Dr. Roberto Miranda : A Call to the Church in New England

Posted in Doctrine

Presented at the Vision New England 2004 Annual Meeting.

I’m honored to have the opportunity to share with you on such an important occasion. I’m keenly aware that I have before me individuals who represent some of the most godly, effective elements of New England Christianity. My sense of responsibility is immense, and I have prayed fervently that God would use my thoughts and words to edify and inspire the Body of Christ in this region.

Tonight, I’d like to reflect on what I see as God’s call for action on the part of the Church in New England. In the light of the times that we are living in, and taking into consideration God’s plans for the redemption of this culture, what should be the spiritual and programmatic emphases of the Church in New England at this time? What are some of the specific challenges that we face today, and how can we table them most effectively? Is there anything that we can learn from the spectacular successes of the Church in Africa, Asia and Latin America, or here, among the various ethnic groups in our region? These are some of the concerns that occupy my mind these days, and I’d like to share some of my thoughts with you tonight.

Doing so in the context of a gathering sponsored by Vision New England seems to me particularly appropriate. This organization represents some of the fundamental values that need to be embraced by the Church as a whole if we are going to be successful in stemming the tide of discouragement, institutional decay, rationalism and overall ineffectiveness that sadly is affecting so many churches in our region. I particularly admire Vision New England’s emphasis on interdenominational unity, the idea that charismatics, evangelicals and Catholics can come together under the banner of Jesus Christ and mutually edify each other through joint prayer, worship and reflection. This kind of unity is essential if we are to muster the kinds of diverse resources and gifts that are required in order to revitalize the Church in America, and to reconquer this culture for Christ. I hope to revisit this point later on in my presentation. There is another element that I appreciate in Vision New England, and with this I enter fully into the theme of my meditation, and that is its invincible optimism; the idea that this culture is far from lost to the claims of the Kingdom; that there is still hope for the Church in New England and in America; and that in Christ’s name, and by employing biblical values and sound institutional practices, we can give birth to effective ministries, revive dying churches and become dynamic agents of God’s grace in a time of great spiritual darkness.

There is so much pessimism that can be observed in the evangelical world today. So many Christian churches and individuals have succumbed to the idea that the paganistic, secular trend of our culture is irreversible and that we might as well just dedicate ourselves to strictly spiritual concerns such as prayer and soul winning, and fervently await Christ’s Second Coming without raising too many waves in the secular realm. Many sincere Christians have adopted a fatalistic attitude based on a defective eschatology that does not allow them to consider the thought that God may want us out there in the cultural and political arena, being a prophetic presence, undertaking ambitious initiatives, being proactive and systemic in our efforts to, as Paul declares in II Corinthians 10:5, “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of Christ, and take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”

We have been struggling for so long with the forces of rationalism and humanism that we have acquired an embattled, defensive mentality. It’s hard for us evangelicals to act out of any other mental model. Like Elijah in the famous passage of I Kings 19, we feel depressed at times, totally isolated, with a survival mentality, and a strong sense of indignation at how the name and purposes of God are suffering at the hands of a godless culture and an apostate church. Elijah’s response to God’s question as to what he is doing in the cave might easily define the fearful feelings of many evangelicals today: “I have been zealous for the Lord God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken your covenant, torn down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left; and they seek to take my life.” (I Kings 19:10) Furthermore, as in Elijah’s case, not only is there in fact a long history of struggle that has tested evangelicals’ faith and stamina over the years, but also the actual picture that the cultural and spiritual context offers gives legitimate grounds for urgent concern. Elijah’s problems were not imaginary. He was being pursued by a powerful and evil queen set on his destruction, and his potential spiritual companions had either succumbed to persecution or had been corrupted by the evil spiritual influences that were manifest at the time.

