This weekend I attended the annual convention of the American Baptist Churches of Maine (ABCOM). It was my first convention as a pastor within our covenant-community of churches, and it was good to meet some of my fellow-workers in the Lord. There was the usual mix of worship and business and socializing, and the main theme of the weekend centered around encouraging our churches toward becoming more missional. And the thought here is not simply to do more door-to-door evangelism, but to do community development programs that meet our neighbors at their point of need. A wonderful thing to aim for, certainly. It was inspiring and powerful, and a lot of good ideas and resources were offered for the equipping of the churches toward that end.
I give that positive introduction to mitigate what I’m about to say. I’m a “critical thinker” by nature, and I have a few critiques I wanted to address; but overall it was a very good convention. I should also explain at the outset, for those readers who live in other corners of the country or world, that Maine (and New England as a whole), is rapidly abandoning its traditional Christian faith and becoming widely and aggressively secular. Among my own generation (people in their twenties), I would estimate that 95% in the Calais area choose to have nothing to do with church.
So that’s the situation. But let’s get to my critique of the convention’s presentation of the missional church. The main thing that bothered me was the tone of it all. Making our churches more missional is all well and good. The church should indeed be reaching out beyond its own walls. Missions—including home missions—is in my blood. Nothing excites me more than the thought of the expansion of God’s kingdom, of revival and new believers. However, one of the characteristic downfalls of those who urge us on toward missional activity is that they sometimes tend to downplay the normal life of the church. And I heard some of that this weekend. I heard things like, “We need to stop trying to maintain what we have inside our walls, and reach out to those outside our walls.” One got the feeling that a few of the commentators wanted us to define church life in terms of its missionality. I wanted to say, “Hey, hold on here! Mission is important, but it’s not the only thing. Our worship to God is important. Our church meetings are important. The preaching of the Word of God is an act of wonder, a holy mystery. The nurture of the Body is important. The celebration of the sacraments and ordinances is important. What we do inside our church walls, week in and week out, is inherently valuable and worthwhile, no matter how many people are in the pews. Let’s be missional, yes! But let’s not talk trash about the beauties of congregational life and worship in doing it!” The truth is, mission is a vital part of being a church. But being a church is not reducible to mission alone. Churches should not be forced to feel themselves failures if their outreach goes unnoticed and their pews go empty. The worship of God and the mere metaphysical fact of being the church is extraordinary and inherently valuable.
Another characteristic downfall is that, in their attempts to motivate us toward action, missional speakers tend to become preachers of doom-and-gloom spiritual futurescapes. A large chunk of what I heard this weekend revolved around a sense of mourning for the rapidly-degenerating state of American culture and spirituality, especially among our young people. There was a palpable sense of desperation, as if we were the embattled few fighting for the last defense of the world. While it’s true that a lot depends on us and on our efforts, and that our culture is moving in a truly mournful direction of spiritual malaise, the tone of these meetings lacked something of the powerful, optimistic trust in the sovereignty of God that probably should be there.
We serve a God who is infinitely able to accomplish his will. He is in control, and we already know that the end of the story is an end of ultimate triumph and of the global celebration of the kingdom of God. Even if Maine of the 21st century becomes a heathen wasteland, it’s not the end of the world. It’s not the end of God’s church. It’s happened before, in other places; it’s happening right now in Europe and Canada; and for all we know, in three hundred years the pendulum might well swing all the way back to another Great Awakening.
Here’s how I see it: I work and pray for revival, here and now, in Calais and in Maine as a whole. But unless God sovereignly begins to move through our efforts in a new and surprising way, it’s not going to happen. What will happen is this: the old, faithful generations will die off. My generation will continue their slide into churchlessness. Many small churches will have to close their doors. Popular culture will become even more suspicious and hostile to Christianity. (I don’t anticipate actual governmental persecution of Christians on anything close to the scale of the historical persecutions of the faith, partly because I respect the stability and fairness of the American system of government; but I suppose it is a distant possibility). Our culture will become more amoral and hedonistic than it already is, leading to a degeneration of public life. Vices like drugs and pornography will continue to abound; moral relativism will take hold. Public life will be largely ruled by popular media—TV, Internet, etc.
