If God is about to bring revival to his church, how do we make sure that we don’t miss the boat?
In his memoir Where the Light Fell, Philip Yancey wrote about his childhood, his journey away from Christianity and then how God brought him back to Christianity. The title of his book is actually from a quote by the early church father Augustine: “For I had my back toward the light, and my face toward the things on which the light falls, so that my face, which looked toward the illuminated things, was not itself illuminated.”
In this book, Yancey tells the story of being raised in a very legalistic church during the civil rights movement. His childhood church was in Atlanta, and it had about 1,000 people in it. This was the 60s, mind you. That many people made it like a super-mega church. Now this church had ushers standing at the door with cards, and if a person of color entered, the ushers would hand them a card.
These cards read: We cannot extend a welcome to you here, so we respectfully request you leave the premise quietly.
That was the church Yancey grew up in as a child. Over the years, the church leaders started to kind of lessen their hold a bit and welcome people of color in the church. However, they were never allowed to become members. Then a young man from Carver College, which was an all-black school, started attending. He loved that church so much that he made a special petition that the church would allow him to become a member.
The church gathered and voted on whether to let this young man become a member. The outcome of the vote was 100 percent absolutely not. Yancey wrote about how that day the church turned away Tony Evans from their door, the man who would go on to become an incredible pastor, speaker, author and television broadcaster.
When we allow culture to obscure our view of God’s Word, we will often end up on the wrong side of history; we will fail to hear the Spirit clearly and love people well…
It was the German theologian Helmut Thielicke who was reported as having said, “The gospel must be preached afresh and told in new ways to every generation, since every generation has its own unique questions. The gospel must constantly be forwarded to a new address, because the recipient is repeatedly changing his place of residence.” This is key. Every generation has its own unique questions that come out of the problems they’re facing. That’s what we have to go after. Those questions are what we have to answer.
Sometimes our pulpits keep preaching the same message to the old address. Nobody lives there anymore. We’re part of a generation where the world drastically changed in 2020 in so many ways. How do we make sure that the gospel is being forwarded to the new address? The Bible’s message doesn’t change; that’s true, but the recipients are changing. It’s our job to figure out how to get to that new address.
I think God is doing something special in this season where everything’s being shaken up. God is returning his church to himself.
The late, great Leonard Ravenhill once said, “The early church was married to poverty, prisons and persecutions. Today, the church is married to prosperity, personality, and popularity.” He also had the greatest definition of revival; he said that revival is when God gets so sick and tired of being misrepresented that he shows up himself. That’s what I think is about to happen. God is going to rescue the church out of the hands of big names and stars, and he’s going to put his church back in the hands of the son. That’s what I think God is getting ready to do, and I think everything that happened in 2020 was God getting believers ready for this.
I want to be on the right side of history with this. I want to make sure that I’m not doing church the New York City way. Instead, I want to figure out what God is saying to us, even if it goes against the grain, even if it offends people in the world, even if it offends people in the church.
What does God have to say? That’s what matters. That’s all that has ever mattered.
So how do we figure out what God is saying at times when people are questioning us and we might not even be sure ourselves what we’re doing?
Let’s take a quick look at Acts in the Bible. Paul’s method of evangelism was go into a local synagogue in whatever city he was in, and he would start reasoning with the Jews and sharing the gospel with them. It made sense because Paul had been a Pharisee, right? He’d memorized scripture, and he knew their laws inside and out. In the first missionary playbook, the plan is you go to the synagogue and preach the gospel to the Jews. It’s working great, then Acts 16 happens.
Paul arrives in Europe, and he receives a vision calling him to Macedonia. “And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them” (Acts 16:9-10, ESV). Paul finally shows up in Macedonia, and there’s already a problem with the game plan. No synagogues exist.
What do you do when your playbook gets all uprooted? In football, you call an audible. It means you walk out onto the field with a plan, look at what's out in front of you and realize, “It’s not going to work.” Whenever you heard these words from Peyton Manning — “Omaha! Omaha! Omaha!” — that always meant that everything was getting changed, and you’d see the defensive line shifting and wide receivers checking the quarterback. Everybody’s asking, “He’s seeing something and saying, ‘Let’s change the plan.’ What’s going on here? What do we do now?”
The play that we had with synagogues is not going to work in Macedonia.
So, what does Paul do?
He could’ve turned around and gone back to Jerusalem or found another city out there with synagogues. It would’ve been easy to say, “Hey, it seemed like God was calling us here, but maybe it was just a weird dream. Nothing here is right for sharing the gospel, so we’re headed out.”
Instead, Paul realizes that even though he can’t talk to Jews, he can still talk to religious people. These people serve idols, and those idols are probably going to be down by a riverside because that’s where people have to go every day for water, washing, maybe even food or trading goods. “And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together” (Acts 16:13). This is getting crazier and crazier. Paul is talking to gentiles instead of Jews, and he’s talking to women whose testimony won’t even stand in court and who had almost no rights in the ancient world. God forbid if we find a gentile woman to become the first convert in Europe! That would really be crossing the line.
Here it comes. “One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.’ And she prevailed upon us” (Acts 16:14-15). The first convert who got the ball rolling in Macedonia is a gentile businesswoman who sells purple fabrics.
Think for just a moment how amazing this is. Most believers in that day would’ve looked at Paul and asked him, “Are you out of your mind? You can’t do church this way.” Most would’ve handed Lydia a card that said, “Sorry, we can’t welcome you here. Please leave.” Instead of giving up and backtracking, though, Paul says, “Let's go somewhere no one’s thought to go before. Let's see what God can do in this place, with this person no one would’ve thought to let inside.”
The place where we surrender our rules and expectations to God is the spot where God lets us in on some of his most incredible work.
I was reading a biography about Walt Disney, and it was talking about how much he loved drawing as a child. In elementary school, he would draw flowers with different faces, and one of his teachers tried telling him, “Flowers don’t have faces.” Disney replied, “Mine do.” I’m glad that they did. See, sometimes God draws faces on the flowers, and we want to say, “No, that’s not how that should work.”
I believe God is bringing revival; but what if, in the process, the church in the United States starts to look stranger than we ever imagined it? Here’s what you have to remember. God doesn’t need a building. His people are his church. We tell ourselves that so often, but do we really believe it? When the unexpected happens, we need to turn to God. We need to be people who listen for his answers. The quarantines and lockdowns of 2020 felt like a test run, like God was preparing his people for something new. I believe our government and society is going to start limiting more and more of what Christians are allowed to do. So, if there are chains on the doors of the church buildings, how do we bring the gospel out?
God’s church is going to thrive in persecution. You know how I can say that? One of the places with the highest number of Christians in the world is China. It’s not in the United States or anywhere in the Western world. Some of you might’ve thought it was but not anymore. In China, it’s illegal to be a Christian or have a church that reads the entire Bible. Here’s the part that I believe is significant. Off the top of your head, tell me the name of one of the churches in China. What about the name of one pastor in China?
What if God is taking the church away from superstars and returning it to himself?
What if believers stop looking to big names and start turning to Christ?
What if the church revives and transforms? It’s happened before in history, and it will happen again. Let’s make sure we’re part of the awakening.