Five Perils the Church Must Confront

Part 5 of What We Should Have Seen, Where We Go From Here (5/8)

Having labored to articulate a more philosophical series of concerns over the first four essays, I now turn to more practical concerns. Namely, I perceive (at least) five perils in the days ahead. No doubt, many greater insights could be added to this list—the world is constantly beset by frayed threads threatening to fully unravel. For now, let it simply be noted that I am not so troubled by the threat of adverse circumstance or political opposition as by those factors that, whether for their insidiousness, banality, or sheer persistence, could stunt our growth as we prepare for the new era.

Peril #1: Ignorance of the Word

In my view, there is no greater peril for the people of God in the days ahead than the systemic, generation-wide decay of basic Biblical literacy. Your grandfather likely knew more Scripture by third grade Sunday School than the average 35-year old churchgoer knows after perhaps five or ten years in their salvation journey. There is no close second to this peril. Ignorance of the inspired, written Word is the chief of all foolhardiness, and the luxury of the Laodicean. Believers do not know the covenant they stand in nor the rich motifs of redemption; we do not have an apologetic that can withstand challenge; we do not know the “word of righteousness”; we do not know the promises we possess; we do not know the character of God; we do not know the cost of discipleship.

We have not graduated past cliches. Anthemic worship is awesome. I personally believe the modern worship movement is one of the sure doings of the Lord in our day, but the ever-elusive “worship experience” has become a new yardstick for spiritual formation. Meanwhile, Jesus corrected the Samaritan woman for having a theology of worship without truth. In fact, if the average disciple were Jesus in the Wilderness, facing Satan, they would be sunk. We have no “As it is written” stored in our memory banks. (The fact that some of you don’t know what I just said only proves the problem).

Thirty-five percent of American adults claim “that realistically they never use the Bible outside of a large church service or mass.” The proportion of Americans who use the Bible daily is fewer than one in ten (9%), the lowest number on record during the ten years of the State of the Bible research study.

Peril #2. False dichotomies

We have made too much of opposing views, or rather, too little. Every view but our own is dismissed as the vicissitudes of weaker minds constructing their emotional straw men. People just need to get woke…like me. It’s either all a government conspiracy, or all a random, natural mess, and both sides are equally sure the other is nuts. Or it’s revival now — no need to keep praying, that’s not faith, that’s not the great commission, just get out there and do the stuff! Or no, it’s really a period to keep doing the hard work of fasting and contending, stay steady, because we haven’t seen the breakthrough. Which is it? Likely both. But we don’t like that answer. A balanced perspective isn’t nearly as fun as caricaturing your opponent with the most extreme elements of their position. Nor does balance get likes and follows.

Carl Jung believed if we could learn to hold the tension between two opposing positions, a third way would emerge, surprising us precisely because it had to work so hard to penetrate our defenses. Efforts to hastily resolve polarity and pressure often aborts the mysterious gift the tension is meant to reveal. Ask any mother: gestation is not comfortable, but the baby is beautiful.

By contrast, pushing someone else’s view to its extreme margin is rather easy. It brings false comfort and little understanding. What we don’t realize is how quickly we caricature ourselves in the process, typically driven by the need to clarify how we aren’t them. The problem is not only our intellectual dishonesty, it is that we are dumbing down our souls and brains in the process, trading finer tools of logic, rhetoric and reason for clubs and axes. We don’t win so much as bludgeon.

“Come let us reason,” the Lord invites in Isaiah 1. How reasonable!

Why does this matter? The new era is going to increasingly present the church with alliances of ungodly factions arrayed against our mission. Meanwhile, we are allowing the culture to coarsen us to the point that nobody can play in our sandbox but us. We are self-strangling. Can you imagine a pro-Trump Christian and anti-Trump Christian getting along for the sake of the gospel? For a “royal nation” constituted literally of every ethnicity and people group on the earth—wildly variant in culture, language, assumptions, experience and history—the path to John 17 will require humility and empathy like never before. We need each other. We need to know it and start acting like it.

We also have much bigger fish to fry. False dichotomies dull our ability to distinguish the big fish from small.

Peril #3. Outrage replacing restraint

If dichotomies involve hyper-contrasting gray areas of thought, outrage does the same to our emotions. For many Christians, the first battle is to emerge from lethargy and passivity, from silence to perspective. But for many more, that inner battle, once engaged, quickly begins to mirror social media trolling culture. Nuance disappears. Civility, gone. Discourse takes too much time. We mistake carnal rage for righteous fervor.

It doesn’t matter on what side of the political spectrum or spiritual spectrum you find yourself, this is lawlessness of the heart. We need to return to basic principles of moderation of spirit and the inner resolve that, “if possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” (Rom. 12:18). The nine fruit of the spirit are the very sweetness of life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things, there is no law. By contrast, the acrimony of culture at large, and social media in particular, is a toxic orchard of increasingly bitter fruit.

