her most dramatic advances, and it could certainly happen again, and so, we should be praying that it would.
“Revive your church, O Lord,” is a prayer that I was taught when I was a young Christian, and it ends with the phrase – “and begin with me.” And that just might be the best prayer for the revival of the church that I know. But as we pray for it, and long for it, let’s recommit ourselves to the ordinary course of the church’s life. Sure, the church makes huge strides in seasons of revival, and so we should prayerfully seek them. But the church operates most days by the ordinary means of grace, and so we must not neglect them.
Ian Stackhouse’s The Gospel-Driven Church (Paternoster Press – 2004) is one of the most important books on the church that I’ve read in the past 10 years. He is not unacquainted with the power of the Holy Spirit’s renewal. In fact, he has experienced it personally in his own life, and he desires it for the whole church. But he is highly critical of the way that so many of the churches he sees these days have abandoned the slow work of the ordinary means of grace that root and ground us in the finished work of Christ – prayer, Biblical preaching, the Lord’s Supper, and the fellowship of the church (Acts 2:42) – in anticipation of a revival brought about by other means, the latest fad and gimmick. He calls this the illusion of “alchemy” – believing that our rocks can be turned into pure gold – mystically, effortlessly, instantly. Without losing sight of the persistent possibility of Spirit-prompted and Gospel-serving revivals as a way that God periodically warp speeds His church into a new place, Ian Stackhouse leaves that to God and calls his readers instead to take up the steady and slow work of the church in days like these by means of prayer, proclamation and acts of compassion.
Of course I would welcome a fresh move of the Spirit of God blowing through the corridors of the church I serve, and the denomination of which it is a part, stirring us from lethargy to life. I want those two witnesses who are knocked down and knocked out to get up on their feet and start moving again (Revelation 11:3; 7-10). But I know that I don’t control this. That’s something only God can do. But that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing for me to do. I can pray. I can preach. I can break the bread and bless the cup of remembrance, presence and promise. I can gather with the faithful remnant to witness and serve. And because I know that the darkness will not overcome the light (John 1:5), that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the church that Christ is building (Matthew 16:18), I will not lose heart. DBS+