"What is wrong with the American Christian church and how can its witness and ministry be renewed?" asks pastor Tim Keller in the opening of a new four-part series (https://quarterly.gospelinlife.com/decline-and-renewal-american-church-the-decline-of-the-mainline/) on the decline of the American church and recommendations on a way forward. He continues,
Virtually everyone agrees that something is radically wrong with the church. Inside, there is more polarization and conflict than ever, with all factions agreeing (for different reasons) that the church is in deep trouble. Outside the church, journalists, sociologists, and all other observers either bemoan or celebrate the church's decline numerically, institutionally, and in influence.
This is so serious that Keller, who is battling another bout of cancer (this time pancreatic), is spending his precious recovery time trying to present an historical and Biblical case for how we've gotten here and where we perhaps should go. I respect Keller very much and am eager to see what he has to say on this.
That being said, this is not the first time that a significant chunk of the Christian community has been in serious error, disarray, or distress. In fact, one might argue that we started in such a state, battling heresies from pretty much the get-go and struggling with factions from nearly Day 1.
We see the apostle John writing with every bit of earnestness that Keller is, warning against the gnostic heresy that to some extent is still with us (for example: https://www.christendom.edu/2021/03/08/academic-dean-writes-on-attractions-and-failings-of-modern-gnosticism-for-catholic-world-report/). And then Paul, who had conflicts with people inside and outside of the church, writes this during one of his particularly spirit-filled moments while imprisoned for his faith:
It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.
Yep, only someone under the influence of the Holy Spirit can, while enduring extremely difficult circumstances, actively rejoice that some pastors in the church are taking the opportunity of Paul's imprisonment to steal some of his followers and build up their own circles of influence.
The good old days never were. Biblical history shows patterns of decline and revival. We see this in Israel's history, and we see this in the Christian church.
Spurgeon who, from what I can tell, has at least three separate sermons on Isaiah 51 spanning many decades of preaching, connects these declines and revivals to what God is saying in Isaiah 51. The first one, A Bright Light in Deep Shades, describes the historical situation of Israel during the time of Isaiah and then applies Isaiah 51 to the "condition of the church, the church of God in the world" in 1872.
Isaiah 51 opens with:
"Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness and who seek the Lord: Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn; look to Abraham, your father, and to Sarah, who gave you birth."
Why did Israel need this encouragement? They were afraid, desperately afraid of what was about to happen to them from a Babylonian invasion. And yet, God says,
I, even I, am he who comforts you. Who are you that you fear mortal men, the sons of men, who are but grass, that you forget the Lord your Maker, who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth, that you live in constant terror every day because of the wrath of the oppressor, who is bent on destruction?
The Children of God are not to live in terror. Whatever may be happening on the earth--illness within, violence without--fixing eyes on the Creator of the Universe should be where the gaze is. Look to the Rock indeed.
Spurgeon's 1872 sermon could be given today, albeit with perhaps less grandiose phrasing (!):
I know many of the people of God who scarcely dare look for brighter times, because they say the people of God are few. Nominal professors abound, but vital godliness, say they, where shall we find it? Behold, the faithful servants of the Most High are become like the gleanings of the grapes when the vintage is over...
He goes on to point out key times in church history where things looked pretty dire indeed but then God brought about restoration. Yes, false teaching may be rampant. Yes, luke-warmness may be the norm. Worldliness and materialism has entered into the church. These things are very bad. And yet,
But it is only needed once more for God to make bare his arm, and his church has been full of life and of power, renewing the vigour of youth, abounding in hope, and intrepid in courage. Must you have a modern instance? think of the days of Wesley and Whitefield. When they began to preach, gross darkness had covered this land. They did not appear to be the men who were likely to remove the veil that covered the nation, yet God used their very feebleness and eccentricity, he used everything about the men to be the means of restoring the church, reinforcing her ranks, and augmenting her energies. Therefore, be of good cheer; though the church should slip and slide again, and disgrace herself by her want of zeal, yet she is the spouse of Christ, and he will not divorce her, he will turn to her in mercy yet again.
We, in the 21st century, look at Wesley and Whitefield as juggernauts, supermen who single-handledly caused revival and revolution to happen within the church. Where are people like this today? But Spurgeon points out that God used these men in their weakness. They were available and open to being used as powerful vessels--they were not so in and of themselves. And God can do this again.
He touches upon this theme in the other Isaiah 51 sermons that he gave as well, pointing out that God made the people of Israel out of a single couple: Abraham and Sarah. Ten years after the 1872 sermon, Spurgeon preached another, Hearken and Look, saying,
They sigh most dolorously that the former times were better than these, and that we have fallen upon most degenerate days...I am afraid that a measure of this tendency to write bitter things dwells in almost all of us at this present season, for certain discouraging facts which cannot be ignored are pressing heavily upon men's spirits. The habit of looking continually towards the wildernesses is injurious because it greatly discourages; and anything that discourages an earnest worker is a serious leakage for his strength. Perhaps a worse result than honest discouragement comes of depressing views, for they often afford an apology for indifference and inaction.
