Now What: the future of the Church

 lessons from biblical history in how the Church can survive (and thrive!)
in the midst of a hostile culture

Since January 17th we’ve spent close to 30 Sunday sermons exploring the end of 2 Chronicles and the entire books of Ezra, Haggai, and Esther, all to the purpose of learning how God’s people not only survived but thrived in the midst of hostile cultures. When you look at the world around us today, you don’t see a Christian culture. Yes, Western culture still has many hints of its Christian heritage here and there, but consider what is gone: church attendance has historically been around 50% in the USA with a brief inflation after the world wars, and now dropping dramatically through the past couple decades – here in New England church attendance is well under 10%. The millennial generation, born between 1985 and 2005, is polled to be the least religious generation ever, vast majorities reporting “none.” They don’t even pretend to be Christian like many of their parents; the veil is off. And with the cultural and legal movement to normalize divorce, sex out of wedlock, and various other deviations from biblical teachings, the gauntlet is thrown down before us.

 

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Like this Cross, many Christians today feel like relics amidst the ruins of a long-gone past.

 

We know from Church history that Christians have been in worse conditions than these before; there’s no need for us to cry ourselves to sleep over our great misfortune; there’s no need to get alarmist and cry out that the end-times are upon us – that would be terribly self-centered of us to assume that all the great suffering of Christians around the world both now and in ages past wasn’t a sign of the end, but somehow ours is. No, instead, the challenge before us is to reclaim what it means to be God’s people despite the ways of the world. And although a study of Church history does provide a great deal of insight into the sorts of things we might do to get through our present period of history, we’ve instead looked at an even greater source of wisdom: the Bible.

With our exploration through these Old Testament books complete, I thought it prudent now for us to step back and look at the big picture – what have we learned over all, and how might we summarize it? I will provide in this post a comprehensive list of every sermon text and topic that we’ve had in this series. That way you’ve got a point-by-point summary of lessons of how to be a Christian in today’s America. But we also need something even simpler to turn this long list of bullet points into something comprehensible. By way of God’s great provision, our Epistle reading this morning, Ephesians 5:15-21, is a great summary of the whole series.

Look carefully then how you walk,
not as unwise but as wise,
making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.
Do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.
Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery,
but be filled with the Spirit,
addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual
songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart,
giving thanks always and for everything
to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

As one looks at these verses, you might notice something very interesting: in a general way they line up with the First & Great Commandment – love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength. Or in the way this passage orders it, strength, mind, and heart. Check this out: Love the Lord your God with all your strength: look carefully how you walk. Love the Lord your God with all your mind: do not be foolish. Love the Lord your God with all your heart: be filled with the Spirit. Although there is much overlap, one could categorize every lesson we’ve learned from this series according to the three-fold commandment of loving God with all our strength, mind, and heart.  So here are all 28 sermon texts and topics, categorized by these three topics…

Love the Lord your God with all your strength:
Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise,
making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.

2 Chronicles 29 taught us that godly repentance precedes godly reformation – we must look carefully how we walk.
2 Chronicles 32 taught us both to seek and value obedience over success, for true wisdom is following God’s laws, not the world.
2 Chronicles 33 taught us it is never too late to repent and change how we walk, so long as it’s genuine.
Ezra 1 & 2 taught us to answer when God calls, making the best use of the time.
Ezra 3 taught us that the size of your church doesn’t matter if the foundation is right, for God’s wisdom confounds the wisdom of man.
Ezra 6 taught us to take the risk of investing in the Church, since the world apart from God is evil.
Haggai 2:1-9 taught us that our labor in the Lord will not be for naught, for it is the best use of our time.
Esther 1:1-2:4 taught us that although we are vulnerable, Christ has the power, emboldening us to walk in his ways.
Esther 2:5-23 taught us that the Gospel is God’s project; we just join in.
And Esther 9:1-16 taught us to refrain from anger and forsake wrath, so that we walk not as unwise, but as wise.

