083 Preaching, Prayer, Faithful Churches

Roy Clements, says Ravi Zacharias, “is one of the finest biblical expositors of our time.” This is evident in his recently published Faithful Living in a Faithless World (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, c. 1997. Clements pastors the Eden Baptist Church in Cambridge, England, and this book contains a series of sermons preached, expounding the books of Ezekiel and Daniel. He writes persuaded that we’re in a “relentless slide back into pagan superstition” as the West casts aside her Christian moorings. Carl Jung’s prediction, uttered decades ago seems accurate: “‘We have plunged down a cataract of progress which sweeps us into the future with ever wilder violence the further it takes us from our roots'” (p. 159).

Given that reality, we’re called, as God’s people, Clements insists, to join Ezekiel as “watchmen,” faithfully standing at our posts, declaring the truth we behold, speaking out against the invaders who seek to destroy us and our kin. The sexual revolution, the church’s ethical and doctrinal laxity, the social and political problems of our nations, all illustrate a world savagely assaulted by the powers of evil. We’re tempted, understandably, to respond with anger or despair. But, Clements says, “What God seeks are people who express their dissent and their moral outrage, not by sanctimonious prudery but by an agonizing sorrow of heart” (p. 37). Still more: “We shall not be judged solely on whether we have personally participated in sin but also on how we have responded to sin in our social environment” (p. 37).

Then we’re also called to restore correct doctrine to the churches–to expose and reject false prophets. “Christianity is bound to be a controversial religion. We must not draw back from polemical debate when necessary; we must not be afraid to contradict wrong doctrine. For all the pain this may cause, and for all our desire for unity, the lie has to be exposed as a lie” (p. 58). Heresies–positions chosen by individuals to suit their predilections–abound. Legions of trendy theologians perform like trapeze acrobats, exhibiting their “originality” and “creativity.” To advance daring hypotheses gains plaudits and professional prestige in academic circles. But, Clements insists, “We have no right whatsoever to any religious opinions. That is precisely the sin forbidden in the second commandment, ‘You shall not make for yourself an idol’ (Ex 20:4). It is the hallmark of idolaters that they choose what sort of God to believe in” (p. 52). We must, heeding Ezekiel’s message, forever remember that theology “is a science, not an art. Those who fail to understand this fact sin with their intellects as seriously as adulterers sin with their bodies” (p. 52).

Turning to Daniel, we find a prophet who challenges us to live courageously. All too many of us in the West have succumbed to apathy, indolence, indifference. “The tragedy of modern Westerners is that we have run out of things we are prepared to die for. That is disastrous, because those who have nothing to die for have nothing to live for” (p. 95). Daniel demonstrably had something to live for–and he was willing to die for it! He sought to obey God rather than man, and “the law of his God” undergirded all his activities. That “law” coincides with the “natural law,” which Clements notes has, like the steam engine locomotive, been largely eclipsed during this century. In Nazi Germany “positive law “quickly replaced the natural law, and the same transition is evident today in Western democracies such as Clements’ England.

“Godly governments,” he says, “are not godly by virtue of the way they are appointed but by virtue of the way they perceive their own authority. A godly government is one that perceives itself as accountable to the higher law. It is when the state no longer regards itself in that light that Christian protest is vital. Christian defiance of the state is never in the name of the sovereignty of the people, that cruelest of all tyrannies. It is in the name of the sovereignty of God that the Christian must sometimes say no” (p. 114). The days ahead may demand Daniels!

Faithful Living in a Faithless World provides solid substance for devotion and spiritual growth. It’s filled with glowing insights into both Scripture and contemporary culture. Clements’ expositions provide marvelous illustrations of strong biblical preaching–and how it can become pointedly alive and pertinent today’s issues. To take Ezekiel and make him live in the ’90’s, to show how Daniel’s example should guide us all as citizens as well as believers, makes these sermons models worth following in the pulpit.

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Jim Cymbala began pastoring the Brooklyn Tabernacle 25 years ago. He took a struggling inner-city congregation, and under his leadership it has become one of America’s most dynamic churches. His wife’s musical gifts, evident in the church’s choir, has attracted and influenced growing numbers of believers. He tells the story in Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire: What Happens When God’s Spirit Invades the Heart of His People (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, c. 1997). My thanks to Wil and Polly Spaite for the gift of this book!

Cymbala hadn’t planned to pastor and accepted the charge in Brooklyn because his father-in-law pressured him to do so. The tiny congregation had few resources and fewer prospects. In his initial efforts, nothing worked. Finally, in desperation, he sought the Lord in prayer, and he heard these words: “If you and your wife will lead my people to pray and call upon my name, you will never lack for something fresh to preach. I will supply all the money that’s needed, both for the church and for your family, and you will never have a building large enough to contain the crowds I will send in response” (p. 25).

Consequently, he decided to make the prayer meeting the church’s central concern. Tuesday night prayer meetings, rather than Sunday morning worship services, shape the congregation’s development and sustain its energies. He discovered the truth of Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s assertion: “‘The condition of the church may be very accurately gauged by its prayer meetings. So is the prayer meeting a grace-ometer, and from it we may judge of the amount of divine working among a people. If God be near a church, it must pray. And if he be not there, one of the first tokens of his absence will be a slothfulness in prayer'” (p. 28). Staying focused on God, primarily looking upward rather than outward or inward, the Brooklyn Tabernacle has flourished.