We cannot restore culture by falling into the mud with it. There is a lightness of spirit, an impervious joy, a stubborn hope and astonishing testimony brought to bear when a person finds no need to respond like-for-like, eye-for-eye, tooth-for-tooth; who can restrain their passion and tame their indulgences. In the end, neither rightness nor fire will fully persuade—often not even our clear witness of Jesus, but of the quality of person He makes. Christians celebrate the fact that we “overcome by the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 12:11), we just don’t particularly enjoy being lamblike when we’re the ones bleeding. But this is what it means to be sheep sent among wolves.

Leo Tolstoy noted, “Everybody thinks of changing humanity and nobody thinks of changing himself.” Outrage keeps our focus on others, a hypocritical waste of energy for sure. Meanwhile, restraint takes the reins of self firmly in hand, for in the end, we are the only thing truly under our control.

Peril #4. Impatience leading to Idolatry

Hurry up and do something already, right? If it’s a new era, why are we gawking about? The elections are coming, the country is going to hell in a basket. How will I pay the bills? Covid is a crime. Covid is killing us. Covid is an accident. People are struggling not to panic. What is going to happen? Will my kids go to back to school? What will happen to my job? Nobody knows.

Followers of Jesus, filled with His spirit, are promised exploits, yet so many feel nothing but fear. As I’ve already argued, days of extraordinary exploits are coming. But even the more ready among us should be cautioned against having too much of a renegade spirit at this time. This deeply spiritual cycle of listening and recalibration must not be rushed. We’re still Elijah in the cave, sifting through noise and mixed signals. 

Consider: a few million newly freed slaves could not bear the absence of their leader or the clamor coming from the mountain, so they demanded that Aaron give them something to worship. The lessons are profound. Time is a commodity with value, which means you will spend it on something. The question is not will you worship, only what? Likewise, Saul felt pressure from his men, from agendas and timetables. He ended up sacrificing to gain victory over the Amalekites when Samuel had told him to wait. Saul’s excuse: Samuel, you were late!

Notice, in both cases, the pressure to do something—time!—was the trigger for idolatry. Our preference for speedy spiritual process often betrays the fault lines in our faith system. For the immature, delay weakens our resolve and turns us toward false refuges (idols). Thus, patience is always one of the Lord’s chief cultivations.

Peril #5. Decrees without de-knees

More and more, it seems, I’m hearing and reading random prophetic people on Facebook decreeing this or that over the nation. Better still, if I will but lay hold of their proclamation, then they are also decreeing over me! The math, apparently, goes thus: mass decrees get personalized by faith. This is tricky, because I believe a legitimate spiritual principle is at play here, and anointed words can cover a lot of ground. Furthermore, some intercessory and prophetic mothers, fathers and pioneers have rightly begun pointing to the type of spiritual influence that believers are meant to release by decree, especially in our corporate authority. It has to do with our position as being seated with Christ as co-heirs, and that sometimes we aren’t praying “upward” so much as enforcing “downward” from the strength of our maturing positional identity in Him. This is a rich vein! 

I don’t have time to provide a full theological explanation behind the power of decrees, only to say that the present, pop-culture version is lacking. Firstly, social media, gangster-style, drive-by-prophecy assumes a stature most do not possess. As a general sort of well-wish, they’re great. As a charismatic Hallmark card with some Bible verses, better still. But outside of building little interdependent networks on your cult of personality, my concern is that these decrees inoculate us against faith more than they tend to produce it. After all, people of stature “decreed” that Covid would not last, that its power was broken, etc. It’s Christian psychism. Does the decree fit you? Grab it! Did it work? No? Ok, just wait for the next one (See Peril #1).

If I drive down the street with my window rolled down, shouting “Blessings!” at the top of my lungs for three hours straight, have I released a blessing? Perhaps. Have I released a decree? Probably not.

The “decree movement” is considered an evolutionary progression of intercession, but assumed authority is not always possessed authority. Yes, Jesus has all authority and has given that authority to us. Yes, whatever we ask in His name, He will grant it. Yes, the promises of God are yes and amen in Christ. And yet…

“In putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control,” explains the writer of Hebrews, before frankly summarizing the reality of our fallen world. “At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him.”

Heb. 2:8

Decrees are real, spiritual instruments, but their power is not first in the speaking so much as the process of intercessory ascension, like those circles by which you move higher and higher up a mountain. You keep passing the same longitude, but at higher and higher latitudes. In this manner we ascend Zion, contending for promises, flowing in a spirit of revelation, gaining keys from the Holy Spirit, eventually laying hold of faith in such a manner that, in truth, it can only be said that faith has lain hold of us. That when the decree must be made; when practical authority has been realized, not before. This is when prayer is finished for it is no longer an act of faith. A decree must take its place.

Decrees without de-knees doesn’t work.

Next week, I’ll share some upgrades that can help get the church moving again.

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