American Evangelicals today are deeply concerned about the state of our country, and with good reason. The collapse of public morality, and the attendant breakdown of the family, are truly alarming. Underlying this collapse are a number of seemingly intractable problems: a serious of adverse court decisions, a public education system stripped of all religious and moral content, a militantly secularist attitude on many university campuses. mainline denominations which have long since departed from the faith, and decadent values in the entertainment industry.
Nor are these problems mere intellectual abstractions either. Pastors must continually deal with the human wreckage that inevitably results from sin and vice. Broken homes, a variety of addictions, ruined finances, and destroyed health are the tragic consequences of the permissive life-style that prevails today.
Nor is the problem confined to the world outside of the church. The symptoms of spiritual decay are to be found right within the church itself. We see relatively few deep and lasting conversions, especially among adults. Many who attend church on Sunday live like the rest of the world on Monday. The divorce rate among professing Christians is nearly as high as it is among non-Evangelicals. Many young people reared in Christian homes are lost to the church by the time they reach adulthood. Even pastors sometimes become involved in scandalous sins like adultery, and congregations are frequently torn apart by strife. In short, Christianity often does not seem to make much an impact on the very people who are the most directly exposed to it, viz., the people who are already there in the church building, sitting int he pews Sunday after Sunday. It does not take any special gift of prophecy to see that unless there is a dramatic turnaround many of our churches will be extinct in two or three decades.
There is, however, no shortage of proposed solutions to these problems. The concept of a "seeker-friendly" church is especially popular today. The church targets a specific group within the community, and then seeks to identify the "felt needs" of that group. An appropriate "outreach ministry" is designed, and the church services are organized to accommodate the target group in every way possible. The sermon is typically filled with pop psychology or financial advice, and if reaching young adults is the overriding concern, then "Contemporary Christian Music" is the order of the day.
All of this can gain some very impressive short-term results. But there is a certain superficiality to it, and it is questionable as to whether or not this approach is really effective in producing lasting commitments and genuinely changed lives.
What is often overlooked in discussions today about evangelism and church growth is what the Bible says about these things. When Paul described the dynamic of his own ministry, or when he instructed others about how to conduct their ministries, he said not a word about any of the things that so engage the attention of the modern church. There is no discussion of strategy, technique, or method. Paul was not especially concerned about meeting felt needs, nor did he feel the necessity of having an elaborate musical program or a high energy youth ministry either. Rather, he attributed the effectiveness of his ministry to one factor alone, and that was the supernatural agency of the Holy Spirit. Writing to the Corinthians he explicitly disavowed any reliance on purely human means of persuasion. "I . . . did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom . . . And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that you faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God" (I Cor. 2:1-5, NKJV). And to the Thessalonians he said ". . . our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance. . ." (I Thess. 1:5).
For the apostle Paul, what produced results, strictly speaking, was not anything that he did, but rather something that God did. It was the Holy Spirit, working int he hearts of men and women, convicting them of sin, opening their minds to understand the truth, and planting within them repentance and faith, that actually produced the conversions. Significantly, the only human means enjoined in Scripture for the conversion of sinners is that of preaching, and the only means of securing the blessing of the Holy Spirit upon that ministry is prayer.
There is one symptom of the church's malaise that is more alarming than any other, and that is the demise of the Wednesday evening prayer meeting. Many Evangelical churches no longer have a prayer meeting at all, and the ones that still exist are poorly attended. A handful of the elderly will gather together, ask God to "bless the missionaries," and pray for the health needs of their acquaintances. Never are there tears of repentance, never any pleas for revival. It is the gentle slumber of an apathetic and complacent church.
What the modern church consistently overlooks is the role of the Holy Spirit in ministry. The church does not need elaborate strategies or sophisticated organization. The first century had none of these things, and we do not need them today. What the church needs is God, and until we return to Him, we will continue the patter of short term success and long term failure. We are faced with daunting challenges on every hand, but the church's long forgotten weapon is prayer.
Brethren, we have met to worship,
And adore the Lord our God;\
Will you pray with all your power,
While we try to preach the word?
All is vain unless the Spirit
Of the Holy One comes down;
Brethren, pray and holy manna
Will be showered all around.