Present day Church
How are we to understand the problems of many contemporary Christian churches? Is there a crisis of faith among some believers? Is there no longer a trust in the authority of the Bible as the Word of God? Has materialism overwhelmed faith? I want to look at it from a different point of view. Perhaps a large part of the problem begins with the kind of Gospel that is presented to people in many places.
Evangelicals for a long time have placed an emphasis on the need for people to be saved. Salvation is what Christ came to bring about, and it is what the apostles sought to make available to people everywhere. The book of Revelation tells us that when Jesus Christ returns to take those who belong to him,
…there will be a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb (Rev. 7:9).
If we look at all the evangelistic efforts over many years, and even in countries such as the Ukraine and the Russian Federation, particularly after the fall of Communism, we will find that only a small percentage of people who showed an interest in the Christian Gospel at that time, have had a life-transforming experience of Jesus Christ.
In 1992 I was invited to join an evangelistic trip organised by the churches of the Russian Federation and Ukraine, down the Ob River in Western Siberia. We travelled on a ship from Tobolsk up to Salekhard in the Arctic region, stopping at various towns and large villages while the Russian pastors preached to people, and young people circulated among people in the streets, explaining the Gospel to whoever would listen. Hundreds of people showed an interest, and there was no reason to doubt their sincerity. After 74 years of atheism, people were hungry for something more meaningful in life than what Communism had offered them. What they were saying by their interest, was, ‘We need to know God. Help us.’
Life in Siberia is extremely hard. The environment is harsh, and not too many people survive the conditions without suffering all kinds of ailments. For people who have not grown up in that kind of environment, it is very difficult to adapt. Obviously, the churches in the large centres of Russia and Ukraine wanted to establish churches in Siberia, and continue to help those who showed an interest in Christianity. But, instead of sending the best trained Christian workers into those areas to help people with their search for God, the churches sent the least trained and the least equipped Christians to work in that extremely difficult environment. Many of them were fine Christians, keen to serve the Lord, but it was the responsibility of church leaders to judge whether they were the right kind of people to send there. Today there are very few churches in Western Siberia that display signs of dynamic life after more than 20 years of gospel witness. Christian churches that used to meet in the most primitive situations under Communism, were alive and vibrant. They have now become more concerned with having big, attractive church buildings that cost an incredible amount of money by their standards.
Church leaders tend to dismiss these problems by saying, ‘These are signs of the times. People’s hearts are getting harder and harder to the gospel’. On the one hand this is true, but we have failed to analyse the whole situation fairly. The problems churches face in Eastern Europe, are not significantly different from those facing churches in the West.
How is the Christian Church to help people into a genuine relationship with God through Jesus Christ? Jesus said to his disciples,
You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last. (John. 15:16).
What is it that we have failed to understand; that we should have done better? Let’s begin at the beginning.
Created for God
Let’s begin with the human condition as the Bible explains it. When God first created Adam and Eve, and placed them in the Garden of Eden, he wanted to have communion with them. That is an incredible thought in itself! This is one of the things that distinguishes the Christian position from all other religions. In other religions it is the striving of people to connect to their ‘gods’. In Christianity, it is God who wants a relationship with people, and the One who seeks people.
We are told that people were created in the image of God. What that means, no-one is entirely sure. Because God is Spirit, it has nothing to do with ‘looking like’ God. But, because the same thing is not said of animals, it must mean that God wanted human being to be able to know him, and communicate with him. Eden was a sanctuary where they could experience God’s love and care. At the same time, life was to be a learning experience. They were to grow and mature in their relationship with God and with each other through the daily responsibilities given them. In close relationship with God, they were to discover true wisdom, humility, worship and thanksgiving (Psalm 8). These were essential if they were to understand the meaning of life as God designed it, and to live and work in harmony with God.
Under God, Adam was able to bring order and meaning to the circle of life that made up their human existence. God also set boundaries to Adam’s freedom. He said, You are free to eat from any tree in the garden, but if you eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you will surely die (Gen. 2:17). God was the source of their life, wisdom, and understanding. As their Creator, he had the right to set boundaries to what they could or could not do. There was no anxiety in this relationship. Harmony with God, his will and intentions, brought a sense of well-being, meaning, satisfaction, and predictability.
