Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Diminishing Spiritual Returns

Mar 14, 2011

The physical world and the spiritual world often run along parallel lines. What is true in the one is often true in the other. In the physical world for example we all know about diminishing returns, and it is not just the Second Law of Thermodynamics which testifies to this.

We get a great cup of tea the first time we use a tea bag, and can often get an acceptable second cup, maybe even a third. But by the time you get to the tenth cup or so you barely have coloured water. We see this all over the place. A white picket fence will not be white for too long if not tended to.

A nice tidy lawn will eventually become a bed of weeds if not regularly dealt with. A rusty tin roof will eventually be no roof at all. Things wear down, get less usable, and lose their purposefulness. This can and does happen quite often in the spiritual arena as well.

Great moves of God or powerful works of the Spirit eventually peter out, or get sidetracked, or lose their vitality.  Sadly church history is full of examples of this. A powerful move of God can soon wane and disappear altogether. A spiritual second law of thermodynamics almost seems to be in operation.

Of course this need not be, and should not be. But the commencement of a spiritual move is a different matter from its continuation. What begins with great promise can easily get off the rails if spiritual care is neglected. We all know of examples of this.

One example took place in Canberra recently. The annual National Prayer Breakfast has been held in the nation’s capital for some 25 years now. Put on by the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship, it was once a high point of the Christian calendar.

In the early days the main speakers were solid, Bible-believing Christians. They would deliver powerful, Scripture-based messages, and there was no doubt that this was a distinctly Christian event. But that has not been the case as of late. Indeed, in the past few years this has seemed to be more of an interfaith service than anything specifically Christian.

I have written up the past several years of the NPB, with its decidedly dumbed-down content, and indeed, a deliberate embrace of both interfaith and multi-faith foolishness:

Things were little better this year. The Sunday evening speakers were a mixed bag, with some giving a more or less Christian message, while others offered some pretty mushy spirituality. One even went on about other faiths, even atheism, and also said that Jesus was basically just a good moral teacher. Of course that is simply the stuff of theological liberalism.

But the real highlight of the weekend is the Monday morning breakfast – at least it is supposed to be. However, the past few years have been real fizzers, as I have already documented. Lately the whole thing has simply become a place for social workers to explain their work.

Now there is nothing wrong with social work, and this year and the previous year both breakfast talks featured women who are involved in various social activities in Africa. Both are very good works indeed. But recall what this is supposed to be.

It is supposed to be the National Prayer Breakfast sponsored by the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship. But one would never have guessed this. The past few years could easily have been called the National Social Work Breakfast by the Parliamentary Humanist Fellowship.

True, at least this year there may have been an actual 3 or 4 minutes of prayer, in contrast to about 1 minute last year. But in terms of speakers, last year we gained only the slightest impression that this person and her work were to be considered somewhat Christian.

This year there was absolutely no way of knowing this. The person works for a nominally Catholic social action group, but during her entire talk there was not the slightest indication that she was a Christian or that she considered her work to be Christian.

Not once was God mentioned. Not once was Jesus mentioned. Or the Spirit. Or the Bible. Or anything even remotely to do with the Christian faith. Nor was there even one phrase of Scripture mentioned. In other words it was a 100 per cent secular address on a basically secular topic.

Now don’t get me wrong – as I said, it sounds like a very worthwhile work she is doing. But my point is this: if this is now solely about showcasing secular social work programs, fine. But why in the world pretend it is in any way a Christian breakfast any longer?

Why not just chuck the Christian angle out altogether, and let any atheist, secularist or humanist do their thing each year with the breakfast? This was after all supposed to be something to do with Christianity. But judging by the most recent speakers, no one would even know this.

It is not even clear that this woman is a Christian. She certainly never once spoke of her faith or Christianity. Again, if the organisers want to turn this into an annual Humanist get-together, fine, but just be up front about it please. Stop the pretence of this actually being a specifically Christian event.

So which way for the future? It seems only two options present themselves. Either it continues this downward slide, and soon finds itself out of action altogether, or it goes back to its roots, and recaptures its Christian nature. Judging by the decline in numbers over the past few years, it looks like this whole thing is just going to die out.

People vote with their feet, and when they see things advertised one way, but in actuality turn out another, they eventually lose interest and stop showing up. If things continue on as they have been for the past few years, then to be honest I say good riddance. There are already far too many mushy and content-less interfaith and humanist meetings being held all over the place. We don’t really need any more of them.

