Renewal Not Retreat
Charles Dickens once wrote in his epic novel, The Tale of Two Cities, an assessment of his times. In short he observed that “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
Those words could have been written about our own day, whether describing economics, politics, literature or the stage. The same assessment could be made of religion in general, and evangelicalism in particular. It is the best of times because this is the only time we have. It is the worst of times because, compared with an elusive past, there seems reason for cynicism and even despair.
But what is new? The challenges facing the church in the past have been daunting, and at times the candle of influence has burned low. But the church is the creation of God and the “gates of Hell will never prevail against it” (Matt.16:18).
So let us look back not in retreat but in renewal. The church has always had her challenges.
The first century church was charged with the responsibility of spreading a story which bore great similarity to headlines that might splash across the cover of The Enquirer:
Alien Impregnates Virgin
Half-Man Disappears to Alien Home: Promises to Return with Extra-Terrestrials to Establish Earthly Kingdom
But their story was true!
This preposterous tale was introduced to a world of multiple gods, variable systems of ethics and a prospect of despair. Religion, the bastion of value, had degenerated into sexual expression, leaving anyone with any semblance of propriety disgusted, cynical and vulnerable. Shackled by the human efforts of philosophy and the cruelty of the Roman yoke, society struggled in darkness. An ancient document provides this description of citizens of a Grecian city of those times: sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, men who have sex with men, thieves, greed, drunkards, slanderers, swindlers.
The writer could have been talking about your town or mine – your church community or mine.
To such a society came a messenger, unannounced and uninvited, with a message. It was the message of the church – the good news – the message of the gospel. In time this message would transform culture, working as a leavening influence and bringing the attention of the majority to “The Way” of the minority. Persons identified with this Galilean hybrid miracle worker would take his name as “Christians.”
Without the benefit of popular support or governmental approval, it would be lamented by critics, “These have turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). A Roman magistrate, Pliny the Younger, beseeched the emperor, “What do you do with these people? They do not commit theft or adultery, falsify their word, or repudiate a trust given to them.” They “sing a song to Christ as to a God.”
In roughly two hundred years, this sect of 120 became a household name throughout the empire. They penetrated the household of Caesar, and demonstrated an alternative ethic that became the basis of law in the succeeding western civilization.
How was this accomplished? Through people who possessed the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit. Through people who identified with the ethic of Divine love; who remembered the holy character of God; and who were committed to spreading the message of hope.
It has been dark before. Heathen circumstances have existed before. Armed with the power of God, the church can meet the challenge of a secular, unbelieving, willfully rebellious populace.
Do we believe it?