Quiet Revival

Have you heard of the Quiet Revival?  Of course not!  …it’s quiet.

New England is famous for a fewQuiet Revival things.  The Red Sox, clam chowdah, and being a graveyard for church leaders. The statistics can, indeed, be grim.  Until recently, 85% of church plants failed, according to the North American Mission Board (that’s Southern Baptist for all y’all below the Mason-Dixon line out there).  According to Pew Forum, only 11% of New Englanders identify as Evangelical.  The Barna Group determined that the 5 least religious states in America are all in New England.

But this is not the full story.  According to research done by the Emmanuel Gospel Center (EGC), a Boston based research and community organization, the number of churches in Boston has doubled since 1965.  The number of people attending a church has gone from 3% of the city to 14% of the city.  In addition, according to Jeff Bass of EGC, there is a growing unity observed among the churches, and increase in prayer movements, a maturing of church systems, and an increase in the development of church leaders.

So how has all of this gone unnoticed?

1) There has been a dramatic move among immigrants and minority populations.  It is not uncommon for a pastor in a town to claim that there are only 6 churches in town, when in fact there are 13.  The pastor, unintentionally, is overlooking the numerous churches in strip malls and storefronts, or meeting in another church’s facilities, run by Filipinos or Hondurans or Brazilians.  Too often, the people counting churches don’t see what they’re not looking for.  At last count, there were 32 languages represented in the churches of Boston alone.

2) Old churches that were dying are coming back to life.  My church is 171 years old, and we’re the new kids.  The oldest church in my town was founded 138 years before the United States became a nation.  Many pastors are choosing to invest in the revitalization of the historic New England churches.  These churches, once large, dwindled to a shell of their former selves (often down to attendance figures in the teens), usually as a result of abandoning the Gospel and the authority of Scripture – I am simplifying but that is the core of it.  With tremendous effort and long-suffering faithfulness many of these churches are growing again, often to the chagrin of their denominational leaders.  The churches who have not returned to the Gospel are still dying at a steady clip.

3) Churches are being planted.  But unlike in other areas of the country, these church plants are not flashy.  They tend not to grow explosively, but rather methodically.  Due to the restrictions on space (a high commodity in the densely developed New England states), most church plants reach a few hundred attendees before they multiply locations.  This keeps any single church from reaching the numbers of a mega-church; they never reach the numbers that attract national attention.

There are no Saddleback churches here.  There are no Northpoints here.  There are no world-famous preachers in Boston or Hartford or Portland (no, not that other one – think Maine).  The revival is happening among small churches, often obscured by a foreign language, an old building, or a small beginning.

Things are looking up, but the work has only begun.  In my town of 25,000 people, only about 4% are attending a church on any given weekend, as best I can discern. Of those, fewer attend a church that regularly teaches the Scripture and clearly declares the Gospel.  Jesus’ words have never been more true.

The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.

Please pray for the Lord to send more workers for the harvest.

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God “Gets” Evil More Than You Do

Sunday I preached a sermon on evil and sin and I had a few requests to blog about some of the points.  This was in the wake of the Patriot’s Day Bombing at the Boston City Marathon, when many of us were feeling angry, betrayed, and all sorts of other responses in our emotions and our thinking.  I’ll split this up into a few sections over the next 3 or 4 days.

What strikes me as a supremely important point, though it may sound obvious once it is mentioned, is that God understands evil and sin.  In Genesis 6.1-5, God looks at creation and sees that men and women are inclined towards evil.  From the great event of the Fall onward, humans have been at odds with our creator and pushed the limits of evil behavior.  Genesis says that “every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.”  That’s a pretty serious accusation…all evil, all the time.  That could practically be a slogan for Hell.  The point is, God took this sin and evil very seriously, and killed all of mankind except for one family. If it had not been for his promise to judge Satan through the seed of Eve (Gen 3.15), and therefore to implicitly redeem creation, God might have rid the earth of men and women for good.  Sin and evil are that serious.

It strikes me as odd that people complain that God allows evil things to happen, as if we have a greater degree of hatred for sin than God does.  But I’ve never heard people who complain that God allows evil also complain about the evil they commit.  We all have sins that we want to do – sins that we consciously commit, we explain away as being OK, or we justify by our circumstances.  Why aren’t people complaining that God doesn’t stop them from sinning?  You see, we (generally) really only hate other people’s sin.  We’re quite OK with our own.  So, in fact, God takes sin much more seriously than we do.  We only hate sin that affects us against our will, or sin that makes us feel bad for those we perceive to be innocent.  God hates all sin.

In Romans 1.18ff, Paul tells us that God actually uses our sinful inclinations as judgment.  God is pouring our his wrath.  How does he do it?  He hands people over to the sinful inclinations of their hearts.  It’s important to note that the Greek term used for “gave them over” is the same word used when Judas betrayed Jesus to the religious leaders.  It’s not letting someone go in the natural course they were on, as some would like to interpret it.  Rather, it is an active and intentional handing over.  Of course, God doesn’t need to force people to sin (more on that later).  But he sends them deeper into the sin they want to do as a form of his wrath.

