Why Isn’t The Church Accomplishing More?
Yesterday, Presbyterians made front page headlines in newspapers all across the country. We are now part of a new denomination, The Presbyterian Church U.S.A.—and I am excited about that. For I believe that God can use this new church to revitalize our Presbyterian tradition and to enhance the spread of Christ’s Gospel in the world. Yet even in the celebration of the birth of a new denomination, questions are being asked, good questions, fair and honest questions: How can the new church wage a more effective ministry than its predecessors did? How can we halt the precipitous slide in church membership? If a church is not growing, it’s dying—there’s no such thing as maintaining the status quo in the church—if it’s not growing, it’s dying, so how do we infuse new life into this new denomination? How can the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. accomplish more in the world? These are fair and honest questions, deserving fair and honest answers. So let’s look at some answers…
One answer is this: The Church must restate her faith in more comprehensive terms.
In other words, if we say what we believe in words more readily understood by the society we are trying to reach, the church will be more successful.
Now surely there is no one who would not agree that it is important for us to proclaim our faith in words that the world will understand. We want our faith to be able to attack the citadels of atheism in our time. So let’s do state our faith in clear and precise terms. Let’s take the battle to where it ought to be fought—and there we cannot lose. You see, the atheist today is locked into a system in which he must affirm that everything that is has come about by chance. Yet modern scientists, almost to a man, disagree with that thesis. A great computer at M.I.T. is having reams of information fed into it every day. And this one question is being asked of that computer again and again: “Is there anytime between now and 15 billion years ago when any set of circumstances existed in such precise order that out of that set of circumstances everything that we know about our universe today could have come by chance or accident?” And the consistent answer of that computer is “Absolutely not.” To argue that our world is the fruit of some cosmic accident or catastrophe is to argue from the absurd. Nietzsche was quite consistent when he declared that God never was, and then proceeded to go insane. For if you really believe that everything has come about by accident or chance, then the logical result of that kind of thinking is complete despair or insanity.
So let’s take our faith to the atheist and challenge him on whatever intellectual grounds he chooses to argue. But let’s remember as we go that the center of our faith has never been a series of intellectual propositions. Let’s remember that our faith has never won or lost any day of its history on the basis of its creeds or confessions of faith. Let’s not forget that we are to have a faith which is not only intellectually stimulating but which can be understood by a child.
Let’s not forget that we can become so involved in propositions that we forget to pray. Let’s not forget that we can become so involved in arguing for the faith that we lose sight of the fact that we are called to live it.
I submit to you, therefore, that stating the faith in more intellectually relevant terms is not going to be the answer to the Church’s accomplishing more.
A second answer then is this: The Church will accomplish more if it moves beyond words to works.
After all, Jesus says: “Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.” John writes: “If any man says that he loves God and hates his brother, he is a liar and the truth is not in him.” James says: “Faith without works is dead.” So let’s get busy with good works.
I am sure that no one here will dispute such statements. We are sufficiently sophisticated as Christians to understand that our faith is never to be lived in isolation—that no one who truly loves God can ever sit idly by while another human being suffers. We understand that.
But do we also understand that it is not enough to simply meet the external needs of a person? A few years ago there was a Haberdashers’ Convention in New York. As a public relations gimmick, they went down into the Bowery and picked up a bum out of the gutter. They bathed him, shaved him, manicured him, styled his hair, and outfitted him in a splendid suit and shoes. They photographed the whole process, and this gutter-bum turned out to be the picture of elegance. The hotel manager observed all this, and realizing that this man was being given an unusual chance, the manager offered him a good job. The man said: “I’ll be here in the morning.” But the next morning, he didn’t show up. The hotel manager went to look for him and found him back in the gutter in the Bowery. You see, they changed the man’s external appearance and circumstances, but they changed nothing deep within him. So, yes, we must give ourselves to the service of this world’s people. We must direct the resources of the Church to the solving of society’s problems. But that still is not the ultimate answer to the question.
There is the third answer: The Church must secure a vital, living relationship with a vital, living Jesus Christ!
You see, the center of our faith has never been a proposition or a program—it has always been a person. To try to center Christianity in anyone or anything other than Jesus Christ is to court failure. What the Church must reclaim in our time is the cornerstone of our faith, which if it has not rejected, it has at least ignored. What the Church must possess again is a vital living relationship with a vital, living Jesus Christ. The evidence for that is incontestable.
Hear what Jesus Himself says. He claims to be the center of our faith. He does not say: “I’ll offer a string of pat answers to your questions.”—He says: “Follow me, I am the answer.”
Look at what Paul says. He was a brilliant man, perhaps the most brilliant of his day. His intellect was enormous. He laid down the doctrines of the faith with an effectiveness which has been unequalled. But what does Paul say is the center of his faith? His defense of the faith and his grasp of the issues? No. He says: “For to me to live is Christ. It is not I who live but Christ who lives in me.”
