John reflects on what history has taught us about the church’s response to cultural moments that threaten its advance—and how our past influences our posture toward the times we’re in.View Transcript
Alliance leader, this is our moment. This is our season in which we have the privilege of leading the Church. Will we fully engage the opportunities before us? Or will we miss the moment?
In a moment, I’m going to take us to John 4:35, as it’s been on my heart to talk about the opportunities that are before us as the Alliance family in this unique moment of history.
First, though, a quick announcement. In the past we’ve had a conference called Converge that has been limited in its attendance. This year it’s being open to the whole Alliance family. Let me tell you about it.
You know that we’re very engaged as an Alliance family in the global advance of the name of Jesus to the least-reached people of the world. And we know that, as Alliance churches, we try to find ways to engage and connect with that global advance.
Well, this is the conference that helps the mission-mobilizing people of our local church to engage with each other, develop relationships with each other, and find the best practices for how to mobilize our local church for global advance. Registration is now open for Converge 2023. Please take a look at this link.
I get to do so many interesting things as president of The Alliance. I’m so honored today to continue to have this role. One of the fascinating things through the years has been doing local church anniversaries. I have been in 50-, 90-, 100-, 110-, 125-year anniversaries. Many interesting stories have arisen from those. But one thing that I almost always do is take a look back in time at what was the historic cultural condition of our country—of our world—at the time that that church was being planted.
I did many hundred-year anniversaries of churches that started during that era when, 100 years ago, there was what we call the Spanish flu, and a huge percentage of the planet was affected by that—a far greater percentage than during COVID.
I’ve been fascinated by how World War I was coming to a close—and all this trauma of the world, and yet somebody thought would be a good idea to start a church.
You get into the 20s—and I just did a hundred-year anniversary—and looking back, 1922 was right in the heart of the Roaring Twenties and all this utopian excitement and worldly expression, and somebody thought it was a great time to plant a church.
And a 90th anniversary of a church started in the 1930s—right in the middle of the worst depression in our country; so, at the lowest point of the stock market—some estimate over 30% unemployment—and there are some people who decide this is a good time to start a church.
Who were these people? Who were these renegades? Who were these mavericks that didn’t pay attention to the headlines? That ignored the cultural pressures? That resisted the voice that said, “Whoa, there’s too much going on. There’s too much hardship. There’s not enough money. There’s too much difficulty.” Who were these people?
I don’t know most of their names. But I know that we still benefit today from their passion, from their vision, from their commitment, and their deep determination to not let current cultural moments stop the advance of the Church and the name of Jesus and our missional efforts. And it wasn’t just about church planting. There was huge missional sending going on through those decades as well, and there was an opening of new fields. And so, this next year, 2023, will celebrate the hundredth anniversary of The Alliance in Cambodia, and in Burkina Faso, and Mali, and other places that celebrated their own moments.
And I’m saying this to us today because I’m wondering, if the Lord tarries fifty or a hundred years from now, how will people look back on this moment, at this time, of what this group of leaders did? People will be able to easily access information about the global pandemic; they’ll be able to easily access information about sky-high inflation and about deep-seated national division—a country divided. They’ll be able to study about the international conflict of Russia and Ukraine and other situations that are going on in our world. But what will they discover about the Church? If Jesus tarries, looking back on this moment in time, what will they see about us as leaders? Did we entrench? Play it safe? Wait until some easier time to advance the gospel? Or will they see a Church mobilized—a Church of faith?
At the hundredth anniversary I just did in Wisconsin, their anniversary theme was Forward in Faith. Believing that as we lift up our shields of faith together—and God does call us to keep taking steps forward to the what the next dream, the next vision is that God has for us to accomplish for His Kingdom. I mentioned John 4:35. You know the context. Jesus, early in His ministry, early in the gathering of His disciples, has taken them to a place they don’t necessarily want to be. They’re traveling through Samaria and tired from the journey. At noon He sits down at the well and sends the disciples into town to get food, has that beautiful conversation with the woman who comes midday. You know that story. And as she is leaving in great excitement to go tell the town that perhaps this is the Messiah—perhaps we found the Christ—the disciples have just returned from that town with lunch. Jesus refuses to eat, oddly enough, saying, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about to finish, to complete, to do the work of my Father.”
