When I was studying civil engineering at university many years ago, one of the requirements of the course was that we got some engineering-related employment in the long summer vacations. So I got a job as a concrete sampler with a ready-mix concrete company. This involved going out to construction sites and taking samples of concrete as it was poured. Often I would end up following the concrete truck to the site, and I was always impressed by the 350 Kilowatt plus power of the truck that enabled it even with its multi-tonne load to get up the steepest of hills. These days
I reflect on that image as a metaphor for the Australian church, except that the church is more like a concrete truck with a ‘Holden-Cruz’ engine in it! That is the church has totally insufficient spiritual power to drive it forward against the significant spiritual forces ranged against us in the mission of God. The major reason for this powerlessness is the lack of passion for the gospel by large numbers of church members, including allegedly bible-believing evangelicals. This not just an issue for ‘standard’ churches but can also become one for the Unbounded Church that I believe we urgently need to develop.
In Revelation 3:14-22 we read Jesus words to the church in Laodicea, a church where the members seem quite satisfied with its life and material comfort. Indeed, Leon Morris describe it as “a picture of a church in an affluent society”, one much like ours. It is a church that has lost its passion for Christ, one professing Christianity but “untouched by its fire”, one Jesus accuses of being lukewarm, colourfully described by Paul Barnett “as mediocre, as lukewarm and vomit inducing as the water from the hot springs in nearby Hierapolis”. Jesus adds the threat that he will “spit you out of my mouth”, implying that He will close the church down. Despite their affluence the members needed to realize their pitiful spiritual poverty and repent and start to focus on what is rich in God’s sight, before it was too late.
Such lukewarm-ness, this lack of passion for the things of God, this self-centredness and self-satisfied contentment in comfortable stagnation would seem to be a common characteristic of many Australian (western) church members today, often even those in large and perceived to be ‘successful’ ones. Indeed it seems that many evangelical churches have replaced the occasional or Christmas and Easter ‘Nominals’ so common in yesteryear, by what I will call, perhaps clumsily for want of a better term, the ‘Bibli-nominals’.
These are members who are relatively regular attendees who have received years, often decades, of what is often called “good bible teaching”, however, the result of this so often seems to be a biblical fatness (in knowledge) paralleled with a spiritual dessication. Such are marked by a ready willingness to be taught more about Christ (through sermons, bible studies, attending conferences etc) but with a corresponding lukewarm-ness, a lack of real passion for Christ, and an absence of real desire and willingness to lead truly sacrificial lives for the sake of the gospel.
We are reminded that a combination of both increasing biblical knowledge and spiritual poverty is not a new phenomenon by the great puritan pastor Richard Baxter who wrote “though some are never weary of hearing sermons or reading (the bible) they yet have starved souls”, and “starved souls” do not have a passion for mission. Charles Spurgeon also evidently knew of the problem of Bibli-nominality when he said
“ . . much reading about him, much talking about him but too little feeding on his flesh, and drinking his blood-these are the causes of tottering professions and baseless hopes”.
It must be emphasized that this is not in any way an argument against the study or teaching of the bible, rather it is an alarm at the observable threat of Bibli-nominalism to the mission of the gospel, for it is knowledge without the Spirit setting the heart on fire for Christ, indeed it is the church of St. Lukewarms. Such a phenomenon produces a form of passionless, cerebral, cold Christianity (if it can be called Christianity at all) that, while it may pay lip-service to it, will not be passionate about mission, or show any anguished concern for the terrible destiny faced by the lost around us. To put it another way the Bibli-nominal may know a great deal of what the bible says about hell, but does not feel the terror or smell the awful stench of it.
The question to be answered is, why does so much biblical knowledge produce so few hearts enfired for God, without which the mission is lost. This phenomenon of biblically knowledgeable but “starved souls” we will fail to address at great peril to the mission of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Indeed, as we look out over our Australian congregations, the lament of J. C. Ryle in a sermon to his congregation comes to mind-
“But alas, how little fit for heaven are many who talk of ‘going to heaven’ when they die, while they manifestly have no saving faith, and no real acquaintance with Christ. You give Christ no honour here. You have no communion with Him. You do not love Him. . . . . . . Oh, repent and change before it is too late!”
Or the words of D.L. Moody-
“How many are there in the church today, who have been members for fifteen or twenty years, but have never done a solitary thing for Jesus Christ? They cannot lay their hands upon one solitary soul who has been blessed through their influence; they cannot point today to one single person who has ever been lifted up by them.”
It seems that despite many years of good biblical teaching the result, certainly not for all but for a significant number in our churches, seems to be a Bibli-nominalism, a ‘faith’ that can be called ‘Christianity-Lite’, that is a form of ‘Christianity’ characterized by an un-transformed life lacking in passion for the mission of the gospel. Such a life will certainly not have any enthusiasm for the new, alternative forms of ‘Unbounded’ church’ that are needed for the task of ‘Pagan’ mission now required in our western culture. Also the bible-nominal ‘faith’ does not have the passion for Jesus that will resource the army the church exists to be, in order to fight the Kingdom war in which we are involved.
Or to put it another way and to revert to my initial analogy, the ‘concrete truck’ no longer has the power to get up the hill.