In recent days, I have spent time with people from various parts of our country who have a legitimate beef with the church of Jesus. They have been hurt or disappointed by the church. Church leaders have failed them. Pastors come for counsel who have been hurt and betrayed by their leaders. Church leaders have been maligned and marginalized by their pastoral leadership.
I think it is important that we do three things: First of all, we need to know that we are in the midst of a spiritual battle and that the devil delights to send ravenous wolves among Christ’s sheep to devour, and all church leaders have wolf-like tendencies that we need the Holy Spirit to curb. Secondly, we need to know some of the cultural trends and riptides that are eroding the effectiveness, peace, and purity of Christ’s church. Thirdly, we need to recommit ourselves and our resources to see the gospel make progress through our intentional commitment to a local church that is led by imperfect leaders who have feet of clay.
Recently I was reading some of the research from George Barna about the anti-institutional spirit that is pervading the United States. He writes:
“In recent weeks the Occupy Wall Street movement has focused on the economic gap between the wealthiest one percent of the population and the remaining 99 percent. As others have observed this movement reflects a mix of anti-institutionalism and disillusionment with the economy, government and financial industry. But perhaps Americans’ growing dissatisfaction with institutions is more influenced than they realize by their own personal expectations and experiences. While people are increasingly skeptical of external forces, like religion and government, the research shows that internal doubts about fulfillment, faith, emotion and personal history significantly define millions of the nation’s residents.
Then I was studying today for an upcoming sermon and came across this verse: Isaiah 62:1. It is a neglected Biblical emphasis today in our country. It reads:
“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
And for Jerusalem’s sake I will not keep quiet,
Until her righteousness goes forth like brightness,
And her salvation like a torch that is burning.”
The prophet is deeply moved. Something grips him. What is it? Zion, the city of God, the church, is reduced to contempt. Salvation is not going forth from her like a burning torch. the nations see nothing of God in the human landscape. Isaiah’s heart is broken for God’s people in his generation. When salvation is not going forth as a burning torch, God is saying, “Your life passion should be defined with these three words: for Zion’s sake. When they lay you in the grave, this should be the epitaph on your gravestone: ‘For Zion’s sake.’ That should be the statement your life makes, because I have appointed my church as the human delivery system for joy inexpressible overflowing onto a dying world. That’s my plan, and there is no Plan B.
Over the last thirty years of so we American Christians have diminished our very capacity for revival, and we’re laying a foundation of sand for the future. We’ve jury-rigged our own hybrid version of Christianity that doesn’t even think in terms of the loyalty inherent in the words “for Zion’s sake.” So many Christians today are living a conveniently free-floating way of life, it doesn’t feel misaligned. It feels normal, and costly involvement feels like a super-spiritual option. But to God, church -hopping, self-protecting, me-first Christianity isn’t even recognizable. “For Zion’s sake” defines a way of life that works and prays and tithes and gets involved. Church membership vows could be summarized with these three words: “for Zion’s sake.” But our generation is disinclined to that kind of gutsy intentionality.
What’s happened to us? We’re being changed not by the gospel but by a hyper-individualistic ethos of devotion to self. Complicating that is the fact that many people have been wounded by the church. Personally, the worst experiences of my life have been within the church. Why go back in? Because of God. God has made an everlasting covenant with his church, and her salvation will go forth like a burning torch. That’s the future of the world.
Isaiah has been showing us in his prophetic crystal ball a future day when the nations will run toward Christ through his church. Maybe you need to embrace Christ by re-embracing his church. If your relationship with your church is ambiguous and sporadic and subject to convenience, the problem is not your relationship with your church. The problem is your relationship with Christ. he has made his loyalty clear. He even delights in his church. He is committed to the revival of the world through the revival of the church. To God, the most important thing in all of created reality is his church, a crown of beauty in his hand. Your own greatest happiness is the revival of your church. Are you praying for your church? Are you praying for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit? Or will God have to wait to find people who will share the burden of his heart? About 200 years ago Timothy Dwight, the President of Yale and a leaders of the Second Great Awakening, wrote:
I love thy church, O God; her walls before Thee stand; Dear as the apple of Thine eye and graven on Thy hand. For her my tears shall fall, for her my prayers ascend. To her my cares and toils be given, till toils and cares shall end.
The above lengthy quote and insights come directly from Ray Ortlund Jr.’s commentary on Isaiah entitled Isaiah: God Saves Sinners, pp. 414-415. I would commend it strongly to you.