There are millions of people who do not know Jesus Christ, and do not have a relationship with God. That is a tragedy and something believers must seek to rectify. But an even greater tragedy is the fact that many Christians are also getting by without God.
Indeed, entire churches are getting by without God. The sad truth is we have been willing to substitute a million things for the living God. We have programs, marketing techniques, entertainment, self-help courses, methodology, management, cafes, and music galore. But do we have God?
Many observers of the contemporary church have sounded the alarm here. One thinks of the trenchant and incisive works by Os Guinness and David Wells, to name but a few. Writing in the 80s and 90s, they offered important critiques of the church-growth movement, of mega-churches, and the Christian embrace of modernism.
They offered brilliant and penetrating assessments of where the church was seriously heading off course. David Wells for example wrote a string of important volumes during this period, including his seminal 1994 volume, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams. In it he said this:
“The fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is not inadequate technique, insufficient organization, or antiquated music, and those who want to squander the church’s resources bandaging these scratches will do nothing to stanch the flow of blood that is spilling from its true wounds. The fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is that God rests too inconsequentially upon the church. His truth is too distant, his grace is too ordinary, his judgment is too benign, his gospel is too easy, and his Christ is too common.”
Os Guinness also penned a number of important critiques during this period, including his 1993 work, Dining with the Devil. There he wrote, “The very brilliance and power of [modernism’s] tools and insights mean that eventually God’s authority is no longer decisive. There is no longer quite the same need to let God be God. In fact, there is no need for God at all in order to achieve extraordinary measurable success.”
And in 1992 Guinness and John Seel edited a very valuable collection of essays entitled No God But God: Breaking with the Idols of Our Age. It contained a number of first-rate evaluations of where the Western church was heading. The authors lamented the way the American church in particular had sold out to the spirit of the age:
“To be more specific, the idolatry in question is the idolatry of good and useful things from our modern world that, in the form of powerful modern myths, have been allowed to become distortions of the gospel and substitutes for faith in God….
“The first duty of believers is to say yes to God; the second is to say no to idols. Such idolatry is a problem for contemporary evangelicals because evangelicals have uncritically bought into the insights, tools, and general blessings of modernity. Thus a radical confrontation with heresy, worldliness, and idolatry is part and parcel of a serious examination of the theoretical and practical assumptions that shape the life of the church in modern society.”
They examined in detail how the church had simply slavishly copied worldly marketing techniques, salesmanship, and popular culture, all to be relevant and seeker-sensitive. But these worldly techniques, while perhaps adequate for the world, can never take the place of God himself in the church of Jesus Christ.
Indeed, we have steadily if unwittingly allowed God to disappear from our churches, and we have managed to keep on going. Our programs, our entertainment, our business, our noise, and our activities have kept us so busy that we have not even noticed that God may have departed long ago.
Of course one mighty prophet of God said all this a half century ago. For decades A.W. Tozer warned, cajoled, exhorted and pleaded with the Christian church to return to God and forget all this other nonsense. He spoke, wrote, preached and taught that God alone could revive a dead church.
Consider this razor sharp analysis of his: “If the Holy Spirit was withdrawn from the church today, 95 percent of what we do would go on and no one would know the difference. If the Holy Spirit had been withdrawn from the New Testament church, 95 percent of what they did would stop, and everybody would know the difference.”
Read that paragraph again, and again, until it sinks in. Where is God in all that we do? Where is God in all our mega-churches, programs, and religious entertainment? Where is God in our board meetings, our small groups, our prayer meetings, and our pulpits? Is he there?
Lest we think such questions are too foolish to consider, let us not forget what God had to do in times past with his rebellious and stiff-necked people. Israel too was certain that they had God on their side, and that he would never leave them.
But consider just two episodes where we read about God and his glory departing from Israel. The first is found in the book of Samuel. In 1 Samuel 4:21-22 we read, “She named the boy Ichabod, saying, ‘The glory has departed from Israel’ – because of the capture of the ark of God and the deaths of her father-in-law and her husband. She said, ‘The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured’.”
The name “Ichabod” means “no glory” or “inglorious” in Hebrew. The glory of the Lord had departed, meaning God’s presence was no longer with the Israelites. This was a temporary departure of God’s glory. A much longer and more significant departure occurred when Israel was judged by Yahweh and sent into captivity in Babylon.
In Ezekiel 10 we read about how the glory of God left the temple, left Jerusalem, and left Israel. For example in Ez 10:18 it says, “Then the glory of the LORD departed from over the threshold of the temple and stopped above the cherubim.”
The sad fact is, God had sent his prophets to warn Israel about their sin, their worldliness, their idolatry and their disobedience. Yet the Israelites would not listen. Jeremiah for example spent 40 years warning God’s people to repent and turn their lives around. But they refused to heed his words.
The Israelites were sure God was always with them. They chanted, ‘The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord is here’ (Jer. 7:4). They falsely assumed that the presence of the physical temple meant that God would never leave them. But of course he did leave them.
We too smugly assume that God is with us, blessing us, and always pleased with all that we do. But is he? Is he in fact to be found in all our religious activities? Or have we managed to fill our church lives with so much activity, so much entertainment, and so much technique, that we just assume God is in it all?
Perhaps he is not. Perhaps he has left long ago and we never even noticed his departure. Perhaps we too should be named Ichabod. Perhaps we too have lost the glory of the Lord, and have substituted for it all sorts of human and fleshly replacements.
I know these may be hard words. But such words must be constantly hammered into our souls and spirits. If they are not, we will continue to stumble, to fall, and to shame our master. The church has for too long allowed a humanised gospel and worldly methods to drown out the divine presence. And such drastic faults require drastic surgery – not more tinkering at the edges.
We must ask ourselves on a regular basis: is God still here? Is God still with us? Or are we simply running on our own steam? Those may be the most important questions we can ask of ourselves. But ask them we must.