[notice]A monthly column that reflects on living in the Kingdom of God.[/notice]
The Church and the Great Omission!
It was one of those rare moments when someone says something profound on the news. So profound that I have not forgotten it, years later. Sadly, the event was a crippling nursing strike, where non-striking nurses were barred from entering hospitals by their striking colleagues, to the detriment and even death of uncared for patients. The male nurse glared at the camera and blurted: “Who the heck do you think I am, Florence Nightingale?” I say that this is profound because it is a history lesson, a current affairs lesson, and a Great Omission lesson all at the same time. Let me explain. Florence Nightingale is rightly regarded as the mother of modern nursing. She rejected a life of pleasure and riches for what she regarded as a God-given call to nursing, believing that “the kingdom of God must be within (our hearts), but also without (expressed practically)”. Her motive was the call of God and a desire to serve mankind. This became not only her work, but a life-work, not merely a job, but a vocation. Today, those italicised words are largely absent from anyone’s vocabulary, even a Christian one. As author Joseph Budziszewski wrote concerning the motive of students for entering various fields of study: “They choose their fields of study on the basis of how much money they can make… Serving God, though, is another proposition altogether. “Vocation? What’s that?”” As the church and as church leaders we have unfortunately contributed to this Great Omission. Church leader and author Steve Murrell hit the nail on the head when he wrote the following:
The modern evangelical church tends to celebrate the great commission to disciple individuals while ignoring the cultural mandate to disciple nations. One reason for the neglect is our gross ignorance of history. We know all about preachers and missionaries who evangelised pagan souls but we know little about reformers and educators who helped transform pagan nations. We celebrate and honour soul-winning preachers like Wesley and Whitefield. However, we forget about nation-changing, disciple-making Christian statesmen like Wilberforce and Witherspoon. Because of our short-term mentality, the separation of church and state doctrine, and our Western evangelical obsession with the individual, we have missed the point of the Matthew 28 commission: We make disciples, but we rarely disciple nations. We reach out to unreached people groups, but we flee from ungodly culture. We expect moral change, but not social change. Shouldn’t disciples have a positive impact on their communities? Is it actually possible to disciple a nation? Can the gospel really change society or should we expect everything to get worse and worse until Armageddon? Is our ultimate goal simply not to be left behind after the Rapture? Is there a valid hope to influence nations for the Glory of God? A quick look to history tells us that, yes the gospel really can and should influence nations…
Lessons from history
So then, back to history. What we will find there is something quite different to our present situation, even Christian situation, where the only people we think have a calling and a vocation are people involved in “full-time” church work. History reveals the opposite. Here, we will find astronomers like Johannes Kepler who, as he engaged in science, was convinced that he is “thinking God’s thoughts after Him.” We find discoverers like Columbus who were convinced of the call of God to pursue the New World. We find the inventor George Washington Carver, who upon entering his laboratory, would ask “the Great Creator” about the purpose of the peanut. Yes, the peanut, and in doing so, invented over 300 uses for it, reviving the economy of the Southern United States. We even find sportsmen turned missionaries like Eric Liddell who believed that “God has made me fast and for a purpose, and when I run, I feel God’s pleasure.” Yes, sportsmen as well. (Luis Suarez, FIFA and the sporting world at large, are you reading this?!).
