I read this interesting bit of news recently: evidently there are 150 revivals taking place in the world right now, but almost none of them are happening in the West. While I have not got a good source for this statistic, assuming it is more or less true, it is most telling.
There would be nothing at all surprising about this if it is in fact the case. The church in the West is in so many respects a mere shadow of what it is supposed to be. It is characterised by carnality, compromise and cravenness. It has basically allowed the world to set the agenda rather than transforming the world.
It has slavishly copied the fads and trends of the world, and thought the most important thing is to be relevant, cool and inoffensive. It lacks the basic necessities of a strong church: the careful preaching of God’s word; the fear of a holy and righteous God; the need for continual repentance and renewal; and the repudiation of the world, the flesh, and the devil.
It lacks the power of God and the Spirit of God. As A. W. Tozer so rightly said so long ago, “If the Holy Spirit was withdrawn from the church today, 95 percent of what we do would go on and no one would know the difference. If the Holy Spirit had been withdrawn from the New Testament church, 95 percent of what they did would stop, and everybody would know the difference.”
Yep, that pretty well sums things up. I could conclude my article with that, and enough would have been said. But I want to speak to this just a bit further. That is because I am currently reading through the book of Acts, and the contrast there could not be greater. What we find happening there and what we find happening today in the West is light-years apart.
I think that if the early believers were teleported into any Western church today they would be utterly dumbfounded. They simply would not recognise New Testament Christianity. They would see plenty of our entertainment and celebrity culture. They would find churches looking identical to discos, and pastors seeking to emulate rock stars.
They would hear all sorts of feel-good, self-help therapeutic mumbo jumbo, and be shocked to find the regular, in-depth exposition of Scripture to be almost non-existent. They would see that the primary message of Jesus and the disciples – repentance, taking up one’s cross, and the cruciform life – replaced with New Age baloney about how you can become a better you.
They would not recognise their own faith in other words if they walked into so many of our churches in the West today. We have moved that far away from the real deal, substituting all of our man-made rituals, gimmicks, gadgets and worldly trends to keep the masses amused and entertained.
What a marked contrast when you simply read through the book of Acts. There we find certain key themes and realities reoccurring. The fear of God, the place of repentance, the power of the Holy Ghost, and the urgent need to proclaim the gospel to a dying world are some of the hallmarks of the early church.
God was an ever present reality for these early believers. He had to be, given all the intense persecution and opposition they faced almost daily. They had to trust and depend upon God with their very lives. He was their only rock, and he was more than sufficient.
And he was no celestial Jeeves, or chummy pal that most Western churchians today make God out to be. He was the Holy One, the Lord, the perfectly righteous God who deserved to be feared and obeyed. And when folks back then toyed with his majesty and holiness, everyone knew the results.
Whether it was Ananias and Saphira falling dead – with the instant result that “great fear seized the whole church” (Acts 5:11) – or Herod being struck down dead, with the result that “the word of God continued to increase and spread” (12:24), the early church and her God were not something to be trifled with.
Repentance and forgiveness of sins was of course a common message heard from the early evangelists. There was nothing in their gospel proclamation about finding your best life now, or losing weight for Jesus. It was all very serious stuff – life and death stuff.
And even more surprisingly perhaps is the rather strange absence of the very concept of love in the book of Acts. The disciples did not dwell on the love of God – in fact it is never even mentioned once in all of its 28 chapters. Now most believers today would argue that the early church must have gotten it wrong.
Surely the love of God is central, they would insist. Well, yes it is certainly a key part of the gospel message of course. But it is not the only part. And the New Testament understanding of love is a far cry from our understanding. We think in very humanistic terms when we think about love – it is all so much feel-good mushy sentimental sap.
Biblical love is much sterner stuff than that. It is always associated with God’s holiness and utter hatred of sin. These are just two concepts almost never heard in today’s churches. So just stop for a moment and consider all this: here we have the most fundamental example of what gospel-preaching must be all about.
Yet in the entire book of Acts we never once find the apostles appealing to the love of God – never once. Yet that is all we hear about in most Western churches today. Now again, I am not saying God’s love is unimportant or to be minimised.
I am simply contrasting the early church – which was as close to Jesus and his will as ever could be – with our own tepid, anaemic, watered-down and compromised church today. By all means let us proclaim the love of God – but let us do it biblically, not humanisticly.
And the love of God is everywhere connected with obedience in the New Testament. We cannot claim to love God if we refuse to obey him. But I speak to this at length elsewhere. billmuehlenberg.com/2011/06/18/loving-god-and-keeping-the-commandments/
There is so much more to say about this contrast between the early church and our church. The power of the Holy Spirit was everywhere on display, with miracles, healings and exorcisms on constant display. We still see that today as well – but overwhelmingly in the non-Western world.
The church today which is the closest to the church in the book of Acts is overwhelmingly found not in the West but in the rest of the world – in Africa, Asia and Latin America. It is almost as if God has abandoned the Western church. I am not saying that he has, and many great things are still happening for Christ and the Kingdom in the Western churches.
But overwhelmingly, if we want to see what New Testament Christianity looks like, we have to look elsewhere than in the West. That reality should break the hearts of every single one of us, and drive us all to our knees, crying out for some Holy Ghost-sent revival and repentance.
Without this, we will simply be spinning our wheels. Sure, we will still be drawing the crowds – they love their entertainment and amusements. But we will continue to drive God away from his beloved church. It most certainly happened to Israel of old, and there is no reason why it cannot happen to us today.
If you want just a quick refresher course on this, try reading 1 Samuel 4:21-22 for starters, where we read about Ichabod: “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured”. The word means literally “inglorious” or “no glory,” and that was a damning reality for Israel.
We also see this played out much more dramatically in Ezekiel 10, where the glory of God departs from Jerusalem. That is a horrific reality for God’s people to have to face. So the question we all need to ask ourselves today is this:
Is the glory of God departing from the Western church today? If so, what can be done to turn it around?