When faced with hard truths, it is sometimes tempting to ignore reality, even when reality is obvious.
Take these two churches as examples:
Cartoon of usher talking to new couple at almost empty church: "Welcome to Second Street Church. We're more concerned with quality than quantity."
Cartoon of pastor preaching to a sparse congregation: "Let us know consider the problems of urban growth and subsequent overcrowding."
Someone has said that the first task of leadership is to define reality. We need to define some realities, rather than deny them. Here are some realities that we are facing here in Toronto:
- Church attendance is down. In 1946, 67% of people regularly attended a place of worship. Today, that number is 20%. There used to be a day that if you saw someone driving on a Sunday morning, they were driving to church. Example: recent radio commercial for a weight-loss meeting for men: "Are you doing something more important on Sunday morning?"
- Christianity's market share and influence is way down. A large number of people still believe in God (around 85%). But most people think you don't have to go to church to be a good Christian. In fact, half of those who attend church regularly think you don't have to go to church to be a good Christian. As late as in the 1960s, Eatons pulled the curtains on their window displays so that people wouldn't covet worldly goods on the Sabbath. Today, the church has been marginalized as only one interest group within society.
- We live in a very spiritual society, but one that has very little time for institutional or organized religion. There is huge spiritual hunger, but people distrust institutions, and don't look to the church to meet that spiritual hunger.
We can't deny these realities. So the question is: What keeps us going given these realities? What gives us hope, keeps us faithful, and propels us to mission in the face of these realities? We only face three options: to deny reality, give up hope, or to find a source of hope despite these realities.
We are not the first to encounter realities like this. I want to take you back to a group who faced a very similar situation to the one that we face:
- They were drastically outnumbered; their influence in society was minimal.
- If they embraced Christianity, it would not enhance their popularity. It was not a life-enhancing move. They would be swimming upstream rather than going with the current, and it would cost.
- Things were going to get worse. The trend lines were down, and their place in society was going to get worse before it got better.
This group was aware of reality, and they did not deny it. Yet somehow this group stayed at it, and they had hope in the middle of these realities. What kept them going?
To find out, let's turn to 1 Peter.
It's tempting to see this as a book that was written long ago and far away to people who have long been dead. Today I'd like to picture this as a letter to real people who were facing a situation that is in many ways like the one that we face.
What kept them going in the face of tough realities? Here's what we're going to find: A solid grasp on the Gospel keeps you going.
I know what some of us are thinking. That's a preacher's answer. Grasping the Gospel is nice, but it's not really what I need to keep going. It's theoretical, nice head knowledge, but it's not really going to help.
The passage we're going to look at says: grasping the Gospel is anything but theoretical and impractical. There really is nothing more practical and hopeful and important for a church facing tough reality than to have a solid grasp on the Gospel.
Let's see what they understood:
- Recipients of the triune God's saving activity (1:1-2) – The eternal God is at work in your life; we are recipients of His saving acts.
- People who have experienced a new beginning (1:3) – a fresh start; "a brand new life;" it's a free act of God, not anything that we have accomplished
- Recipients of an inheritance (1:4) – inheritance is not a family inheritance of land in Canaan, but inheritance in the eternal city of God
- Guarded by God (1:5) – Picture: a military camp, with evil forces assaulting; but on the perimeter is the overwhelming force of the power of God. God protects us from escaping the Kingdom, and he also protects us from external attacks.
- Possessors of the culmination of what God is doing in the world (1:10-12) – prophets, angels are amazed by our salvation. We are the ones who get to experience salvation after millennia of expectation. Our privilege is living in the AD rather than the BC era. It's so great that even the angels are looking down to gain a view. Neither the prophets nor angels experience what we assume and enjoy. We are insiders; prophets and angels are outsiders looking in.
This grasp of the Gospel was so practical that they were able to overcome some very real obstacles – not just overcome, but thrive:
- Trials (1:6-7)
- Not having seen Jesus (1-8-9)
A solid grasp on the Gospel gives us hope when everything else lets us down.
Occasionally you get reminded that everything and everyone else will let you down, no matter how good they are. I have an amazing wife, and yet I have had to learn that my wife is not God and will let me down. I have an amazing family, and yet I have learned that they are human and are fallible. There are great people in the church, and yet I have found that even the ones I thought I could bet my life on won't always be there. The reality is that if we pin our hope on anything or anyone other than God or the Gospel, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. Yet if we pin our hope on God and the Gospel, we will be able to overcome any obstacle or disappointment.
This is not only Biblical, but churches today that are making a difference in tough places are finding this to be true. Tim Keller, who pastors a missional church in New York City – a place where there are plenty of tough realities – recently listed six ways that the church can affect culture for Jesus. Listen to them, especially the first two:
We need more Christians (1) living long-term in the cities, (2) with a deeper grasp of the gospel, (3) who are creating dynamic counter-cultures inside the city, (4) integrating faith with work, (5) pouring themselves out sacrificially for the common good of the whole city, and (6) contextualizing.
What keeps us going when all the indicators are down? That we have a solid grasp on the Gospel.
There is nothing more important as we prepare to transform our community than we get our grasp on the Gospel, and do it in such a way that the obstacles and realities become almost insignificant in comparison.
So let me ask you: how is your grasp on the Gospel?
Notice I didn’t say, “Is this true in your life?” It’s true whether you believe it or not. The question is, “Will you cash the check?” Will you put what is already true into practice, so that your life is filled with hope and joy because you see the Gospel more clearly than you see your problems.
When the Gospel becomes real in our lives, we will be ready to live as God's people in a post-Christian world, even when we face tough realities.