It would seem that, to a large degree, assemblies are declining in strength. It yet remains to be seen whether ‘this sickness is unto death’. In recent times there have been two common responses to this worrying situation.
First, some assemblies apparently have said, ‘let us jettison the more “unpopular’ teaching and practices what we preach and practice is more acceptable and attractive to the outside world’. For many years liberalism in Christendom has pursued such a policy. Far from gaining praise it has earned the outside world’s scorn, the latter seeing professed followers of Christ exchanging what was claimed to be fundamental truth for short-lived popularity.
The second response is, perhaps, summed up by saying, ‘let’s huddle together, create rules that have no scriptural basis whatsoever and hope that it goes away’. Exclusivism, in its different forms, has borne painful testimony to the fact that this approach can only accelerate the decline.
Each response is equally flawed: each in different ways denies the power of the Holy Spirit and the immutable truth of scripture to exalt Christ as both Lord and Saviour. One thing is clear; this problem of decline is not about to go away. What, then, is the answer?
The answer could begin with a Spirit-led appreciation of the scriptures that lead to understanding of the Person and work of the Holy Spirit, energizing us to have a will to make Christ once again Lord of our personal and assembly lives. John confirms the importance of both scripture and the Spirit in his gospel and epistles. ‘But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you’, John 14. 26. ‘Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God’, 1 John 4. 2-3.
This would seem to be a safe ground for answering constructively this problem in the decline of assemblies. But how can we put this into practice?
If our lives were controlled all the time by the Holy Spirit and the scriptures, we would move forward immediately. Sadly, this is not so. It will take much prayer and preparation for the work ahead; a prayerful preparation which characterized the New Testament believers before the day of Pentecost, Acts 1. 14. This will require repentance not only in individual experience, but also on a collective basis as assemblies. We will need to renounce materialism, legalism and religious smugness, things which are so rampant among us that they threaten to choke us to spiritual death. Simultaneously, we will need to deepen our love for our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and be ready to be drawn into the will of God by the power of the Holy Spirit, and the immutable truth of the scriptures.
The effect of this prayerful preparation of the New Testament saints was clear for all to see. As they stood before the people on the Day of Pentecost, full of the Holy Spirit, they were no longer a fearful, argumentative, disunited band. They had united purpose, vision, a passion for the possible and the certainty of gaining the victory through Jesus Christ. As they preached Christ as the true Messiah, they were not rehearsing a dry intellectual argument, but sounding forth a conviction, greater than the sum total of human facts and reasoning. This conviction that gripped their hearts was that Jesus Christ had died and been raised from the dead. Whilst they preached, the Holy Spirit moved mightily, convicting men and women of the burden of their sin. This was so much so, that they cried out ‘Men and brethren, what shall we do?’. The answer came back, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost’, Acts 2. 37-38. The closing verses of the chapter chart the beginning of a new age, the age of the radical New Testament church; Spirit-led, scripture-based, both of which exalted Christ.
The sceptic will say that things are different today. There are no apostles, and certain gifts of the Spirit are not with us. These things are true, and the reason is that we do not need them. Scripture itself points to their passing. The complete canon of scripture and the permanent indwelling of the Holy Spirit are all we need.
The sceptic continues, ‘But this is the day of small things, and we should not expect much’. Is this right? Zechariah tells his readers not to despise the day of small things. Furthermore, it is not whether we should expect much, but what God expects, ‘for unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required’, Luke 12. 48.
It would seem that assemblies are now at a crossroads between continued decline or a spiritual renewal. If we choose to ignore the situation, we could be deciding for a continued decline. Yet, what a difference it will make if we choose spiritual renewal. When men and women accuse us of being ‘these that have turned the world upside down’, Acts 17. 6, we will be able to reply calmly with our new found passion for the possible, ‘we are merely turning the world the right way up’.
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