Summary: Why is the church dying in America, and what can we do about it?
Centering in on Jesus
In America, the church as a whole is going through an identity crisis. Who are we? What purpose do we serve? Why are so many churches declining? What can we do to turn things around? These are good questions to ask. These same problems faced the famous British pastor Martyn Lloyd-Jones. He addressed these problems in a long sermon series on the Book of Acts. He was trained as a medical doctor, so he had a brilliant analytical mind. One of the first steps in analyzing why the church of his day was declining was simply to observe what the church as a whole was doing to address these questions in his day. Many of the theologians and ministers of the church thought that the way to stay relevant in a rapidly changing culture was to adapt to it. This led to reducing emphasis on the preaching about Jesus. Instead, what Jesus taught was adapted to meet the perceived needs of the day. Jesus was divorced from the doctrine of the church. The church needed to cut Sunday night services, shorte or eliminate preaching. The church needed to address the social ideas of its day. The result was that the church became entirely irrelevant. A church that follows the dictates of men rather than God has no purpose at all. This is why the church in Great Britain became deader than ever. Only the churches which remained true to the Scripture and the teaching of the Apostles have some life in them today.
Lloyd-Jones’ approach was to go back to the Book of Acts to see what a true church was like. Why was there so much joy and unity? Why did the church possess such spiritual power? Why were the Apostles who deserted Jesus in craven fear on the night Jesus was betrayed now boldly preaching Jesus in the Temple, even though such preaching put their lives in danger? Lloyd-Jones saw a great gulf between the church of His day and the one in Acts. It is hard to believe the one came from the other. Lloyd-Jones was a student of the great revivals, including the great Welsh revival which occurred at the time of his birth. He wrote a book on revival which is well worth reading. Revival, which comes from God according to His will, involves a going back to the basics. It involves a stripping of the manmade theological structures which humans have imposed upon the church and getting back to God’s vision of the church. The world does not need state churches. Nor does it need “Christendom” which is a veneer placed upon society without any substance underneath.
Now let us take a look at this passage in Acts 2:22-36. We have already looked at the first part of Peter’s address to the people assembled at the Feast of Pentecost. The people had seen the Spirit fall upon the 120 in the Upper Room. They did not know what to make of the experience. Some thought they were drunk on grape juice. Peter addresses the mockers directly and gives them the proper interpretation of what they had seen. It had come from God who had prophesied of the day hundreds of years before in the Book of Joel. This was a proper thing to confront. We should never let the world define the church because they will always get it wrong. The world mocks the church. It is distressing to see how eagerly the church has been to accept such labels. We think of “Methodists,” “Holy-Rollers,” “Lutherans (followers of the ‘heretic’ Luther rather than the “true church” of Rome,” and other such terms of derision. We try to baptize these words of contempt into badges of honor. But the church has the task of clearly telling the world who we are.
Having dealt with properly defining the phenomena, Peter shifts to the message to which Pentecost was a sign and proof. Peter does not go and say something like “This experience is wonderful, and we want you to have it too.” He centers in on the person of Jesus. The Book of Acts begins with the words that the first work, Luke, was the beginning of what Jesus did and taught. This implies that the church is to continue in what Jesus had started. We are to tell the world what Jesus did and taught. In addition, we tell the world why Jesus did what He did and taught what He taught. This goes from His birth, His life, His teaching, His miracles, His rejection, His crucifixion for our sin, His resurrection, His ascension, and his return. And Peter’s sermon on Pentecost addresses all of these events and explains God’s purpose for their happening.
After a polite address of the listeners as fellow men and Israelites, Peter gets to the crux of the matter. He presents Jesus of Nazareth to them. He tells them that He was a man approved by God. The proof of this was the signs, wonders and miracles that He performed in the public sight. The Apostles were not the only witnesses to these events either. The phenomena of Pentecost also approved Jesus as well as the Apostles whom Jesus had commissioned to be His witnesses. These events are grounded in the Scripture which we today call the “Old Testament.”