SUNDAY BEFORE LENT
The Next Revival
1 Corinthians 4.1 God in his mercy has given
us this work to do, and so we are not discouraged.
A nearby group of congregations
I know of is about to spend the equivalent of almost two million United
States dollars on a new building in the centre of a large city in
England. That may appear crazy. As it happens, their motivation is
service of the community in which they live. The building is, in effect,
a new social centre.
Their reasons could have been very different. Many
congregations worry about decline in numbers. It may not often be
mentioned. But it lurks in the background, rather as an ongoing illness
lurks in the mind of a sick person. One of the symptoms of this worry
tends to be a subconscious need to recruit new members. This need often
comes alive in the form of missionary activity. The two million of the
English congregations' money could have been spent on getting people
into the Church.
This is what Paul refers to in his first letter to the
Corinthian church. Moses, he reminded them, covered his face to hide
God's glory. In contrast, Christians remove the veil to "... reflect the
glory of the Lord" and so "... commend ourselves to everyone's good
conscience". Christian people take Jesus to those who are "... kept in
the dark by the evil god of this world". Paul's approach typifies his
motivation to, as he put it, "... preach Jesus the Messiah as Lord".
Only a few generations ago Christians were fired up about mission.
They piggy-backed on colonial expansion to bring the Gospel to heathens
and misguided religions. Even the great pioneering scientist Robert
Boyle was one such. He left money when he died to fund lectures "...
proving the Christian religion against notorious Infidels, to wit,
Atheists, Theists, Pagans, Jews, and Mohametans". His missionary motive
was based on the assumption that Christianity incorporates absolute
truth. It is therefore the final answer for everybody for ever.
Our times have changed drastically. The Church is no longer sewn
tightly into the garment of political and commercial expansion. Not only
that, but modern travel and communication has exposed many millions to
other cultures in a way nobody has ever known before. It is now plain to
those with eyes to see and ears to hear that being Christian doesn't
necessarily convey superiority, as missionaries once supposed.
A harsh truth has emerged. It is that people of other great religions
don't want to be Christian. They're quite happy with their own ways of
knowing God and relating to the world. Not only that, but a large
majority is content without religion at all. The realisation is, I
think, gradually dawning on many despondent Christians that they have
nothing to sell. People buy only what they need or want. Christians who
hope to bring to others "... the knowledge of God's glory shining in the
face of Christ" are not needed or wanted.
That's why the motivation of the congregations mentioned above makes
sense. They have had the grace to affirm what Jesus advised. "If any of
you want to be something," he said, "then you should aim at being a
servant." Their investment is wise and will bear fruit because it serves
the community rather than preaching at it. Somebody asked recently why
the Church promotes so many leadership courses for ministers and
laypeople. Surely, he said, there should instead be courses about how to
be a good servant. He hit the nail on the head.
Instead of worrying about numbers, instead of hoping that the next
campaign for new members will result in a late, great revival, perhaps
Christian people can find ways of serving with humility instead of
preaching with the arrogance of complete conviction.