In the case of American evangelicals, our own national picture doesn’t seem any better. The recent decision by the Massachusetts judiciary on gay marriage stands out as a graphic, immediate example of the true nature of the present spiritual and cultural climate. On the religious side, the decision of the New Hampshire Episcopal Church to ordain as Bishop a practicing homosexual provides a dramatic indication of just how far certain sectors of Christianity have gone in the direction of outright heresy. In the area of media and the arts it has become almost a cliché to mention the ever-increasing levels of corruption and immorality that can be observed in the entertainment industry. In the realm of education and intellectual thought, the culture seems to obtain a perverse pleasure in deconstructing and demystifying every possible idea, religious or not. In many intellectual sectors, God has been taken completely out of the picture, and replaced by human moral reasoning as the guiding element for spirituality and ethics. Nowadays, when government ventures into using the language of morality and religion, it does so tentatively and timidly at best, hastening to sound pluralistic and inclusive, which almost inevitably ends up in effect in its adopting policies that are directly or indirectly hostile to Christians or the moral values that they seek to uphold. Some of the decisions that have been adopted by the Supreme Court in the areas of free speech, education, abortion and gay rights are a clear illustration of this phenomenon. The demoralized state of many evangelical pastors, the depleted state of many congregations and the apparent spiritual hardness of the people that we are trying to reach only adds to the bleakness of the spiritual panorama that we have before us. Truly, in our time effective, successful pastoral ministry seems to be an ideal that is harder to reach than ever.

Small wonder, then, that American evangelicals are feeling more besieged and less certain about their future than ever. In light of these conditions, talk of a post-Christian world doesn’t seem to be pessimistic at all, but rather an inevitable conclusion that results from a realistic appraisal of the present culture and spiritual climate.

The final words of a recent Christianity Today article written by a distinguished evangelical scholar would summarize the prevalent attitude of so many godly evangelicals: “…There are many vestiges of authentic Christianity still to be found in our nation. But it would be a disaster for Christians and other Godfearers not to recognize that we’ve reached a turning point in our cultural history, and to go on dreaming that we can gradually change this formerly more or less Christian country for the better.

Those of us who are Christian and take our commitment seriously are slow to recognize it, but ultimately it will be easier for Christians to live in a country that we know is pagan than to live in one that we think is still sufficiently Christian to listen to us and to change in accordance with Christian values.” (CT, Aug 2004 issue, p.42) In other words, let’s give up on the idea that we can change this godless culture, and not waste our time on any kind of organized Christian action.

At this point, I would like to suggest a different interpretation regarding the true prospects of American evangelicalism. While I acknowledge the seriousness of our situation, I am firmly convinced that the most glorious era for the Christian Church in America, or in the entire world for that matter, is still ahead of us. Someone has said that the darkest moment of the night is right before dawn, and in the case of our present condition vis-à-vis the prevailing culture, I believe this is true.

First of all, we need to be reminded that God loves to intervene on behalf of His people at the moment of their most intense need. There is ample biblical precedent for this view. We only have to think of Moses and the Israelites suffering for many years under the yoke of Pharaoh, until their cry ascended to heaven and God finally sent a deliverer. Then, after finally being allowed to leave Egypt they find themselves before the Red Sea, with the Egyptian army at their back. Only when Moses cries out in despair does God intervene and provide clear instructions on how to proceed. We also have the image of the disciples, rowing desperately the entire night in the midst of the storm, until Jesus finally appears near dawn, walking on the water to save them. We can also see Jesus sleeping calmly on the boat, while the disciples cry out in panic, fearing that they’re about to drown. Finally, we see him postponing his visit to see his seriously ill friend Lazarus, in order that he might die and be resurrected by the Master. All these delays, and many others in Scripture, are designed for dramatic effect, to make God’s power more evident, and to force God’s people to become utterly reliant on him. God reduced Gideon’s army to a fraction of its original size in order to make it totally clear that it wasn’t the Israelites’ military prowess that won the day, but rather God’s gracious intervention. The apostle Paul makes is clear that Jesus entered the world in humanity’s darkest hour, when “we were dead in trespasses”, “that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” He further points out that we have been “saved through faith,” and that “it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” (Ephesians 2:5, 7-8)

God’s intention is to crush man’s pride, and to emphasize the need for His grace. I believe that God is waiting for the precise, strategic moment to intervene on behalf of the Church in America, as well as in other parts of the world such as Europe and Australia, where secularism and humanism seem to have taken over. The severity of our situation places us squarely within the biblical paradigm of God’s intervention at the moment of greatest need.