Into this rather bleak vision of New England’s future, the vast breakthrough of the Gospel in Latin America, Africa, China, and, God willing, India and the Middle East, will trickle back into the post-Christian West. The US and Europe will continue to become mission fields for the African and Chinese churches, and their vitality might just prove strong enough to swing the pendulum back in our spiritually-starved society. That’s what I think will happen. Faith may be waning in Maine right now, and it will probably wane further. But it’s waxing brilliant and strong elsewhere. God is still in control.
It’s an old story—it happened in all the areas which are now the Muslim heartlands, and which were previously the greatest bastions of Christian faith—Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor—their Christian communities saw the societies around them torn away from the Gospel and the true faith, and they had to adjust to life as a small, faithful remnant community in the midst of their non-Christian and anti-Christian neighbors. It might have seemed like a desperate situation, as if the survival of the Christian faith itself was in question. But, in an unforeseen development, the Gospel had penetrated and won the barbarian, pagan hinterlands of northern Europe and Russia, and now, after a millennium and a half, the Gospel is finally beginning a powerful return to its old home in the Middle East.
It reminds me of an old quote I’ve always liked. I can’t find the reference, but it draws on the image of a long battle-front wreathed in mist, and goes something like this: “The enemy is all around you, on every side. But do not despair. It may be that you lie entrenched in the last remaining pocket of enemy resistance, and beyond the mist and smoke, your fellows and your friends have already won the field.” And (since we’re in a quote-quoting mode), it comes down to this: “Have plenty of courage. God is stronger than the devil. We are on the winning side” (John Chapman).
It’s the mood of hand-wringing from our churches that gets me. Obviously we need to be working in mission and evangelism. But much of what I heard this weekend feels to me like the reaction of a church that had been triumphant in its culture for a long while, and had grown to assume that that situation was the status quo. Unfortunately, they didn’t realize what an abnormal situation it truly was. And when the regular course of history returned—that is to say, when the church began to become again a despised, marginalized group of spiritual sojourners with little influence on the popular culture—they didn’t know how to deal with it. Spiritually speaking, we’re returning toward the sort of society that Jesus apparently expected us to live in—hostile to spiritual truth, in which the church would be a faithful remnant, a witnessing, prophetic community. God may bring great revivals, but let us not despair if he does not. We are not in an unusual situation if we find that people don’t want to hear about Jesus. Rather, we are in a biblical situation—the very situation that Jesus and the apostles expected. All we can do is be faithful, proclaim the Word, build up our brothers, celebrate the grace of God in the ordinances, live transparently in the love of Christ, and let him do the mysterious, wonderful work of bringing the harvest-fields to the point of readiness again. Christ is victorious; he has already won. Let us be faithful and obedient, trust and rejoice in him, and take what comes.
This seems to me to be the biblical attitude. Paul and the other apostles exemplified a life of outward ministry. But—interestingly enough—virtually nowhere in all their written instructions to the churches (the epistles) do they ever implore us to be active in evangelism. And to a modern evangelical, that ought to seem like a strange omission, given the way we harp on it. But perhaps Paul and the apostles knew that it was really God’s work, far more than it is ours. We, the church, will do what we can do, and we leave the rest to him. He will win the day. But it may not come here and now, in our towns and in our lifetimes. Paul certainly did not live to see Rome and Corinth and Ephesus come to the point of the majority converting to faith in Christ. It did happen, but it was some four or five hundred years later. Paul simply did the work of evangelism, encouraged the church to live lovingly and gracefully, and entrusted the rest to God. And he knew God’s plan would prevail in the end. The truth is, we may actually be living in the days of the greatest harvest of all, given the way Christianity is exploding around the world. We just happen to be in a distant little corner of the world (yes, it’s true, America isn’t actually the center of everything) where our faith is receding at the moment.
It will be interesting to see the adjustments that our churches make in the coming years. I was the youngest pastor at the convention. I might have been the only person younger than thirty there (and it wasn’t just pastors; laypeople had been invited as delegates too). There were only two or three in their thirties; a handful in their forties. I would estimate that 95% of the attendees were over the age of fifty, and the majority sixty and older. As those generations pass over into their blessed rest in the coming decades, smaller churches will probably have to close their buildings and consolidate together. And we will have to adjust to life as a faithful witness rather than the life as a leading voice in the public sphere which we have up till now enjoyed in the US. I hope it doesn’t go that way. I hope our efforts at home missions here and now will be wildly successful, sparking revivals on every side. But I suspect it will continue on its current trend for awhile yet. It’s not a heartening thought, but such is the history of the church. And God is still in control.