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When is failure faithful?

Dr. Mike Ovey asks if current evangelicals are in denial about some important matters

Dr Mike Ovey

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A week ago I was at a major Church of England jamboree as a friend was installed in a new and more senior post.

The cathedral was packed, hats and dog collars were on view and just for a moment it was easy to pretend. Easy to pretend that the Church of England was central rather than peripheral in the life of our country and its citizens. Easy to pretend that we are a success story rather than a tale of failure. So too, frankly, with evangelicals. We meet at our conferences, theatres are packed, cafés overflow and for a moment we forget.

Some encouragements but...

I quite appreciate that it is emotive and depressing to talk of ‘failure’, and that most of us prefer something more upbeat. On the other hand, isn’t there a risk of denial? Again, I am not saying there are no encouragements. It is great to hear of church plants, of sinners turning by God’s grace to the Lord Jesus through our outreach. And there certainly is a contrast between an evangelical movement that clings on and just holds its own numerically and the catastrophic downturn in churches that thought theological liberalism was some kind of answer. Obviously, by almost any measure, liberalism has failed in our country, failed numerically, failed in the popularity stakes and failed in faithfulness. If anything, I think those obvious points need to be made even more forcefully now.

Who are we not reaching?

But I wonder whether this doesn’t lead us to gloss over some of our own realities. We rightly admit that there are unreached people groups in the UK, thinking largely of race. We are far less comfortable admitting there are also increasingly unreached classes, and not just the various underclasses in our cities, but classes of entrenched interest and power in the creative and media sectors.

These classes have enormous influence, not wrong in itself, but that influence has been used to reframe what counts publicly as right and wrong. Notable examples have been the support for same sex marriage and the lionisation of transgender individuals such as Bruce Jenner, who prefers to be identified as Caitlyn. But of course the media and creative classes will pressurise the public square to non-Christian positions – they are in mission terms ‘unreached’.

Viewed that way, I think we do have to ask whether we are failing in the Great Commission of Matthew 28, with its stress on ‘all nations’. Increasingly too, I suspect we have to ask ourselves more ruthlessly whether we still preach a gospel of repentance, or whether the very therapeutic strain of our time has not lead us to soft-pedal that, contrary to Luke 24’s version of the Great Commission.

A mix of reasons

Again, there is no doubt a mix of reasons that underpin our shortcomings: lack of resources, both financial and human; sometimes a lack of the ability to cross ethnic and class boundaries; sometimes a plain lack of understanding by us about what part of Jesus’s teaching really needs to be applied in particular situations; sometimes our lives contradict our message – we live in a time when arguments are not just weighed by the force of logic but by one’s authenticity; sometimes we imagine that compromise will win us friends – as if the failure of liberalism is not warning enough; sometimes we simply do not want to serve someone in a particular category; and sometimes the unreached, or a category of the unreached, just do not quite register as a priority – I will read the Bible with X from school Q but not with Z, because I do not see him/her as going anywhere.

It’s all gone quiet over there...

Obviously there is such a thing as the offence of the Cross. Sometimes we will ‘fail’ in numerical terms simply because we have indeed been faithful, preached and taught and witnessed to Christ and him crucified, and it is precisely because of this that there is rejection (John 8.45 springs to mind). It is hugely important we grasp this, because if we do not then we will be strongly tempted to drop unpopular elements and compromise. Sometimes we do not quite do this openly: we don’t actually say we no longer believe in the wrath of God, for instance, but somehow it just never comes up in our conversation.

All the same, the compromise is there and my sense is that the ‘it-doesn’t-come-up-in-conversation-and-I’m-not-going-to-raise-it’ strategy is alive and well, not just in liberal churches but in broadly evangelical ones as well, and is gaining momentum. This is going to be tricky for us to spot in ourselves, because we will say to ourselves that we believe the same things we always did, while actually preaching a gospel that isn’t inconsistent with hard truths, but somehow never gets round to mentioning them. It’s equally hard to challenge it in others – one is met precisely by the claim ‘I believe what I always did’, yet at some point one has to say ‘When I listen to you, I can no longer tell you believe what you always did.’

Prepared to ‘fail’

Here, I must be prepared to ‘fail’ precisely because I am determined to be faithful to the gospel of repentance and forgiveness of sins. I wonder whether we have helped each other here: is it possible that our (understandable) emphasis on numbers leads us as local churches and especially as pastors into sins of pride and envy, notably as we have an informal pecking-order between churches, which seems to me often to revolve around size: size of congregation, staff, buildings and budget. Yet, as one of my Australian friends acidly commented: ‘we all know how to get a big congregation: put on a barrel of beer and a stripper.’ Characteristically blunt, but it makes the point!

In this way, I suspect part of picking up our cross in our generation is being prepared to ‘fail’ for Christ’s sake. Clearly, there is a substantial risk that we will be more and more marginalised, that some lucrative and prestigious professions will be closed to us and our congregations will be small. There is a risk, increasingly, that some of us may go to prison if we say what we must in public about Islam and its blasphemous denial of the deity of the Son. What will no doubt make this all the more painful is that, foreseeably, another brand will be marching alongside us, using the terms of ‘gospel’ and ‘evangelism’ as much as we do, socially adept, warm smiles, communicatively skilful and looking to all the world like successful Christianity.

Four things

What, then, to do? Four things: (1) we must ask whether our failures are for reasons of gospel faithfulness or something else. And that means asking (2) whether we are in fact ‘failing’, even if we have a large church fellowship. It also means (3) knowing the gospel so well, as pastors and people, that we are alert to those times when we do succumb to temptation and are silent when we should speak, or say something other than we should. That in turn (4) restores our hearts and strengthens us precisely to endure and be faithful for Christ’s sake: we are most inclined to do that when we see his greatness most clearly. Let Christ be magnified among us. Do you think it is possible that we do not know the gospel as well as we should? Or might this be one of those unaskable questions?

In all this, I do not want to be too much of an Eeyore. I would love the next 50 years to be years of exponential evangelism and church growth, not just numerically but spiritually. But I find myself deeply challenged by Habakkuk 3.17-18. ‘Though the fig trees do not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation.’

I wonder if we may be in denial that this will be our challenge, and my fear is that, unless we pose the question squarely, we will not rejoice in the Lord when the fig tree does not blossom and yet the world is saying that there is another way to make it blossom.

Mike Ovey is Principal of Oak Hill College, London.