Where Is the Salt?
The hope of world revival is at hand. As we’ve seen already, there are many reasons to expect it. The fourth one may once again seem to contradict that hope, but notice how the thesis puts it:
God loves the church and intends to bring glory to his Son among the nations primarily through his people. But he also sees that the desperate condition of the world is largely due to the church’s struggles with its own spiritual powerlessness, brokenness, dullness, and sin. His love for us and his calling for us in Christ cannot leave us indefinitely in this unrevived state. Since he is committed to the welfare of Christ’s body, he must deliver. He must awaken us to a fuller manifestation of his Son. He knows such revival is the only hope for the restoration and liberation of the church. Our paralysis is not the last word. It should, like the dark prospects around us, drive us toward our hope in God. We can pray and prepare for revival with confidence.
In Decisive Issues Facing Christians Today, Anglican church leader John Stott poses a fundamental indictment of today’s church. He pictures a house darkened at nightfall and says no one would blame the house for its darkness as the sun goes down. He also pictures meat that has become rotten and inedible. The meat is not to be blamed for what the bacteria has been able to do when left to breed by itself. Where is the salt? Where is the light? If society deteriorates and its standards decline, leaving people in darkness and putrification, no one should blame society, for that is what we should expect to happen if humankind is left to itself and people’s sinful hearts go unchecked. Stott writes, “The question to ask is: ‘Where is the church? Why are the salt and the light of Jesus Christ not permeating and changing our society?’”1
Stott helps us see that for God to lead us forward into revival, Christians must first assume responsibility for our condition. We must confess to what I call our disturbing paralysis and the negative repercussions it has on Christ’s global cause.
Why do I use the word paralysis? When part of a man’s body is paralyzed, he may have wonderful ambitions, but the common frustration of a paralytic is that he is trapped by his inability to do with his body what him mind can visualize and what his heart desires. What can be said of a paralytic can also be said of the church when it is in a pre-revival condition.
This becomes obvious on three levels: 1. The dark prospects in the world continues to get darker, and we feel impotent to do anything about it. 2. We are frustrated with the fruitlessness of many Christian enterprises and frequently forced to confess our barrenness in trying to be the church and do the mission of the church in the world. 3. Our best dreams elude us. The longings we hope deep inside—to know the fullness of Christ in our lives together and to accomplish great things together in the fulfillment of his global cause—remain paralyzed. It is not that we’re unwilling, but rather than we are often unable.
Yet all of this points to something even more basic. Scripture bears out that when the church lacks any real sense of the presence of God, there will always be an attendant increase of paralysis in the church and of wickedness in the world. The absence of the manifest presence of Christ is like removing the police force from a city or breath from the body. Everything falls apart.
No light and no salt mean only darkness and rottenness.
Gallup polls have repeatedly shown little difference in ethical views and behavior when comparing the unchurched with the churched. And while 94 percent of Americans claim to believe in “God of some kind of unseen spirit,” far fewer credit faith as an important influence in their lives. When George Gallup and Timothy Jones devised a survey to find America’s truly spiritually committed, which they wrote about in The Saints Among Us, they found only 13 percent of our adult population could be so defined.2
In many cases the public image of the evangelical church is one of irrelevance and boredom coupled with periodic scintillating scandals. No wonder Billy Graham speaking at the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the National Association of Evangelicals lamented the “shallowness, compromises, laxity, and accommodations” that he sees in many evangelical churches.
Meager impact in recent church growth efforts provides further evidence of the paralyzed state of the church. Researchers have discovered that 3,500 people leave the church every day in the United States.3 According to studies by the Association of Church Missions Committees (ACMC), 250,000 of the 300,000 U. S. Protestant congregations are either stagnant or dying. Research on church growth in the U.S. in the 1980s uncovered disturbing statistics: 85 percent of churches were losing members during the ‘80s, while 14 percent grew only by transfer growth. Only 1 percent actually recorded growth by conversions.4 According to Peter Wagner, during the 1980s not a single county in the United States had net growth in church attendance.
In other words, with all our church growth innovations we were barely able to hold our own. How could we succeed, then, to mobilize ourselves with new initiatives, to penetrate our society with righteousness and truth, or to send forth the gospel among the nations. As one church statesman put it during a discussion on CBN television, “It seems that we may end the 1990s so far out of the mainstream that we may never be able to get back in again.”
