God uses various means as a catalyst for change in the church.
It was through the 16th century Protestant Reformation that God used people in the church to challenge the spiritual practices of the late medieval church and spark the upheaval of the accepted social and political order of the day. Those who call themselves Protestants today stand upon the shoulders of reformers who went before us like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and King Henry VIII. God spoke through this movement to bring focus on what became known as the five solas of the Protestant Reformation: Sola Scriptura (“by Scripture alone”), Sola Fide (“by faith alone”), Sola Gratia (“by grace alone”), Solus Christus (“through Christ alone”), and Soli Deo Gloria (“glory to God alone”).
In an Old Testament account recorded in 1 Kings, the prophet Elijah searched for God while feeling that everyone else had abandoned Yahweh. The Lord tells Elijah to “Go out and stand before me on the mountain.” Elijah waited for the windstorm, the wind, the earthquake and the fire, but the Lord was not in any of them (1 Kings 19:11-12). Finally, the Lord spoke to Elijah in a gentle whisper. We learn from this and other examples in Scripture that the Lord chooses both how and when to speak, but we cannot always predict His ways. Often, His methods are different from what we would expect and can be missed if we are not listening to the leading of the Holy Spirit. So, it should be of no surprise when those who should know better sometimes miss out as God is up to something.
Did We Miss the Cues?
Prior to the writing of the Gospels, the people of God went through a time known as the Intertestamental Period. This was a period of 400 years of apparent silence from God. Centuries had passed since a prophet had heard from God. Even though John the Baptist foretold the coming of Jesus, many of the Jewish religious leaders of the time were so focused on their cherished religious practices that they initially misjudged the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah.
We have the benefit of hindsight in seeing how Jesus burst through the Intertestamental Period and became the living incarnation of the New Covenant with mankind. But how do we know when we are currently living in a transformational moment? How do we ensure that we don’t miss a divine interruption? Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians provides practical instruction: “So be careful how you live. Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise. Make the most of every opportunity in these evil days.” (Ephesians 5:15-16 NLT) The body of Christ is found wanting because we have not made the most of every opportunity. And the world has noticed!
A Year that No One Planned
For most churches in the United States, 2020 started with the standard optimistic outlook. We anticipated new opportunities, faithful journeys in godly assignments, and the satisfaction of completed projects. And then the murmur of a contagious, novel virus loomed on the horizon. After national lockdowns in China and Italy, the virus became a global pandemic. In the midst of this pandemic, a police encounter in Minneapolis, Minnesota, over a potentially counterfeit twenty dollar bill turned deadly, and the world began to hear the story of George Floyd. This interaction, combined with the extrajudicial killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain and the shooting of Jacob Blake have created a ground-swell movement for racial justice.
Why did these deaths spark national outrage? The character traits of these specific individuals weren’t the impetus for the newfound moral clarity. No, the collective reckoning revolved around the fact that these actions did not seem just or fair, and that, in the midst of the coronavirus lockdown, we couldn’t anesthetize our pain by busyness or ignorance. We had to face these instances of injustice square in the face.
Sociologists have categorized these types of events as “condensed symbols.” Much like a song that played at your high school prom or a place where you had a first date, these symbols hold vivid memories beyond just the actual person, place or event itself. The event isn’t just an event—it’s a representation of a part of you! Much like the stoning of Stephen was a collective reminder of persecution in the early church, the deaths of Floyd, Arbery, Taylor, McClain, and countless others represented the collective struggle of God’s image-bearers who had been subjugated, stolen, enslaved, segregated, disenfranchised, marginalized, and demonized throughout the years.
Our Eyes Are On You, Lord!
One can interpret these incidents as coincidental consequences of reality. But with a spiritual eye, I see them as divine moments. Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have been asking the Lord to show us, His church, the purposes for these events. We don’t always have all of the answers, but one of the roles of the Holy Spirit is to illuminate and lead us in truth.
I remember hearing a sermon preached on the story of Jehoshaphat. King Jehoshaphat received word from messengers that “a vast army from Edom is marching against you from beyond the Dead Sea. They are already at Hazazon-tamar.” While Jehoshaphat was terrified of the news, he used the opportunity to call the people of Judah to begin fasting and praying. Jehoshaphat prayed these famous words: “We are powerless against this mighty army that is about to attack us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you” (2 Chronicles 20:12). God mightily responded to the nation’s prayers by revealing their specific assignment in the midst of the enemies attack and assuring them that the Lord would deliver them (2 Chronicles 20:15-17).