Unfortunately, we have largely abandoned these areas to the world, and both evangelism and social engagement are lacking in the evangelical world. Theologian John Stott commented: “Too many of us evangelicals either have been, or maybe still are, irresponsible escapists. Fellowship with each other in the church is much more congenial than service in an apathetic and hostile environment outside. Of course, we make occasional evangelistic raids into enemy territory (that is our speciality); but then we withdraw again, across the moat, into our Christian castle, (the security of our evangelical fellowship), pull up the drawbridge and even close our ears to the pleas of those who batter on the gate. As for social activity, we have tended to say it is largely a waste of time in view of the imminent return of the Lord. After all, when the house is on fire, what is the point of hanging new curtains or rearranging the furniture? The only thing that matters is to rescue the perishing. Thus we have tried to salve our conscience with bogus theology.” As church leaders we have given people a roadmap for church based ministry, but left the vast majority of the church with no heritage of reformers, no inspiration from the Scriptures, and no vision for their own legitimate, God-given calling. A by-product of this has become our shrunken definition of certain Bible words. Used in only a limited context, we have effectively limited their applicability to the believer on the street. I’m thinking of the words “full-time ministry” ,”worship”, “called”, “anointed” and “Spirit-filled” here. We need to broaden our application of these words to the point where we are all in full-time ministry, where work, play and home are also part of our worship, where we are all called and anointed for some noble activity. Of note, we find that the first person recorded as filled with the Spirit was not a preacher or a prophet, but an artist and a craftsman. God says in Exodus 31:2-5 2 “See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, 3 and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts–4 to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, 5 to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of craftsmanship.”
From “churchy” activities to living for God
Similarly, in the New Testament, tax collectors and Roman soldiers came to John the Baptist to repent of their sin and be baptised. They then asked what they should do. The passage reads as follows: Luke 3:12-14 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” 13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. 14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely– be content with your pay.” In other words, they understood that coming into the Kingdom will affect every area of their life. Seamlessly, John went from “churchy” activities of repentance and water baptism, to instruction on how to live for God in their places of work. The one necessarily flowed into the other. How far the modern Church has departed from this.
The sad reality is that although the Christian worldview is the most coherent and comprehensive of all, other worldviews have given their followers a more all-encompassing “god”, and in doing so, have stirred radical people to live lives completely devoted to their cause, no matter how futile. A convinced Communist once wrote a letter to his fiancée explaining why he broke off his engagement. One cannot help but be struck by the all-encompassing devotion he had for his cause, writing: “We Communists have a high casualty rate. We’re the ones who get shot and hung and lynched and tarred and feathered and jailed and slandered, and ridiculed and fired from our jobs, and in every other way made as uncomfortable as possible. A certain percentage of us get killed or imprisoned. We live in virtual poverty. We turn back to the party every penny we make above what is absolutely necessary to keep us alive. We Communists don’t have the time or the money for many movies or concerts, or T-bone steaks, or decent homes and new cars. We’ve been described as fanatics. We are fanatics. Our lives are dominated by one great overshadowing factor, the struggle for world Communism. We Communists have a philosophy of life which no amount of money would buy. We have a cause to fight for, a definitive purpose in life. We subordinate our petty, personal selves into a great movement of humanity, and if our personal lives seem hard, or our egos appear to suffer through subordination to the party, then we are adequately compensated by the thought that each of us in his small way is contributing to something new and true and better for mankind. There is one thing in which I am in dead earnest and that is the Communist cause. It is my life, my business, my religion, my hobby, my sweetheart, my wife and mistress, my bread and meat. I work at it in the daytime and dream of it at night. Its hold on me grows, not lessens as time goes on. Therefore I cannot carry on a friendship, a love affair, or even a conversation without relating it to this force which both drives and guides my life. I evaluate people, books, ideas and actions according to how they affect the Communist cause and by their attitude toward it. I’ve already been in jail because of my ideas and if necessary, I’m ready to go before a firing squad. Challenging stuff.
Time to honour callings in every area of life
We should not only honour and give a sense of calling to missionaries, but also to men and women in every endeavour, from the home to the workplace. We should give ourselves (because no one in the secular world will) a history lesson and be inspired and challenged by past reformers to take up the call to “full-time ministry” in every endeavour. (I heartily recommend D James Kennedy’s book “What if Jesus Had Never Been Born?” and Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey’s “How Now Shall We Live?”.) We should have a whole-Bible theology that embraces God over all of life and the Spirit-filled reality of the believer for every noble endeavour. In doing so, we will expand our shrunken definitions of “worship” and being “called”, we will mobilise the vast majority of our churches, and the world will be drawn to a God who loves and is restoring every area of life.