To resist this indifference and inaction, Isaiah 51 tells us to look to Abraham and Sarah. And the reason for this is that by doing so, we remember what God has done. Not people, but the Lord. This couple could not themselves will a baby to be born. If they could have, they would have, and they even tried to take matters into their own hands in a variety of ways. God made it happen, and waited to do so so that it was done in the most miraculous and impossible way. He can yet again bring about a people of his own through just two people. Look to the Rock, and not the impossibilities.
Indeed, God can truly do this again:
Why, then, might not the Lord, if the cause of truth were this day reduced to its utmost extremity, again raise up a church out of one man? If an almost universal apostasy should hide the divine light, could he not kindle a torch among the heathen, and by its light illuminate the earth again? He could call out another Abraham, and bless him and increase him, and achieve the whole of his eternal purposes if all of us should sleep in the dust, and the visibly organized church of to-day should pass away as the snow of winter at the advent of spring. Is anything too hard for the Lord?
In between these two sermons, Spurgeon preached a third sermon on Isaiah 51 entitled, Needless Fears. He doesn't mince any words with the opening section header, "MANY FEARS, WHICH ARE EXPERIENCED BY CHRISTIAN MEN AND WOMEN, ARE REALLY GROUNDLESS." Ha! I'd like to bottle that phrase up and spray that all around today, because we are certainly in this mental space right now. Spurgeon points out specific fears among Christians: fear of being oppressed by anti-religious individuals, fear for opposition toward the church, fear for their personal spiritual well-being, fear of economic hardship through religious oppression.
In many ways, these are very real fears in that they can actually happen and have happened in the past. And yet, Spurgeon's answer is:
Well, the Church was once overrun with Arianism that denied that Jesus was truly God, and it did seem as if the heretics had killed the doctrine of the Deity of Christ; but the Lord was pleased to raise up his valiant servant Athanasius, and very soon Arianism was defeated. The Church of our Precious Christ scarcely remembers or understands the scars of all the conflicts through which she has passed. Those which threatened to destroy her have never really injured her, rather she has come out of the furnace all the more pure. As for persecution, has it not been commonly proved that the more the saints have been persecuted the more they have prospered, and that the blood of the martyrs has been the seed of the Church? Suppose there should again come days when Christians will be martyred, suppose there should again come days of heresy; well, the Church has had such days before, yet she has survived them. The grand old ship has been in many hurricanes and storms before now, yet she still sails steady and true to her final destination. Therefore, why should she be afraid now?
We're on a grand old ship. Sometimes I'm not particularly fond of my shipmates, and perhaps they aren't fond of me as well. Sometimes I'm not so sure that we're aimed in the right direction. Thank goodness that our ultimate fate is not solely in our hands. And yet, there is work for us to do. Spurgeon is right to warn that these fears keep us in a state of indifference and inaction.
Richard Rohr, writing as part of his Center for Contemplation and Action, says,
Among the people called Israel there was a dramatic realization of intimate union and group participation with God. They recognized the individually enlightened person like Moses or Isaiah, but they did something more. The notion of participation was widened to the Jewish group and beyond, at least for many of the Hebrew prophets. God was saving the people as a whole. Participation was historical and social, and not just individual. It is amazing that we have forgotten or ignored this, making salvation all about private persons going to heaven or hell, which is surely a regression from the historical, collective, and even cosmic notion of salvation taught in the Bible. Remember, God was always saving Israel and not just Abraham.
It's not just a matter of looking for another "strong man" (politically or religiously) to force things to being "right" ("right" as determined by a group of people). Rohr is spot-on that the beauty of what God did with Israel is that he didn't just pick a handful of supermen. Israel started with some incredible leaders (who were also incredibly flawed) but for the purpose of saving unto himself a group of people who were all called to participate in union with Him. And, the intent was to broaden even beyond this group. The major prophets, such as we've seen with Isaiah, emphasize how Israel then was to be a light to draw the Gentile nations to the Lord, not see themselves as a "frozen chosen" that was better than everyone else.
As Rohr says, modern Christians have fallen into the same error. We have individualized salvation, individualized our religious practices, individualized how we see our future trajectory in an eschatological sense (i.e. final destiny of mankind), and now we are living the logical implications of such hyper-individualism. Every man and woman unto themselves.
This is what we must fight against, rather than the bad people "out there." We are losing the fight within and unfortunately, just as Spurgeon noted, we don't often have many leaders or teachers correctly pointing out where the real fight is.
I'm hopeful that Keller will give a good diagnosis of the state of the church and chart out a helpful direction. But even if he doesn't, God has personally instructed His people to look to Him and what He has done in the past. And He tells us to not be afraid. Isaiah 51 gives us the blueprint for what to do when we fear what will become of us. Look to the Rock.