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”I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us. And already, Frodo, our time is beginning to look black. The Enemy is fast becoming very strong. His plans are far from ripe, I think, but they are ripening. We shall be hard put to it. We shall be very hard put to it, even if it were not for this dreadful chance.”
Why is the ground so hard, so stony? Or perhaps we’re past that already. The great revivals of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries may well correspond to seed falling on good ground . . . much seed falling on much good ground. The Wesley and Whitefield revivals in Britain and America, the explosion of Baptist churches in Virginia and the Carolinas, the Baptist and Methodist camp meetings and circuit riding preachers, the Finney revivals, the urban prayer meetings before the outbreak of the Civil War, the battlefield revivals during the war among both Union and Confederate troops, the Moody revivals in American and Britain, the explosion of missionary societies, the European revivals with James Stewart before the outbreak of WW2, the northern logging camp revivals throughout the first half of the 20th century . . . yes, much good ground and many seed sowers, not just the ‘notable’ preachers who get biographies written about them, but multitudes of unnamed ‘little’ evangelists, simply born again men and women who faithfully sought souls and preached the Gospel, finding many hearing ears.
Let’s work backward through the parable of the seed and the sower, but forward in time. American evangelicalism in the 20th century prospered – materially – and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choked the word, which has been unfruitful . . . spiritually. Yes, many churches have been built, including the megachurches of the last two decades, but the ‘Christians’ look much like the worldlings, their leaders deliberately using worldly marketing and entertainment techniques to build their ‘ministries,’ which are anything but. As in the parable, unfruitfulness means lostness. No life change, no holiness, little Bible knowledge, no burden or practice of personal evangelism by the ‘laity’ . . . means no salvation.
Dwight L. Moody
Moving forward, although there is much overlap (the parable applies throughout history, all four types represented at every given time), the stony soil allows the occasional seed to spring up briefly, but with no root, and so it withers away. In the absence of real persecution, a false convert may profess a shallow faith for a lifetime, with no purifying test, going through the ‘Christian’ motions, which his culture permits. Multitudes may attend their megachurches and make considerable noise on Sunday. Noise must mean the kingdom of God is present and multiplying.
Yet I think that we, today, are mostly in the final stage, the beginning of the parable. America is the way side and what little seed is scattered finds not even stony soil, but hard packed clay, and Satan’s devils snatch it up before it can possibly take root. Most Americans, even evangelicals, do not recognize the Gospel of salvation. Ask a random evangelical churchgoer if she is saved and, if so, how, and you are likely to get a strange answer. Ask for evidence and you’re likely to get no answer. (“I go to church on Sunday” doesn’t count.)
Why is it like this? Is it possible to go back to a time when most Americans had a measure of respect for Biblical Christianity, or at least understood something of the difference between a Christian and a secular worldview? I note that the IFB crowd (Independent Fundamental Baptist) continue to promote their scheduled revival meetings and a culture of revivalism. I visited an IFB church a few years ago right after they had concluded a ‘revival meeting.’ I asked one of the old deacons what had changed, including whether the membership now had a zeal to reach out to the lost. He was nonplussed. That’s a question that isn’t asked, I gathered. He mentioned that there was another revival meeting scheduled six months down the road. I asked if that was because the recent one hadn’t worked. No answer.
I recently read a book by Os Guinness, Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization. His analysis of where we are in the culture wars and how we got this way is relevant to how we, we little individual Christians, can live in the world but be not of the world, and how we can reach out to a lost world with some insight regarding the soul-destroying pressures they face, pressures different in quantity and quality than ever before in human history.
Caveat: Guinness has some blind spots. Who doesn’t? He tends to see all of Christendom as Christianity, and so apparently has little discernment regarding lost tares among saved wheat. He also has a Roman Catholic view of history, and so laments the centuries long Inquisition and other persecutions of the RCC as if ‘we Christians’ are culpable. He therefore doesn’t see ‘The Trail of Blood,’ the ever present stream of Bible believers through the ages that prospered spiritually while suffering physically at the hands of the RCC. From a proper Biblical and historical point of view, the RCC and much of the Protestantism that is its illegitimate offspring, is part of the ‘other team,’ which also includes atheism, Islam, the cults, etc.
