I have people who come into my office and tell me what's going on in their lives. Then they'll look at me and say, "Is this normal?""I don't know. Norm is the name of a guy who lives in Brooklyn. Norm may be something else for you."
We base our lives and how we're doing on averages—by what we see in the average person every day. It's by the way we see other people reacting, given the moment. "Yes, you're grieving. You're supposed to be sad. That's normal." Or, "Yes, this is a good thing—you're supposed to be excited, and ‘lose your mind for a little while.' That's normal. That's what people in your situation do."
But when you start reading the second chapter of Acts and you see how the church is described—when you see what Jesus is doing in those first few days of the church's life—you'll quickly see that what's going on now isn't normal at all:
"So those who accepted his message were baptized, and that day about 3,000 people were added to them. And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayers. . . And every day the Lord added to them those who were being saved." Every day.
Growing up Baptist, I spent a lot of time in Acts 2. It's all about the revival. It's all about how many people come to know Christ. I have been in those meetings where 10, 15 and 20 people came to know Christ in a night. I've been in those meetings when as many as 50 made a decision. So it really wasn't that difficult for me to think that given the right situation and the right expression, 3,000 people could respond in that moment. I've heard stories about thousands of people coming to the Lord in meetings in Korea and in Africa. So I kind of "got my head around that one."
What shocks me from this passage is that last sentence—"every day Jesus was bringing to the church those who had been saved." Every day. Who knew people could get saved on a Thursday?
You know, we have a lot of emergency policies in our church. We know what to do in case a fire breaks out. We go through training in case we face certain situations. I don't know if we've had a training day to tell the staff what to do if somebody comes in on a weekday and wants to get saved. I don't know if we've had that plan or that policy. It would be so unusual for us because all of us know people get saved on Sunday.
We set aside an hour, and that's when you can get saved. It's kind of like a train schedule. It comes through town on Sunday from 11:00 to 12:00, and if you miss it you'll just have to wait until the next time the train comes around. But every day—how did that happen?
This church met in what you and I would call an apartment. We have mystified it into being The Upper Room; but it was an apartment in Jerusalem, and that's where these folks first met and started praying and teaching. They started telling other people about Christ, and somebody's life would be changed. That person would run to find someone else, come back and say, "You need to see what I see. You need to know what I know." Then somebody else's life would get changed, so that in just a few years Rome was stood on its head.
A lot of things have changed in the transition to today. A lot of things have become different. We systemize theology. After all, you have to have a plan that you understand. So we have big books now, and chapter one begins: "God." We try to make God logical, and we try to make God make sense to us. We keep working and working and working until we have a God who is finally small enough to fit into our own brain.
We have lost the wildness of God, of this Creator who calls things into being from nothing. He calls His people to great adventures, to rescue slaves and to go get people out of prison. Over and over the stories we read are fantastic, but now we have a God who is orderly and controlled and systematized. We've got church order. We have filled up boxes and put together procedures. "This is the next step," and we control the process from beginning to end.
Now the boxes are so small that God Himself can't get in. You have to believe a certain way. You have to act a certain way. After all, this is the acceptable behavior of Christians, and now we're more concerned with behavior than belief.
The church in North America is in trouble. It's in more trouble than we're letting you know. We have surveys that come out telling how many people are attending church and how many people are coming back to church. Do you know what we are finding out about religious surveys? People lie. When you ask someone, "How often do you attend church in a given month?" they will say "three." They mean "I really know I should go three times a month." Or they mean, "I really intend to go." But if you follow this person and if you watch his behavior, he probably only goes once.
There is a group of researchers, and part of their survey is on estimated church attendance on any given weekend in any number of religious services. The county that my church is located in, Williamson County, would certainly be considered by most to be a ‘churched' county. Good gracious, you can't throw a rock without hitting three other churches. You can't even get into our church without driving into the parking lot of another one.
But do you know what these researchers estimated Williamson County church attendance to be? We are, indeed, one of the highest in the nation—and it's 25 percent. That means 75 percent of the people in Williamson County right now are making another decision. What happened? What happened from this story in Acts, where people joined the church every day, to this great un-churched America?
What happened to stories of people's lives being changed? We baptize our children, we baptize students, but adults? Adults, are your lives being changed? What's happened? Have people changed? Are the people in 21st-century North America—of this postmodern generation—so different from the first-century Christians of the early church? No. Maybe they dress a little differently. Maybe they're a little more sophisticated in some ways, but they are still just as disconnected and still just as lost and confused.
Has something changed with God? Has God, in all of these thousands of years, changed the way He is dealing with people? Has He changed the way He works? Has He changed His goal? Does He want to accomplish something else? Has He given up? No. God does not change. He is the same yesterday, the same today, the same tomorrow and forever. God hasn't changed.
That leads us to Isaiah. In Isaiah 59 the prophet asks, "Is God's arm too short that He cannot save? Is He deaf that He cannot hear?" No. Then the prophet continues. "Your own iniquities—your own sinfulness—has built a wall between you and God."
