May 19, 2013

Is a Revival Possible?

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“And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it   filled the entire house where they were sitting.”  (Acts 2:2)

Some of you may remember a rhyme taught to many Sunday School children years ago,  that went something like this:-

Here is the church, and here is the steeple, open the door and see the people.

Unfortunately today a more appropriate version of that rhyme for many churches would be something like this:-

            Here is the church, and here is the steeple, open the door and where are the       people?

Over the past 12 years, our congregation’s resident membership has declined by 106.  We have, of course, received many new members during those years, but unfortunately we’ve lost even more.  That’s a rather discouraging statistic, isn’t it.   But it’s not unique to our congregation.   A great many United Churches would be quite delighted to have a statistic as good as ours, because they’ve lost even more members.  In fact, in the decade ending in 2010, the United Church of Canada has lost more than 143,000 members!

Yet it’s not just our denomination that’s experiencing decline, a great many others   across North America are also seeing their numbers go down, although perhaps not as rapidly as our denomination.

But in spite of this troubling trend, there is some good news to report.  When you look at the Christian Church world-wide you get an entirely different picture, for Christianity is actually on the rise.  In the latest statistics I was able to obtain, there are now over 2.18 billion Christians in the world.  That’s a third of the world’s population, making Christianity the largest religious faith.  But what’s especially interesting about this growth is that, for the first time in history it’s occurring, not in Europe or North American, but in Africa, South America and Asia.

So what’s the problem with the Church in our part of the world?  Why is it losing members?  Or perhaps more to the point is a revival of Christianity possible in Canada?  And is it possible for us right here in Unionville?

I           LESSONS LEARNED FROM HISTORY

We can learn much from history.  So let’s start by looking back at some recent history.

I had the good fortune to be raised during the 40’s and 50’s; two decades during which the United Church witnessed tremendous growth.  More than 100,000 members were added in the 40’s, and almost 200,000 in the 50’s.  And that was an era in which most congregations had both morning and evening services.

My home congregation was St. Giles in Hamilton; a church with a sanctuary that could easily accommodate 1,200 people; and during my youth,  it wasn’t uncommon for it to be packed to the doors on Sundays.  Yet this year, St. Giles and two other downtown congregations in Hamilton are on the verge of closing their doors.

So, what accounts for this dramatic change?

Well, we all know that the 1940’s experienced a world war.    Thousands of Canadian young men lost their lives in combat and life here in Canada was very difficult.   There were shortages of food and other essentials, and many basic food items such as sugar, butter and meat we rationed.

When the war ended in 1945, Canadians struggled to rebuild the lives which had been put on hold for so long.  Life was very precious; family was important, and people were thankful that they’d survived those terrible years.  So they flocked to the churches to give thanks.

That momentum carried on into the 50’s; - and churches continued to grow.  This was also an era which produced some great preachers, which no doubt attracted many people.    As a teenager, I can remember frequently going to evening services, (that’s after already having attended church at 11 and Sunday School in the afternoon.)   I’d go because I found the message offered by our minister, Dr. Clifford Elliott, so inspiring.

However, the primary lesson we learn from those years, is that in tough times, faith is more important to people.  But when life becomes prosperous and easier, many people don’t think they need a strong faith.

II          LESSONS FROM THE NEW TESTAMENT CHURCH

But let’s look farther back in history, and see what we can learn there.

After the death and resurrection of our Lord, those first Christians faced, what most would think was an impossible task.

Here they were, just a small band of confused, frightened believers, hidden away in a remote part of the Roman empire.   Virtually none of them had wealth or influence or even education.  They were just ordinary people, so ordinary in fact, that when Jesus was arrested, most of them ran away; fearing for their lives.

So how could such a motley crew ever hope to fulfill Christ’s vision of carrying the Gospel to the farthest corners of the world?  The task seemed impossible.

But then something happened;  something so powerful that it changed, not only the lives of those first Christians, but the whole course of human history.  Luke, the author of Acts, describes the events of that day, which now we call Pentecost, in this way:

“And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them. And a tongue rested on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.”  (Acts 2:2-4)

In an instant, in less time than it takes to describe the event,  that band of frightened individuals was changed into a unified, fired-up group of missionaries, willing to risk their lives to spread the Good News of Christ’s resurrection to the four corners of the globe.

Now you might wonder, was that a one-off event?   No, not according to what the New Testament tells us.  That surge of power from the Holy Spirit, was experienced by many others in the years that followed Pentecost.  Perhaps not in such dramatic form, but with  power nevertheless.  Those who truly accepted Christ into their hearts, were energized and motivated by the power of God’s Holy Spirit.

Of course, it wasn’t every Christian who was touched in this way, for it is obvious from the biblical record that, some converts veered  off track, and even needed to be disciplined by the church.  Some quite severely, as was the case with Ananias and his wife Sapphira,  both of whom were struck down and died because of their deceitfulness.

But for those who did receive the power and direction of the Holy Spirit, they were filled with such courage and tenacity that it inspired countless others to accept Christ as their Lord and Saviour.

