They used to come. Then they came if you called them.
Now the rows are empty and we have to go and search every alleyway and hedgerow. Once upon a time we needed only call, now we find ourselves with a choice; we may leave the relative protection of our stone walls and take up the quest or we may remain where we are safe and let the cobwebs creep over us until the last of us passes away.
The world has always given us trouble. Jesus warned as much and so why we would ever expect any different is something of a mystery.
In the last century or more, the church in the UK has had an abnormal period of peace. If you look back through Church History, you’ll soon realise that the freedom and favour we have had (and still have though it is beginning to diminish), especially for the length of time we have had it, is extremely unusual. We, as British Christians, have become so comfortable that feelings of entitlement have grown through the generations until we have arrived at a place where we believe that God owes us the favour of our leaders and the concept of taking up our cross has been reduced down to a handy phrase to scrawl on coffee-cups and cute postcards.
We have fallen from favour, true, but we are far from persecuted or victimised yet.
Nevertheless, there is the feeling among some churches (Scottish in particular) that we are under siege. With the recent resignation of Tim Farron and the way that Bernie Sanders was laying into Russel Vought the other day, it is growing clearer that the world wants Christians to either toe the line or get out of the way. But it’s not just politics, we are being pushed to compromise from many angles. Healthcare professionals are not allowed to talk about their faith; schools are teaching all sorts about how you just have to be tolerant because everybody’s truth is equally valid; and the feminists and LGBT+ guys are rapidly moving from merely seeking acknowledgement to acting as though if you aren’t gushing over how wonderful they all are, you must be one of those hateful, bigoted people that wants to murder them all in their beds.
They used to come. Then they would come if you called them.
Now we have to go out and search every alleyway and hedgerow to find them.
And the church, having grown naive in her soporific peacetime asks why don’t they come anymore?
There is truth in the maxim that it is safer to stay together. The problem is that once the idea sets in that we are indeed under siege, a siege mentality then begins to form. When that happens, you close in on yourself and treat anyone coming in with suspicion and cynicism. You start to hoard your resources. You start to believe that you are in this alone and no one is coming to help. You start to think that it is Them against Us.
And when someone suggests you should go out and attempt to turn some of Them over to Our side, it just comes out sounding crazy and dangerous. The best option is to stay safe inside the castle.
What has this got to do with the church?
The world doesn’t like us. Over the past twenty years, congregations have dwindled into pockets of four to ten members struggling to keep the pastor (if they have one) fed and the doors open. It’s easiest just to move within our own constricting circles where no one is going to harass us about gay marriage, women’s rights, or the weirdness of homeschooling, because we all believe the same thing after all. Dwindling (and often aging) congregations mean dwindling (and, let’s face it, limited) resources which are best kept carefully so that the Sunday School Work can continue and the pastor can keep a roof over his head.
There are a devastating dirth of converts and the church lies in a state of Hannah-like barrenness.
They used to come. Then they came when you called them.
Now you can smile as pleasantly as you like from the Sunday morning steps and they still do not care to enter in.
So some overenthusiastic young thing who doesn’t grasp the weight of the predicament suggests that you go out and find these elusive converts. If they won’t come, let’s take the gospel to them.
But you haven’t the manpower or the resources. And if it’s not guaranteed to work and work soon, it’s too much of a risk.
You have two options: take that risk with every likelihood that no one comes anyway, or sit tight, count the pennies, and hope that you can keep the place open for a decade or two more (after all, maybe something will change in that time).
Don’t misunderstand me, the UK is a difficult place to be a church these days and it can be hard to decide the best way forward but I promise that hunkering down and riding out the hard times is not an option.
There’s a couple of things we shouldn’t forget.
It’s easy to think that God isn’t saving people at the moment. But where exactly did you think that you (and the rest of your church) came from? You all got saved at some point. Right there is a guarantee that miracles still happen and God still moves.
He desires that men should be saved (1 Timothy 2.4), it says so in Scripture. It also says that he has purposed who his people will be and absolutely none of them will be lost.
Backtracking a little, how was it that you first believed? A work of grace, yes, but I would confidently say that at some critical point in the process, you heard the gospel. Maybe someone told you, maybe you heard it preached, maybe you decided to go to church for some reason but at some point you heard.
They used to come but now they don’t. Even in times of trouble, grief, and chaos most people simply don’t know to go to church. It’s not a part of their thinking now, they don’t even know what Christianity is about so why would they turn to it?
God still saves, we are living proof of that.
But how will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching (Romans 10.14)?
They aren’t coming. They don’t know to come and in their sinful state they wouldn’t come even if they did know. We need to have compassion.
Unbelievers need their sight restored, they need the Spirit to work in them in order that they might believe. Our job is that of the messenger, we carry the call to everyone and the best way to spread the message is to be active about it. We are messengers, not the post office.
We cannot sit and wait, there is no time for that.
We don’t actually know who the elect are. It would certainly make things easier if we did. Some people operate under the misguided notion that to believe in election means that we need not engage in evangelism. The elect are the elect after all so they will end up saved regardless and we can save our breath from being wasted on the heathens.
See, I’m of the school of thought which says I don’t know who the elect are so I’ll tell everyone and if some get saved that aren’t the elect, praise God for that mercy.
And yet it is so easy to become discouraged, isn’t it? It’s so hard to understand how people could possible mock something as important as eternal salvation. How can they reject such a good and gracious God?
Only remember that you were that person once.
We’ve been given a message to take out, a call to the lost to repent and, by the help of their God, return (Hosea 12.6). The king has sent us on this quest.
When we tell someone the gospel, we are offering them the chance to live, showing them a way to be made right with God and thereby escape his coming judgment.
Why would you withhold that from anyone?
The last thing you want to do is keep that to yourself and hope that the right people discover it on time. If you know the way to save someone’s life, you don’t keep it to yourself. How much more if you knew the way their soul (which lasts far longer) could be made safe? You’re going to want to tell absolutely everyone whether they think you are crazy or not.
Sure, in evangelism we are, to some extent, looking for the elect but the other part of the quest is to be warning everyone else along the way. It would be cruel not to.
They’re not coming.
They wouldn’t come even if they knew to.
We have to take the gospel to them, out of our safe, stone buildings, out of our comfortable ‘lovely neighbour’ reputation, out of our employee of the month status and into the big, bad, fallen world. We have to warn them regardless of who they are or how they react.
If you need help working out the best evangelistic strategy, here’s who you need to target: anyone that still has life and breath in them. That way, you’re going for anyone who still has a chance to hear, to turn, and to live. Let God worry about who the elect are. Let him deal with the proud and obnoxious and the disinterested. Your mission is to carry the call to as many as you can, telling them as long as you still have the breath to do so.
Our society is changing. Evangelistic rallies no longer work, gospel meetings on Sunday nights are increasingly populated purely by believers.
They do not know. They do not want to know.
We have to go to them now.
Why is this so much to ask? We’re in the twilight of the easy days (short of divine intervention) and we need to be building for the future. We need to be remembering just how precious the gospel is and we need to realise the urgency of our quest.
There is no time to wait and hope someone else comes along to do our fighting for us. There is no time and so no point in hoarding or eking out our meagre resources. There is no time to wait for hell-bound sinners to come to church.
They are lost. They have no idea where they are never mind where they are going.
They are not coming.
We must go to them.