I had the chance last week to speak at the Shepherds 360 Church Leaders Conference in Cary, NC to a group of pastors and church leaders on three unchanging truths for a "post-truth" world. Here are some of the highlights from that talk:
A post-Christian age is not a problem for God.
And while this may seem counterintuitive, in many ways post-Christianity is an advantage to the church, because it’s an opportunity to see what only the gospel can do.
In a “post-everything” world, we can no longer appeal to religious sensibilities. We can no longer market an improved version to people of what they already kind of believe in. In a morally confused, philosophically complex, theologically vacuous culture, we now get to see how much we’ve always needed the supernaturality of Christianity.
We minister in confusing times. Difficult days. Moral confusion. Gender confusion. Political division.
And the way the American Church has gone about trying to navigate the complexity and chaos has been combative or consumeristic. In this spiritually confused – often hostile when not ambivalent – post-everything world, the best thing the church can be is herself.
There are three things we can draw from Peter’s sermon in Acts 2:14-41 that the world will never be “post” – three unchanging truths in a changing world:
1) The World will Never be “Post” - The Saltiness of the Church
One of the very reasons God has ordained the gospel of Jesus to create a new covenant people is to provide to a divided, confused world, a living, breathing witness to the reality of his united, coherent kingdom. In other words, the church is meant to be a signpost to a lost world that the beauty and peace of heaven is true.
This is why the mission of the church begins with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit makes such a stark difference between the people of God and business as usual that it is non-ignorable by the outside world (Acts 2:13-15). The first outside observances to the witness of the church surmised they were drunk!
As the church is first formed through the good news of Jesus, the Holy Spirit descends and marks the believers with something like tongues of fire. And people who previously could not understand each other, suddenly did, “We can hear in our native language!”(Acts 2:7)
Pentecost becomes the great un-babeling of Babel (Gen 11). Where there was division and confusion, now there is unity and understanding. Where there was conflict between humans centered on themselves, now there was peace between humans who were centered on Christ.
The Holy Spirit makes a new humanity at Pentecost.
The repentance & baptism that Peter calls for in 2:38-41 amounts to going another way. It is counter-cultural. The church isn’t meant to reflect the culture back to itself, to offer a spiritualized version of itself back to it. That is a church that has lost its saltiness according to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:13).
What is God’s plan for combating the darkness of those who reject His counter-cultural mandate? The church. The church founded on Christ and working by the Holy Spirit is God’s hope for the world.
The church is God’s Plan A, and there is no Plan B.
No matter the state of the world, it will never be beyond the sanctifying, prophetic witness of the church centered on the gospel. Indeed, the Lord has ordained the experience of church not for smooth sailing in favorable winds and peaceful waters, but precisely for apparently insurmountable cultural moments like ours. “This corrupt generation” is not more powerful than a group of broken sinners who’ve decided to stop going their own way and in lowliness and meekness turn to the saving glory of the Lord. Even hell itself is no match for the salt and light of the church.
Do you convey that reality to your people? You should.
There should be no more victim mentality in the church. The Holy Spirit has poured himself out on us. Even should they kill us, we’ll only get stronger.
2) The World will Never be “Post” - The Sovereignty of God
The very fact that Peter is connecting the historical events of the moment to Old Testament prophecies is his way of saying “the Lord planned this.”
If we focus on the challenges and the complexities of ministry in a post-Christian age, the opportunity for discouragement arises, and even for despondency. But our God is Lord over every age! He says,
“I declare the end from the beginning, and from long ago what is not yet done, saying: my plan will take place, and I will do all my will. (Isa 46:10)”
Even the gospel message itself includes the truth that what often looks like defeat is a foreordained means of victory. Consider the cross of Christ where our King was tortured to death.
This cross is now the means of our salvation. When they nailed him to that cross, they thought they’d ended him. But they had unknowingly exalted him. They crowned him with thorns, unaware of the very majesty to which they were submitting. In the economy of the gospel, those jeers were blessings and that spear was a scepter. They made him little and crushed, not knowing he was buying the world!
They crucified him, not knowing that his death was victory. Where they brought darkness, he brought light. His shame bought our salvation. His blood brought our beauty. His body resurrected brought the bursting of the very shackles of death.