In an evangelical world filled with church-growth models, studded with gifted preachers who almost singularly stress effective communication and seeker-friendly marketing, Cymbala insists the church must forever be primarily a place of prayer. Jesus never called for a “house of music,” nor did his followers launch the Christian Church with a preaching crusade. “It is fine to explain about God, but far too few people today are experiencing the living Christ in their lives. We are not seeing God’s visitation in our gatherings” (p. 151). So “The teaching of sound doctrine is a prelude, if you will, to the supernatural. It is also a guide, a set of boundaries to keep emotion and exuberance within proper channels” (p. 151). By biblical precepts and contemporary examples he urges us to get back to the true source of our strength: waiting on God.

Cymbala’s book deserves much reading, reflection, prayer. He reminds us that the church is ultimately God’s, not ours. As such, we must seek His blessing and guidance if we’re to be what He desires.

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Sharing Cymbala’s concern for prayer, David Bryant, the founder and president of Concerts of Prayer International, urges all of us to join him in The Hope at Hand: National and World Revival for the 21st Century (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, c. 1995). As he studies the Church, world-wide, he’s encouraged, for “truly the most hopeful sign of our times” (p. 15) is the increased prayerfulness of believers. Consequently, “The thesis of my book is that the twenty-first century will be an age of great hope because it will be an age of world revival in the church” (p. 16). And this will come about, largely, through prayer.

Looking to the past, Bryant documents the power of prayer, preceding and underlying the great revivals in Church history. What’s happened before can happen again. Looking ahead, he mainly focuses on biblical promises and expositors’ expectations as a basis for hope. Despite many problems, despite the pessimism which reigns in many circles, Bryant insists God’s people must look ahead with confidence.

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Ken Hutcherson pastors the Antioch Bible Church in Bellevue, Washington, one of the mega-churches in the Northwest. A former NFL linebacker, he brings the energy and commitment of his earlier vocation to the pastorate and explains how he approaches his task in The Church: What We Are Meant to Be (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Books, c. 1998). In a series of sermons rooted the book of Acts, he pursues this question: “So tell us, Hutch . . . why has the church become so weak and anemic today?”

In successive chapters Hutcherson answers that question thusly Because : “We Aren’t Filled with the Spirit;” “We Aren’t in the Word;” “We Expect Church to be ‘Comfortable;'” “We Aren’t Using Our Gifts;” “We’re Afraid of Persecution;” “We’re Bogged Down by Murmuring;” “We’re Afraid of Church Discipline;” and “We Aren’t Following the Biblical Pattern.” The chapter titles rather accurately reveal the book’s contents, calling believers to a robust, strenuous commitment to the Lordship of Jesus and His Body, the Church.

Hutcherson has a gift of taking texts and illustrating their meaning. He clearly seeks to exegete and expound the truth contained in Scripture. Yet he also exudes excitement and engages readers in the challenge of discipleship. We who preach can learn much from reading how Hutcherson preaches! And many churches need to hear what he preaches as well as how he does it! For he insists that much that’s wrong these days stems from the pabulum proclaimed in too many pulpits. He demands a deeply ethical dimension to the faith, a courageous commitment to the will of God as part of authentic Christian living, and there must be decisive church discipline when alleged “believers” fail to live out their claims.

Easy to read, encouraging in its upbeat attitude, challenging and convicting in its emphases, The Church is well worth the reading!

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Leonard Sweet, Dean of the Theological School, Drew University, sets forth his agenda for the Church in 11 Genetic Gateways to Spiritual Awakening (Nashville: Abingdon Press, c. 1998). Basically, he urges Methodists to first rediscover their roots in the work of Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke, and then to hop on the cutting age of computer technology in evangelizing the world today. In the Methodist genes, he insists, one finds ample reason to look optimistically into the 21st century. As Andre Malraux noted, “The third millennium must be a spiritual millennium or there will be no third millenium” (p. 27).

We’ve just entered an important transitional era. What’s shaped the past 200 years will no longer dominate things in coming decades. Something is dying. But something, hopefully better, is birthing. So, Sweet says, “This book is my attempt to repossess the Wesleyan heritage for the new world, to make its soul fresh and singable again among a rising generation, and in a deeper repossession to harness its energies once more for the day in which we live” (p. 15). He acknowledges that all’s not well with Methodism. Indeed his denomination has “suffered a 48 percent loss in our market share in the past half century” (p. 16). Few Protestant churches have slipped so precipitously! So it’s time to get back to the basics which enabled early Methodists to become the largest denomination in the country a century ago.

