Many religious leaders today are alarmed about the lack of growth in our churches. A decline in church loyalty, accompanied by a loss of church membership, seems to be a rather common phenomenon in our time. People act as if the decline of the church is something that cannot be avoided. It is even suggested by some that we are entering a post-Christian era. Others suggest that the church is still living in the 15th and 16th centuries, and if she wants to be effective in the 20th century and speak to men living in a nuclear age, then she had better get with it! She had better bring her Christianity up-to-date.
This is one of the questions with which you and I as seminarians and as future leaders in the church must come to grips. Is revealed Christianity incompatible with modern man living in the 20th century? I don’t happen to think sol As professors and students we must come to see that any church that desires to become effective in the world must be a community which is knit together by a common faith.
If the church is nothing more than a cultural expression of our times, then it has nothing to say to a world lost in sin. If it is nothing more than a social club with religious overtones, which makes no demands of those who are on its rolls, then it will never attract sinful humanity. The church must be a communion of saints, a fellowship of believers who witness to the saving grace and power of a risen Savior. Unless the church is renewed from within it will never be effective in fulfilling its role in the world. That which is basic to revival is the proclamation of a mighty Savior who is reconciling the world unto himself.
If all we preach is a Noble Example, we shall never reach a lost world. A Master Teacher will never attract a sin-sick world. Man needs a Savior! In Jesus Christ we find the Word who was made flesh and dwelt among us. The world’s greatest need is a Redeemer, not a better philosophy. The world doesn’t need a new morality nearly as much as new life. Our greatest need is not reformation but regeneration. Too often the church has preached morality instead of forgiveness and grace, and in doing so it has given stones when men ask for bread.
The only attraction that will bring men to repentance and faith is the cross of Christ. In the cross we see God’s love for sinners. In the cross we see the awful penalty for sin. In the cross we see a Savior dying in order to bridge the great gulf that exists between a just and holy God and fallen, sinful humanity; a gull that was brought into being by man’s willful disobedience. We will see the world kneel at the feet of Jesus only if we preach the message of the cross and the empty tomb. The church is not for nice people, but for sinners saved by grace.
If we are to be effective we must believe in the saving power of that gospel. There is no sin so great; no hurt so hard; no person fallen so low that Jesus Christ cannot forgive, and transform, and make whole. It seems to me that one reason the church has been so ineffective in dealing with the plight of men is that she, herself, has lost faith in the redeeming power of Christ.
Alcoholics can be made sober; prostitutes made pure; broken homes can be restored; wrecked lives can have a new beginning; and seminarians can be inspired, only through the life-giving power found in Christ. As future ministers of the gospel, let us offer to the world a mighty Savior. If we are faithful in this we shall see, not only a renewal of the church, but the salvation of those who are the captives of sin.
Another requirement for the church, if it is to be effective, is that it speak with authority. We cannot accuse the church of a lack of creative programs. At no time in its history has the church boasted of a better trained leadership. Its facilities are second to none. Yet in spite of all these advantages we are failing to give an effective witness to a lost world.
The great need today is not method, but message. We have the methods but we seem to have lost the message. The world will not be attracted by a church that only echoes contemporary philosophy. A church that is confused about the person of Christ will never win souls for him. A church whose theology is muddled will never convict men of sin. To be effective the church must have a message that is changeless and timeless. Its authority must be greater than the finite mind of some great theologian. The church must be able to say, “Thus saith the Lord.” The authority with which the church speaks must be based on the Bible, the inspired and infallible Word of God. The message of the church must be nothing else than the message of the Scriptures. We must declare this message to a lost and frustrated world without apology.
That’s not so easy to do in this world. You will find yourself in a small minority. The modern world has become disgustingly fickle on the matter of religious faith which is a purely relative matter for many people. They say one man’s faith is as good as another’s; that it doesn’t make too much difference what you believe, just as long as you believe something. They adjust their faith to suit the changing moods of our time. They want to be broadminded and tolerant, wiping out all lines of distinction and merging the beliefs of men into one great common denominator.
The result is that truth is mixed with error; Christ with anti-Christ; and faith with unbelief. Many people frankly confess that they don’t know what is what anymore when it comes to religion. They wander hopelessly in a confusion of creeds and cults, where nobody seems to be right and nobody seems to be wrong, but everybody seems to be a little bit of both.
