“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8, NRSV
The news that the total membership of the SBC has declined from the previous year’s total has apparently been somewhat shocking and surprising to many. Although baptisms have been declining for quite some time, attendance plateaued and has probably declined since 1980, and the statistical increases that have been seen are fractionally small, the quirks involved in tallying the total membership of 45,000 independent, autonomous churches have somewhat dulled the pain of reality and allowed for some to bury their head in the sand when it came to comparing the SBC with mainline denominations declining “because of their liberalism.” It would appear that conservative denominations are not immune to decline simply because they are conservative.
The membership is declining because of various circumstances in the churches. Our tendency is to think that some denominational emphasis or program, or even a movement, will fix the problem. We’ve become very creative at doing this sort of thing, with the accompanying slick marketing and packaging. We do denominational programs well, but we still have a declining membership.
What we need is not something that can come in a box from Lifeway. We need an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, a genuine, spirit-led, spirit filled revival.
There it is, in Acts 1:8. Jesus promised his followers that they would be filled with the Holy Spirit in a few days and told them to wait around in Jerusalem until it happened. They did. Look what resulted from that experience.
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone , because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” Acts 2:42-47, NRSV
Could it really be that simple? Is spiritual revival something we really want to happen?
I think most of our churches are afraid of a real movement of the Holy Spirit, too fearful to seek it out. It’s not something that can be controlled. We get really comfortable where we are, we like having things predictable and routine, we can fit it into our lives without too much trouble. We can plan for our weekly worship time, Bible study, and maybe even a church activity or two when we know exactly what to expect. A genuine, spiritual outpouring brings conviction, which requires repentance. It changes lives. It makes us uncomfortable. It might require more time than we want to give. It could even change our priorities.
We are used to doing worship very well, without any spiritual influence. We can provide quality music, good preaching, a theatrically appropriate backdrop, add to the look and feel with a screen, a couple of projectors and a computer, program it into an hour on a Sunday morning and have everyone headed to the cafeteria shortly after noon. We’ve got some mega-churches with satellite campuses where the whole service is on a screen, a pre-packaged experience that helps us endure our Sunday morning church habit by making it entertaining. We’ve become so dependent on our own ability to create a “spiritual” worship atmosphere that we’ve programmed the Holy Spirit out of it.
A genuine outpouring of the Holy Spirit would have to fall within the doctrinal parameters we have set from our own interpretation of the scripture. It would be acceptable as long as it fell within the guidelines that our seminary professors and theologians have declared appropriate and correct with their impeccable academic credentials and their mastery of the detailed nuances and expressions of Biblical languages. We’ll accept it as long as it complies with the limitations we have placed upon it.
That’s probably why we haven’t really seen a genuine, spiritual revival for a long time.
Great preaching, praise music done well by the best band available, innovation, change, creativity, none of those things are bad in and of themselves. But none of them can bring revival in and of themselves, either. We need to be open to the Spirit, just like the early church was. Perhaps we need to linger in “Jerusalem” for a while, and wait on the Spirit to move. And I think we need to understand that it is probably not going to be an experience that fits our expectations, or our comfort zone. When the Spirit came at Pentecost, it was accompanied by visible and audible signs, well outside the experience of those present. At other times, the scripture describes the place as being “shaken,” literally, like an earthquake was happening. It couldn’t be programmed, planned or controlled, and it was according to God’s sovereignty.
After Pentecost, three thousand souls were added to the church. During the succeeding days, weeks and months, additions to the kingdom happened daily.
Isn’t that what we want to happen?