So 2016 comes to its foundation-rattling end, and so many people want to forget it as the collective nervous breakdown in the West continues. A New Year is a moment for Christians to reflect on how we can be different in the year to come. Here are five pleas I want to make for Christians and Churches to consider putting central in the coming year.
1. Hope in God. In the two great psalms that explore despair and hope, Ps 42 and 43, the psalm writer repeats the exhortation to himself: ‘Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.’ At the end of the year that has seen some great political earthquakes, an appalling civil war in Syria, and massive terrorist attacks in France, Belgium and Germany, do you have real hope? I ask this because I have heard so many Christians say as the next upheaval or calamity happens, ‘But still, God is sovereign’, almost as though this is our last ditch hope. We have our own plans and our routine, and we plug on through life seduced by the certainties of a daily working routine, a stable stock market and a quiet suburban life. But when everything is thrown up in the air, whether in a referendum result, a presidential election, or the more visceral and desperate aftermath of a terror attack, then and only then do we clutch hold of the sovereignty of God. The sovereignty of God should not be our last and desperate refuge. He is our salvation and our God! We should be close to him, united through the daily fellowship of prayer, looking at the world as his world, and every aspect of our lives as lived for his glory. Our confidence should be in him, whatever happens, and whatever foes we face, knowing that in life and in death he is our salvation. Paul says as he lays in prison, ‘The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.’ (2 Tim. 4:18) This is hope that is so full of assurance, which sees God’s hand in all that happens, and has eternal glory as the goal. What troubles me is that in our churches you find so little of this hope. If we really have hope in God, it should show in our prayers. Yet in my experience of public worship, it is our prayers that are the most anaemic part of what we do. The sermon is (rightly) central and biblical, and a huge amount of effort goes into what we sing, but what about the time we spend in prayer? If our hope is in God, it should be the crucial part, but it is so easily fumbled. Likewise, when we come to pray in a church prayer meeting, the style is dull and hardly encourages people to come, and there is no sense that we are coming together to cast ourselves upon God, and so only 20% of the church is there. In 2017, as a first priority, make prayer central to your church’s life.
2. Go and tell. In the twenty-first century gospel churches have become good at doing evangelistic courses and events. We have improved so much on where we were in the 1990s. Go to a church website and generally it will be well set up, with warm and attractive photo adverts for the next event: a meal, an internationals evening, a men’s breakfast, a mum’s craft night, a family service, a baptism. But that entire programme is based on the principle of ‘Come and see’. That is only half the story in evangelism. Let’s think about how we can make ‘Go and tell’ the focus in 2017. Perhaps we forget how dynamic a thing it is to give someone a Bible or a gospel or an evangelistic book. And there are so many ways to do it. The old staples of door to door work and open air preaching need to be used carefully. In a posh suburb door-to-door is probably a waste of time – too much like the JWs – but in a council estate it will show that you care enough to go and greet excluded people. Open air preaching can be done well in a place where people expect that kind of thing – Speakers Corner, or the Oxford Cornmarket. But why not set up a book table in your high street and just chat to people and give out Bibles? It is much more personal and relational, and bathed in prayer it can be the best gospel opportunity. Or get a banner saying ‘If you could ask God one question, what would it be?’ and invite people to write their questions in a book. You will be getting out there and talking to people. Let’s have the confidence to go out there and befriend people to spread the gospel.
3. Love all nations. Many of my blogposts have been spent trying to plough a middle furrow between the extremes of nationalism and globalisation. I believe that nationhood is a biblical third way to go. In the wake of Brexit, we don’t have to think we are turning our backs on the nations of the world. Rather, we are rediscovering the true place for every nation in the world, as we respect and delight in the diversity of a world of nations. Nationalism will always destroy that diversity, worst of all when that nationalism invades the church and uses it to do its bidding. But so can globalisation as it seeks to erode cultures and conform everyone to a few global languages, and the brands and images of cultural imperialism that dominate the global media. Christians should value God’s plan for nations expressed in Genesis 10, each nation having their own land, their shared history and sense of belonging, and their own language and national conversation.
In the local church that means making sure that we communicate the gospel in the language and culture of the community around us. How truly contextualised is your church? At the same time we should cherish the national minorities who live in our community, seeking to express the gospel in their heart language whenever we can (in prayer times and home groups in their language for example) while also seeking to integrate them into the life of our church. It is sad that so many Christians who migrate into Britain feel the need to start their own minority churches. Is this because they don’t find a welcome in British churches and we are unwilling to celebrate their culture alongside ours?
In terms of world mission, loving all nations also means churches being busy in understanding the nations to which we send missionaries, and getting the whole church to engage with the culture of that nation. In Europe, that should mean seeing each European nation as a nation, on its own terms, rather than the amorphous ‘Europe’ that fails to distinguish Czechs from Slovaks and Catalans from Spaniards.
4. Shape the national conversation. Christians are alienated from the society around us, and afraid of making our voice heard in the public square. While we are ready to protest against the latest rejection of Christian values, we need to widen our focus: to get out there and present a Christian worldview in the culture as a whole – in art, poetry, music, theatre, film, and literature; in the Universities and in public service; in a new wave of journalism and publishing that overtakes crumbling secular liberalism with a new narrative that is centred on God’s glory. This is a huge task, and it takes a lifetime of gospel courage and clear thinking, but if an Augustine, a Calvin, a Whitefield or a Wilberforce can be used by God in so doing, we also should think far beyond the boundaries of our church walls. Let the national conversation be shaped and transformed by a biblical worldview and everything can change.
5. Train the next generation. We live in a culture that values raw talent and pure genius. Your best hope is a talent show that will give you your big break. We put people on pedestals if they become missionaries, and churches looking for a new pastor expect them to be the perfect, finished article before they start. And Christians complain that training for ministry costs too much money. But Christians grow in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord, they don’t come ready-made. The Lord Jesus demonstrated this when he gathered a group of unpromising disciples, told them to pray for the Lord of the harvest to send out workers (Matt 9:38), and then immediately sent them out to gain experience (Matt 10:5). The Apostle Paul seems to have genuinely considered himself to be mediocre (1 Cor. 1:3; 2 Cor. 10:10) and spent years quietly ministering at Tarsus before he set off on his missionary journeys. Then he gathered around him a team of young people to serve in all kinds of ways. The preachers among them needed a lot of nurture, and had to learn the pattern of sound doctrine, as well as learning to develop the character of a pastor shepherd. But there was also a long list of men and women who served in all kinds of ways, as evangelists, as women reaching women and children, as those who served in all kinds of practical ways. Look at all the great movements of God’s Holy Spirit through his church, and you will find that training for ministry and mission is always a part of why they grew. Geneva became a centre for training for many nations across Europe, while Whitefield invested in training up a generation to follow him, even though at first they did not show great promise. In 2017, let’s make training for ministry and mission an urgent priority, and pray for the Lord of the harvest to use us in sending out labourers into his harvest field.