By Bob Russell
About These Articles
This article and its companion, “How Should We Celebrate?,” are excerpted fromBob Russell’s closing sermon at the North American Christian Convention in Kansas City, July 6.
Bob reviewed the biblical examples of celebrating what God has done, and then he highlighted some of what God is doing among us today.
First, celebrate the past but don’t dwell on the past. Over the years I watched a number of people become a part of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville who would say, “This is a breath of fresh air. I dropped out of church because it was so stagnant. This place is alive.”
Then 10 years later they were bemoaning the fact that the church isn’t what it used to be. It’s still changing. They want to freeze-dry it right where it was when they came in. Sing the same songs, have the same order of worship, the same leadership as it did when they first came.
It doesn’t seem to dawn on people that the reason they felt a fresh spirit when they came was the church had refused to live in the past. If it was going to continue to reach people, the methods had to keep changing.
Don’t Idolize the Past
God has been blessing our movement in part because we’ve not idolized the past. We’ve refused to limit God to 17th-century translations, 18th-century architecture, 19th-century music, and 20th-century communication techniques. God’s mercies are new every morning.
So let’s not camp here. Let’s pack up our tents and move on. We have a powerful plea—to use the Bible alone as our source of authority. We have a healthy balance of freedom from cumbersome structure but accountability to God and one another. We have a wealth of resources. We are in an ideal position to expand in influence and explode in growth.
“God is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (Ephesians 3:20). So, let’s be inspired by the past and “strain toward what is ahead.”
Don’t Denigrate the Past
Second, celebrate the past and don’t denigrate the past. Some semimaturing Christian leaders develop a disdain for the past. Like an insubordinate teenager, they welcome anything that’s the opposite of the previous generation. They snicker at the old songs, the old programs, the old invitations, and would be embarrassed to preach a three-point sermon.
Let’s not be neophytes, caught up with every new idea. Let’s be wise enough to discern between fads and trends. Let’s not try to reinvent church every six months, creating havoc and unrest in the body.
Fred Craddock advised, “It’s best not to rearrange the furniture in the room of a disoriented person.” This is an age of spiritual unrest, and people do need some stability in their lives.
The prophet Jeremiah advised, “This is what the Lord says: ‘Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls” (Jeremiah 6:16). Some things from the past need to be retained.
Our movement was anointed by God in the beginning because we were a people of the Book. Let’s not lose that emphasis. Our movement is at its best when we have clearly taught God’s Word. Some churches have a slogan, “Biblically based and culturally relevant.” That’s good. But let’s make sure the attempts to be culturally relevant don’t override the need to be biblically based. The Word doesn’t have to be dumbed-down or camouflaged. It just needs to be courageously preached and it will dramatically transform lives.
When the early Christians were threatened with persecution they didn’t say, “Oh, no we have a bad image with the world. They’re accusing us of being cannibals, we better conceal the Lord’s Supper.” “Oh, my, the cross is an offense; we’ll quit preaching it.” “Oh, no, the authorities commanded us not to talk about Jesus on the streets of Jerusalem so we better focus just on serving them so we’ll gain credibility and then we’ll share the message later.”
No. They prayed, “Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness” (Acts 4:29).
We are going to face increasing hostility from the world, but learn from the past—speak the truth in love but speak it with boldness—that’s our source of power. “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).
In the book Aquachurch, Leonard Sweet says this about his Bible:
[It has] TNT engraved on the leather, because this book is a stick of dynamite. [This book] can explode old habits. [It] can blast sinful fixations and detonate new devotions. [This book] can release enough energy to move any mountain and mend any life. If I hear, one more time, a Christian sigh, “The church just can’t compete with Hollywood,” I’m going to twist someone’s tongue. Hollywood is the one that can’t compete with the Holy. Nothing on earth can compete with the power of God’s Word.
Bridging the Gaps
One afternoon I met a sharp-looking 25-year-old in our church named Charles Jarboe. I asked, “How did you become a Christian?”
He said, “I didn’t grow up living as a Christian. I lived a pretty wild life as a teenager. But my senior year of high school, I went to Panama City Beach for spring break. Bob, everything you see on MTV that kids do for spring break, I did.” (I don’t know why he thought I was watching MTV, but that’s what he said.)
“But all week long, my friend and I kept seeing these signs that said, ‘Campus Crusade, free breakfast.’ We didn’t know what that meant, but by Friday we were so stoned and so broke we said, ‘Let’s go to that Campus Crusade tent to get a free breakfast.’ As we were eating, a Campus Crusade worker came and sat across from us and shared his testimony. He talked about how he had lived a wild life, but then he gave his life to Jesus and everything changed.”
Charles continued, “As he was talking I tried to appear unimpressed, but I couldn’t get what he said off my mind. The next day we flew home, and Saturday night I was sitting in my mother’s living room and I felt so guilty over everything I had done. I didn’t know about the convicting power of the Holy Spirit, but I felt awful. So I called my friend and said, ‘I want to go to church in the morning.’ He said, ‘Really?’ I said, ‘Yes, I want to go.’
“When I was growing up, Mom would occasionally take me to church on Christmas Eve and we’d go to Southeast. That was the only church I knew, so that’s where we went. We came in, sat down, and enjoyed the music. Then you got up to preach and the very first words out of your mouth were, ‘You won’t believe who is in church today—he’s the biggest drinker and boozer you’ve ever seen in your life!’
“My friend elbowed me and asked, ‘How did he know you were here?’ You were talking about how surprised some people are when a life is really changed. Your whole sermon was about the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with her tears because she was so thankful. It was all about repentance and how Jesus was willing to completely wash away our sin and resurrect a new life in us.
“I couldn’t stop weeping as you preached. There was something happening in me I couldn’t explain. I came back the next week and when the invitation was given, I walked forward to give my life to Christ. When I was baptized, tears flowed again, but this time I knew why; they were tears of joy. I knew my sins were forgiven. I knew I had the assurance of Heaven. I was so thankful.”
I wish you could see Charles today. He met and married a beautiful girl, and today the two are actively involved in young adult activities at the church and are growing in Christ.
Here’s the point. I was almost 60 years old; he was in his teens. I was in a suit and tie; he was dressed casual. I was out of shape; he was athletic. I had never tried drugs or alcohol; he just got back from bingeing at spring break. But the Word of God was so powerful it bridged the gaps and convicted the soul.
The Source of the Power
The power is not in being cool; the power is in the cross. The power isn’t in innovative programs; the power is in lifting up Christ who will draw all men to him. The power is not in imitating the world so that it’s comfortable but in being distinctive from the world so that it’s convicted. The power is not in saying what itching ears want to hear, but in the preaching of the Word with boldness.
Let’s not dwell on past methodology. But let’s celebrate the message of the past—for Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
Bob Russell travels, speaks, and writes from his home in Louisville, Kentucky.