However, this state of well-being would continue only as long as they accepted their relationship of creature and Creator, i.e. that they were created for him, and that they were to live in a way that would bring him the glory due to him. (Eph. 1:4, 6, 14).
Tempted to be like God
Into this intimate relationship came an intruder, determined to break up this relationship and spoil God’s plans. The serpent began his deadly work by sowing seeds of doubt in Eve’s mind. Has God said? Are you sure that’s what God really meant? Can you trust him to know what is best for you? Human uncertainty about God’s will is always ground for temptation. Satan then attacked God directly by questioning his goodness. Would a good God really keep something from them? If you eat the fruit, you will not surely die, Satan said. In fact, when you eat of it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, being able to judge for yourself the difference between good and evil.
Human beings made in the image and likeness of God, were already like God as far as human beings can ever be. Was Satan offering them something more? In what way could they become like God if they ate the forbidden fruit?
If they already knew what was good, why was Eve so vulnerable to Satan’s temptation? Satan’s offer included the knowledge of evil. Surely, for people who had been given the responsibility of looking after God’s creation, all knowledge was important! They would be able to govern the world in their own right, with their own understanding. They could be independent even as God was independent. Knowledge of good and evil in the ancient sense, however, meant omniscience; something they could never have. The human ego is one of the most vulnerable parts of our human nature and Satan knows how to exploit this weakness.
This raises the question, ‘How could Eve believe Satan’s lie while rejecting God’s warning, if sin had not yet entered the world?’ It is an important issue to understand. James says that once a person yields to the enticement to do wrong, sin takes place. (Jas. 1:14-15). But, the temptation to sin, is not sin. What we see in Genesis is a compressed account of what happened. Eve must have given a lot of thought to her desire before she actually yielded to the temptation. It’s when a person continues to dwell on an issue that is wrong, that Satan finds vulnerability. That’s when he attacks. We can’t help thinking wrong thoughts that come to us again and again. But, if we continue to entertain these thoughts and become more and more involved with these thoughts, we open ourselves to the next step in the temptation: the act that leads to sin.
Christians are sometimes puzzled by the question, why did God make Adam and Eve capable of sinning? Doesn't Genesis 1:31 say that everything God made was ‘very good’? The need to grow towards maturity is a universal need. A small plant can be perfect, but it still needs to grow into a mature plant. It’s the same with human beings. How we grow, depends on the decisions we make. That is where Adam and Eve were confronted with a choice. Were they going to believe what God said, or were they going to launch into an unknown future by believing what Satan said to them? We face exactly the same choices in life.
Since Adam and Eve’s rejection of what God said, because they wanted knowledge of good and evil that was independent of God, that attitude has characterised sinful human beings ever since. ‘No-one has the right to tell me what is right for me’, is the attitude of people everywhere. Why is this such a widespread attitude? Because it had a common beginning in the Garden of Eden.
Once Adam and Eve tasted the forbidden fruit, the relationship, the harmony and the order that had been there as part of the original creation, were destroyed. No longer could they face God with a clear conscience. Their desire to hide from God was symptomatic of their changed lives. A great rift between them and God took place. Ever since, people have attempted to hide from God because they are aware of sin in their lives, and what would be involved in them facing up to a holy God.
In Adam and Eve, the whole human race lost God’s immediate presence. Their disobedience led to the loss of the quality of life that comes directly from God; the kind of life that not only could relate to God, but even wanted to relate to him. Fellowship with God was only possible while there was trust in him. Once that trust was gone, so was the fellowship. They had to hide from God because of a deep sense of guilt and shame. From that point of time they had to rely on themselves in new and terrifying ways. Next, they lost direct access to God. They were banished from the Garden of Eden, the place where they had previously had communion with God every day, and where they enjoyed all his blessings on a daily basis. There was no way back (Gen. 3:24). Finally, they lost the very thing they wanted most, true knowledge. This knowledge had to do with clear-sightedness regarding themselves, others and the world into which they were placed. They lost their understanding of God’s intentions for human life.
Life as a movement from a wonderful past, through an exciting present and into a meaningful future, was to be no more than a vague memory. Their new-found wisdom, perverted, self-centred, self-seeking and short-sighted was insufficient to help them create a meaningful existence. They lost peace of mind, harmony with God, with each other and with others. They lost wholeness within, and moral innocence.