Nevertheless Guinness, who apparently has a basic evangelical embrace of the Gospel of salvation by faith in Christ, and an understanding that discipleship occurs at the level of the individual believer – which is clearly why he writes the book – has useful insights. My recommendation, as always, is to pluck the choicest food from the smorgasbord and leave behind what is less savory.
Guinness’ primary theme is that modernity so overwhelms the individual, particularly in the West, that he has become immune or oblivious to the Gospel more so than at any time in world history. Modernity includes not only the anti-Biblical philosophies of modernism and postmodernism, but also the modern environment of media, infrastructure, transportation, and the pressures of marketing, over-connectedness via social media, and the modern stresses on career and family. As some say, “everyone is everywhere” in this age. Everyone is beset by everything and by every idea that pops up anywhere in the world.
The recent American election season is notable for how politics has become the national religion, to non-Christians and Christians alike. Media reporters and pundits are the rabble rousing prophets and priests, contending for politicians who aspire to be the pagan gods of this age. Does anyone, even the most fervent evangelicals, care what God thinks about the mess America has become? If your favorite politicians win, do you see God smiling on this nation? The author selects some historic quotes that speak to the tendency of man, when he excludes God, to make politics the center of our lives.
”Man must . . . venerate the state as a secular deity.” – Georg Hegel
“Man is free only if he owes his existence to himself . . . Philosophy makes no secret of it. Prometheus’ admission ‘I hate all gods’ is its own admission, its own motto against all gods, heavenly and earthly, who do not acknowledge the consciousness of man as the supreme divinity.” – Karl Marx
“One who is himself a god needs no religion; he is divine in himself. He must not bow his head . . . The more man lives in his artificial man-made reality amongst man’s structures and machinery, the more strongly he receives the impression that he is the creator of his own existence.” – Emil Brunner
There is irony in that last thought. Most young people who revel in their tech prowess . . . using cell phone apps . . . don’t actually know how cell phones or networks actually work. Supermarket checkout clerks couldn’t tell you how the laser diode in their hand works. Most IT professionals don’t really understand the hardware or the software that makes the internet work. Not to mention, that most people who drive cars couldn’t describe the thermodynamics of an internal combustion engine. Self-deceit abounds. A tiny, tiny minority actually design and build the ‘stuff’ of modernity, cleverly enough so that multitudes can use it transparently. Yet the multitudes see this technological age as a reason to overthrow the wisdom of the ages, especially Biblical wisdom. And so we have thousands of abortions daily, over fifty sexual identities to choose from (at last count), broken marriages, hatred between racial groups and political groups, increasing violence in the streets, terrorism on the increase, and no hint of solutions for any of it.
”Judgment in history falls heaviest on those who come to think themselves gods, who fly in the face of Providence and history, who put their trust in man-made systems and worship the work of their own hands, and who say that the strength of their own right arm gave them the victory.” — Herbert Butterfield
The starkest conflict in the West is between militant atheism / secularism / humanism / evolutionism . . . and Christianity. Although atheists are still a minority in America, they dominate academia, education, and news and entertainment media. At times, however, some admit the bleakness of their worldview . . .
Deadly fables taught to our children
”Is there anything more terrifying than the destruction of the world? Yeah, the knowledge that it doesn’t matter one way or the other – that it’s all random, radiating aimlessly out of nothing and eventually vanishing forever.” – Woody Allen
”We are more powerful than ever before, but have very little idea what to do with all that power. Worse still, humans seem to be more irresponsible than ever before. Self-made gods with only the laws of physics to keep us company, we are accountable to no one. We are consequently wreaking havoc on our fellow animals and on the surrounding ecosystem, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction. Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods, who don’t know what they want?” – Yuval Noah Harari
Yet secularist ideas infest our culture, hammering the consciousness from infancy to old age, deceiving multitudes who despise such old-fashioned ideas as a God who both judges and redeems, but also intimidating Christians into quietness and timidity lest they dare to swim against the flow.
