Ground Zero Revival: Hope against Hope
First of all, you must understand this, that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and indulging their own lusts and saying, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!”
2 Peter 3:3-4, NRSV
Have you ever wondered if the scoffers were right? I mean, if you take it at face value, they have an excellent point. After all, we’re sitting here amid an en masse departure from the church by younger people. They’re being joined by people who have long been deniers that Jesus even existed, saying there is no historical record of Jesus, even though there is. They say, “prove Jesus to me,” or “prove the Bible to me,” and we often start talking about our own feelings as evidence instead of evidence as evidence. That’s not what they want or what they expect, and a disconnect is born. How many instances can we individually point to in history that the Bible was counted accurate and correct? There’s so many, but do we know more than a handful of them?
As a pastor, my main goal is to spread the Gospel for the reconciliation of people with God through a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. Quality counts, not quantity. And while I see the number on the board at the back of our church going up incrementally, and I’m happy about that, it means nothing if you don’t have an experiential relationship with God. I keep stating that we need to go deeper as believers in our relationship with God. Part of a relationship is learning about one another. Seeing as God knows everything there is to know about you, that leaves only one side that needs to learn anything in the relationship. Can you guess who that is?
The thing is, people are genuinely curious. What I find so interesting is that I have had more deeply theological discussions in a bar than I have in a church, including in a Bible study. And I have had some really amazing Bible Study discussions, so that tells you something about the people who are asking questions in bars. They have questions about God, about Jesus, about why we Christians sometimes act the way we do. They want to know how faith works, how salvation works. Do I really need to be saved? Why were there so many people killing other people in the Bible? Is God really as angry as He appears in the Old Testament? Do God and Jesus have the same super powers?
And the one doozy of a question. My mother died without accepting Jesus as her savior. Is she burning in hell right now? Answering that one took a lot of Holy Spirit, crying and hope. Answering it here would probably take more space than I have available, so perhaps it’s a story for another book.
Whether they believe me or not, they do respect the fact that I have researched and worked to learn what I know. They truly appreciate that I am not just giving them a blanket statement that says, “Accept what I say blindly or else.” Even Jesus didn’t do that. He wanted Thomas to do exploratory surgery. He didn’t tell Thomas to wash his hands first, either. Which is kind of icky and all, but you get the point. He’s not interested in the cleanliness of your life any more than he was interested in what was under Thomas’ fingernails. He was more concerned with what was in the heart of the heart-broken disciple.
There’s a realness that we spoke of previously, and it’s powerful if you know how to use it. I don’t shrink from tough questions, and that means sometimes I have to say, “You know what, that’s a great question, and I honestly don’t know the answer.” Realness comes in when I continue with, “But you know, we could dig into this together and see if we can’t figure it out.” The realness, the authenticity alone, of that approach blows the walls and barriers of non-believers sky-high.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. We’re all just beggars trying to find bread. Sometimes we know where it is and can tell others. Other times God purposely hides the bread so well that it requires more than one beggar looking carefully, together. This isn’t surprising when we realize that it’s all about relationship with God.
Going into a discussion with someone who is done with the church, or never thought of church and thinking that you will have all the answers is the greatest mistake you could ever make. God will provide a lot for you, but God genuinely uses your recall to achieve this. I’ve seen very few examples of God sprinkling Magic God Dust on people and then they recite things to which they have never been exposed. But the Holy Spirit will take you down that little path in your mind and fire up just the right memory recall order for you to achieve the will of God in that moment. If it’s not there, though, it’s unlikely to happen, because we haven’t honored our relationship with Him by learning all we can possibly learn about Him. Relationship. He knows us, and we need to know Him better. In that knowing, He has opened us up to His purpose, the one I have been writing about all along.
When you’re talking to friends, and you ask them to come to church, do they blow you off?
I guess the appropriate first question is, do you invite them to church, and then do they blow you off? If you’re not doing that by now, then you need to reread a few chapters.
We’ll just say for the time being that you are asking them. If they’re blowing you off, it’s often because of an expectation of the blanket acceptance of beliefs and their unwillingness to blindly follow those beliefs.