Sometimes, we can clearly see what God is doing in our midst. But at other times, we have to seek God for wisdom and understanding to discern the times. Just like we must exegete the biblical text in order to determine the truths that God is communicating through His Word, we must exegete the culture in order to understand what God might be saying through it to His Bride. God is always working in the earth through His church, but His work doesn’t always align with the agendas that religious institutions have established.
Does the Church Have Anything Meaningful To Say?
Far too often, the response of the church in times of change has been like that of Martha when Jesus visited her. Rather than sitting at the feet of Jesus and gleaning from His heart, Martha “was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made” (Luke 10:40).
Martha’s priorities were askew. She marred a divine moment by asking Jesus, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” (Luke 10:40). As a pastor, I often hear the church declaring, “Lord, don’t you know about all of the programs and conferences that we have to do?” when God might be present right in our very midst.
God did not design the church simply to respond to the events of the times. He intended the church to be a forerunner for the culture. Instead, the church has created its own separate ecosystem apart from the world and we haven’t explored how that very ecosystem has been tainted by nationalism, racism and whiteness.
Pastor Raymond Chang shared in a Twitter post: “What if young people are leaving so called gospel-centered churches NOT because they are drawn away by the world, but because … of a diluted gospel message that has nothing meaningful to say to the brokenness we see in the world?”
Chang went on to say, “[they] are looking for the activity of the Holy Spirit. They are searching for the ways God is moving and want to jump aboard. They are looking for the imprint of Christ in this world.”
What if young people are leaving so called gospel-centered churches, NOT because they are drawn away by the world, but because they are not drawn in by the preaching of a diluted gospel message that has nothing meaningful to say to the brokenness we see in the world?
— Raymond Chang (@tweetraychang) July 16, 2020
What if the issue is not that God isn’t speaking, but that we are not listening?
The church today is not much different from the church in the Old Testament. The prophet Amos, acting as God’s representative, rejected Israel’s presumptuous form of worship. In the grand scheme of priorities, Israel’s religious practices had replaced their faithfulness to the heart of God for justice and righteousness.
I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!
In an attempt to be counter-cultural, the church may have missed divine opportunities to engage the culture for the glory of God (Soli Deo Gloria). Rather than discussing how justice is at the heart of the gospel, some churches conveniently wrote off this justice reformation as “Cultural Marxism” or derived from secular “Critical Race Theory.” In other instances, the church proclaimed to be pro-life, but neglected the sanctity and security of life after the womb. Feigning as “sticking to orthodoxy,” the church replaced a healthy fidelity to the Scriptures with a stubborn obstinance that declares, “That’s the way it’s always been and that’s the way it’s going to be!” This season calls for more than sticking to the status quo. It’s time to engage the divine creativity that God has given us in order to find godly solutions to the challenges of this age.
Is This Something Bigger Than We Think?
Could it be that God was bringing an awakening, a revival to the world right before our eyes? How can we discern how the Spirit is moving in this season? We can clearly see that there is a transformation of our culture happening in this moment, but is there something more? America as a nation is reckoning with its conscience. We are reexamining racist symbols, ideologies, and mascots under a collective awareness that racism should no longer be acceptable in the public sphere. Do we see more than just this cultural shift happening in this season?
If we discern that God is up to something bigger than us, we also have to recognize that some of the work must begin in us, the church, as well. We often frame the work of revival in terms of what God does for the unredeemed. What if the revival that God desires is a transformation of His church?
Pruning for Growth
I remember in a season of transition, I reached out to a mentor of mine and he remarked, “Congratulations, you’ve been pruned!” He was referring to the passage of Scripture in John 15:2 in which Jesus declared, “I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more.”
Maybe God is pruning His church so that it can bear more fruit and be a more effective witness in the earth. When we recognize God’s powerful purposes, we gladly welcome the prayer of the Psalmist: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life” (Psalms 139:23–24).
There is no doubt that we are in the midst of an awakening and revival. The question remains whether the church will join in the process or be left as an institutional relic. Will we surrender ourselves, our programs, our methodologies at the feet of Jesus, so that He may mold us like the potter does the clay?
God may very well choose to bring revival to the street corner rather than the church pew if the church refuses to be washed by His Word. If we want to see God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven, we cannot continue the status quo. If we want God to move mightily and revive our hearts and minds, we have to be willing to engage in the messiness of broken cultures and systems and transform them for the glory of God.
We know that God is speaking in the midst of our chaos. The question is, “Are we listening?”