God is seeking to crush the pride of the Church in America. He wants to thoroughly discredit our dependency on money, programs, human strategies and scholarly credentials, and to force us to fall on our knees and cry out to Him like the Israelites in Egypt. Like Elijah, He wants to bring us to a point of personal and institutional crisis, where we are confronted with our inherent frailty, and are graphically reminded of our utter dependence upon Him alone. He wants us to internalize the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel during the rebuilding of the temple: “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of Hosts.” (Zechariah 4:6) Many churches in America are desperately fighting to get out of the rut that they find themselves in. All kinds of clever strategies and programs are being tried by individual congregations as well as entire denominations. Many of these initiatives are well founded and reflect a wise acknowledgement of social and spiritual realities that must be considered in order to make the Christian experience more accessible to modern sensibilities. Nevertheless, despite the apparent sincerity of many of these efforts, at times they seem designed to avoid the inevitable crucifixion and death that needs to take place within the American protestant psyche, before God can truly resurrect us into a new life of spiritual power and effectiveness. Like the rich young ruler, we want the life, resolution and peace that Jesus gives, but we do not want to abandon the religious and intellectual crutches that we love so much.

In order to develop this thought further, we need only take a look at the astounding growth of Christianity in the Two Thirds World, in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Talk of a post- Christian world, as writer Philip Jenkins eloquently points out, only reflects the anachronistic view of Europe and North America as the present center of Christianity. In fact, the real center of vitality and growth in the Christian world no longer lies in the North or in the West, but in the South and in the East, where powerful wind of the Spirit is sweeping over the land and bringing in millions of converts each year.

While many North American evangelicals lament the onset of a post-Christian era, and like Elijah often think that they are the only true believers left to carry the torch, Southern Christianity is celebrating the most spectacular harvest of souls in human history. Philip Jenkins writes:

  • “Over the past century, the center of gravity in the Christian world has shifted inexorably southward, to Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Already today, the largest Christian communities on the planet are to be found in Africa and Latin America. If we want to visualize a ‘typical’ contemporary Christian, we should think of a woman living in a village in Nigeria or in a Brazilian favela. As Kenyan scholar John Mbiti has observed, ‘the centers of the church’s universality (are) no longer in Geneva, Rome, Athens, Paris, London, New York, but Kinshasa, Buenos Aires, Addis Ababa and Manila.’ Whatever Europeans or North Americans may believe, Christianity is doing very well indeed in the global South – not just surviving by expanding.”

North American Christians should be encouraged and energized by what God is accomplishing through His Church in areas of the world that until relatively recently were engulfed in the darkness of paganism, witchcraft and nominal Christianity. If Third World Christians could overcome such formidable forces in so spectacular a manner, then surely there is great hope for North American Christianity.

Orthodox Christianity in America, despite its profoundly counter-cultural components, is far from becoming extinct. Fears about its waning or demise are totally unjustified and premature. They are supported neither by historical analysis nor by biblical principles. The temptation of certain sectors of the evangelical world to water down the proclamation of faith, and to deemphasize some of the distinctive elements of our worship and theology in order to supposedly make our churches more relevant and palatable to the postmodern generation are misguided at best.

The harsh truth is that many American churches are dying not because their First Century message is alienating the postmodern masses, but because in many cases they have ceased to boldly proclaim it, and to incorporate it into their programs and practices. People are not as easily alienated as some tend to think by strange theology and symbolism. We need only observe the dramatic growth of the Mormon Church among the most affluent circles in America to understand this. The challenge for the Christian Church in America is the Church itself, not the people outside of it. Like a self-doubting baseball player who has lost his former self-confidence, the American Church has fallen into a slump and needs to find the way back to its former glory. Trying to change its outward stance or to get a different size bat is just not enough. Cosmetics will not do. There has to be a change of essence, a change of heart. Again, the text from I Kings provides an illustration for this. God allowed Elijah to fall into the pit of depression and self-doubt because He wanted to perform a deep work in his soul. God wanted to break the hardened soul of the war-weary prophet, and to bring him into an experience of the love and tenderness of the Father. In his physical and emotional exhaustion, he is allowed to rest and is graciously fed by an angel. Later, God reveals His tender side through His presence in the still, small voice, not in the fire and strong wind that he was accustomed to experiencing God in. Only after this paradigm shift does God clarify some of his doubts and send him off into ministry again.

Like Elijah, American evangelicalism needs to experience deep inner healing at the level of the spirit. It needs a renewed understanding of itself and of the nature of God and His dealings in history before it can again engage the culture and carry out effective ministry. Ironically, however, the aspect of God’s nature that it needs to be exposed to may be the opposite of what Elijah experienced. Elijah didn’t need to experience God in the consuming fire, the great strong wind or the crushing earthquake. He lived and ministered within that violent spiritual paradigm all his life.

