I couldn't be more proud of what God has done in our church in a little over a year and a half. It's been astounding and amazing. Every record from attendance to spiritual results to financial numbers have been broken over the last 18+ months. All of that is not to say we've arrived by any means, but the church has certainly changed in many ways. It's progressed in many ways. And collectively, we've seen God move in amazing ways.
The church has made it to the 100 mark this year after getting to it last year during some special services. This year's average attendance however is at the triple digit mark. After doing about $40,000 worth of projects and payoff last year, the Lord has blessed us to do almost another $20,000 so far this year. All of this was done without any fundraisers in place. We've baptized over 50 people and have seen more than 75 saved. We've seen healing. We've seen families come back together after having split. We've seen addictions broken from people's lives. I can't praise the Lord enough for what He's done.
With all of that taking place, it would seem almost hard pressed to have to preach a message as I described earlier. Last night's message didn't feature any yelling, Bible thumping, cliques, catchy sayings, or threats of hellfire and brimstone. Nevertheless, I felt it was straight forward and above all else, blunt. Quite simply, I'd become concerned that we have started developing too much in common with the Ephesian church of Revelation. It was that church that had all the right things happening, was seeing results, and was standing for what was right. Nevertheless, Jesus said that in the midst of their working and progress, they had left their first love. It's hard to believe, but sometimes we can love the work of church more than the head of the church. We can love the going to church more than the head of the church. We can love what we do at church without giving love to the head of the church. We can love the idea of church and heaven more than we love the head of the church.
Our State Administrative Bishop, Dr. Stephen Darnell, has called all the pastors in our state to the campground this weekend for a Solemn Assembly. This is a time that the Bible speaks of setting aside to confess, repent, and reconnect to the heart of God while serving, living, or enduring a hard time. Our world is changing. The world the church used to minister to is no more. Post-modernism doesn't describe the environment the church must reach into today. We need to reconnect to the heart of God. We need more than ever to make our callings and elections sure. We need more than ever to confess to God and to one another and to search our hearts and repent. In preparation for this weekend's event, I preached on this last night and read from Joel 1 and 2.
In these chapters, God is chastising Israel for the lackadaisical attitude towards Him and His statutes. God had been trying to warn them about the coming destruction. God sent them prophets to no avail. He reminded them of His Word over and over again, but Israel had developed a culture of contentment while the world was on fire. Joel speaks of the fact that their fields were burning but they paid no attention. They just kept planting trying to get a harvest. Their vineyards were being destroyed, but they were too drunk with what they already had to pay attention. They wanted to plant new seed but the earth was scorched underneath them which would lead to no harvest. They weren't paying attention to the signs of death, just like the collective church has failed to realize it's own decline in many ways. Joel calls for repentance, but in chapter 2, it continues. Yet again, Joel calls for repentance and a solemn assembly. This assembly is a time for people to stop what they're doing and to ask the Lord to reveal their true selves. It's a sobering act and a prelude to what Judgment Day will surely be like in that the truth of our hearts will be on display and revealed with no recourse or redemption on that day.
There is a fine line Christians and churches alike have to walk in these days. In a world consumed with the idea of love without any desire to know the originator and defining One of love, churches have to find a way to exude love without compromising God's Word. We also live in a world of mass molestation of grace, that is, the idea that grace makes Christianity another self-help, 12 step program to a better life, sobriety, and stronger relationships. In the name of grace, many who claim Christianity not only continue in sin, but continue unfazed by God's Word about sin. Essentially in a culture where Christianity is declining and the church is suffering, it's become easy to compromise for the sake of the numbers and money. And in doing so, we've developed sloppy agape and lazy grace.
Agape is a Greek word for love meaning, "unconditional love." Today's culture defines love as something that can come and go. It defines it as being all-accepting and non-judging. To disagree in today's culture is to not love. To not accept one's way of thinking or way of life is considered judgmental, hateful, intolerant and definitely not love. We've traded the truth for a lie in this instance. Love has never meant agreeing with anyone and everyone. In the name of love, messages from scripture have been watered down and reinterpreted. Sins have become mere mistakes we make rather than willful acts of disobedience and rebellion we commit in the face of a Savior who died for our sins. In today's culture, to love is to refrain from the truth, at least any truth that may offend, and that list grows daily.