And then, as they’re scratching their head about what He means by that statement, He throws them this, another head scratcher: “You say, ‘Four more months and then comes the harvest.’ I tell you, ‘Open your eyes and look at the fields. They’re ripe for harvest.’”
Now we can only guess—maybe some of you have studied more than I have about exactly what was going on at the time—but it’s very possible that He looks at the fields. They’re still months away from being harvested, the literal agricultural setting that they’re in, and it’s also possible at that moment that the woman was leading the crowd out of town to come and see this One who she’s testified about. And so He moves from the agricultural setting to the human scene of people coming before, coming towards them, and says to them, “You say ‘four more months,’” looking at that agricultural setting; “I’m saying to you, ‘Look at the harvest that’s actually coming towards us,’” or at least looking at that town that they’re going to enter into for the next two days. And He says, “Now is the time for Harvest. Now is the time. This is the place. These are the people.” I believe that in the heart of the disciples, it was just the opposite. Now isn’t the time. This isn’t the place. These aren’t the people.
There is always something within us—from the headlines to our own heart condition—that says, Now is not the time. This isn’t the place. These aren’t the people. This isn’t the right opportunity. There’s got to be a better time; and that time always seems to be the distant future, where we can double check our resources, triple check our plans. I’m all for gathering resource, and I’m all for planning—and we are deep into that now with this whole Project Reimagine and designing what the next era is going to be like for the National Office.
I understand good planning, but I also understand the temptation and the tendency to join the disciples in saying, “Now is not the time. This isn’t the place. These aren’t the people.”
Since moving to Columbus, I’ve been able to speak in many of the area churches, and one of them was our Ethiopian congregation, a delightful family of believers, one of our largest Alliance churches here in Columbus. They asked if I would also speak at their youth group. I was honored to do so. They asked specifically if I would address the subject of the Holy Spirit.
I was trying to make the class interactive, and so I was asking various questions. All the young men were seated on one side, all the young women on the other, probably ranged in age from 12 to 22, I would guess. And I was very impressed by the answers; but all of the answers were coming from the guys’ side. And so finally I just stopped and said to the young ladies, “I don’t want to embarrass you, but would any be willing to answer the question?” And the question at that moment was, “When the Holy Spirit begins to have influence in our lives, what does He do within us?” Now the guys had already appropriately said “the gifts of the Spirit” and “the fruit of the Spirit,” and I was grateful for those answers; but they seemed to be kind of textbook answers. So, I was fishing for something a little more, and she couldn’t have been more than 9th grade and 90 pounds, but her little hand went up. And she said, “When the Holy Spirit really starts to work in our lives, we begin to see people we would not otherwise see.”
I was touched by her spirit and her comment, and two things hit me right away: (1) She knew what it was to have the Holy Spirit at work within her; and (2) She knew what it was to be unseen, to be overlooked.
Friends, I believe at this moment in John 4, the disciples have a posture of This is not the time. This is not the place. These are not the people. Let’s move on. There’s got to be a better place, a better time, a better people to serve among. And Jesus is saying to them, “Open your eyes. Look at the fields. They’re ripe for harvest.”
May the Spirit of God at this moment in time enter us, Alliance family, to have the eyes to see what Jesus sees. Does Jesus in His heart want us to just put this whole mission on hold and wait for some other moment to share His name, to advance his mission, to send the next wave of workers to do the next dream? No, no.
What will, if the Lord tarries, people see about the Church 50 or 100 years from now? Will they see a Church mobilized, full of faith? Or will they see a Church infighting and putting the whole mission on pause?
May we, with my new Ethiopian friend, have the fullness of the Holy Spirit at work in our hearts to give us the eyes to see what our Christ sees about the harvest.