This is the world in which you and I are called upon to preach the gospel and to take a stand for Christ, insisting that our faith is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, because it is the Truth of God according to his Word and revealed in his Son. That will not make you very popular, but it will make you powerful. If there is anything this world needs today it is more individuals who know where they stand and who will stand there no matter what happens. We have enough relativism in religion. We need the absolute truths of our historic Christian faith. We need individuals who wiD take a stand and make no apologies for it.
There is at least one other requirement that is essential for the church if she is to be effective. It is a burdened and concerned heart. Our trouble today is that there are not enough consecrated Christians. The salt seems to have lost its savor; no wonder it is trodden under foot of men. The light has been put under a bushel; no wonder it is so dark!
Think of the impact which those early Christians made when they invaded their pagan world with the gospel of Christ! Is there any reason to believe that we could not do the same thing if we had the same measure of consecration? Is there is any danger that faces the seminary student as well as the professors of theology, it is the danger of losing that initial zeal and spirit of consecration.
We may be so concerned with seeing that every theological “i” is dotted that we lose sight of the real purpose of theology. We may become so obsessed with our own particular views that we fail to offer Christ in all his fullness. We may ride our theological hobbyhorses while the world goes to hell. We may become so involved in programs, budgets and committees, that we forget the purpose of the church. If the church is not winning souls to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ and increasing the spiritual depth of its membership, it has failed.
I cannot vouch for the historicity of the following story, but it is reported that during World War II, Hitler, Mussolni and Churchill met for a retreat near the ocean. They engaged in a contest to see who could catch the most fish. Hitler waded out to his boot-tops, drew his revolver and began shooting into the water, but with little success. Mussolini waded. out up to his waist, drew his sword and began stabbing wildly beneath the waves but with equally poor results. Churchill, it is said, calmly sat down at the water’s edge, lit a cigar, and taking a spoon from his pocket began dipping water and tossing it over his shoulder and said, “It may take me a little while but I’ll get some fish!”
Regardless of whether this story is true, I think we can draw this analogy from it. The church is also guilty of a “hit-and-miss” program rather than a deliberate and positive approach. I would like to initiate a program that I am sure will be effective and will bring results. I suggest that if those in the front pew will take a piece of chalk and draw a circle around themselves as far as they can reach, and then personally see to it that everything and everyone in that circle is totally committed to Jesus Christ–and then if they will pass the chalk to their neighbor, asking them to do the same—it may take a little while, but we will have results!
At the end of three years in our seminary, an army of men should be ready to go forth, not only schooled in the art of fine distinctions, but overpowered by the amazing good news of the gospel; an army of men whose very cores have been wonderfully transformed. by the power of that same gospel.
In about five years every one of us will look back on a significant period in his career. Three years of his life will have been lived apart, on a sort of mountain, high above the noisy traffic of the common life. Here the radiance of God’s love is unclouded by the smoke and fog of factories—but not forever.
The student’s presence on the mountain is only temporary. He knows that he must go back down through that cloud around the mountain. He must speak to those who laugh and dance and bow down to idols that they have fashioned with their own hands. There are men and women who hunger to hear the pure Word he has learned. But when he goes down, will he have nothing but grammar to give them? Men do not cry out for grammar, but for the Word!
But how shall we teach others if we have never learned to bend our knees in prayer or learned how to listen to God’s eternal Word? We do well to ask ourselves whether, after three years of education, we have become intellectual giants but spiritual midgets. How can our pulpits ring with the glorious proclamation if we have not taken the time to be holy and to speak oft with our Lord? I pray that in this coming year we may enjoy the blessings of a spiritual community; share our joys and sorrows; sing together; pray together; and live together in the bond of a common faith and with a common goal.
The key to the church’s effectiveness is the warmhearted, Spirit-filled messenger with a vital concern for the souls of men. God’s messenger must have a message the message of Christ as the Savior of mankind and the only hope of the world. That message must be firmly grounded in the Bible and made relevant to the needs of sinful men. Only then can we reach the world for Christ.
Rise up, ye men of God! Be done with lesser things! Give heart, and mind, and soul, and strength To serve the King of Kings!
This article constitutes the message delivered at the first Chapel service of Calvin Theological Seminary for the school-year 1965–66. Although specifically directed to seminary students and professors, it will strike a responsive chord in the minds and hearts of all who love the pure preaching of the Word. Mr. John Engbers, formerly of Pella, Iowa, is a member of the senior class and presiding officer of the student body.