Guinness’ term Impossible People refers not to the masses going with the flow, but to those Christians who stand against the pressures. During the Roman Empire’s prime, Pliny the Younger advised Emperor Trajan that Christians should be executed solely for their tenacity and intransigence. “Whatever the nature of their admission, I am convinced that their stubbornness and unshakable obstinacy ought not to go unpunished.”
Could American evangelicals be so accused? Silly question. Guinness: “Only rarely in Christian history has the lordship of Jesus in the West been treated as more pliable or has Christian revisionism been more brazen, Christian interpretations of the Bible more self-serving, Christian preaching more soft, Christian behavior more lax, Christian compromise more common, Christian defections from the faith more casual, and Christian rationales for such slippage more spurious and shameless.” Where are the impossible people? When Jesus returns, will He find faith on Earth?
The world that Christians once knew has gone . . . and gone forever. Among the many pressures, we are immersed in an incessant pluralism of pagan ideas and behaviors. Pagan? The Adversary is working hard to return the West to the paganism of the pre-Christian world. Consider the ‘triumphs’ of societal change in the mainstreaming of sexual permissiveness, fornication, adultery, divorce, abortion, homosexuality, and euthanasia. The ancient Romans would see our culture as perfectly normal. The early churches preached against such paganism, calling it sin and calling for repentance. Paganism lost its dominant hold, but it’s back.
In more recent history, the communities that saw conversions and revival upon the visits of Whitefield or Finney or Moody may have been sinfully wicked, but there was a quiet not possible in today’s world, a quiet because everyone was local, not everywhere via media, a quiet in which reflection and conviction could take hold, a quiet in which a seed could take root and go deep. To some degree this cultural quiet persisted in the West until the 1950s, but no more. Yet I see in IFB publications a desperate hope to return to the 1950s, which you can observe quite readily if you visit an old-fashioned IFB church. The evangelicals, on the other hand, hold hands eagerly with the world, embracing its music and its fashions and its alleged nonjudgmental ‘tolerance’ to attract worldlings without confronting them on sin, judgment, repentance, and the consequential fruits of the new birth.
The 1950s – The good old days?
No, the old cultural Christian consensus is gone forever. We live in a historically old, but somehow freshly pagan culture, and the truly born again Bible-believing Christian is going to stand alone, or at most with very few compatriots.
In the political sphere we see the misunderstanding of the conservatives. There, too, we aren’t going back to the 1950s. Yet conservatives act and preach and punditize on the defensive, as if there is something to hold onto. No, the culture is pagan. The government is pagan, the schools are run by pagans, as is education from K to grad school, along with the news and entertainment media. There is nothing to conserve!! Go on offense! There is nothing to defend! And so with Gospel preaching. Go on offense. The pagan philosophies of our age that destroy babies in the womb and refuse to recognize the differences between a man and a woman, are not in touch with reality. Point that out. The consequences of pagan worldviews – whether atheistic anti-God or pantheistic ‘god is everywhere’ or ‘we’re all gods’ – are all around us. Just pick some dysfunction in society. It’s built on a pagan lie.
But we humans can choose to be atheists or Buddhists or Mormons or even Calvinists who insist that no one has any choice at all. Guinness observes that God created man with a capacity for freedom, freedom even to defy his Creator, and talented enough to destroy each other and the planet we live on. He quotes physicist Paul Davies, “Truly we should be lords of the universe.” Millennials seem particularly afflicted by this conceit, yet I have yet to meet one who is so lord-like as to give up sleep for a week, or food or air, or the necessity of bowel function. In truth, we humans are not lord-like at all.
We’re more like rats in a rat race. Guinness: “We now live in a world of speed, stuff, and stress and under the relentless tyranny of the ‘urgent now.’” Ambition and greed drive the young lords and lordettes of our culture, who become slaves to time juggling and multitasking, “all Darwinians now, living under the daily threat of ‘the survival of the fastest.’”