Did they gain anything? Yes, they gained condemnation, guilt and shame. They gained frustration in toil and constant anxiety. They gained alienation in a world that God intended to be essentially social. As soon as God faced Adam and Eve with their disobedience, they began to blame each other. No longer could they depend on each other again. They gained a desire for domination and power. They gained a new master who was evil, ruthless and destructive. With this new relationship came sin, death and bondage. They gained a blindness and deafness to God and to his goodness. Finally, they gained the burden of choice without the capacity to control the consequences of their choices.
Life no longer led to worship, praise and thankfulness. The focus changed from God-centredness to human-centredness. God-given limits to exploration and discovery have ever since been discarded. Human perversion constantly breaks the bounds of goodness, decency, compassion, fairness and rightness in all areas of knowledge, literature, arts and sciences. People continue to do what is right in their own eyes, claiming that no one has the right to tell them what to do in their personal lives.
The change of focus that took place with the coming of sin into the world, is characteristic of fallen humanity. God-centred life and worship that led to quietness and confidence in God’s goodness, protection, and provision, now became a frustrating attempt to deal with all the problems of life with one’s own wisdom and abilities.
The amazing grace of God did not give up on them. He immediately promised to put an end one day to Satan’s power and influence through One he would send. God set into motion his rescue package that led stage by stage to the final solution to the sin problem. This is where the New Testament comes in. Firstly, God dealt with the sin problem. This he did in two ways: 1) the penalty for our rebellion against God was paid in Jesus Christ. By his perfect obedience to the Father he brought human rebellion to an end in himself, and as the perfectly obedient One he offered himself on our behalf to face God’s judgement against sin. He who was sinless, took upon himself our sin so that we can experience God’s forgiveness and be reconciled with God. (Rom. 5:18-19). 2) As the perfectly obedient One, he now offers himself to help us discover freedom from slavery to our old sinful nature. Whenever Paul talks about the freedom into which a Christian has come, it is always the freedom to be what God intended us to be. To Paul, that is also an integral part of the gospel—the good news that God wants us to experience in Jesus Christ. By accepting Jesus Christ as our personal Saviour, we are saying that we accept God’s analysis of our problem, and his solution in Jesus Christ as the only remedy that is available for us. (John 14:6).
A door to growth
When the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, he said he was writing to people who were being saved (1 Cor. 1:18; 15:2; 2 Cor. 2:15). What did he mean by that? On the one hand the New Testament teaches that those who put their trust in Jesus Christ for salvation, experience that salvation immediately. Jesus said,
I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life (John 5:24).
Paul was aware that once we become Christians God’s process of changing us, has only begun. We have to learn to understand life from God’s point of view, and we have to learn to live differently. As our Creator, he knows the best path through life for us. We have all grown up in an environment where the perspectives and values of society have shaped the way we think and the way we act. Our mindset has to undergo a process of change. This doesn’t occur overnight. That’s why God has given us the Bible. It is God’s manual for godly living. Only as we make the reading and study of the Bible a serious part of daily discipline, do we begin to understand what has to change in us. To help us with this process, God gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit when we put our trust in him.
Before Jesus left this earth, he told his disciples that
…when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth … he will take from what is mine and make it known to you (John 16:13-14).
To be guided into all the truth God wants us to know, involves being prepared to be guided. The Holy Spirit does not guide us without reference to what God has said in the Bible. As we come to understand more and more of the real message of the Bible, we will find that our faith in God will be very personal. People who claim to be Christians but neglect the Bible for personal growth, are second-hand Christians. They depend on other people for their information. When their faith is tested, they don’t have a chance at surviving. When we see people drawing away from Christianity, it is probable that they never came into a real relationship with Jesus Christ that they continued to nurture through a study of the Bible, through prayer, through fellowship with other believers, and through regular worship and service.
I remember an experience in 1992, as we were heading in our ship towards the Arctic region, we were sitting around a table for our evening meal. A young woman who was translating for the ‘foreigners’, asked us the question, ‘There is an island in the Arctic region referred to as ‘the end of the world’. Does that mean that if the Gospel we are preaching on this trip reaches that island, Jesus will return?’ It was a serious misunderstanding of a poorly translated passage in Matthew 24:14. However, it raised a problem in the perspective of some church leaders who believed that the Church’s responsibility was simply to preach the Gospel.
