I’ve been in the church my entire life—35 years and counting—mostly within the particular subculture of American evangelicalism. I’ve come to realize that so many Western churches are fighting an uphill battle against the cultural catechesis of distraction that we’ll grab any tool we can find to hammer some discipleship into our people. The only goal is to shift people from inaction to action, from inattention to attention, but the cost goes uncounted.
As we lurch from program to program, activity to activity, the real spiritual life of our local body lags. Fellowship among members slumps. Attendance drops. We pray for revival, for a vibrant, growing church, but the answers are slow in coming. Experience stacked on experience doesn’t seem to change the basic attitude of our people—that church is a sideline to the primary vision of their life. Christianity can become little more than an intermittent injection of piety or a low-dose anti-depressant to calm the conscience while we follow our familial, economic, or hedonistic dreams.As we lurch from program to program, activity to activity, the real spiritual life of our local body lags. Fellowship slumps. Attendance drops. We pray for revival, for a vibrant, growing church, but the answers are slow in coming. Click To Tweet
What is the way forward?
Bold Prayers for an Emboldened Church
Of course, we should pray. But not passive, weak prayers. The Apostle Paul, for instance, made plenty of bold asks, like this one from Ephesians 3:16-19:
“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”
But Paul isn’t pining for some disembodied, emotional experience of the truth of God. The terms of his prayer have content. To be “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” is supposed to result in the prolific obedience detailed in Ephesians 4-6: the unity of the church, speaking the truth in love, worship, gratitude, submitting to one another, faithful families, healthy work relationships, and a fully-armored church empowered to withstand whatever Satan throws at it. In short, the answer to Paul’s prayer is a community of faith that cares for all and proclaims the glory of Christ to all.
So what does a church in whom Christ is dwelling, a church rooted and established in love do on a daily basis? Some of Paul’s famous “command lists” in other letters provide an illuminating description, such as Romans 12:9-21 (NIV, emphasis added):
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.
Or these admonitions from 1 Thessalonians 5:12-22 (NIV, emphasis added)
And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else…Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil.
The Slow, Unglamorous Work of the Church
Meanwhile, in James, we find some stern warnings concerning our prayers:
“But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do…. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 1:6-8; 4:3).
Taken together, these teachings ask us to consider the context for a flourishing spiritual life.
The Scriptures connect a deep relationship with Christ with a long-suffering and unselfish community life. The call of the church is often to the slow, unglamorous work of sin and forgiveness, listening and learning, sharing and serving. The work of Christ is accomplished not in the slickly produced event, but in the faithful giving and receiving of time, energy, and resources, especially among those the world would just as soon leave out of its metrics.The call of the church is often to the slow, unglamorous work of sin and forgiveness, listening and learning, sharing and serving. Click To Tweet
This church doesn’t have a growth strategy that will get you a speaking slot at a conference. It looks like a neighborhood church changing its service time so that late-shift workers nearby can come and worship while still getting enough rest. It might look like an after-school music time that provides a place for neighborhood kids until their parents get home from work. It is a middle-class family moving into a trailer park so that members of their church who live there aren’t lonely and forgotten. It is partnering with a neighborhood nonprofit to make sure that people coming out of an addiction recovery program have a supportive family to help keep them clean. It is a thousand unsung sacrifices and gifts, great and small.
Practicing the Presence of God
I recently came across these words from Scottish theologian Donald MacLeod:
The familiar words of the Great Commission of Matthew 28 are cast in the form of an ancient covenant. There is a preamble, ‘All authority is given to me in heaven and in earth.’ There is a stipulation, ‘Go, teach the nations.’ And there is a promise, ‘I am with you always’…. If we divorce the promise from the stipulation, there is no presence…It is the going church which alone enjoys the promise of the presence of God (A Faith to Live By, 131-132, emphasis added).
A true revival is not some drummed-up experience, but the stirring of the forgiven people of God by his Spirit to the mundane work of inexplicable kindness toward one another. It is a call to the unsung way of loving our neighbors and blessing our enemies. The full measure of what God desires for his people goes beyond mere experiences. He desires us to be the “going church” in all the mundane ways expressed to us in Scripture, so that we can fully enjoy the promises of his presence. And this will be the kind of Christian community that leads to true, Spirit-led revitalization in our churches.