There is no time to think, not to mention reflect, in a modern world that “requires more careful discernment than any previous age faced by Christians in history.” The urgency of ambition and the immense variety of distractions (new apps every day!) protect the lost from any consideration of the Gospel . . . not to say that there are hardly any Christians at all who try to share the Biblical Gospel. The Adversary has succeeded brilliantly, discrediting Biblical truth via media before our children even hit school age, and from then on it’s continual indoctrination in evolution, self-esteem, and the pluralism of sexual licentiousness and a vast array of modernist and post-modernist ideologies.
Guinness sees global connectivity . . . “we can now see everything in the world as it happens and we can now reach almost anywhere and everywhere in twenty-four hours” . . . as a challenge that Christians should take on. “We must raise our game, too,” he exhorts, so “the Christian community can stretch around the world more extensively and effectively.” He’s wrong about that. That’s mega-church and mega-ministry thinking. New Testament evangelism and discipleship is designed for the 1-2-1. Western evangelical and fundamentalist culture has excluded the 1-2-1 in favor of superstar leaders and megabuck facilities. Guinness cites – favorably – the example of Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in California, which is the stereotypical example of how to make multitudes of false converts, exalt the megastars, and get in bed with the world.
1Thessalonians 5:16 -18 Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you. KJV
Rick Warren’s megachurch
As Guinness affirms later, “Jesus’ stamp of authority is the final word for Christians who would follow Jesus faithfully.” Why not take Jesus’ words to heart across the board and provoke individual Christians to be individual evangelists and individual disciple-makers, making the small fellowship the core of Christian experience and the mission of that fellowship the Great Commission? No, modernity infects evangelicalism with lust for bigger, better, snazzier, funnier, louder shows, facilities, and activities. The world looks at this and sees just another competitor for attention, time, and money . . . and consequently never encounters the Gospel eyeball-to-eyeball.
‘Church’ and ‘faith’ are merely members of a “dizzying array of choices.” “From breakfast cereals to restaurants and cuisines to sexual identities and temptations to possible sexual arrangements of all types to self-help techniques and philosophies of life, we are offered an infinite array of choices, and the focus is always on choice as choosing rather than choice as the content of what is chosen. Just choose. Simply choose. Experiment. Try it out for yourself . . . Choosing is all that matters. Truth, goodness, and authority are irrelevant . . . you are the sovereign chooser . . . until all choices seem the same and each one shrivels into insignficance.”
Whatever. The hardest thing in 1-2-1 evangelism is provoking the lost fellow to care. I can get many to agree intellectually on the issues of sin, judgment, etc. But his life in modernity dulls his care. Whatever. So the Christian – the evangelist – dare not pussyfoot around, try to sneak up on someone, try to win him winsomely to himself. No, no, no. Just give it to him straight. Show him that – at least – YOU CARE!! Don’t just show him quiet compassion. Show him some passion. Is there anything else under the sun worthy of any passion in comparison with the Gospel? The stakes are infinite, right? Make sure he knows this before you leave him . . . and leave him with tracts that punch.
Guinness sees liberalism – unbelief – in Protestant denominations and in emergent evangelicalism as institutional suicide. As an example, he quotes a well-known Christian marketing consultant (!): “It is also critical that we keep in mind a fundamental principle of Christian communication: the audience, not the message, is sovereign.” Is it any wonder that churches should be filled with lost people, one heartbeat from Hell? If the audience is sovereign, they will demand that their ears be tickled. If not, there are competitors down the street who will be glad to do so.
I see one aspect of this tragedy as I search (quite actively) for Christians who would be interested in learning to do 121 evangelism. There are some truly born again believers in gelly churches. But they’ve been slurped up by that passive ear-tickling culture, assured that they are already ‘good Christians’ because they show up, shut up, and pay up, and their leaders, when asked (and I’ve asked), actually despise what they call ‘confrontational evangelism . . . We don’t do that around here.’ Rather, invite your neighbors to church, to events, so our superstar clergy can dazzle them with the unique spiritual gifts that God (apparently) doles out only to such super saints.