Or listen to Peter. He was vitally concerned about the problems of the world. He wanted to take the Kingdom of heaven by storm and build the Kingdom of God on earth at the same time. He was a zealot for the Lord’s work. But what does he say? That the answers to the world’s problems are to be found in some social theory or program? Not at all. He says: “Christ is the cornerstone. There is no other name by which you may be saved except Christ Jesus.” Take Martin Luther. He was a great scholar, yes; but did he build his life’s work upon his scholarly pursuits. No. Luther says: “I begin my belief with the wounds of my Jesus.” Jesus, you see, was the center of his commitment.
Come closer to our time and listen to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He has come to be regarded as one of the theological giants of this century. He was so concerned about this world’s problems that he gave his life in an effort toward solving them. Yet listen to what he writes in a great book called Christ the Center: “We must come to grips with men like Goethe and Socrates—on this our education depends. But on our coming to grips with Jesus Christ depend life and death, salvation and damnation. This is the principle on which everything else rests. As Peter said, “There is salvation in no one else.” Goethe and Socrates can be avoided because they are dead. But it is impossible to avoid Jesus Christ because He is alive.” That’s a living relationship to a living Christ.
Search the history of the Church today or any day, and you will find committed men and women depending completely upon Jesus Christ as Lord. Rich—like Count Zinzendorf. Poor—like Mother Teresa. Educated—like Augustine. Uneducated—like Francis of Assisi. Professional—like Paul Coulson. Non-professional—like Don McClure. Every single one of them has as the breath of his spiritual life a living relationship to a living Lord. He is why they accomplish so much.
Now I know that some will be quick to accuse me of advocating an emotional escapism—a retreat from the blood and the dust of living in today’s arena.
That simply is not true. The relationship of which I speak is not escape from life—rather it is a plunging into the very heart of life. In his book, No Easter for East Germany, Alvin Currier tells the story of a young East German preacher, his wife and his four children. It was just before the Berlin Wall was completed. The young preacher and his family knew that soon that mammoth Wall would razor its way across one of the great cities of the world. They were visiting with relatives in West Berlin for the last time. They knew it. They knew this would be their last chance to stay in the West where freedom is. All day long they thought about it. Then that evening, as they sat for the last time in the home of their loved ones in the West, the wife began to crack under the strain. She became very cynical. She said, “Oh yes, let’s hurry back to the East so that the children can have fresh fruit for a snack before bed” (knowing that there was no fresh fruit in East Berlin). “Oh yes”, she said, “let’s go back to the East where the children can wear fine woolens knitted for them by their grandmother” (knowing that the grandmother lived in the West and that once the wall was built they would never see her again). “Oh yes”, she said, “let’s go back to where we have to fight for everything we believe, where every time we mention Jesus’ name we drive nails into our own coffin. Why can’t someone else do it? What good are the six of us against 17 million? After all, Jesus Christ is there—why do we have to be there?” Here she broke down into uncontrollable sobs. Her husband put his arm around her, the children moved very close and it was quiet. For a..long time, it was quiet. But in that long, painful silence, the decision was made. Those six got up, and hand in hand, they went back into a Red world…
You tell me that the kind of living relationship with Jesus Christ I’m talking about is an escape into primrose-path living, that it is not strong enough for the blood and dust of living in today’s arena? Oh, my friends that kind of courage, that kind of commitment, that kind of electing the hard, when the easy is an open alternative—that’s not escape—that’s charging into the very heart of life!
This then is the center of our faith: that a man, Jesus of Nazareth, condemned by a man, Pontius Pilate, was crucified on a cross sunk in this solid earth, was raised again from the dead, is living still, and begs to live in your life and in mine. That is the secret of the Church’s power. There is no other power by which we can be saved. And that is a power which we can experience in our own lives.
I suppose it all comes down to this.
I come to this pulpit Sunday after Sunday with but one motivation. There is but one thing that possesses me and it is this: to let you know about the love of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the center of our faith.
I call you today to claim Him as your own. I don’t care how you do it. It may take minutes. It may take hours. It may take days. You may write it out. You may talk it out. You may pray it out. But however long it takes and whatever way you choose to do it, I call you to surrender. Break your sword. Haul down your flag. Commit your life anew, all of it, to this vital, living Jesus. Pledge that you will stay close to Him. Don’t let the sun go down on any day in which you do not speak to Him. Glow in His love. Grow in His spirit. Immerse yourself in His Word. Look again and again at His cross to see the height and the depth and the breadth of the love God has for you. If you do these things something new and beautiful and powerful will happen to you. And if it happens to you, it will happen to the Church, for you are the Church!
It was said of the church at Ephesus that it had lost its first love. Well, the Church today may be in danger of losing its first love. We must reclaim a vital, living relationship with a vital, living Christ. Then we shall be filled with power and with love. And the Church shall be filled with power and with love. And the world will stand and say: “What must we do to be like you?” And we shall answer like Peter of long ago: “Come to the Christ, the cornerstone of our faith; for there is no other name under heaven by which you may be saved.”
He saves—and He alone—and He saves to the uttermost…