Or, by God’s grace, and by some concerted action and decisions by some solid Christians, this event can go back to its roots, and reclaim its original vision, purpose and calling. I hope that is the case. We can pray toward that end. But as in the natural world, these things just do not come about by themselves.

We have to work at it. We have to go against the grain. To maintain spiritual vitality and freshness does not happen by itself. It has to be strived for, worked toward, and prayed through. Any great endeavour for God is the combination of his Spirit working, and our active engagement and commitment.

There are no short cuts in the Christian’s spiritual life, or in the church or para-church realms. Any activity that will glorify God and bear precious fruit must be worked at, sweated over, and prayed through. Otherwise things will simply continue to go downhill.

As A.W. Tozer has put it, “The bias of nature is toward the wilderness, never toward the fruitful field. . . . What is true of the field is true also of the soul, if we are but wise enough to see it. The moral bent of the fallen world is not toward godliness, but definitely away from it.”

This is also true of Christian ministries, activities and endeavours. Please pray for those who are part of the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship. They are all already quite busy simply being politicians. We applaud them for trying to bring together the Christians in Parliament.

But they need prayer and vision if they are to recapture the original rationale for the NPB. It was once a mighty Christian annual event in Canberra. It can be again, if the will, the desire, the commitment, and the prayer is there. So keep praying. And if you know of some of these folks, please drop them a line, encouraging them as well.

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17 Responses to Diminishing Spiritual Returns

  • Well said Bill
    This was my second NPD and I left disappointed after rising at 3am and driving to Canberra for this event.
    Do you think Bill we should have a second breakfast for christians?
    Warren Weir

  • Bill,

    There is another issue to put beside what you have said: the cost.
    And to pay so much for so little, not my cup of tea as regards my stewardship.

    Greg Brien

  • Bill, sorry to hear about the Prayer Breakfast. We have much to thank people such as Dr Harry Edwards, Alasdair Webster, Chris Miles and John Forrest for in the days they lead the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship. It was always a challenge to be inclusive particularly when many Labour Party members who claimed to be Christians chose not to attend the regular PCF meetings. But there were some Liberals who tended to distance themselves as well. Maybe it just reflected the much wider Conservative/Evangelical Liberal divide.Or maybe just sadly they thought in in their best political interests to be at arms length from what was once famously billed as the “God Squad”! I don’t recall in my time for example that John Howard ever attended PCF meetings though Peter Costello often did as did John Anderson. Generally PM’s and Opposition Leaders attended PCF organised events such as the Church service at the beginning of the Parliamentary year. And most attended the Prayer breakfast except I think Paul Keating.
    The tone of the Prayer Breakfast reflected the views of the PCF leadership and I thank God that there were over many years some stirring Prayer breakfasts.
    John Bradford

  • I assume Bill, that you are talking about entropy, which is the way systems in the universe become run down and more disordered until they become totally inert. This can be seen in any teenager’s bedroom. The opposite of this is the way huge energy is required to stop this, to create order out of chaos, to keep things apart. The Equality Bills are distinct examples of this entropy, where the distinction between male and female, husband and wife, human and animal, living and dead matter are erased. Western society’s exhaustion and seeming paralysis clearly shows that without God’s Holy Spirit generating the power to create distinct Christian living, it dies.

    David Skinner, UK

  • Thanks Warren

    Yes we have discussed this option a lot lately. Do we just abandon a sinking ship and hold our own specifically Christian event, or do we stay in the old wineskin and seek to revitalise it. I am not quite sure the best way forward here.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks Greg

    Yes cost is also a real concern. $75 for a breakkie is a bit steep (although I must say it seemed to be a bit tastier this year, for what it is worth!).

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks John

    Yes, in the past, a new leader would run the PCF for a two year period. So if one was a solid Bible-believing evangelical that would often be reflected in the speakers. In the same way, if a more nominal or liberal or lefty Christian leader was in charge, that too would often be reflected in the choice of speakers. Admittedly the PCF is a big tent or broad church outfit, but whether a solid and consistent Christian witness can come forth from such a mixed bag remains to be seen.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks David

    Yes entropy is another name for it, and the teenager’s room is a great illustration of it.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • I have been to National Prayer Breakfasts and other breakfasts in the past. I have been inspired by the messages, testimonies and prayers. However, I despaired for significant god-honouring policies, speeches or outcomes from parliament.

