I mentioned last week that my tendency in the opening week of a sabbatical is to focus on my own relationship with the Lord. This week I wanted to reflect a little bit more on the life of the church whilst reading and walking in various beautiful places. On previous occasions, these have been times when I have been thinking through possibilities for planting and so on. But on Monday morning I was struck by a sermon on Nehemiah 9. The wall in Jerusalem has been rebuilt and the people gather before God. They review their history- essentially it is a story of the sheer faithfulness of God and the persistent rebellion of the people. The summary comes in v.33- “In all that has happened to us, you have acted faithfully, while we acted wickedly.” In his sermon, Don Carson noted that such open confession of sin (in more than a simply liturgical way) is not a common occurrence in the gatherings of God’s people these days. Truth be told, it has not been a regular feature of life at Woody Road either. As I planned our recent church weekend it didn’t really cross my mind to include a section where we expressed our repentance.
Why don’t we confess our sins and repent?
In part, it is perhaps because we know that there are good things happening in the church. We have planted a church, baptisms are taking place, young people are becoming church members and newcomers often comment favourably. There is a sense of the Lord at work. And yet you see in the seven letters that Jesus sends to different churches at the beginning of Revelation that good stuff and a need for repentance can coincide. I suspect that is our position.
In part, it is because we can be either antagonistic or defensive. If we feel on the edge of the church we can tend to lob criticisms. If we feel at the heart of the church then we instinctively defend the church from any suggestions that it is imperfect. The better option is to acknowledge the ways the church falls short and to own our part in that- coming before the Lord in confession and repentance.
Lastly, we can fail to confess sins and repent of them because it all feels a bit gloomy or introspective. And yet that isn’t the sense within the New Testament. It is the kindness of God that leads to repentance (Romans 2:4). That is actually the Nehemiah 9 pattern- it is as they review the history of God’s mercy and grace that their own lack of faithfulness comes into view. If that was true for them, how much more for us? We have all the benefits brought by Christ and the Spirit. Moreover the Lord has blessed and provided for Woody Road richly over the years and spared us many sorrows that have struck other churches. That kindness should cause us to reflect on our levels of faithfulness. Moreover, though the act of repentance is humbling and painful it invariably leads to joy in the New Testament. “Repent, then, and turn to God…that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.” (Acts 3:19). In his book on repentance, Jack Miller records his experience in Uganda- “Believers there have an unusual honesty in confessing sins, and as a consequence the whole church has been filled with great joy.”
Perhaps we struggle, though, to work out why we should repent. After all, as a church we haven’t caved into theological error. Many of us are still making sacrifices in serving the Lord. The problem is that we can be blind to our failings. This is one of the reasons why there are benefits to reading old books or meeting Christians from another culture. They can expose the areas in which we are half-hearted. The 19th century preacher C.H.Spurgeon has been a helpful companion for me over the last couple of weeks. I have been struck by three things particularly- areas in which his generation is clearer than ours and in which, I suspect, we need to repent:
We may need to repent of depending on ourselves
We have much as a church- gifted individuals, financial provision, a lovely new building that is reasonably full on a Sunday, technology that can help us in many ways and much else besides. How easy it is to trust those things just to keep running on and giving us a church that we can enjoy. And where changes need to be made we come up with our own new strategies and structures. We don’t consciously turn to God. I need to be honest- I am pretty sure that Spurgeon would regard our prayer meeting (and prayer life more generally?) at the moment as a sign of significant ill health in the church. As a church we are about to have some ministry and financial holes open up- perhaps this is an opportunity for us to repent of our self-reliance. And whilst we are seeing conversions and baptisms we are not even scratching the surface of a community that is so lost. We need to acknowledge that we have relied on ourselves for too long and need the work of the Spirit.
We may need to repent of our lack of awareness of spiritual things
One of the New Testament phrases that keeps returning to my mind is this: “Be earnest and repent.” It is so easy to drift away from a godly seriousness- being earnest sounds a bit too intense. So God becomes relatively small, sin becomes a minor thing and heaven and hell are very distant realities. But the truth is that we gather before an awesome God and that eternities are at stake as the Gospel is preached. That can weigh heavily (interestingly enough, the responsibility of preaching to a large number of non-Christians tomorrow has struck me more powerfully that it has done for a while) but that should, of course, lead us away from self-reliance, to say “Who is equal to such things?” and to cast ourselves on the Lord.
We may need to repent of our worldliness
Of course, each generation of Christians has come up with its own definition of worldliness. Spurgeon is pretty critical of theatre attendance and card playing, though not of smoking cigars! Personally I regard barn dancing as a particularly grievous form of immorality…But I think there is a more serious point. As we review what excites us, what we talk about, how we use free time- is there a real sense that we are different from those around us and that we are living for another world? Or- perhaps with the odd exception such as a different ethic about sexuality- are we quite like everybody else?
Believe me- the “we” rather than “you” above is very deliberate. I’ve not always led well in these areas. And God have mercy on us- because, let’s be honest, it would be possible to add to this list. Uncomfortable though this is however- we do need to avoid being defensive for the sake of God’s glory and our good. The great news is, no matter what our unfaithfulness, the Lord is open to hearing our prayers and our cries.
The rest of the sabbatical may throw up some more “strategic” stuff to think through. But I doubt it will be as important as this, for the spiritual health of the church is always the highest priority. So don’t be surprised in the autumn if we make more of a need to repent in our gatherings together. You see there are various adjectives that we would like to describe us as a church. But, perhaps the key to spiritual vitality is to be a repentant church?