ACTS 16:9-10 — During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
As I get more involved with an amazing local church plant — the answer to years of prayer and Elijah-like selfish/pouty/defeatist imagining that a lot of churches are faking it, and that I might be the only guy left who’d been led, the more he reads it, to realize that the Bible must be taken with the utmost, life-changing seriousness (and joy), as the Word of God, or else completely rejected as trash (there being no intellectually honest middle position that does not involve making oneself into one’s own ‘god’, picking and choosing and denying Jesus’ repeated and emphatic claims for its authenticity) — I am learning just how hard rocky-impenetrable the ground is for the gospel around here, in New England, and yet… how God already, long ago, began to crack the rock and drip water into those cracks and plant seeds, setting the stage for ‘unlikely’ revival (the only real kind — i.e, that for which He and He alone can take credit and get glory). I’m also learning that, with enough coffee, I can write crazily run-on sentences.
Some illustrative statistics…
At another church which our pastor planted, down in Texas, a few years ago, their team put out 500 ‘door hanger’ flyers at local residences, announcing their first service. Of those, fully 200 people showed up that first Sunday: a 40% rate of response-with-feet. When he and the planting team put out 15,000 door hangers here (near Boston) three years ago, a whopping 3 people came to the first service. Three. That’s a 0.02% response rate. One in 5,000.
On a purely statistical basis, that’s a difference of 2,000X in terms of responsiveness to the basic, no-frills, historical, given-once-to-the-saints Biblical-gospel message.
(If one were to argue that some of those populations, in either place, were already being fed by gospel-preaching churches, it would only serve to make the argument stronger.)
Hard soil indeed. (Hating and dismissing Texans for their sins — and they have plenty — doesn’t get one off the hook for one’s own, btw. Ours are plenteous too. Everyone is in the same boat. Speck. Eye. Log. You get the idea.)
At a more ‘macro’ level, the numbers are a little bit more encouraging. A little.
Multiple mission-oriented groups, across different Christian denominations (e.g., this, this and this) agree on the definition of an “un-reached people group” (i.e., one in need of a missionary approach) as being one, “among which there is no indigenous community of believing Christians with adequate numbers and resources to evangelize this people group.” The specific criterion used is, “less than 2% Evangelical Christian“.
The percentage of people in Middlesex County (where I live, immediately west of Boston) who report regular attendance at a local Evangelical church service has risen from 1.06% in 1980 to 2.75% in 2010. That’s encouraging… but still very low. And it’s only attendance. No survey can adequately measure the Biblical tests of faith. The more anecdotal stats about the door hangers would suggest that the gain of just 1.69% in thirty years has been hard-won, soul by soul. Furthermore, the gap between mere ‘adherence’ and true faith suggests that we’re still well below the 2% threshold. (Despite Woody Allen’s quote, merely “showing up” is not “90% of success” in this context. The heart motivating said action matters greatly. One can neither work one’s way into faith any more than one can be compelled into it the human will of another, e.g., one’s family, friends or the larger society. Thomas Jefferson and some of the founding fathers of this country provide ample evidence of that, it would seem.)
Fair enough, but what is meant by ‘Evangelical Christian’? And (1) isn’t that a little arrogant? (2) Why aren’t other denominations adequate to the task? And (3) why is the task important anyway?
The answer to the last three questions won’t make any sense (in fact, it may make you angry) if you’re not already ‘born again’, i.e., truly placing your trust — i.e., all that you are and will ever be — in the hands of the God of the Universe, through His Son, Jesus Christ who took the punishment of God’s wrath which you and I all deserve for grievous and unrepentant rebellion against His perfect Self and the exclusive and immutable order of things which he set down for mankind to follow. I’m neither evaluating you nor making that up. If you’re wise, you will test it — and yourself. Because the consequences of not doing so are dire indeed.
Still, the questions are worth answering…
(1) The exclusivity of Christ will seem arrogant because by definition all of those who don’t trust Him (a.k.a. ‘unvelievers’) are prone to projecting their own arrogance and hatred onto their Creator without realizing or caring that they are doing so — an ironically recursive act of profound arrogance and hatred all by itself when you think about it!
(2) If one reads the Scriptures carefully, in the light of the Holy Spirit, or even episodically (but with the assumption that they are true), and one takes the time to observe, with honesty, in light of them, how our culture and individual behavior and the efficacy (Spirit power) of most churches is largely absent, not to mention how one’s own internal cast of mind and heart (the driver of all of that) is wholly at odds with (i.e., in rebellion against) them… and if one reads God’s laws and the Bible’s history — seeing how myriad peoples before us have run afoul of them and (as a result) been dissolved and destroyed — it will become patently obvious that most entities posing as churches these days would either not be recognized as such by our Lord, or would be so sickening to Him that he would spit (vomit) them out of his mouth after calling a few remnant individuals out of them. See the church of Laodicea in Revelation 3 or the church at Thyatira in Revelation 2 as just two examples. Paul’s letters, e.g., to the Corinthians, provide ample additional backing for the same idea.