On top of this is growing sense of hopelessness in the church. Despite the formidable force that the Religious Right posed in the 1980s and early 1990s, there is still massive cultural drift away from Judeo-Christian ethics in the public square. Many who have been a part of the effort to transform society through political leveraging arte now some of the strongest voices calling the church back to basics, back to prayer for revival, back to a focus on changing the hearts of our citizens. We cannot change the world simply with political savvy!
Syndicated columnist Cal Thomas, who once worked for Moral Majority, represents this change of perspective:
The Christian Church has lost its moral power and has become a prisoner, rather than a leader and liberator, of the culture. The church once had power: moral power, spiritual power, the power to transform not only people’s lives but also to heal society’s deepest ills. That power, as the history of this and other countries has revealed, is greater than any government, no matter how much money government spends and no matter how many points of light it seeks to illuminate on its own.5
Others within one of the great renewal movements of our generation, the charismatic renewal, admit they also need a fresh touch from the Holy Spirit. In the Charisma article referred to earlier, Mario Murillo tells “Why We Need Fresh Fire”: “We must experience a new Pentecost . . . Why can’t we just admit we need fresh fire? Have we lived so long without it that we dread the embarrassment of admitting our need? We are powerless, and we need a new outpouring of the Spirit.”6
Murillo discusses what he calls the seven “fatal attractions” undermining this renewal movement such as arrogance, hoarding blessings meant for others, superficial mass production, competition, hype, and worshiping the past. His diagnosis of charismatics is equally true for most of evangelicalism!
The problem of paralysis is being experienced on a global scale. Every week most Western mission agencies struggle with having numbers of qualified candidates ready to go on the mission field but unable to be sent due to the unwillingness of churches to release the necessary funding. One study found recent giving to all Christian causes is approximately twenty-five dollars of every thousand dollars that Christians spend. Some project that the average giving per church member might drop to as low as 1.94 percent of total income by the year 2002.
Looking at the global church’s resources, researcher David Barrett asserts, “The world should have been evangelized a thousand times over by now” if the church had moved out in strategic ways under the power of the Holy Spirit. Instead, we find ourselves light-years away from seeing the task completed.
Christian futurologist Tom Sine, in Wild Hope, sees us “waking up to a worldwide Christian shortfall.” He talks about the tremendous conflict the Protestant and Catholic churches in Latin America face, the challenges of hunger, famine, environmental breakdown, AIDS epidemics, mounting violence in Africa, and the tearing of the church in Asia by dichotomies of wealth and poverty, all of which hinder the church’s daunting mission. He documents the decline of the church in Europe and the struggling of the church in Australia and New Zealand where it tends to embrace a culture of consumerism.7
This evangelical paralysis should shock us all, suggests one leader:
During the greatest resurgence of evangelicalism in this century, belief in the Bible has declined and religious influence has been so thoroughly scrubbed from public life that any honest observer would have to regard this as a post-Christian culture. Gallup reports the most bewildering paradox: religion up, morality down.
Why have evangelicals not more effectively influenced the world? We have, I fear, substituted therapy for truth, trivialized our worship, and tolerated—yes even encouraged—a dangerously low and parochial view of the church. A little like Custer’s lieutenants arguing over mess privileges before the Battle at Little Big Horn, we’ve protected our enterprises but in the process lost the culture.
Looking at the state of evangelicalism and the state of the culture gives little room for optimism: How can we expect others to take what we profess to believe more seriously than we ourselves apparently do?
On the Verge of Collapse
Rising out of years of travel in and out of the evangelical movement, I’ve concluded the worst may be still ahead. What I see developing goes beyond paralysis. It is even more frightful. It is the potential for total collapse. We are increasingly overwhelmed by the immensity and complexity of the challenges before us. We are overloaded with a vast array of activities, causes, and enterprises that sap us of excellence and productivity. We have been oversold on many claims, procedures, and programs that have disappointed us time and again. We are overextended both in the breadth of our commitments and the multiplicity of our agendas, all of which we try to sustain at the same time. We are weary from being overactive, trying to maintain all the systems we have set in motion for doing Christianly things. We lack the spiritual energy to tackle the most important activities to which Christ is calling us.
Overwhelmed, overloaded, oversold, overextended, overactive—we need revival! One leader told me, “If we don’t see revival by the end of this decade, we may watch the evangelical movement simply collapse in upon itself out of sheer exhaustion from trying to do God’s work in our own strength.” He’s right. Apart from an extraordinary infusion of Christ’s power, we are no match for the gale winds against which we sail into the twenty-first century.