    I think that the Parties love to have token Christians etc as candidates – and treat them as useful idiots. They want them to bring in the ‘Christian’ vote. They tolerate Christian declarations from candidates – fully intending to ignore and outvote them in the Party Room and in parliament.

    After all, Christian politicians in Labor, Liberal or Green parties do NOT have a mandate for Christian policies, rather, they were elected on the secular platform of whatever party they have joined.

    CDP is one exception, with Fred Nile being outstanding – but even they made the mistake of trusting Gordon Moyes who defected to Family First, which, despite it’s Christian roots, accepts candidates with questionable Christian status.

    After many years in CTA/CDP, I now realise that Christians’ main duty is to propagate and defend the gospel. If the population becomes Christian then parties and pollies will follow – that is the nature of the political animal.

    In the meantime, the best that can happen is that the Christian pollies leave the secular parties and join a Christian party which insists on active Christian candidates and clearly specifies its Christian values; but in its public policies it needs to spell-out those policies in pragmatic secular terms because god-honouring policies really do have practical advantages that even non-Christians can recognise.

    Peter Newland

  • Thanks Peter

    Yes there are Christian Parliamentarians and then there are Christian Parliamentarians. Some are the real deal while others may be less so. And a specifically Christian party can be quite important. And I certainly honour and respect Fred Nile.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • It could be time for a new fresh gathering, by the sounds of it, Bill.
    Trevor Faggotter

  • I’ve never been to this breakfast but have been a committee member of the Melbourne Prayer Breakfast for many years and I am thankful that we, as a committee, are strongly focussed on maintaining the MPB as a Christian event. We choose our speakers, M.C., singers, Bible readers and pray-ers on the basis that they are active Christians and proud to testify to this fact. I am thankful for the past strong leadership of Graham Sharman and current strong leadership of John Peberdy who I am confident will maintain our Christian focus. Perhaps it’s time for the Canberra Committee to include people like them on their team.
    Kathy Nightingale

  • Thanks Kathy

    Yes the MPB seems to have been much more consistently and conscientiously Christian over the years than the NPB. Another key leader in the Melbourne committee has been Desmond Higgs. We must pray that it continues to stay on the straight and narrow.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Dear Bill, It is disappointing when otherwise good people dilute their Christian beliefs in a forum which is meant to uphold them. I have resolved that no matter where I am or how much it startles the listener I will robustly defend the Truth. I had the opportunity yesterday after a very frail, old lady began a conversation in the podiatrists waiting room about the extraordinary number of natural disasters which were occurring and how some were predicting the end of the world next year. I replied by saying that it was wrong to speculate about when the end of the world will come because my Catholic faith taught that only God knew the day hour and the hour. I continued saying that we could accept these natural disasters as warnings of God’s wrath and He could not be very pleased that the once Christian country of Australia had an openly atheistic Prime Minister living in sin in the Lodge with her man friend.To this the old lady somewhat taken aback replied ‘Well to each his own !’ As I was leaving I said to my three round eyed listeners that if I thought any different I would be degrading my own 55 year marriage whose vows I had taken before God. The old lady repeated ‘As I said, to each his own’ as if Gillard’s choice was not affecting us all.
    Patricia Halligan

    The tragedy is that this attitude is common to all age groups.As AW Tozer says we do not lean towards godliness but towards immorality.What this old lady could not see is that immoral ‘choices’ only bring misery in their wake and then everyone flounders in the misery.

    The speakers at the prayer breakfast are too afraid of upsetting their listeners but we must be fearless in presenting the Truth as Christ was fearless.Hope these comments are useful.

  • Patricia
    I agree with you %100.
    I pray for those people you were talking to and Thank You for telling the truth.
    Daniel Kempton


    Hi Bill, saw this in the Herald Sun. Looks like we’re getting to the point where one little atheist is chasing away 1000 so called Christians.

    It’s pathetic that Christians these days are being so ineffective. We need to stand up, not be trodden under foot like flavourless salt.

    Mario Del Giudice

  • I just came across this quote from another social worker who was not at all shy about proclaiming Christ loud and clear: “Words which do not give the light of Christ increase the darkness.” — Mother Teresa

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