For him, it seems, the new thing was God’s tender, feminine side. This is the element that God needed to reinforce in his psyche. For many North American evangelicals, the situation would seem to be the opposite. They require a personal confrontation with the powerful, sinister side of God’s personality.

The placid, orderly nature of many evangelical services desperately needs to be contaminated and upset by the moving of God’s powerful wind. The one scant hour that many evangelicals dedicate to their services on Sunday needs to be expanded and made more flexible and unpredictable so that God might have some room in which to move as He wants. God will not bring revival in evangelical, middle-class terms. As always, He will do things His own way, and He will not limit Himself in order to fit into our neat, rational paradigms. God has always operated by offending the mind, by turning our neat mental models upside down. Actually, scandal seems to be His preferred method of operation. The love for order and predictability that pervades the typical middle-class, evangelical service will not be able to contain the new wine that God wants to pour down upon His people in the 21st century. As always, God will offend the mind in order to affect the heart. He will not give us what we want, but what we need. And what American evangelicalism desperately needs right now is a confrontation with God’s power and the sovereign unpredictable moving of His Spirit. We already have enough aesthetics and theological nuance to last us for several generations. What we need now is for God’s rain to fall upon our religious altars and bring spiritual healing and emotional health to our parched evangelical souls.

When the Apostle Paul went to the overly intellectual, carnal congregation in Corinth, he purposely withheld his considerable intellectual skills in order to wean them from their addiction to rhetoric and oratorical skill. Instead, he says, “my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” (I Co, 2:4,5) Before I proceed to one final point, allow me to summarize the thrust of my message up to this point. I am suggesting that despite the serious challenges faced by the Church in our time, particularly in areas such as New England, we Christians should not become discouraged and timid. Jesus has promised that the gates of hell shall not prevail against His Church. God is preparing a great spiritual harvest in America, and He expects that we will do our part to help bring it about. Therefore, we should be conceiving great visions and undertaking ambitious, systemic efforts to recapture lost ground and to establish the banner of Christ in all sectors of the culture. We should be encouraged and inspired by what God is doing through His Church in parts of the world that until recently were in deep spiritual darkness. Indeed, even here in New England, we may celebrate what God is doing among Haitians, Hispanics, Brazilians, Chinese, Korean and other ethnic groups. We may also rejoice in increasingly visible signs of renewal in many Anglo-European churches all over New England. God is not through with His Church yet, and there are glorious times ahead of us.

Secondly, as we undertake great things for the Lord, we should seek His anointing. The price of spiritual renewal is individual and institutional crucifixion, a willingness to learn from the weak and the humble, to let go of useless, cherished ways of doing church, and to embrace God’s new revelation for our time; to run risks and to dare to experiment, to abandon the familiar and predictable and, like Abraham, to venture into unknown land that God will show us. As we make ourselves weak in this way, God’s power will then be perfected in us. My final point refers to the issue of unity. If the Church in New England is to undertake these great things, it must do so as a Body, in the spirit of unity that Jesus prayed for in John 17. We must do so by crossing racial and ethnic divides in a spirit of servanthood, forgiveness and mutual trust. We must tear down the charismatic-evangelical barrier and learn to appreciate and validate each other’s ways of processing the Spirit. We must reach out to each other across the urban-suburban divide and share with each other the gifts and the brokenness that are inherent to our worlds. We must let go of the wounds and offenses of the past and embrace each other with the innocence and trust that can only come from the cleansing, confidenceinducing presence of Jesus Christ in our lives.

This unity will not come easily or spontaneously. It will be the end product of much hard work and intentional effort on our part. The spiritual gate keepers of the Church in New England must come together intentionally to pray and break bread, to get to know each other and to undertake substantive, perhaps even painful dialogue in order to lay a solid foundation for effective, lasting team work. I am convinced that we are long overdue for a summit meeting of key spiritual leaders from all sectors of the evangelical community in New England, in order to start laying the foundation for strategic, systemic work on the part of the corporate Church in this region.

God’s Kingdom functions according to lines of strict spiritual authority, and as the community’s spiritual elders come together to pray and fast and to seek His guidance, as we see in Acts 13, God’s Spirit descends and brings fresh revelation and counsel for effective, Godempowered action. The complexity of 21st century society, the intellectual sophistication of the people that we are called to minister to, the diversity of elements that must be taken into account in order to carry out effective ministry in the post-modern era, require more than the pious, uncoordinated efforts that until now have been typical of the Church in New England. The recent gay marriage crisis in Massachusetts, and our almost total lack of preparedness in addressing it effectively, amply illustrate this.