Our idea of grace needs serious checking as well. Romans 6 speaks to the power of grace to break the bonds of sin. Grace is not a license to sin as many Romans were believing and practicing. Don't get me wrong. We are saved by grace and kept by grace, but grace does not have one initial action. Grace is a continuum. Grace has saved us and is saving us. Grace keeps us and is keeping us. Paul said the process by which grace does this coincides with faith and following Christ. If we're saved by grace, we live lives of faith according to the words of Christ. Not only that, but Paul says that while apart from the Lord, thus apart from grace, we are slaves to our flesh, but with grace and now in relationship with Christ, we become slaves to righteousness. Somehow we've decided that since we're all flesh and thus prone to sin and messing up, that when we do, it's not a big deal. Everyone does it. So what? Yes, everyone does mess up. Yes, everyone does get in the flesh sometimes. But Paul says if we're truly saved and kept by grace, then grace has freed us from the bondage of sin. As Chris Tomlin's remake of the classic, "Amazing Grace," states, "My chains are gone. I've been set free." This all simply means that a person saved and kept by grace will not only develop a hatred for sin, but will war against it in his life. A grace bought Christian doesn't tolerate sin. He doesn't excuse sin. He doesn't continue in willful sin. A grace bought Christian closes all the gates that he can to sin and places locks on them, safeguards, and/or develops accountability to assure that sin will not reign in his members. This is scripture.
So when did we decide that because I'm under grace I can do what I want to do and it's ok? When did we decide that under grace, church attendance and working for the Lord no longer matters? When did we decide that grace means we continue sinning and it's ok? Paul said that because of grace and a desire to know Christ, we are called to discipline ourselves and strive for the high calling of Christ. When did we decide that we can break the commands of God, commit sin, live in sin, and tolerate sin and still have a meaningful, fulfilling relationship with Jesus Christ? No, we're not under the Law. If we're saved, then the Law has served its purpose. Paul said the Law reveals to us sin and our hopelessness on our own apart from God. When the Law has fully worked its way in us, we begin looking for and searching for hope and help which ultimately leads us to Christ through the nudging and prodding of the Holy Spirit. We malign the Bible to think that the Law is abolished and that under grace we've got a free pass in this life after initial belief.
Grace's work is not complete on the day of salvation. The same grace that called you out of sin continues to call you out of sin for as long as you are in grace. Paul said we are saved and we're being saved. The Psalmist said that God's mercies were new every morning. Jesus said we should pray for daily bread. Grace is at work; it's not at rest. And there is a limit to such. We do not work to get saved, but because we are saved, we work. We do not get perfect to get saved, but because we are saved, we strive for perfection and holiness (that's Old Testament AND New Testament). Grace doesn't support sin. Grace doesn't tolerate sin. Grace is grieved by sin. Grace is distorted by sin. Grace doesn't condone the killing of babies to protest another side's treatment of others. Grace doesn't condone the right to choose, but believe one isn't given that same choice when it comes to salvation. Grace celebrates the truth and rejects the lie. Grace celebrates life and shuns the appearance of evil. Grace doesn't whisper, "You're ok right now, because you're better than you used to be." Grace doesn't settle for mediocrity and middle of the road Christianity. Grace isn't a card you carry that makes you different because of its addition. Grace is life changing. Grace is thought changing. It's heart changing. It's habit changing. It's affection changing. It's relationship changing. When someone is truly under grace, living a shell life from before conversion isn't an option. You can't claim grace and continue willfully practicing sin. The Baptist doctrine would state that a person who would do such a thing was never truly saved to begin with for the marvelous experience of grace should drive someone away from sin and to Christ. The Pentecostal doctrine would suggest that a person who would do such a thing is backslidden, a pig which has returned to the mud; a dog which has returned to its vomit. Under either doctrine, grace is seen as the agent of salvation and separation. It's seen as active, not passive. It's seen as powerful, not lazy. Grace attacks sin head on. It does not seek to conceal it. It does not seek to excuse it. Sin is a cancer that left unchecked spreads and kills whatever it touches. Parents, don't tell your kids church is important if you're not going to show it in the way you live. Don't tell your kids that the Bible is true if you're not trying to live by what it says. Whatever life we model in front of our kids is not only what they will exhibit, but they'll take even further.