(3) The task is important because hell is really, really, really bad (really; most of us have had a tiny little ‘taste’ of its 24/7 mental, emotional and physical anguish at some blessedly limited point in our lives) and God is really, really, really good (ALL of us have had much much more a taste, every single day we draw breath, no matter how miserable our lives may seem). Like it or not there is no compromise, middle-ground position, only acceptance or rejection of the solution the Creator provided: the cross, including carrying our own and following (obeying) He Who led the way (Jesus). The Creator of the entire universe (and you) does not accept truce conditions from His own creatures (us) who, by definition, have spurned him, disqualifying ourselves from any standing, relationship or communication with Him whatsoever except by said free gift which His Son provided for us via his self-sacrifice, in our place.
OK, thanks for the digression Art, but… What’s an Evangelical Christian?
This seems to be the consensus definition, and I wouldn’t be putting it in this post if it weren’t entirely Biblical (e.g., read John, 1st John and Romans, for starters):
An Evangelical Christian is a person who believes that Jesus Christ is the sole source of salvation through faith in Him, has personal faith and conversion with regeneration by the Holy Spirit, recognizes the inspired word of God as the only basis for faith and Christian living, and is committed to Biblical preaching and evangelism that brings others to faith in Jesus Christ.
Now, to be fair, a society does not jump from ‘un-reached’ to ‘reached’ (or slide the other way) overnight. There are steps. In similar fashion, the conversion experience of every (or even most) individual is not necessarily like that of Paul on the Damascus road, or the Ethiopian eunuch, or Lydia, or the Philippian jailer or many others both named and un-named in the book of Acts, to say nothing of the thousands on Pentecost or “added… daily” shortly after that. It should be the experience, but a lot of us (myself foremost, I’m afraid) are prone to dilly-dallying in the waiting room as it were, not sure for months or years if we’re ready to commit, only to regret and grieve our foolish delay later-on, wondering “what on earth was I thinking”? (Precisely: I was thinking “on earth”.)
By this scale, the church in this part of New England would fall somewhere between “formative/nominal” and (barely) “established”, based on how they deal with the broad, sweeping category they call “professing Christians”. The scale seems designed to deal with the so-called 10-40 ‘window’, in which the gospel is making inroads quietly but very powerfully: “the rectangular area of North Africa, the Middle East and Asia between 10 degrees north and 40 degrees north latitude… often called ‘The Resistant Belt’ [which] includes the majority of the world’s Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists. An estimated 4.54 billion individuals reside… in the 10/40 Window.”
I’m not sure what this term, ‘professing Christians’ really means. And if it means anything, I’m not sure it deals as well with a culture which was once far more Christian than it is now as it does with one on an up-swing — i.e., one which is and has been sliding away from the gospel, albeit gradually, taking for granted spiritual heritage and norms carefully built up generations ago but now nearly gone. E.g., see ‘Whitewashed Tombs, Growing Cold’.
If the stakes weren’t as high as they are, it would be easier to wave one’s hand and imagine that they’re OK… that it’s enough to say one is a Christian and take at face value that all churches which call themselves Christian are OK too. Yet by definition this group lacks one or more of the following (taken from the definition above):
- Does NOT believe that Jesus Christ is the sole source of salvation through faith in Him.
- Does NOT have personal faith (e.g., they may be relying on heritage or tradition instead)
- Has NOT had a conversion with regeneration by the Holy Spirit, (note the ‘MUST’ in John 3)
- Does NOT recognize the inspired word of God as the only basis for faith and Christian living.
- Is NOT committed to Biblical preaching and evangelism that brings others to faith in Jesus Christ.
Is “professing” Christianity enough? One only needs read the words of Jesus himself to realize that this cannot possibly be the case:
MATTHEW 7:21-23 — “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
His words need no elaboration. In fact, they are borne out by experience.
Here’s an account I wrote of an encounter I had three years ago:
…an older woman whom I know from the neighborhood and from my old (very liberal) church. I ran into her yesterday afternoon while walking the dog in the woods. …she is a nice lady, a regular church attendee, and has done many good things. She’s even a political conservative.
Our conversation revolved around where my faith has taken me since I left that church and how excited I am about it. I then recalled a fairly large original oil painting of Christ that hangs in her house and felt moved to tell her how genuinely impressed I had been by it. (She and her husband had hosted several large gatherings at their home back when I attended that other church.) I half-expected her to then say something about how she had come to acquire it, or perhaps how its physical place of prominence in her home related to the Lord’s prominence in her heart and her life.
I was taken aback by where she went instead.
“Oh that,” she protested. “I think I’m just a cultural Christian.”
She proceeded to tell me with great animation and hand-waving, but more than a hint of wild-eyed, not-entirely-sure-of-herself defensiveness that, in her view, all faiths are part of some unknowable, larger truth which she is assembling for herself based on some unidentified source of authority and wisdom, tossing out what seems improper and keeping the stuff that feels right to her.
Literally, the face of Christ. Her reaction: “Oh, that…”
Hard soil. Very hard. Yet not without cracks and fragile seedlings.
After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.