“Are we following God?”
My husband put this question to me as we walked through our neighborhood. The dog tugged at her leash. On the one hand, it was a startling question, one that seemed to beg an obvious answer. Both of us practice the daily disciplines of prayer and Bible reading. Around the dinner table, our family’s conversation turns to Scripture’s wisdom. We attend church regularly, serving and financially giving to its mission; we speak freely of Christ to our irreligious neighbors and friends. I write Christian books, for goodness’ sake.
Still, I shared my husband’s doubts. Are we following God? We’d married at 22, dreaming of the places we’d go in response to the call of God. Many years later, in 2011, we moved to Toronto, North America’s fourth-largest city and one of the most multicultural cities in the world. As I write, it’s a city draped in rainbow flags, proud testament to the modern ethic of individual freedom, a city often openly hostile to the perceived bigotry of Christianity.
My husband’s question surfaced our fear that despite our commitment to seeing our city transformed by the gospel, Toronto is having its subtle way with us, conforming us to its desires (cf. 1 John 2:16). As we continued to talk, we were both sensing a need for the kind of renewal Mark Sayers writes about in his new book, Reappearing Church: The Hope for Renewal in the Rise of Our Post-Christian Culture.
What if the rise of secularism is good news for the church? For decades, we set our hopes on technology, politics, and the appearance of peace. We wanted to believe we were headed somewhere better—that progress was happening. But now as our technology ensnares and isolates us, our politics threaten to tear us apart, and our cultural decline continues to accelerate, people are understandably distressed. But throughout history these periods of decline traditionally precede powerful spiritual renewal—and even revival. What if all the bad news in this world is actually good news for the church?
Sayers, an Australian pastor and writer, begins by acknowledging the “brilliantly good news” that cultural Christianity is eroding and secularism is on the rise. This isn’t the moment for being anxious, he reassures. “Are we punch drunk by the problems of our age, or do we see the opportunities before us?”
Instead of fretting about increasing social isolation and mental illness, social fracturing and polarization, Christians can celebrate the luminous hope of the gospel for our historical moment. In other words, the cultural glass may be half-full, but the gospel has never brimmed with greater power. As the creeds of secularism prove fragile and unsatisfying, the church of Jesus Christ has the opportunity to live and proclaim a more compelling, more enduring story for such a time as this.
“When the night is at its darkest, the dawn is on its way. We find ourselves again at such a moment.”
Call to Repentance
Still, Sayers’s optimism vis-à-vis the broader culture falters with regard to the present state of the evangelical church. Though it’s a moment ripe for gospel renewal, and “the gaps between [the promises of secular progressivism] and reality are widening,” Sayers laments that many evangelicals, enamored with the “pseudo-Christianity of lifestyle enhancement,” aren’t positioned to seize it. As it turns out, we’re not living the better, more enduring story of the gospel. Instead, the church is weakened by sin and stagnation, by heresy and religiosity. “Over the last ten years, I have seen countless incredible kingdom initiatives suffer and fail as leaders and disciples, with hearts for God, fall into . . . all of the above.” This is reason for Sayers’s call to renewal, the climactic moment in a cycle repeated throughout human history. When faith stagnates, then declines, a remnant of God’s people, in responsiveness to his Spirit, must seek a renewal of God’s presence and power.
As the creeds of secularism prove fragile and unsatisfying, the church of Jesus Christ has the opportunity to live and proclaim a more compelling, more enduring story for such a time as this.
Sayers cites this historical pattern of repentance, then renewal, as a reliable one—like the 1904 movement that swept through Wales, which saw the conversion of nearly 100,000 people, after a small group of young people was challenged to make four commitments:
- “You must put away any unconfessed sin.”
- “You must put away any doubtful habit.”
- “You must obey the Spirit promptly.”
- “You must confess Christ publicly.”
“When we cry out to [God], when we repent of the ways that we have ignored him and pursued our human-driven plans of renewal in our own strength, when we take a posture of contending for his kingdom to come with power—we see that he moves.”
Paradox of Renewal
To consider the story of Jonah is to consider the paradox of renewal. Did renewal come to the wicked city of Nineveh because the people, in their earnestness, repented in sackcloth and ashes? Or, did renewal come to the Ninevites because God, in his kindness, had sent his (however unwilling prophet) to walk the streets of the city, crying out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown”? In other words, is renewal ever possible apart from God’s willing it?
While Sayers wants to insist on the responsibilities that lay at our feet when it comes to renewal, Sayers makes clear that renewal is nothing we can orchestrate. “We cannot create a program or campaign for renewal and revival. For in the history of the church, this has rarely if ever had success.” Instead, “we cry out to God to change us, to start His renewal in our hearts.” And this is the paradox of renewal, both that it doesn’t depend upon our effort and also that it doesn’t happen apart from it. In fact, this is the paradox of the whole of the Christian life, for as Paul writes in Philippians 2:13, “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” God’s willing makes us more willing, not less, and his work never make ours unnecessary.
To Sayers’s larger point, what moves the needle of renewal is first and finally this: prayer. To pray is to practice the both/and of faith. God’s work, even the work of renewal, is never fully up to us—but we get on our knees anyway. And this is what Sayers, his wife, and a group of Korean Christians are doing on a tour through John Wesley’s bedroom in London as the book closes.
“God, do it again.”