We’re like the chameleon that wandered through a fabric store. As it walked across a green swatch of cloth, it turned green. When it walked across red, it turned red. But when it stepped onto a piece of plaid, it blew up. It couldn’t be everything at once.
Pastors understand this experience. Os Guinness refers to a recent study that found a local church’s requirements of its pastor had expanded from five (according to a 1934 study) to fourteen!9 Pastors are expected to perform different responsibilities well in administrative planning, facilitating worship, sensitivity to personal congregational needs, the spiritual development of congregational life, pastoral counseling, visiting the sick, supporting church stewardship programs, administrative leadership, involvement of the laity in church programs, support for the church’s mission to the world, holding issues of social justice before the congregation, and helping them get involved. Obviously such a broad mandate is impossible for most pastors to accomplish. No wonder many are thoroughly depleted and exhausted. This results not only in the paralyzing of their ministries but also in rendering them incapable of equipping the church to be aggressive and effective. Their paralysis becomes the church’s paralysis.
The Paralysis of Unbelief
In the end the greatest paralysis with which we wrestle is not over-activity or misplaced priorities. It is the paralysis of our unbelief. Most other forms of paralysis are wrapped up in unbelief. The paralysis of unbelief means we choose not to believe what God has said regarding his own character and regarding the ways he has chosen to advance Christ’s kingdom through us among the nations. Either we choose to willfully ignore his grand intentions, or we defy those purposes and replace them with other things.
Apart from the transformation of our natures by a thorough spiritual awakening to God’s grace and glory in Jesus Christ, we carry with us an affinity toward the status quo (instead of the kingdom of God). These two predispositions lie at the root of our paralysis of unbelief. In turn, they are responsible for rendering us so helpless in the cause of Christ.
Appendix 2 lists some of the critical manifestations of both predispositions—the signs of status quo thinking and the forms of idolatry in the church. Appendix 2 shows how these two predispositions are not only rooted in unbelief but also foster unbelief. You may want to look at it now. Approach both lists in the appendix asking yourself three questions:
- What difference can we expect the coming revival to make for each form of predisposition?
- Without revival is there any hope that we can be delivered from paralysis in the church?
- What do these predispositions tell us about our need for repentance if revival is to come; how would such repentance be expressed both in prayer and in obedience?
Now let’s briefly look at each predisposition.
Predisposition toward the Status Quo
The signs are everywhere. Today’s church is paralyzed by the seeming impossibilities of the redemptive tasks before us. We sense the weight of urgency, coupled with uncertainty of how to proceed. We know that the tasks carry a sure guarantee of high cost for those who choose to go forward. In the face of this, our predisposition is not to move out. Rather it is to retreat and “hold the fort until Jesus comes.”
Often we opt for a survival mentality with little expectation for either changed lives or a changed world. We may fall to smugness, setting boundaries on the ways and works of God.
Our predisposition toward the status quo arises out of our predisposition toward parochialism, our willingness to stay in religious ghettos. We have all been there. This keeps us from seeing the needs of the world or being called to seek God for increased power to address those needs.
In many senses our churches are in a state of “denial” regarding the need for revival. As long as things are more or less all right for my family and my friends and my local church functions, I may ignore the vision of what more God wants to do and must do. I may retreat into the comfort of what is, much like an alcoholic who refuses to face up to his problem though everyone else can see it. As long as he remains in denial, he cannot be helped.
For many this retreat—presumption, smugness, intentional parochialism—really comes down to an issue of self-centeredness and self-indulgence. We are complacent about God’s desires to transform the status quo in revival and to unleash through us an invasion of Christ’s kingdom in new ways among the nations. Why” Because we are content to live without these things. As A.W. Tozer writes, “Acute desire must be present or there will be no manifestation of Christ to his people He waits to be wanted.”10 All too often, our desire is not acute because our desire is only for our own needs. “The termites of laziness, self-indulgence, narcissism, materialism, prayerlessness, and theological and biblical shallowness easily riddle the foundational planks of world missions.”11
But when we turn the coin over, we find yet another destructive predisposition.
