Evangelistic initiatives come and go. They are remembered and forgotten according to their impact not only on the community at large, but also on those who took part.
Every time there is a new national movement in Britain, mistakes are made and lessons learned. Some of the mistakes are repeated because we’re slow to learn or because excitable younger leaders think that enthusiasm is a substitute for experience – or because older ones think that experience is a substitute for enthusiasm.
Some lessons are learned too late. By the time they have been assimilated, the cultural climate has changed and new challenges face us. It’s said that the military mind is always engaged in preparing for the last war but one; churches have all too often been guilty of the same failing.
Hope ’08, a program to get churches involved in practical service to their communities, is generally judged to have been a great success. It tapped into the mood of the time, which was and is impatient of abstractions. “Let us roll our sleeves up and get busy,” said our churches, “and we will show you what we can do.”
Well, they did, and thousands of people – many of them young people – cleared rubbish, made gardens, cleaned off graffiti and generally made life better for their neighborhoods in the name of Christ. Many churches found that they had an unprecedented local presence and the respect of their neighborhoods. Barriers were broken down, and Christians young and old found that their opportunities for service were much wider than they had imagined.
Whether these efforts were always associated with the Christian gospel in the minds of the beneficiaries is not quite so clear. That Hope ’08 is to have a second life, rebranded as Hope without the date stamp, is wonderful news. But in every such endeavor, there is a pressing need for a specifically evangelistic edge, as men and women are called to repentance and commitment.
This need is shown by the figures outlined in a recent issue of The Baptist Times. We indicated then that while church membership had declined in the years from 2002 to 2008, church attendance had actually risen – a welcome rebuttal of the doomsayers who predict the inevitable decline of the Christian faith. Whatever the reasons for the decline in membership, it cannot be a bad thing that more people are being drawn to us.
However, the decline in membership may be part of a pattern that is indicated by other figures as well. The number of baptisms dropped by nearly a quarter, and the number of young adults dropped by 16 percent.
All of these statistics point to a crisis of commitment. It is small comfort to point out that membership of every national voluntary organization is declining, and that we are simply reflecting wider social trends.
Personal freedom has become the god of our time. In order to serve it, our options have to be kept open for as long as possible. There are great vistas of choice stretching out in every direction in front of our young people. Choosing one seems to limit unnecessarily the possibilities of growth and experience ahead – and in baptism, that is precisely what happens.
When we are baptized, we commit ourselves for life to the straight and narrow path, which we believe leads to the Heavenly City. Our pilgrim’s progress might be hard, but it leads to a rich reward and we meet with many wonderful things along the way.
So is this message still being preached, or are we so pleased to see fuller churches that we don’t want to frighten people away by calling them to choose whom they will serve?
Every generation faces its own problems, and in every decade the gospel has to be presented differently. In our own time, the question which interests people appears to be, “What shall we do to make the world better than it is?”
But it would be a pity if, in answering that, we forgot to tell them why they should do it and in whose name – and to call them to follow him.