It was all part of the plan!
Our God is providentially guiding history to its appointed and anciently-ordained conclusion. This is true in the big epochs of global history. And it’s true in the daily ins and outs of your small corner of the ministry world.
So many pastors that I talk to seem to give the impression that their ministry is happening TO them. But I do whatever I can to help them see the sovereignty of God, that God has appointed them for these very moments. He has in fact put them on this collision course with their own inadequacy and insufficiency. And he stewarded this situation to them.
Leadership is not just about the easy days. Leadership is meant for the difficult days. You can have all the confidence and humility that comes with knowing God saw all of this coming. And he wanted you to be the one in your position when it did.
The Lord has made the church for this very season, this very age.
Sorting through the difficulties of gospel ministry in a post-everything world, you believe that Christ is the Messiah. Do you believe he’s Lord?
You may be overwhelmed and short-circuited by the challenges of your missional context, but the Lord isn’t. Acts 2:24 says not even death can hold him.
Let this world wander and wrangle. It cannot outrun the sovereign plan of the Lord our God.
3) The World will Never be “Post” - The Supernaturality of the Gospel
You will notice that this message is about a message. It’s a sermon on a sermon. And so Peter’s sermon at Pentecost is very helpful both in content and in form. Because it’s essentially an exposition of Joel chapter 2. Within that exposition, of course, he includes exposition of other prophetic passages (cf. Psalm 16:24-28 and Psalm 110:34-35).
Clearly, Peter believes expository preaching is the way to go. But it’s not just a running commentary on the text. That’s not Peter’s brand of exposition.
In his exposition of Joel and the Psalms, Peter is giving us a hermeneutic – a way of reading and preaching the Scriptures ourselves. He is showing us that a) the Scriptures are living and active, and b) the Scriptures’ central testimony is the powerful good news of Jesus Christ!
Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, full of the Spirit – whose role it is to shine the spotlight on Christ and make repentant sinners more and more like Christ – is designed to place the risen Christ at the center of the living Scriptures.
Peter knows the only power he has at his disposal is the Holy Spirit working through the foolish message of the cross. And, brothers and sisters, the Holy Spirit working through the message of the cross is the only power we have too.
The gospel is the only thing the New Testament calls power, in fact.
The post-everything world will not be transformed by inspirational proverbs, motivational speeches, or laws and commandments any more than anybody in any other age has been. The law cannot change a single heart. Similarly, your sermons with 7 practical steps cannot change a single heart.
Christianity is supernatural. We are not dealing with a life system, a religious code, a set of tips or instructions for more successful living and modified behavior. Because only the Gospel is power (Rom 1:16).
The good news of Jesus Christ is power outside of ourselves, in spite of ourselves, sourced in the Holy Spirit who is obliged and committed to furthering the glory of Jesus Christ through the proclamation of his life, death, and resurrection.
What our missional strategies and cultural philosophies could not do, the gospel of Jesus Christ could. Brothers and sisters, the gospel is the world’s only hope, and thus it is our only hope of changing the world.
No matter how far beyond Christian values or Christian thinking our age seems to get, it will never be beyond the power of the gospel.
This is why Paul says to the Corinthians, “I didn’t come to you in wisdom or eloquence. I resolved to know nothing among you but Christ and him crucified.” (1 Cor. 2:2)
The hope of glory is not a big church. The hope of glory is not a successful church. The hope of glory is Christ. And your little corner of the kingdom may not be going the way you have envisioned it to be, but Christ’s gospel will not return void. He will have his prize.
God’s plan may not be for your glory, but it is definitely for his own. The question is: Will that be enough for you? Are you content to trust the Holy Spirit working through the good news of Jesus Christ, to repent of your trusting in ministerial technique and pragmatic attraction, to, like Paul, know nothing among them but Christ and him crucified? If so, you will see where the real power is. Where the real glory is.
Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices. Moreover, my flesh will dwell in hope (Psalm 16:9)
He has made known the paths of life to us. Doesn’t that make your gladness full?
My full sermon at Shepherds 360 can be viewed at this link.