Predisposition toward Idolatry
Idolatry is any illusion that has caused us to put something in the place of Christ. Idolatry is giving our allegiance and affections to another. As Os Guinness points out in No God but God, evangelicalism is rife with idols. He warns that idolatry is more offensive to God than apostasy. Idolatry is like adultery. It is not so much an issue of orthodoxy as an issue of passion. And if our passion is for the wrong things, then we will find ourselves depleted of all spiritual power. God will never bless a people who worship the works of their own hands.
To what extent has the evangelical church been seduced by the philosophies of this age—even by the futile hopes that the world holds on to for the twenty-first century? Have we grieved and quenched the Spirit of the living God? Have we too often devoted ourselves to the enterprise rather than the Prize?
We know, for example, that currently 99 percent of all global Christian material resources are consumed by Christians for themselves. Although there has been a tremendous jump in disposable annual personal income among Americans (a $2,511 average yearly increase), only $49 of it was given to the church last year by the average church member. In fact, projections are that average Christian giving will decline throughout this decade from a high of 2.79 percent of total income to a low of 1.94 percent by the year 2002.12
And there are many other forms—often quite surprising to most of us—that this idolatry can take. Appendix 2 suggests a few.
In the end, our paralysis is often an indictment of how “unblessable” we are before God. It is a manifestation of God’s anger with our idolatry, his predisposition to resist the proud, even to become our enemy if need be. This is what Joel, for example, shows God to be toward Judah in the locust plague he calls “God’s army.” God is leading his people. Jeremiah proclaims, “The Lord is like an enemy; he has swallowed up Israel” (Lam. 2:5). And Jesus warns a seduced congregation, “I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth” (Rev. 2:16).
Breaking with Satanic Strongholds
There is a final arena to be faced as we deal with our paralysis of unbelief. Satan lurks in the shadows, waiting at every point to exploit our two predispositions, to distract us from who Christ is and what he wants to accomplish in us, and to diffuse the divide every attempt we might make to rise up in faith and start again—to pick up our mats and walk.
According to a primary passage on the topic of satanic strongholds, 2 Corinthians 10, the most debilitating ones are found inside the church. There Satan has raised up barriers to our ability to understand the character and ways of God and to trust him accordingly. Clinton Arnold’s Powers of Darkness pinpoints one of Satan’s recent schemes in this regard: “This past decade has witnessed perhaps one of the greatest discreditings of the church in its history. Evangelical ministries have succumbed to temptations of sensual lust, pride and wealth in unparalleled proportions. In the West, the purity of the church has been disgraced.13 If Satan is not resisted, if his subtle toying with our paralysis of faith is not understood and confronted, if such strongholds are allowed to remain, we will be rendered even more powerless in impacting this generation.
The greatest danger, however, is this. The strongholds of our twofold predisposition can ultimately lead us into hardness of heart toward the things of God. This will once and for all kill our ability to make any difference for Christ. Then Satan will have prevailed in sabotaging us.
Until recently, rampant prayerlessness in the church might have led one to believe such hardness had already set in, irrevocable. (My own informal survey over the years has supported the conclusion that the average Christian prays about five minutes a day, and the average pastor not much more.” Prayerlessness is not only a reason for impotency in the work of God, but it is often a sign if impotency—we have become too paralyzed to hope, too calloused to believe, too coldhearted to care enough to pray.
But as described earlier, the good news is there is not only a great increase in prayer but a rising commitment in the church worldwide to ask God to deliver his church for this unbearable burden of paralysis, to seek and prepare for a coming national and world revival. (Chapter 9 discusses this in detail.)
HE MUST INTERVENE
God loves his church too much to leave us in our unrevived condition. Furthermore he loves us too much not to help us fulfill our destiny as coworkers with Christ in his global cause. He longs to visit us—to awaken us afresh to Christ.
So we can pray and prepare with confidence. God knows the church is in a condition that our healing, restoration, and redeployment in the mission of Christ is beyond our ability to accomplish for ourselves. He must intervene. He must bring us to repentance. He must reverse the predispositions within us. He must raise us up, set us free, and send us forth. He must pour out upon us a new revelation of Christ to break the paralysis of faith. “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the Word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). And then he must take us on into so much more to accomplish so much more for his glory.
We can come to him with the abounding hope that permeates Scripture: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon us. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (Isa. 60:1-3).
“This may be the great opportunity for the evangelical community,” observes Carl F. H. Henry. “We may at last discover that we need each other. It may put an end to the entrepreneur rivalries and it may drive us to our knees in prayer rather than in a manifestation of evangelical triumphalism. Only God knows.”