1-2-1 evangelism on the street
Evangelicals want to get along with the world. They identify with Lot, who enjoyed the benefits of living in the affluent burb of Sodom, working his way up to a leadership position. Under pressure, however, when Lot tried to stand up for something, his worldly peers despised him and his own family didn’t take him seriously. 21st century America needs more like John the Baptist. You won’t find any in evangelical churches, or even IFB churches – IFB ‘prophets’ talk big within the walls of their temples, but you won’t find them on the street. For one thing, just look up the addresses of a sampling of IFB churches. You’ll find them in the burbs, not in the inner city.
Why is this the toughest generation ever? Modernism has always been around – anti-God, anti-Bible philosophies buttressed by evolution. It’s still pervasive, of course. Post-modernism goes a step further and may snidely admit, “Ok, that may be true for you but not for me, so . . . whatever.” But modernity doesn’t even bother with the issue. Whether it’s the pressure of modern life or the distractions readily available, there’s just no time or energy for thinking the deep thoughts. The evangelist has to fight hard to grab attention. This is possible, but it’s not for wimps. If you’re not bold, you’ve got to emulate boldness, at least. If you do get a convert, modernity will fight discipleship every moment.
Guinness sees the spiritual war behind the scenes. The successful wicked politician isn’t energized entirely by himself. Scripture is clear about the demonic powers and principalities who motivate the relentlessness that we see in the enemy’s camp. Have you noticed that conservatives and Christians aren’t as relentless as their adversaries? Yet Christians have available a much greater power, the Holy Spirit, who also commands twice as many angels as there are demons. But God gives us the responsibility to seek His power. He gives us awesome responsibility along with spectacular freedom of choice. If we just muddle along, we lose. Salvation is secure for the true believer, but the battle for the souls of our relatives, neighbors, and all others in our community rages on. We can let others go to Hell without a warning or we can try. When we swap stories around camp fires during the Millennium, I want to have something to talk about. Don’t you?
Guinness has some optimism left. “It will not be easy to recover the gigantic scale of the biblical view.” But he falls short of proposing battle tactics. In the evangelical world, it’s all about big churches and bigshot leaders, speakers, and authors. The multitudes of ‘laymen’ and ‘laywomen’ are there to fund the programs and, if they’re really motivated, to stay informed by reading the latest books and going to conferences. But New Testament evangelism has always been 121. Who is pushing that?
It must be done eyeball-to-eyeball. We have the right message which matches the reality of human life on this Earth. There is no other message of hope. False religions offer false hope, in one way or another denying sin and its consequences and painting a bogus picture of who God is and what eternity holds . . . and who we are in relation to God. The Biblical worldview matches reality at every point. We can point that out. Atheism means life is meaningless. The atheistic world of protons, neutrons, electrons, and forces is small, knowing nothing of love, justice, meaning, hope, and beauty. People are just clods of dirt in the worldview of the atheistic scientist. But in truth, human beings are free agents with mind and will and conscience and hopes and dreams. God’s world is infinitely large and varied with an eternal future. Hope matters. Point that out.
Christians must disciple their own children. The established churches won’t help. Their programs just eat up time and energy and distract from what you need to do . . . teach them truth and how to contend. By the time she is 18 years old, if a Christian girl has contended 121 with a thousand or several thousand unbelievers, sharing the Gospel and refuting their silly objections, she will find no intellectual or philosophical surprises in college life and beyond. How many parents are training their children in the Great Commission, to face the ‘best’ the world and its Adversary has to offer? Don’t just ‘stand.’ Go!
Guinness agrees with my point, but doesn’t envision the battle plan. “The modern church still includes too many nominal Christians, and . . . we are seeing a growing biblical illiteracy in the church today.” Any individual Christian family can fix this for themselves and can be helpful to any other family who is interested. Study. Pray. Share the Gospel. Contend. Encourage. Repeat. Otherwise, the children of the nominals will become nones, the fastest growing demographic segment in American religious life.
If all around you continue down the broad road of complacency, don’t go along. Don’t join. Don’t give money. Don’t go along to get along. Be a John the Baptist. Be Bunyan’s ‘Christian’ who wouldn’t quit. Be impossible. Yes, be lonely. But it’ll be all right. There’s a better country farther along the narrow road.
1Thessalonians 5:16 -18 Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you. KJV
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