Why is the Church in the West so Weak?

 

In many parts of the world the church is flourishing and growing rapidly.  This is not the case in the west, especially in the UK.  In his helpful little book, Knowing the Times: How British culture impacts our mission,[1]John Stevens, National Director of the FIEC, writes: ‘The best statistics would suggest that little more than 3% of the population as a whole are born again believers who are meaningfully associated with a local church.’  He further writes: ‘The situation of the church as a whole in the UK is dire.’ While, from a biblical perspective, there is no reason for pessimism as God is sovereign and in the long-term the Kingdom of God will triumph, nevertheless, both the Bible and church history testify to the danger of complacency and the possibility of local churches, even over a wide area, being wiped out.  There is but a pitiful remnant of the once strong church in North Africa and what is now Turkey, for example.

 

The church in the UK has a long and impressive record of strong churches, powerful preaching, Christian publishing and successful missionary enterprise.  But today, in spite of this glorious heritage, the church in the UK is relatively weak today.  Why is that? I believe there are three main reasons, though no doubt others could be mentioned.

 

  1. Many Christians today have become so worldly.

There is little or no difference between the average Christian and most unbelievers in the UK. Divorce is as common among professing Christians as it is in the world.  Many professing Christians see no problem with abortion.  The lifestyle of many Christians is indistinguishable from the lifestyle of pagans.  There seems to be little discernment and discrimination.  Many non-Christians are as law-abiding, kind and generous as the average Christian, who seems to have nothing extra, no distinguishing quality. Christians watch the same films and TV programmes even when these portray sin and lewd behaviour.  They listen to the same pop music even though in many cases the lyrics are lewd and vulgar and the performers live ungodly lives.  Yet the Lord Jesus said that we are to be lights in the world, we are to be the salt of the earth, and, he warned, if the salt has lost its distinctiveness it has become useless.

 

Now, when we use such terms as ‘world’ and ‘worldly’ we need to define our terms as non-Christians and badly taught Christians may be confused.  Words often have a variety of meanings.  For example, if I type the word “row” the reader will not know what I mean.  That word needs to be set in a sentence, and often in a wider context to give it specific meaning, so that we know whether I am referring to a row of chairs, or someone trying to row a boat, or even the row that the children are making that has woken grandma up!  In the New Testament we read that God loves the world (John 3:16), but we also read that the same apostle wrote, “Do not love the world.” (I John 2:15, 16).  In John 3:16 John is telling us that God loves the world of men and women as lost sinners so much that he sent his Son to save them. But in his First Epistle the same writer is warning us about a different kind of world.  Let us see the whole immediate context.

‘Do not love the world or the things in the world.  For if anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.  For all that is in the world’ – [here is the explanation – not trees and flowers or mountains and rivers, nor even men and women as lost sinners, but -] ‘the desires of the flesh[2]and the desires of the eyes and pride of life – is not from the Father but is from the world.’ (I John 2:15, 16).

Yes, worldliness is pandemic in the modern church and lack of separation from evil is one of the weaknesses of many Christians today. One result is that many non-Christians might think, ‘You have nothing that I want, except a few theories about God.’

 

  1. A second cause of weakness is the insidious infiltration of liberal theology.

John Stevens refers to this in his booklet, but some who warn against it might unknowingly have imbibed this error.

The late Graham Harrison formerly of Newport once remarked that (naming an evangelical publishing house) “– now publishes books that a few years ago would have been classed as ‘liberal theology’.”  This gradual infiltration has affected the church more than many realize.  Careful observers of the religious scene will have noted how many, once evangelical, Bible colleges have lost their cutting edge, become liberal, and some have actually closed down.  How many evangelicals no longer accept Genesis 1-3 as divine revelation of facts?  This has enormous implications for the interpretation of many New Testament passages, and even for our Lord’s own teaching.  For example, this raises questions over the existence of Adam, original sin, the origin of marriage, etc.  Recently I read in a supposedly evangelical movement’s literature that God could not have breathed into Adam as God has no lungs!  So this means Ezekiel’s vision of the Spirit breathing into the reconstituted corpses (Ezekiel 37) was wrong, and also we should not sing such hymns as “Breathe on me, breath of God.”  Many evangelicals today could do with reading some of the older books that deal with liberalism, such as books by Gresham Machen.

 

  1. The third cause of weakness that I detect is harder to define, but I would express it as a lack of aspiration among Christians.

Many evangelicals, having been put off by the false interpretations, foolish antics and weird behaviour of extreme charismatics have stepped back into a lethargic and self-satisfied state.  They have come to the conclusion that there is nothing else beyond conversion so they seek nothing more.  Now in a sense they are correct.  We do have all we need in Christ – potentially.  But the New Testament is very clear that there is progress to be made. It speaks of spiritual babes, children, young men and fathers (I Peter 2:2, 3; I John 2:12-14). Judging by the standard of Christian living so often evident in many churches some Christians have no desire to make progress.  There is a lack of hunger, a lack of desire for holiness of life or for more effectiveness, no sense of a need for the power of the Holy Spirit.  This is in stark contrast to what is laid upon us in the New Testament.

 

The great apostle Paul writes of himself: “Not that I have already obtained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has laid hold of me.  Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 3:12-14).  To those who had already been baptized in the Holy Spirit he wrote: “Be not drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit (literally, ‘go on being filled with the Spirit.’ Eph. 5:18).

It is a great mistake to imagine that the standard evangelical and reformed position is that there is no progress beyond conversion.  This is what George Smeaton writes:

‘[N]o more mischievous and misleading theory could be propounded, nor any more dishonouring to the Holy Spirit, than the principle that because the Spirit was poured out at Pentecost, the Church has no need, and no warrant, to pray any more for the effusion of the Spirit of God.  On the contrary, the more the church asks [for] the Spirit and waits for His communications, the more she receives.’[3]

 

The same applies to the desire for and prayer for revival.  There is today very commonly a lack of desire, of aspiration.  Several of the Letters to the Seven Churches in Revelation chapters two and three find their echo in the church of the UK today.

These, then, are in my view, three reasons why the church is weak in the UK: worldliness, liberal theology, and lack of prayer for and desire for the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

 

[1]FIEC, 2017.

[2]Perhaps I should mention that according to Professor F. F. Bruce, the word ‘flesh’ has at least five meanings in the NT.  But I must not go down that trail now!

[3]Smeaton, George, The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit: London, the Banner of Truth Trust, 1958, p. 255.

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