The unity of Christ’s Body in New England should not remain a pious, empty phrase that we pay occasional lip service to. It must take the form of concrete, coordinated action on the part of the evangelical stakeholders in this region. God’s call at this time is for Christian leaders in New England to lay aside petty personal and institutional agendas and suspicions, and to sit down to the hard work of surveying the land and determining a strategy that will inform and impart coherence to the evangelistic work of the Church in this region. The time has come for spiritual leaders to come together and, in the words of Habakkuk, “write down the vision and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it.” (Habakkuk 2:2) We must develop a collective vision for the action of the Church in New England for the next five or ten years. We must begin establishing the foundations for such an endeavor. This is no easy task, and our own sinfulness makes it anything but certain that we will achieve it, but at the very least we must try it, and see if God would honor our efforts. We might be surprised at the magnitude of the results!

In the secular corporate world it is common practice for organizations to develop a detailed strategic plan that includes a Mission and Vision Statement, Core Values, Goals and Objectives. This type of plan, once formulated, becomes the blueprint for the future action of an organization. The possible benefits of this type of visioning process for the Church in New England are obvious. The potential power and distinctiveness of such an effort lies in its being rooted in biblical principles, as well as on its ability to allow the churches in a geographical region to work in concert, efficiently, rather than in isolation from each other, needlessly duplicating efforts. From the biblical perspective, it allows us to see ourselves as a corporate Body, as Jesus intended. The letters in the New Testament are addressed to regional churches (i.e., “the Church in Corinth”) rather than to individual congregations. As we flow according to Scriptural principles of unity, spiritual authority and mutual submission, great spiritual power is released, and our actions become much more effective.

From the perspective of efficiency, the idea of numerous churches all over the state coming together to work in mutual cooperation, with a well-defined, specifically delineated strategic plan could be revolutionary. This type of effort could be unprecedented, and might serve as a prototype for similar efforts all over this country in the future.

What a magnificent testimony, if a large number of churches in a state began to develop a unified identity without relinquishing their distinctive features or disrupting their denominational relationships, but rather covenanting together to see their entire state as their mission field! These churches would then set apart a small portion of their time, energy, gifts and money to make the implementation of this long-term strategy possible, and to rechannel some of their normal activities toward the realization of the Plan. Some of their training and discipleship programs would perhaps be reoriented to align them with the purposes of the Plan. Some of their aimless, merely programmatic activities might then be aligned with some of the regional, evangelistic activities organized by the Plan. The leaders of these churches would get to know and respect each other, and discuss ways of pooling resources, mutually supporting each other, and working more effectively together to reclaim their community for Christ. Their youth would be energized as they are trained with a specific vision and purpose in mind, as they are mobilized to participate in concrete actions to evangelize other youth, as well as the entire community. Prayer summits and pastors’ retreats would acquire a more purposeful nature, as the regional church community begins to see itself as engaged in a single purpose, and concrete results begin to manifest themselves. Well-planned activities, responding to a clearly defined set of values, goals and objectives, carried out systematically and in sustained fashion and involving churches evenly distributed all over the state, would be so much more effective and impacting than the isolated, haphazard efforts that now characterize the activities of the churches in our region.

All of this, and much more, would be made possible by the concept of sustained action, emanating from a coherent vision, executed in unified fashion. This is what the gay community has been able to do during the past thirty-five years, with devastating effectiveness. Only the Church remains operating in its plodding, schizophrenic way, the left hand unaware of what the right hand is doing, still justifying the words of Jesus: “For the sons of this world are shrewder in their generation than the sons of light.” (Luke 16:8) We are living in a time of great challenges for the Church, but also of great opportunities. We should not be so mindful of the giants that inhabit the land that we neglect to look toward the God who has promised us the victory. With God’s anointing, and in a spirit of unity and mutual submission, we can recover lost ground and become a powerful force for the Kingdom of God in New England. I leave you with the words of Nehemiah 2: 17 and 18: “Then I said to them, ‘You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace…’ They replied, ‘Let us start rebuilding.’ So they began this good work.”

Let us pray.

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