I mentioned Judas, and he is a great example of this.  The Gospels tell us that Judas was a thief and liar.  He didn’t believe Jesus was who he claimed to be, and his willingness to follow Jesus was motivated (at least in part) by his desire to be a man of influence and power.  When he saw that Jesus wasn’t going to attempt to throw out the Romans and institute a new rule in Israel, he betrayed the only perfect and sinless human being over to death.  The result of this, his greatest act of evil?  He was crushed by the weight of his sin and took his own life in despair.

When we walk further down the path of sin, we experience great hurt, pain, anguish, and despair.  God uses our evil inclinations to judge our evil because he, more than any of us, understands the total impact of our sin.  He sees, more than any of us, how deadly sin is.

Before all the other points that one can make, the most basic and foundational observation about God and evil is that God “gets” evil more than you do.  Therefore, he hates it more than you do.  He is more sorrowful about it than you are.  He is working harder to stop it than you are.

Tips for Discussing Tragic Events with Children

These are some tips I prepared for the parents and Sunday School teachers at our church.  I hope they can be helpful for others.

Kids get so much information from TV, radio, friends, and the internet that it is almost impossible to shield them completely from the tragic events that unfold in our world (except the very young). Therefore it is necessary to talk to your children, of all ages, about what has happened and to help them process the event. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

  • Find out how much the child already knows. Don’t assume because they were watching the news that they understood what happened (especially younger children). This also helps you to refrain from introducing unnecessary details.
  • Determine how they interpret the events. Children (not to mention adults) often draw incorrect conclusions from the images and information they see.
  • Encourage them to ask questions. Also let them share their feelings. Maybe their friends at school are saying things about this and they want to know if it’s true. Notice that the first few steps involve mostly listening to your child before sharing.
  • Be honest. Of course the child’s age will impact what level of detail you give, but there is no benefit in lying to them about what happened. They’ll hear the truth somewhere else and determine that you are not a willing partner in discussions like these. The younger the child, the more general your information should be (ex. A bad man tried to hurt people today, and some people did get hurt).
  • Help them to feel safe. Its important to stay calm yourself, and to let them know that they are safe in the moment. Be specific – “you are safe here with me, no one will hurt you.” Give plenty of hugs and affection, to the extent that they want it. Limit what they see, both about the tragic event and other violence on TV, movies. Let them know that God is watching over them and protecting them, as are you.
  • Watch out for behavioral changes. They may be displaying unhealthy responses in their behavior. Be patient.
  • Use it as a teaching moment. Talk about how God looks at sin and evil, at accidents and tragedies. Talk about all the people who helped out and showed the best of the human spirit. Talk about how you might be able to support the victims through prayer. Talk about loving your enemies, and pray for anyone who intentionally did wrong. Show them how to trust God in tragedy.

 

Facing a Fearful Future

As the whole world knows, we’ve been dealing with a lot here in Boston the last few days. We’ve come face to face with terrorism, with death, with damage to bodies; buildings; and our collective psyche.  Now we face a future with a new, more tangible fear.  Fear of being hurt.  Fear of not knowing if we’ll be targeted again or if this is a strange anomaly.  Fear of whether our children will cope.

In this new reality we face, the Church is one of the few voices that can offer true hope.  I watched our president’s address at the Boston Interfaith Prayer Service, and he showed again his oratory talents and his ability to motivate and lift people with his words.  But as inspiring as his words were, it was the Scripture he used that had real impact.  It’s one thing to say that the tragedy will bring out the best in us and that we can overcome and press on.  It is an entirely different perspective that says God will restore all things.  God will judge evil.  God will redeem heartache and tragedy.

My brother-in-law, Roberto Miranda, also spoke.  He was able, as a pastor and believer, to point to the limitation of evil that God promises.  He spoke of the “infinite Good who sits on his throne gazing lovingly over this city” that prevents evil from accomplishing its full purposes in a tragedy like this.  Though evil will have its moment, God and his goodness will prevail.

I prayed Monday night, not at a rally for victims of the Boston bombing, but for a family and teenagers grieving the loss of their son and friend who died in a car accident Sunday evening.  This tragedy is equally devastating for that family and those closest to him.  The driver, his close friend, was drinking and now faces both criminal charges and the guilt of killing a friend.  Though there is a difference of intent, this death was also the result of sin. Meaningless sin.

The Church has the task, both as a responsibility and an opportunity, to proclaim to a hurting community the faithfulness and goodness of God in the midst of tragedy.  We have the chance to share the hope that we find in Christ.  It is a hope for our own salvation but also a hope for the eradication of evil, the setting right of things made wrong.  The Gospel speaks to our collective situation.  Please pray with the disciples of Jesus Christ in and around Boston that we may be able to carefully, thoughtfully, and effectively share the message of hope that we have through Christ.  And pray that our cherished city will be able to walk in the true hope for our future.  Not by trusting in chariots and horses (or Hummers and strong firepower), but by trusting in the name of the Lord our God.