Love the Lord your God with all your mind:
Do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.
2 Chronicles 30 taught us that we need to ground our identity in the person & body of Christ rather than any worldly source.
2 Chronicles 34 taught us that, when in doubt, we must go back to what the Bible teaches in order to understand God’s will.
2 Chronicles 36 taught us that Jesus promises salvation through faith despite exile.
Ezra 5 taught us to listen to God’s will through Scripture and in the Church.
Ezra 7 & 8 taught us that our teachers must have both knowledge and character to be effective.
Haggai 1 taught us first to listen to God, then to worship God, then to serve God.
Haggai 2:20-23 taught us that only in Christ is our certainty; fix your eyes on Him and disregard the world’s foolish distractions.
Esther 5 taught us that sin blinds us, and that the Gospel of Jesus Christ opens our eyes.
And Esther 6 & 7 taught us to remember that we are sinners, and that we are saved.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart:
Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit,
addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual
songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart,
giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
2 Chronicles 31 taught us to put our treasure and our hearts in worship.
2 Chronicles 35 taught us that our strength is in what God has already given us; rather chase after “more” we should be giving thanks always and for everything.
Ezra 4 taught us that non-Christians cannot help build the Church; only those filled with the Spirit can do the works of the spirit.
Ezra 9 & 10 taught us that following God is above anything else, even family; our submission to others is out of reverence to Christ.
Hag. 2:10-19 taught to us to keep growing!
Esther 3 taught us to honor the Lord, for we reap what we sow.
Esther 4 taught us that it is as committed members of the Church that we draw upon the strength of the Holy Spirit within us.
Esther 8 taught us that the very Christian lifecycle is grounded in our solidarity, our submission to one another.
And Esther 9:17-10:3 taught us to engage faithfully with the liturgy and the calendar, as that is a key tool in our life of worship as the one Body of Christ.

To tie this all together, I suppose I should point out that Christianity isn’t for wimps. Something that has been deceptive for too much of our history as Americans is the false notion that Christianity is an easy religion to live by. Being a culturally privileged religion for so long, many have bought into the idea that suffering for the Name of Christ is a thing of the past, or at least something that happens in China and the Middle East. But the truth is that whether your culture and your government makes it easy or not, the call of Christ is a radical calling that makes demands upon your entire life.

You must love the Lord your God with all your strength. The way you walk, the way you live your life, is to be brought to bear under the law of Christ. The call to act in love toward God and neighbor is both difficult to carry out and difficult to understand when situations get tough. It’s easy for us to proclaim that abortion is murder – an evil that must be stopped. But it’s much harder to act on that loving proclamation and live up to Christ’s sexual standards ourselves, and to show compassion on women with unplanned pregnancies, and to reverse the cultural stigma against adoption, and to give the needed care to the mothers, children, families, and singles who are affected by unplanned pregnancy.

You must love the Lord your God with all your mind. Many Christians today complain about the relativism that our culture has embraced. In many cases people seem to have given up on the quest for truth, finding it easier to think that (at least when it comes to religion and worldview) everyone’s opinion is valid. While it is good to be open-minded and slow to judge when dealing with people of different views, relativistic philosophy like we see today can become a form of intellectual suicide – if you don’t know what ground you stand on, you can’t build a sturdy house! Unfortunately, many Christians also have bought into a form of relativism by trying to claim that different interpretations of the Bible are equally valid. Again this is helpful for positive communication between people who differ from one another, but again it is a sort of theological suicide if we don’t know how to ground ourselves in the truth of God. For all our posturing about biblical authority, the primacy of the Scriptures in the teaching and preaching of the Church still has a long way to go in its recovery. So it is encumbent upon all of us to study the Scriptures and read the writings of intelligent faithful Christians who help us to understand the Bible more clearly.

You must love the Lord your God with all your heart. A lot of contemporary worship music may feel somewhat trite and cheesy, going on about how much I love Jesus and want to follow him everywhere. But where the poetry may be lacking, the sentiment is very much on the right track. We are called to be a worshipping people. If you read through the Psalms you’ll find verse after verse not simply inviting us to worship the Lord, but actually saying things like “I call upon the Lord who is worthy to be praised” (Psalm 18:30) and “great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; he is to be feared above all gods” (Psalm 96:4). Simply by virtue of who he is, God deserves our worship. And by virtue of who we are, we need to worship God. Coming together on Sunday mornings to worship the Lord together is a great starting point. But let me put it this way: how many meals do you eat each week? Is one enough? No? Then we must consider how we continue the life of worship throughout the week, and not leave it as just our “Sunday duty.”

Even though there is much to lament about today’s world, there is nothing to lament about the future of the Church. Throughout the Scriptures we see God’s people in danger, under persecution, mocked, overrun, and subjected to all manner of cruelty and evil. Sometimes it’s simply a picture of how evil the world is when confronted with the light of Christ. Sometimes it’s because God is punishing his people for their complacency in obeying, knowing, or worshiping Him. There is certainly much for the Church today to repent of; we must bear our present and future sufferings with humility, knowing that we have not loved the Lord our God with all our strength, mind, and heart. But we also know that our God is not just a fire, but a cleansing fire. Even for that alone we can be encouraged and give thanks.

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are reproached for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or a thief, or a wrongdoer, or a mischief-maker; yet if one suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but under that name let him glorify God. For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God (1 Peter 4:12-17).

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About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about spiritual formation, theology, biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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