The Bible says, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” True enough, but some folks need convincing before they put themselves in the role of a “child under training,” as Drs. Hill and Archer characterized this language in Helps Word Studies.
When we say things like, “The Bible said it, that settles it,” we actually blow it. There’s an initiative in the United Methodist Church called “Nones and Dones,” where we work on reaching people who have no religious background or have given up their religious upbringing.
In 2018, the Pew Research Center polled these people as a demographic group. When asked about what religious affiliation they were, they overwhelmingly described themselves as unaffiliated. Following what seems to be a national trend, the vast majority are ex-Christians, 35-years old or younger. In a multiple answer format, Pew asked a portion of the audience why that was. They were given six different answers from which to choose.
The results in this report shone a light on some interesting statistics connected to the church’s having blown it.
Most of the people questioned had abandoned their faith, which is our reason for hope. In Hebrews 11, which we’ll dig into in the next chapter, faith and hope are tied very closely together, and faith is given a substantive role in its relationship to hope. As I write this, the church is in Advent, a time of expectant waiting. Outside our doors are people who’ve been waiting so long they gave up on that.
They said they gave up due the fact they “question a lot of religious teaching” (51%), or because they “don’t like the positions churches take on social/political issues” (46%).
Furthermore, but less pronounced, they agreed they “don’t like religious organizations” (34%), “don’t like religious leaders” (31%), or feel “Religion is irrelevant” (26%). By the way, that number leads one to believe 74% believe religion is relevant. I’m kind of hopeful that it does.
If we as a congregation can speak to their questions successfully, then we don’t have to lose hope. They can go beyond hoping against hope because God will be more than a mere possibility. We can do this by taking a stand on evidence and love. That’s critical. Right now, it’s not the church that is in jeopardy because of waning attendance. It’s the souls of those nones and dones.
Many would have you believe starting a fresh new outreach ministry will draw nones and dones in droves. Alternatively, this research and some more I will get to in a moment say that while they might be attracted to a fresh expression of church, it will be tough to make them want to stay if we don’t address their reasons for leaving. The same pig dressed up with different lipstick still rolls around in the same old mud. Savvy young people, already wary due to previous church interactions are going to sniff this out quick, fast and in a hurry. I’m shooting you straight here. True to their demographic’s nature, they’re likely to leave and not return, nor will they likely tell you why.
Five Scoffers Scoffing
Scoffing scoffers come scoffing, according to Peter. Sounds like something out of the 12 days of Christmas? That’s not very Advent-like, so perhaps it’s more like, “Scoffers gonna scoff.” But when we look at the text here, it’s much more severe than we even realize. Just looking at the Greek for this is eye-opening.
This is apocalyptic, eschatological text. You probably know what apocalyptic means, but maybe not eschatological. While apocalyptic means the destruction or passing of the world, the Greek word used here for “last days” is where we get the word eschatology. Eschatology is the study of the last days and things with which it is associated.
The word Peter used for the scoffers in these pre-destructive last days has roots in the concept of play, as a child plays. Don’t just think of someone who is scoffing in arrogance, but think of the state of mind, the state of education of a child.
You remember the saying that as you get older and more learned, you realize how little you actually know? Scoffers aren’t really there yet.
The people Peter was speaking of are childlike in the sense that they do not have wisdom based in years of learning and experience that normally lead to fully-formed and fully-informed decisions and philosophies. They’re speaking from opinions based on incomplete information. Secondhand gold is still very much gold, but conjecture of these people in the last days will be a lot closer to secondhand lead. It just doesn’t spend the same as secondhand gold.
The fact is they’re bringing their discernment from the seemingly higher place of their own “lusts,” which can also be translated as their desires.
To expand on that, they mean passion built on strong feelings or urges. Whether or not this word for passion means good passions or bad is specific to the place where they originated. The fact that the desire is not inspired by faith, which by definition is God’s in-birthed persuasion, is where we get the idea of lust or evil desires here.