As a result of this trip, I developed a relationship with a pastor sent by a large Ukrainian church to a village along the Ob River, in order to follow up on the evangelistic expedition of the previous year, and to plant a church there. I travelled there on a number of occasions after that, in order to help them financially with their new building, and with encouragement. When I was leaving them on one occasion, the pastor asked me if I had a ‘word from the Lord’ to pass on to them. Aware of the lack of personal follow-up that was taking place among new believers, I read him the words of the Great Commission where it talks about ‘making disciples’ of all nations. I pointed out the need to do this, not just through teaching, but by helping individuals and training them to be disciples. His response was, ‘That’s not what our Bible says’. I subsequently discovered that the Russian Synodal Bible reads, ‘go and preach to all nations’. The translation failed to communicate the Greek original, where Jesus stressed the importance of ‘making disciples’. The difference in translations suggests a difference between the way subjects are taught at university and the training provided in technical institutes. At university we are simply taught a subject. Whatever practical benefit that course ends up being, depends on us. Whereas, in a technical institute, students are taught and trained. They have to put into practice what they are learning.
The pastor failed to understand the difference. He is not the only church leader who has failed to understand the importance of ‘making disciples’.
Accepting a shallow view of Christianity
Many western churches use the excuse that their ‘small group’ programs take care of that; when in fact, they do not. I have heard the same excuse used by a pastor in Ukraine when I asked what the church was doing to disciple new believers. ‘Our small groups look after that,’ he said. I happened to attend one of these small groups in Odessa. No doubt the leader was much more mature and capable than many small group leaders I have seen over the years. But, because there was a real mixture of mature and immature Christians, there was no way of discovering the real position of the young believers. They were lost in the ‘group think’ that occurs in these groups. In our western churches, many small groups, especially among young people are led by inexperienced and untrained people, who wouldn’t know how to begin making disciples. To be a good small group leader, they think, means to be a good discussion leader, giving everyone a chance to participate. The end result in many groups is a consensus thinking based on what ‘we’ think about a passage, rather than what the Bible really says. Some Christians end up with a superficial knowledge of what it means to be a Christian, and people who have not yet committed their lives to Christ are mistaken for those who have, because they have picked up a Christian vocabulary in their conversations. What a tragedy that these people were never helped to come into a real relationship with the Lord!
Evangelicalism, in some churches is content to function at the lowest common denominator in its beliefs and understanding. The excuse has been that Paul decried the wisdom of the world when he said,
For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength. (1 Cor. 1:25).
God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no-one may boast before him. (1:27-29).
Unfortunately, this has been used to encourage lazy minds among Christians. Emil Brunner, the theologian once said,
Jesus Christ is not the enemy of reason, but only of the irrational arrogance of those who pride themselves on their intellect, and of the irrational self-sufficiency of reason.
Paul decried the wisdom that was independent of God, and in rebellion against him.
One of the symptoms of a diluted Christianity is the proliferation of so-called ‘pastors’ in churches. It is a practice that has been borrowed from charismatic churches, and not from a new understanding of ‘ministry’, as some would like us to believe. We now have pastors for young people, pastors for families, pastors for worship, and so on. With this proliferation of pastors, we have a concomitant reduction in the biblical training that is expected of them. Surely, this can only lead to a perpetuation of shallow Christianity.
Jesus did not send his disciples to ‘evangelise’, or to lead people to make some kind of ‘decision’ for him. He sent them to ‘make disciples’. Of course evangelism has to take place in order to lead people to faith in Christ, but that needs to be the first step to helping them grow to maturity in Christ. In his Great Commission, Jesus added, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (Mt. 28:20). This involves the training I mentioned earlier. Ensuring that people are helped to put into practice what they are learning.
The problem with some people who fall away from their original interest in Christianity isn’t God’s fault. It has been ours. It isn’t enough to lead them to faith in Christ, and then leave them to cope for themselves. If we had carried out our responsibilities as given to us by Christ in the first place, and helped and taught new believers, establishing them firmly in their new-found faith, we would have less second-hand Christians, and more believers who were prepared to stand firmly through thick and thin, and so bring glory to God.
 Emil Brunner, Revelation and Reason (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1946) p16.