While we've practiced sloppy agape and lazy grace, a generation of Millennials identified as those aged 18-35 have risen up much like a new generation of Israelites did in Judges 1. In that chapter, the Bible states that a generation arose that did not know the miracle of the Red Sea. They didn't know the name Joshua. They didn't know about Abraham. Families had failed to pass down the stories and lessons. They quit living them out. They quit reading the writings of Moses. It didn't happen over night. Nothing ever does. No doubt, as time passed, the stories got shorter. They lessons became less important, and as the Bible says, there rose a generation that did whatever seemed right in their own eyes. Is that not where we're living today? The Millennial generation, of which I'm barely a part, lives by that very motto. That generation typically is ok with church, just as long as its message doesn't encroach on what they personally believe to be right and wrong. In a recent survey, only 6% of that age group could affirm the following: the Word of God is true and written by God, there is a responsibility to share one's faith, religious faith in Christ is important, God is all-knowing and rules the universe, salvation is through grace and faith alone, that Jesus was sinless, died, and rose again, and that Satan is a real enemy. Only 6% of 75 million individuals in this country aged 18-35 believe those truths to be real and absolute. Approximately 75% of those 75 million no longer believe in traditional marriage. Approximately 65% believe it's completely alright to live together and have sex before marriage, even believing that marriage is no longer necessary to have a family. And only about 10% identify themselves as true, Bible believing Christians today. This is what the extreme legalism and lackadaisical sloppy agape and lazy grace has brought about. In pushing either ideology, we've only intensified this generation's resolve.
It is said that what one generation does in moderation, the next tends to do in excess. If only 6% of Millennials believe those foundational Christian truths, then maybe 3% of their children will believe. To be fair, the Bible said this day was coming. Jesus said it would be like the days of Noah and in those days the number of believers was down to one. Hebrews 10 says the faith of Noah essentially saved his family. We don't know that they weren't believers in God, but we know they didn't bother to help Noah build the ark either. So if it's headed that way before Christ returns, we should expect those numbers and percentages to get worse. What does that mean? Does that mean we should just give up because it's inevitable? Of course not! Regardless of the number of believers, I've still got a responsibility to my family and to above all else, my Lord, to live for Him, work for Him, and demonstrate His teachings everyday of my life. Jesus asked, "When the Son of Man returns, will He find faith on the earth?" James, the half-brother of Jesus, identified faith as being dead if it wasn't motivated and perpetuated by works. In this way, Jesus' question can be even greater understood in this manner, "When the Son of Man returns, will He find His people working for Him anticipating His return?" If sloppy agape, where we become over-tolerant of everyone and intolerant of those that would interrupt our Utopian way of thinking, and lazy grace, where the thought of being under grace means we can do, say, act, vote, support, and think however we want to and do whatever is right in our own eyes, has its way, Jesus won't find much when He does return.
The cure for sloppy agape and lazy grace is found in the elements of a solemn assembly, that is: confession, repentance, and examination. I asked our church to prepare for such a time last night, and we gathered in the altars and prayed and confessed to one another for over an hour. I don't want us to have a form of godliness that denies the power thereof. If your idea of grace has left you powerless to the attraction of sin and powerless against the ways of the enemy, then you've been fooled into an error and a lie. Our focus has shifted from what Jesus actually said and what the Word actually commands to what "I" think about the Bible and what "I" decide to believe about the Bible. Make no mistake, every word is true. Every word is from God. It can't be explained away. It can't be overlooked. It's there for a reason. Your opinion of it doesn't change it, but if you let it, it'll change you.
I pray God helps us combat the Judges generation of doing whatever is right in our own eyes. I pray God helps us combat the Noah generation where we ignore the coming crisis at the expense of our own souls and neighbors. I pray God helps us combat the Ephesian generation where we define our standing with God based on how good we are and what good we've done while ignoring the call to intimacy with Christ. I pray we all let grace do its full work in us that we would shun sin, run away from sin, war against it in our lives, and not compromise our faith and testimonies.
To come full circle, I couldn't be more happy with what God has done in our church in such a short time. However, I pray we don't become satisfied. I pray we push forward into greater things. I pray we keep and reignite a fervent passion for worship, prayer, discipleship, giving, and evangelism. I pray we remain a church that gives, offers, and demonstrates grace without compromising and without tolerating sin. And I pray that God will continue to add to His church daily and that we will continue to be His handiwork and ambassadors in the day in which we live. May we refocus on a lost generation and the one to follow while there is still time.