Sweet especially emphasizes the importance of education. Early Methodists, stamped by the scholarly John Wesley, always insisted their preachers and people read, study, think, and teach. When asked how ministers should prepare, he once said “that one question every minister should ask himself is ‘Have I mastered Gravesande, Keill, Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia with his “Theory of Light and Colours”? In order thereto have I laid on some stock of mathematical knowledge?'” (p. 128). In the oft-quoted lines of Charles Wesley, Methodists sought to: “Unite the pair so long disjoin’d, / Knowledge and vital piety; / Learning and holiness combin’d, / And truth and love let all men see” (p. 42). Early American Methodists established Kingswood School almost as soon as they finished Barratt Chapel. To Wesleyans, Sweet argues, “learning may be more central to a spiritual awakening than worship” (p. 44). Today, he thinks, education needs to be expanded via the Internet–indeed, “Our leaders must come to see themselves as electronic circuit riders” (p. 125).

Furthermore, disciples, not simple believers, are the fruits of authentic Methodist endeavors. Discipleship occurs best in small groups–cells–another Wesleyan distinctive which needs to be recovered. To be held accountable, to grow in grace through study and prayer, to reach out to meet the needs of one’s community, the small group organization has proved immensely effective. It needs to be restored to the central position it enjoyed under early Methodists. Christians are “team players,” not soloists of distinction and acclaim. Multiple ministers better serve a congregation of believers than a solitary pastor, so itinerant preachers as well as lay leadership in various areas must be stressed.

Sweet also thinks Methodists should capitalize on ecological and health-oriented positions which naturally flourish in their tradition. The “holiness gene” of Wesleyanism should lead to wholesome lifestyles, uplifting social movements. Above all, holiness means love, or “LovePerfect Living” as Sweet labels the Wesleyan understanding of “Christian perfection.” Singing and praying, exuding a joy which proves contagious, they have the secret if only they can unleash its power.

Much can be learned reading this treatise, for Sweet is thoughtful and wraps his ideas in understandable packages. While reading the book, however, one cannot escape the suspicion that much whistling in the dark sustains the author.

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A more somber appraisal of Methodism comes from a veteran pastor and college president, Calvin B. Johnson, in Beyond the Point of No Return: The Blight and Plight of a Church That Loves to Shoot itself in the Foot (C.B. Johnson, Publisher, c. 1997). For 70 years, he says, “radical anti-Christian believers” have, via colleges and seminaries, denominational publishers and bureaucracies effectively torpedoed the church. Social concerns replaced personal salvation, and a genial attitude of “love” and tolerance replaced strongly ethical convictions.

“What we are talking about,” he says, “are preachers who deny the validity of the scripture, the authority of God’s Word, the credibility of the new birth, and the historicity of the Christian faith as expressed in the Bible and in the Apostles’ Creed. Such preachers, with such blasphemy, soon empty their churches of those who actually believe the Word of God” (p. 19). The great erosion began when the Bible was subjected to historical-critical methodology, made pervasive in Methodism through such widely-embraced publications as The Abingdon Bible Commentary and The Interpreters Bible.

Theologians, freed from the authority of Scripture and orthodox tradition, easily eliminated doctrines they found offensive (such as judgment and hell) or embarrassing to uphold in the scholarly guild. Methodist universities and seminaries became hothouses for heresies. “They hire professors who scoff at the Virgin Birth, ridicule the idea of the Second Personal Return of Christ, reduce the Bible to a human book, reduce Jesus to only a human being, get rid of the ideas of Sin, Hell, and Judgment, and some go so far as to deny the Resurrection” (p. 93). All such doctrines, so central to the Christian faith, became negotiable and increasingly dismissed. And they were programmatically nudged aside in Sunday school materials, books designed for teenagers, such as Workers With Youth, the most basic of instructional materials. Johnson amply documents such items, and the reader quickly grasps how anointed elites imposed their views by getting control of educational and bureaucratic agencies. Somberly, he says: “United Methodist higher education institutiones will have to take the major blame and responsibility for the decline of the church. Both the direct and peripheral influence of these schools have substantially negated the zeal for Bible study and evangelism in the church” (p. 107).

Johnson’s case is further confirmed by “An Invitation to the Church,” a document drafted in 1994 by William Canon, Maxie Dunnam, and Thomas Oden, and signed by nearly 100 concerned Methodist leaders. The document declared: “The United Methodist Church is at the crossroads. We face the peril of abandoning the Christian faith, thereby becoming unfaithful disciples of Jesus Christ, or we can embrace the promise of becoming God’s instrument in a new awakening of vital Christianity. The causes of the crisis are complete and multiple. However, we believe that the central cause is our abandonment of the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed in Scripture and asserted in the classic Christian tradition and historic ecumenical creeds. Specifically we have equivocated regarding the person of Jesus Christ and his atoning work as the unique Savior of the world. We have been distracted by false gospels, and compromised in our mission to declare the true gospel to all people and spread scriptural holiness. For the sake of the kingdom of God, it is now time for action'” (pp. 53-54).

Sharing this stance, Johnson provides readers a sorrowful, but passionate, jeremiad. He finds his own church deeply flawed, at points heretical, desperately in need of fundamental change. While he writes hoping to elicit a reformation, it sounds rather like a dirge for a dying denomination. What one can learn, however, if one reads Johnson patiently and empathetically, is how a once vigorous evangelical movement lost its focus, its mission, its raison d’etre.