Ground Zero Revival: Unexpected Love
By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised.
- Hebrews 11:11, NRSV
Who, what, why, where, when, and how? We just discussed nones and dones last week and the fact that they really do need some answers, and that we need to answer them as authentically as possible.
There's a catch, though. The nones and dones aren't the only ones who want answers. We do, too. We sometimes ask, "What's this whole thing about?" For whatever reason, we may not ask it very loudly, but we do ask. I'll lay your mind at ease right off the bat. That's perfectly all right, perfectly normal, and 100% in accordance with how God built us. We can ask God why, and we can even yell at Him, plead with Him. Just look at the Psalms, they’re full of real, raw emotions. God doesn't want us putting on a mask. Masks are a way we lie to ourselves and telling Him that same lie isn't going to make Him happy. The reason He's unhappy isn't that you just hurt His feelings. It's because you're not dealing with yours, which never leads to the wholeness, abundance, or close community for which He created us.
Even further down this whole path lie our struggles with and questions about how it's all connected.
I follow the author and investigator, J. Warner Wallace, on Facebook. He's posted a lot of statistics on people leaving churches. By now, you know how much I love data. Data tells a story and the church needs to tell a more compelling one, so data is where we start.
Have you seen those 10-year challenges on social media? They compare 10-year differences via pictures.
There is one Pew Research Report posted by Wallace that replicates this. Pew stated that from 2009 to 2019 there has been an 8% drop in the protestant-identifying population of the United States. The number of overall dones is growing, too. In that same 10-year span, Americans who said they attended church at least once or twice a month dropped by 7 percent, while those who say they rarely or never go to church rose by the same 7 percent. On the graph, it looks like a big "X" of declines on one side and increases on the other.
They're not going to a different religion or a separate denomination in the Christian religion. They're just cutting themselves off, and with much more regularity as the age demographic gets younger. If you were born between 1946 and 1964, there's a 75% chance you call yourself a Christian. Women are more religious than men, although both sides are faltering. The thing is, the faithful are remaining faithful. Church attendance is staying steady if you come more than once a week. That means if you attend weekly or more, such as Bible studies, you're very likely to continue doing so.
By comparison, if you were born between 1981 and 1996, there's only a 49% chance of that. According to Champaign, Illinois organization Empty Tomb, Americans gave 3% of their disposable income in 1968 to churches as part of a tithe. That's not 3% of their total income, that's just their disposable income. In 2016, the “disposable income” tithe percentage is now 2.2%. So let's just be extremely real here for a second.
What we're seeing is people on the periphery leaving the church. They’re gone like a vapor, just a ghost that got up and vanished.
The people who are already steady are sticking around. They aren’t always keen on investing where their membership is, but they are solidly living into their membership with their presence, that is for certain.
Here’s the problem. The people who need to hear the Good News of Jesus are more likely to hear crickets than Colossians according to this report.
A Different Story
All the data I have shared with you to this point, it’s been pretty bleak. Now, let me flip the script for you. United Methodist Communications recently released a survey that found the willingness to visit a United Methodist Church had climbed to 42 percent in mid-2019. This survey included U.S. adults who were looking for more spirituality in their lives and who were aware of our denomination, which is why the United Methodist Church advertises. Two years prior in 2017, that number was only 28%. That's a substantial gain in interest.
Of that 42% group, half of them said they would visit within the next three months, or right about now. There's a higher likelihood that those who would be willing to walk through the door would be millennials than Generation Xers. So that’s 21% of the total who would come to a United Methodist Church, coming sooner rather than later.
Of the 79% who said that they weren't ready to visit, 10% of those said they would reconsider if someone they knew extended an invitation. Hint. Hint. Hint.
Among those people who are willing to attend, the number of respondents who rate the denomination favorably is climbing. They know who we are, 95% of seekers polled saying so, they know our logo, and they know our denomination's tagline, "Open minds, open hearts, open doors."