Luke provides us a glimpse into what it was like to be a part of that early Church, when he tells us that the people spent much of their time together in the temple”  and also celebrated the Lord’s supper in their homes.  But most importantly, Luke tells us that they were all filled with “generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.” (Acts. 2:44 to 47)

In other words, every aspect of their lives was changed.  Living their faith daily  became paramount in their lives, and not something reserved only for Sundays.  It was this total change of lifestyle which became the magnet that attracted others to the Church.   And so the New Testament tells us, the church grew daily.   And within less than 300 years, in spite of persecution, torture and death of many of its people, Christianity became the dominant religion of the whole Roman Empire.

Iii         THE RISE AND FALL OF THE CHURCH

I wish I could tell you that the Christian Church continued to grow uninterrupted throughout the rest of history.  But that’s far from the truth.  There’ve been many times in the intervening years, when the mainstream of the Church has stumbled and lost its way.

One, most notable occasion, occurred  in the early middle ages, during the 9th and 11th centuries.  This was a period during which virtually the whole Roman Empire suffered because of moral decadence resulting in chaos through most of society; and especially among the leaders of the church.  This moral corruption was like a disease which contaminated even the clergy.  Historians tell us that priests abused their positions of power over the people to gain personal wealth.  And they indulged themselves with liquor, women and even magic.

So serious was the situation, that it threatened the future of Christianity.  The only thing which saved our faith, during that dark period, was a small remnant of devote Christians who withdrew from society in order to live in seclusion in monasteries. Had it not been for these faithful people, we wouldn’t be here this morning worshipping our Lord.

You see, it was the monks who preserved our faith; and even ensured that there would be copies of the Bible for Christians to read.  They did this by spending long hours copying by hand, the biblical text over and over again, so that future generations would have Bibles.   These monks also preserved the fabric of society by establishing schools to teach those willing to learn; and hospitals to care for the sick.

And of course, you probably know that it was in reaction to the moral decay of the church, that the Protestant reformation was launched.  The primary motivation of the early reformers was to restore the moral integrity of the Church; to conduct worship services in the language of the people so they would know and understand the faith, and so thereby they empowered the laity.

Looking back on that dark period from our vantage point today, we can see the working of the Holy Spirit, as it touched the lives of a remnant of men and women,  inspiring them to achieve great things in the service of their Lord.

IV        WHAT’S REQUIRED TO REVITALIZE OUR CONGREGATION?

So what does history teach us about rejuvenating our Church today, and restoring the effectiveness the Church as an agent for change in society?  And how can it help us revitalize our congregation?

a)    The first thing we learn is that the Holy Spirit is available to all believers who are sincerely receptive to receiving its power into their lives.

God’s Holy Spirit is available to everyone of us.  However, we need to be careful what we ask for, because if we allow God’s Spirit into our lives, -it’s going to change us to the core of our being.   We won’t be able to sit quietly in our pews, keeping our faith to ourselves any longer.  You see, once God’s Spirit infects you,  you simply have to share the Good News with other people.

On that first  Pentecost day, the moment the Holy Spirit touched the disciples, they threw open the doors of the house where they’d been hiding, and ran out onto the street, proclaiming the Good News that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead.

One of the main reasons why congregations are losing members today,  is because most of us are reluctant to tell others about our faith.  But if you allow God’s Spirit into our life,  you’ll become so filled God’s power that you will respond to Christ’s Great Commandment with enthusiasm.

Let me remind you of that Great Commandment.  Hear are Christ’s words:-

“Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”  (Matt. 23:19-20)

b)    The mark of a Spirit-filled congregation – is the measure of its members caring for one another..

We see in the record of the Book of Acts, just what a truly caring, Christian community is like.  We’re told that the people pooled all their resources, so that no one would be without.

Too often in modern congregations, the members know each other only casually.  They see each other on Sunday morning, but apart from that have little or no contact with each other.  But in a congregation that has been touched with God’s Spirit, we’d all be like one family.  We’d really care about each other, so much that we’d be willing to help one another in times of difficulty and hardship.

c)    Another mark of the Spirit-filled congregation is its members willingness to be faithful to our Lord, no matter what it costs.

Quite frankly, Canadian Christians are spoiled!  It doesn’t cost us anything to be a Christian in our society, and so we take our faith for granted.  And we don’t make it a priority in our lives.

We attend church, when nothing else distracts us.  We let a host of other interests, sports, recreation and social events to take precedence over our support and participation in our church.

But that’s not how it will be if you let God’s Holy Spirit into your life!  You faith and your commitment to Christ will become the primary motivation of your life.

Conclusion

So the question, my friends,– on this Pentecost Sunday, is this:-  do you really want to be touched by God’s Spirit or not?    If the answer is ‘YES”;   then let’s get serious about our faith,  and honestly open our hearts and minds to the power of God’s Spirit, -  so that the power and inspiration of God will be our primary motivation. .

If you are willing to accept what God has to offer, - I can assure you, you will never be sorry;  for those who are touched by God’s power experience – not only strong motivation to communicate the Good News of Christ;  but also - a peace, comfort and hope that exceeds anything the world can offer you.

Marks of the Spirit:

3 – Willingness to pay the price of discipleship