As it sits, this is about “rushing along, getting heated up, breathing violently,” according to 20th-century theologian Joseph Thayer. As a sidebar, I don’t name drop these people so you will think that I’m more educated than you. I drop them so you’ll have a breadcrumb to go on if you want to go deeper. You’re welcome and encouraged to write them down or stop reading altogether and look them up. When you come to worship at your church, a pen and a notepad is never a bad idea, too.
Getting back to this, though, the thing is, they are passionate in their disbelief because their opinions are only viewed from their own stance, or only superficially viewed from the vantage points of others. Therein lies the problem.
When you feel passionate about something, you are quite likely to act out of strong impulses and intense emotions. Jesus braiding cords into a whip and quoting Isaiah while driving money changers from the temple is an outstanding example of intense emotion driving action. The zeal for his Father’s house consuming him is the ferocious emotion that begins with God’s in-birthed persuasion or faith.
When the word for this kind of violent passion is used about God’s wrathful actions in Revelation chapter 14:10, 19, 15:1, etc. those actions are considered perfect and holy. The reason is that His anger is directed with undeniable force against sin and without incurring sin on His part. Take note. It’s directed against sin, not us.
On the other hand, when this word is used about the average Joann or Joe, it often indicates rage, which is a personal venting of anger. We see this as a flaw because it’s entirely outside the Lord’s inspiring us to our intense anger. We’re going it alone.
It’s like grabbing the end of a firehose going full blast. You might direct the water a little bit, but chances are the water is controlling you, not the other way around. Your violent passions work against you just like that water. Take note. This all ends up directed at us, not sin.
See the difference? It’s a complete 180-degree approach when compared to God, or more importantly, done in concert with, and guided by, God. Just like anything else we do, when we don’t include God in it, we can make a real mess of things.
The Defence Rests
In this language, scoffers speak as someone who is “laying the argument to rest.” Think of it as a final argument in court. In the last days, according to Peter’s letter, people will say they simply don’t believe, and that is that. They will say that God doesn’t exist, and that is that. There’s no evidentiary support for Jesus, the Bible, etc., and to them, that is that. But you have to remember where “that” was born. The catalyst was someone stating, “The Bible said it, and that is that.”
That sparked frustration based on a lack of answered questions. It’s not a lack of proof, but a lack of exposure to evidence. We are the ones responsible for making that case to them and the church blew it, so they blew us off. We really shouldn’t be surprised at this. We abandoned them and in the end, we can’t be startled when they make their own way.
This frustration is what impacted the nones and dones in that Pew report and drove them away. Alleviating that frustration is how we reinitiate a relationship and how Jesus is lifted up to draw them back.
This is our witness to others. And in it, we either give them hope, or we fall short of hope for them. Believe you me, the world needs hope now more than ever.
Going further than scoffers would go, put yourself in their shoes. Should we honestly have a blanket-belief of what we’re told about God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit? I believe we should explore it as deeply as we possibly can, and getting to know the very presence of God as fully as a human being’s mortal frame can allow.
Sound doctrine is important. The first thing it allows you to do is refute unsound doctrine. And one of the largest issues that nones and dones have with the church is those who are preaching false doctrines. They often point out the difference between what Jesus said and did, and what these doctrines claim we should say and do.
To me, it’s kind of sad that we cannot differentiate between the two when we’re the ones who are required to do our due diligence with regards to what we hear.
A Course of Action
To that end, are you reading your bible for a group study or for personal study? Are you reading it daily? We need knowledge to give this kind of hope. If you’re already in it, stay in the word. And dig in if you’re not.
Remember those “The More You Know” commercials that aired years ago? The idea was that the more you know, the better off you are. Where the Bible is concerned, the more we know, the better off the nones and dones are.
Here are some examples of what we’re up against. In a different Pew Research report from 2016, the young respondents were allowed to write their own answers, instead of it being multiple choices. This is why they said they were no longer involved in church. “Learning about evolution when I went away to college.” “Religion is the opiate of the people.” “Rational thought makes religion go out the window.” “Lack of any sort of scientific or specific evidence of a creator.” “I just realized somewhere along the line that I didn’t really believe it.” “I’m doing a lot more learning, studying, and kind of making decisions myself rather than listening to someone else.”