They overwhelmingly believe that the tagline is appealing and personally relevant to them. If this was a dating website, we'd call that a highly-favorable match.
But what happens when the expectations they have for that first date aren't met? What if no one answers their questions, or when the answer isn't what they expect, it also comes out of a place that lacks grace? What if they experience imperfect humanity when they're looking for perfect divinity? It’s a lot of what ifs, which is why I preach a great deal on the need for love, the need for spiritual disciplines, acts of mercy, acts of piety. They all point to relationship.
We don't and won't know everything, as I pointed out in last Sunday's sermon. But we do have a Holy Spirit to guide us. We have an example to follow in how God drew and guided Abraham and Sarah through their lives, through their mistakes, missteps, and mishaps into the completely unexpected love of the child Isaac. They hung their whole existence on God's in-birthed persuasion that they would someday see descendants as numerous as the stars. Two thousand years later, this chapter of Hebrews speaks powerfully. It opens our thoughts to the trust required to sustain and find God's unexpected love in the lives of two people who were desperate to find it. Four thousand years after these two people of faith, we have a mission field that is full of individuals cut from a similar cloth.
We have a very unique opportunity to spread the gospel to people, but it starts right here and right now in our own hearts. Put your hand on your chest right now. Do you feel that heartbeat? That heartbeat is ground zero for revival.
The thing I find so refreshing here in this text is that we realize we're not alone. I've repeated myself a lot, but I'll risk doing it again. All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again. People have been seeking "something" forever. Think about it. You were exploring something when you found God through Jesus. I’ve mentioned secular university studies that are saying our brains are wired for a relationship with a "higher power," and that's God. People have needed their relationship with God to be revived continually. Whether they stumble and fall isn't relevant, it's whether or not we help them get back up that counts.
Religion has become some sort of strange, dirty word in the modern age. It's not because of its definition, it's because of what it has come to represent to people outside of religion. The etymology of the word religion comes from the Latin word forms "re" and "ligare." Combined, they mean "to bind again." When we consider this binding, we need to understand what kind of binding it is precisely. It's not the same kind of binding that we use to bind criminals or pray for the binding of spiritually opposing evil forces. This isn't Satan binding the woman for "18 long years," as Jesus said in Luke 13. This is Jesus quoting Isaiah 61. "The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners."
This is the healing of which Jeremiah asked after in chapter 8 verse 10. "Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?" If we think of religion as a system of belief, we miss the point of the word staring us right in the face.
Religion is a re-binding of our hearts to God, the only healer we can ever have. The Bible often speaks of the power of God to reconcile, redeem, rejoin, reunite. Remember, when we went through the series "Re: The Elements of Our Faith?" Renew, rejoice, reveal, reaffirm, return, rebuild, re-emerge, reignite. At the heart of religion we find the pivotal element of our faith. It's the one concept that God will re-bind us to Him and to one another in a way so powerful we don't even have the scope of reference to understand it completely. It requires us living into the faith imparted to us by God.
The fact is most people we refer to as seekers are looking for that exact type of healing.
What we have to do is take back the definition of religion. Better yet, redefine it by a love so unexpected it leaves a deep impression in the lives of those who come in contact with the church. Love like that doesn't originate with you or me. It only exists flawlessly in our union with Jesus Christ. We call him the author and perfecter of our faith for that reason.
Look at the world around us. Take a good, long look. Polarized people, butting heads everywhere. Red state, blue state. Conservative, liberal. It's a mess, and it's not helping those who need help the most. We're talking about empty people, people without hope, just as barren in their hearts as Sarah was in her womb. They need to be filled with an unexpected love that arrives only through a persuasive communion with God directly. We call what that kind of communion builds "faith," and we light an advent candle for the peace that it brings. We find it here in a crucial word in this passage.
