I attended a Southern Baptist church nine months before I was born. I come from, if you will, a “minister’s family,” as my father is retired from a Southern Baptist entity; my grandfather was a Minister of Education; and my uncle has been an IMB missionary more than 35 years. Both my parents were not only “saved,” but they have lived their lives as true, yet, imperfect, examples of born-again believers.
Through experiences in life, I have had the privilege to observe several thousand churches, listen to numerous pastors, worship in practically every style available, dialog with brothers and sisters in Christ, and read countless books on the church. As a pastor, I have served four churches, three of which were seminary pastorates, and have a Master’s, and Ph.D. from a Southern Baptist seminary in evangelism.
I have read thousands of books, articles, blogs, etc., concerning the state of the church. People make statements such as, “We’re not growing because preachers don’t preach expository messages,” “We’re not growing because we don’t sing hymns,” “We’re not growing because we don’t sing praise choruses/contemporary music,” “We’re not growing because we’re not planting churches,” “We’re not growing because of the Calvinism/Arminianism debate,” “We’re not growing because we don’t do it the way we used to,” “We’re not growing because we’re not using the right evangelistic strategies,” and so forth. I have attended conferences on church growth, planting, evangelism, Sunday school, preaching, worship, and the like, but I am not convinced a lack in any one or more of these is the single reason for the decline not only in our denomination, but also, in the fervor of the average church member. Yes, we often try and emphasize church maturity/discipleship through contemporary books such as Radical, Not a Fan, and Crazy Love (I do not personally subscribe to the theological positioning of these works). While discipleship is critical to the spiritual development/growth of a born-again believer, the greatest sources of discipleship are the Word of God and the Holy Spirit.
It seems that my generation is bogged down in such areas as a theological understanding of the Gospel through the eyes of John Calvin and Jacobus Arminius; preaching that is either too contemporary and less biblical, or preaching which is more biblical with no practicality; and worship as the purpose of the church instead of worship as a result from obedience to Christ—that is, making disciples (Matt 28:18-20). I have read others writings, studied my discipline—evangelism, heard preachers (some with genuine hearts, others with agendas), examined the Scriptures, and served churches, and all the while, I witness our world growing colder to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Many people have tried to explain through various means as to why the church in the West is in decline. Some would say it is the government. While others would argue that our morality is the chief cause. Yet, I believe the answer is simple. What I am about to say is not earth-shattering, but it is what Jesus himself says in one of the letters to the 7 churches in Revelation. He says, “I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet, I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first” (Rev 2:2-4).
We can try to explain the decline in our denomination and the influence of the local church, but I truly believe that for many, we have forsaken our first love—Jesus. Yes, we say that we love Jesus. We sing songs to him. We give of our tithes and offerings. We participate in local church ministries, serve on state boards, prepare and preach Spirit-led messages, and so forth. Yet, less than five percent (and that is a generous number) of all evangelical Christians in America will ever one time, verbally share their faith with someone who is lost. Why is this so? We could write volumes on the response, but simplistically speaking, we have lost our passion and zeal for the Gospel of Jesus Christ because we have become so inundated with secondary issues, we have neglected the primary issue—our love of Jesus.
1 John 4:8 proclaims, “God is love.” Paul, in Romans 5:8, points out that “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Yes, Christ is all about love, and while sin nailed Him to the cross, love kept Him there; but He challenges us in Revelation 2 to return to the time when we first fell in love with Him and there remain. Remember what He says in John 15, “Remain in Me, and I will remain in you.” If you have ever been married, then you understand the meaning of a “honeymoon.” It is a time when you and your spouse grow closer spiritually and emotionally. Often, when a couple returns from this occasion, the love will last for a while, but eventually, the rigors of life creep in, and pretty soon, while love remains, the intimacy that once existed, seemingly is forgotten. Jesus wants the born-again believer to never leave the honeymoon time with Him. Our churches are filled with people when asked about their salvation who say, “I was saved.” Friend, our salvation is a continuous action as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:18, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” We are justified through Christ’s sacrificial death (and yes, “saved” from the consequences of sin and sealed in the Holy Spirit), sanctified through His Spirit to become more like Him, and one day, we will be glorified and our salvation be made complete. I wish people would respond to the question, “Are you saved?,” with “Yes. I am, but Christ is not through with me. I want to know Him more through our relationship, and I want others to know the joy I have in my life since Jesus has taken control.”
We could continue for many pages with such statements, but as a Baptist preacher, let me leave you with three applicable points.
1) Surrender. For many, we received the message of Christ and believed it was true, but we did not surrender everything to Him. Jesus pleads with us and demands our surrender (Luke 9:23) if we are to follow Him. Surrender is simply throwing up the white flag, putting down your defenses, and allowing God to have all of who you are.
2) Sell Out. Paul said, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Paul was completely sold out to the Gospel and growing in Christ. Yet, more than anything, he sought to see people saved. He says in Romans 10:1, “My heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved.” In his dialog with King Agrippa, he asserts, “I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am” (Acts 26:29). Why does Paul’s heart bleed for those who are lost? In his own words, because “God wants all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). If Jesus is everything to us, and we love Him more than anything else, then we ought to have a passion to proclaim evangelistically the Gospel that Christ Jesus is risen indeed!
3) Sell All. The rich young ruler was willing to follow Christ, but he was not willing to sell all that he had. Whatever it is that keeps us from loving Christ without limits, may we throw that away and enter into a love relationship with the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. As Paul says, “I no longer live, but it is Christ who lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal 2:20). Oh, how He loves you and me!
As we love Him and experience His never-ending, never-failing love for us, let us continue preaching with fire and steadfastness the Word of God, praying in a penitent manner for the condition of ourselves, the lost world, and our leaders (local church, denominational, and government), worshiping in Spirit and truth, writing encouraging words towards one another, engaging the lostness of mankind through missions and evangelism, being filled with the Spirit of God, and equipping one another for service. No matter what our methods may be Jesus must be LORD in our lives! It may seem that the situation is dire and the circumstances are bleak, but I am reminded of what John says about Jesus, “The light shines through the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome/understood it.” May God bless us as we seek to be His blessing to the world by telling people what Jesus Christ has done for us!