You see, sometimes we think it is just our private sin. Sometimes we think it is just our little moment, and nobody else knows. "It doesn't hurt anybody else because it's just me." What happens is like the glass you put in the dishwasher, and the dishwasher blows all of that crud up in it and bakes it on there in the drying cycle. You then pour your milk in the glass, and you don't say, "This glass is mostly clean." You say, "This glass is dirty!"
So maybe it is the little private sin that you hold somewhere in your heart and it is baked on and keeps Jesus from using you in the moment. It's there because of an attitude or a behavior that you don't think matters.
We'll go through most of our week and never have the courage to ask the questions. We never have the confidence to ask somebody, "Can I pray for you?"
The reason a lot of us don't is that we are "Closet Universalists." We and Oprah believe the same thing. We think there are a lot of ways to God. We think, "Surely God would not cut somebody else off if they didn't come to Jesus. There are probably a lot of different ways to do that. We have found Christ and Christ is good for us; but our friends might find other ways, and that's OK, too. Jesus was open to everybody, Mike. Jesus talked to everybody."
That is true. But you need to pay attention to what Jesus said. Jesus talked about judgment. He talked about being cast away from God's presence. Jesus talked about hell, and He talked about forever. You need to pay attention to what Jesus said.
There is no urgency among our church [members]. There is no panic. There is a story about a meeting of all the demons. Satan was asking them what their next strategy should be. One of them jumped up and said, "Let's tell them there is no God." Satan said, "We tried that. It didn't work." Finally, after a bunch of suggestions that Satan discounts, the last demon stands up and says, "I have it. Let's tell the church there is no hurry."
No hurry for you to reach your friend, no hurry for you to begin the conversation—no hurry. You have plenty of time, don't you? Your friends have plenty of time, don't they? No, they don't.
In my own private study time—in my own Bible reading—I'm going through the Book of Jeremiah. A few weeks ago I hit this passage in Jeremiah 8:20: "Harvest is past, summer gone. And still we are not saved." The reason I remember that
passage so well is that I was in Dr. Clyde Francisco's Old Testament class in seminary. Dr. Francisco's favorite prophet was Jeremiah; so if you had him for a survey of Old Testament, you got two weeks of Old Testament, and the rest was Jeremiah.
If Dr. Francisco had his glasses on, that was lecture. That was on the test. But if, in the course of teaching, he pulled his glasses off and put them on the lectern, he was preaching. That wasn't going to be on the test. But if you were preachers, as most of us were, that's when you took your best notes. He had some good sermons, and we stole them like crazy—except this day.
Dr. Francisco came to this passage of Scripture, put his glasses down on the lectern and stepped back. He began to preach to those of us who were in his 4:00 Old Testament class. All of us were in seminary. All of us had been recommended by a church. All of us were telling everybody that we were going to serve the kingdom of God some way in some kind of ministry. But Dr. Francisco did not let that stop him from the point he was making.
He said, "You went off to youth camp. It was a beautiful place, and everybody loved Jesus and you decided you wanted to love Jesus, too. So you got in a line and got baptized, but you never knew Jesus. You went to college and said you'd figure this thing out sooner or later. People started telling you that you were talented, you were good, and you ended up in seminary. You know all about Jesus, but you don't know Jesus." I couldn't believe what he was doing, but he was preaching a sermon of pure evangelism. When it was over, he gave an invitation. Harvest is over, summer gone. And yet you still are not saved.
Why can we talk so easily about church, and yet we don't know what to say about Jesus? Harvest is over, summer's past. You joined the church, and you volunteer for all the committees. No one would ever accuse you of being uncommitted, but you work and you work and you work, thinking somehow you can ease the pain of the hole in your heart. Maybe, somehow, Jesus will like you if you just work hard enough. But you've missed the gospel altogether. Harvest's over, summer's past.
You did it because you were told to do it as a child. You did it when you were a teenager under a lot of pressure. You've come back, trying to find a place to get your life right. As hard as you try, it always ends up wrong. Harvest's over, summer's past. There is always a reason for you to hesitate. There's always a reason to put it off one more week—just a little while longer. "Let me get started in my new job." "Let things get settled down for a little bit." "Let the kids get back in school." "Let me take care of this next project." Harvest is over, summer's past.
I couldn't believe that Dr. Francisco stood there in front of that class in Norton Hall and pleaded with these young seminarians to be sure they knew Christ. It's the same way I plead with you now. Harvest is over, summer's past. Still you are not saved.
You have said that sooner or later you would get things right. Harvest is over, summer's past. This is later. Maybe you feel like you've been in church too long to come make your first-time profession. Maybe you feel like people wouldn't understand if this was the first time you said, "I accept Christ. I'm making Him Lord of my life."
I don't care what other people are thinking. I'm pleading with you right now: make sure. Harvest is over, summer's past.
Originally published March 10, 2009.