I’m here to tell you that each one of these is so full of holes it would sink a battleship or get stuck on top of a ham sandwich, depending on how you look at it. Mainly full of holes is the lack of scientific or specific evidence of a creator. It’s there if you want to see it and want to find it.
First, though, we have to understand our own issues, which is where Peter started. At the time this epistle was written, it was almost 35 years after the death of Christ, shortly before Nero executed Peter. Undoubtedly, in a young Christian society, they felt Jesus would be coming back almost instantly. To modernize that, they thought he made some sort of heavenly grocery run and was going to be back before halftime was over.
But to all our surprises, here we are almost 2,000 years after Peter penned this and still no Jesus. What gives here? There’s a hymn that goes, “Come, Lord Jesus Come.” But right now, it feels like, “Come on, Lord Jesus, what are you waiting for?”
If you feel that way, don’t feel alone, and don’t feel like you’re failing God. It might surprise you to find that Jesus is already here.
In terms of time, though, 2,000 years is nothing to God. It was 400 years between the last acknowledged prophet of Israel and the coming of Jesus as the Christ. People were wondering about the prophecy back then, and today people are going to have questions about the Bible. Some are going to be hard to answer, and others easy to misunderstand.
For example. All saved believers are going to heaven, right? Not really. There will be a new heaven ... and a new earth. Just a little further down this passage, Peter brings some content from Isaiah to his readers in the Asia Minor churches. He talks about a “new earth.” But we all think of heaven when we think about “passing on.” Revelation 21:1 mentions this new earth as well, and it can get confusing if we’re not careful. This is an example of how doctrine can get skewed. It’s not false, mind you, but focusing on only heaven pulls us up short of the finish line. It’s more accurate to say that what we’re waiting on is the resurrection more than we are on heaven. We need to live into the fulfillment of a promise instead of waiting on a destination. One produces active love and relationship, and the other produces an “I’ve got mine, go get your own” mindset. If we’re going to be Easter People, we should live like it.
Knowing What We Know, Sort Of
No one knows more than a pastor about the dangers of passing on poor theology. There are things we won’t know, as Jesus pointed out in Acts 1:7. He said, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Still, do we know enough to be those witnesses? If someone made comments from the 2016 Pew Research Report, would we be able to refute it? Or would their closing argument close us down simply because we don’t know? Something even more important here, though, is our motivation. Are we committed to knowing enough that we can be of service? If you want to be a teacher in this country, you have to have a reasonably dependable education. The thing that drives people to be teachers isn’t the money. It’s because they don’t want kids walking around dumber than a box of rocks. Honestly, we can all get behind that. That should be equally true of Christians in this world, concerning non-believers. We don’t want anyone laboring under false pretenses if we can help it. Sometimes we can’t, sometimes we can. That doesn’t matter, though. The only thing that matters is that we’re expected to try.
If you’re not studying the Bible, start. If you are, keep at it and go deeper. Should it be an all-consuming passion? No, you shouldn’t take Bible study out of balance in your life, as that isn’t the purpose for which God made you. God made you for relationships, especially with those who are nones and dones. But at the same time, be careful that you don’t get outbibled as my licensing school mentor, Pastor J. Michael Smith, put it.
Still, it’s easy to get yourself into a situation where someone asks you a question to which you just don’t know the answer. And that is about as embarrassing as it gets. In those instances, it’s always OK to repeat the following to them. “You know what, I don’t know the answer to that, but let’s explore that together.” If there’s one thing I know about people who are nones and dones, it’s that authenticity exhibited in grace wins the day every time. And it’s authentic evidence and love that leads people back to the hope for which this world has been waiting.
Roland Millington is a United Methodist Church pastor serving Brimfield United Methodist Church in Brimfield, IL. He's the author of two books available digitally through our store, or as hard copies through LuLu Publishing.