The Greek word is "katabolen." This word is most often used in conjunction with Christ's coming to earth in human form as the redemption that enables our relationship with God. I don't believe the writer of Hebrews used the word here by accident. I think the reason that word was selected was that the conception of Isaac was a symbol of God's overall plan. It's a plan He set in place and guaranteed before creation ever started. "But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself." Hebrews 9:26b. "He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake." 1 Peter 1:20.
Simply put, the word refers to the foundational structure God put in place, by which all people can know and have a relationship with Him. All people. This supersedes everything that happened in Genesis 1. We're talking about John 1:1-5, and how "in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."
If we don't strive to get a real hold on just how genuinely bound to one another we are, we will lack the motivation needed to go find those seekers. If we don't see how we can be re-bound to the relationship we were meant to enjoy with God, the ones who are so open to a relationship with Jesus Christ won't find Him. They lose, and we lose. And Jesus? Jesus weeps.
What we lose in the process is the opportunity to return to a more whole state, both individually and collectively. True wholeness in either sense only comes through God, but like everything that comes through Him, nothing is expected ever to sit still. Our faith is expected to be active. There was a great album by the Christian rock band Bride, and I loved its title. Kinetic Faith. Faith in motion. God's in-birthed persuasion was always designed to move out of us. In-birthed, but outbound. It's a transfer of the energy inherent in God's love, into our hearts, and out into the lives of other people. It erupts in an unexpected love, birthed inside the hearts of those who thought they would never see it happen. You know, I've told some people that this can happen for them and they laughed. They laughed just like Sarah laughed when she was told she would bear a son. Along came Isaac.
The thing I want to know is, will we laugh at this? I like to think that our little church has enough in-birthed persuasion from God just to smile knowingly and keep reassuring them that God will do as he has said he would do. At the very end of this verse, the writer tells us that Abraham considered God faithful to his promises. It's probably a better translation to say he was convinced of the promises by the in-birthed persuasion of God. The Greek word for "had promised" at the end of this verse is epangeilamenon, from epaggéllō. This word, when stated about God's promises, declares promises that are fitting and legitimately applicable. God never makes idle promises. He's specific with His word and crafts the details of His promises surgically.
Revival Starts Within
Our takeaway is to be a people who start at our own heart and allow God to surgically, deliberately and powerfully persuade us to trust in him, just as Sarah and Abraham trusted in God's persuasion. We have to be ground zero for the revival in our church. It's not revival that happens in a room, or a tent, or in a grand cathedral. It occurs alone, maybe in your car. It happens in your prayer closet. It overcomes you in a one-on-one encounter with God. It happens as you are filled with the Holy Spirit, and it keeps on happening when you put it into motion.
The day after Abraham and Sarah were visited by the Angels and told that Sarah would have a baby, life went on. Abraham kept on growing in his trust of God because God kept on persuading him and building his faith. God and Abraham had an extraordinarily close relationship. Like I said, God was careful and calculating about how He guided Abraham. He even wondered if he should hide the destruction of Sodom from him, knowing that Abraham's nephew Lot was among the people who would be killed. In the end, God decided to clue Abraham in.
If you read it, it even looks like Abraham is persuading God not to destroy Sodom. I'm sure it's no surprise to you that I have a slightly different take on this series of events. My take is simple.
All along, through love, God was guiding Abraham to intercede for his fellow humans. We learn that intercession is an integral part of a relationship through this example.
That only happens through a growing faith relationship with God. Abraham never acted as if he were God's equal, but he got to know God's heart enough to understand that God is just and fair, but also merciful. What Abraham didn't know is that in that close relationship with God, founded solidly on the faith God grew inside him, an unexpected love for others had grown.
It can be daunting to reach out and ask nones and dones about their faith, to talk to them about the savior they may be seeking. If you find yourself questioning whether or not you have it within you to intercede in the lives of other people, spend more time with Jesus and God. You'll find God can be undeniably persuasive. What grows out of that persuasion will be very unexpected.
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.