What would you say is the most apt description of the Church today? Would you say it is on fire? Thriving? Turning the world upside down?
People often ask me, “What is the Church doing today in the world?” I usually reply: “Not a lot, in my humble opinion.” There are exceptions, mostly in developing countries and remote places. I also think of the amazing work of Alpha. But generally speaking I think we are living “between the times”, to use Richard Bewes’ phrase.
The famed preacher Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones often railed against the “superficial”. He would have probably used that word to describe today’s Church. AW Tozer wrote that if the Holy Spirit were completely withdrawn from the Church, “95 percent of what we do would go on and no one would know the difference”. More recently, theologian JI Packer has commented that America’s Bible Belt is “a thousand miles wide and one inch deep”.
If the parable of the ten virgins (Matthew 25:1-13) is eschatological – referring to the last days, as many Bible interpreters believe – we can easily see what our Lord would say about today’s Church. He’d say it’s asleep. Jesus said, “The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all [both the wise and foolish virgins] became drowsy and fell asleep” (v5).
The parable of the ten virgins is introduced by Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:1 “At that time” (NIV) or “Then” (ESV). That would refer to what Jesus has said in Matthew 24, surely a chapter that partly describes the last days. If that is true, the parable of the ten virgins is not only eschatological but prophetic: Jesus is telling us in advance what the Church would be like in the very last days. Most Bible interpreters would agree that the parable of the ten virgins in some sense refers to the Church. Five of them were wise, five of them were foolish. But all were asleep.
There are three characteristic of sleep:
1. You don’t know you were asleep until you wake up. We’ve all done this – to lie down for a moment to relax – only to find out we slept for a while!
2. You do things in your sleep you would not do if you were awake. Our dreams prove this. Whether such dreams are unexpressed fears or wishes, as Sigmund Freud might say, we do things when asleep we would not do if awake.
3. We hate the sound of an alarm. How would you like to be awakened at 2am? We resent being woken up. We want to sleep on.
But I believe the Lord intends to wake the Church up and that the next thing to happen on God’s calendar is the Midnight Cry: “At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’” (Matthew 25:6). This does not necessarily mean twelve midnight; the Greek literally means “in the middle of the night” – like 2am, when the Church would be in a deep sleep, metaphorically speaking.
A sleeping Church
Here are some signs we are asleep at the present time:
- The absence of conviction of sin
- A lack of the fear of God
- Little sense of outrage over the godlessness of society
- Watching pornography and feeling justified
- Avarice, greed and lack of financial integrity
- No sense of outrage over the Church’s lack of credibility in the world
- Little or no concern about people going to hell
- Little concern about the lack of knowledge of God’s word
- Indifference to the biblical view of marriage
- Indifference to holding grudges and unforgiveness
- Indifference to talking to people about Christ
- Tolerating heresies such as open theism and hyper-grace teaching
- Indifference to the teaching that the Bible is infallible
- Indifference to how much time is spent in prayer and quiet time
I believe that the parable of the ten virgins is very relevant at the present time. It depicts the Church today. We are asleep. We don’t realise it. We may sincerely believe we are wide awake when we are in fact asleep. I would even say: in a deep sleep – like at 2am. Furthermore, we don’t want to be disturbed.
The greatest evidence that we are asleep is our lack of outrage over what is tolerated in the Church and what is going on in the world. Not only are we indifferent to what is happening before our eyes, we have become so used to it that we are virtually impervious to it. The biblical view of marriage is on the way out. Terrorism is at our doors. Church attendance is declining more than ever. We are losing our young people. If someone calls things like this to our attention we say, “Oh yes. It’s pretty awful.” Then we roll over. Zzzzzzzz. “Let me sleep on.”
It's not too late
I believe the next thing to happen on God’s calendar is not the second coming of Jesus but the awakening of the Church before the second coming. It is when the word and Spirit ultimately come together as on the Day of Pentecost. The simultaneous combination of the word and Spirit resulted in spontaneous combustion. The next great move of God on the earth will be an awakening precipitated by a cry that will be so real and eventful that the event of 11th September 2001 will be insignificant by comparison. This awakening will begin in the Church. It will lead to millions of conversions, including many Muslims. The blindness of Israel will be lifted and many Jews will come to Christ. Then will come the second coming.
I would like to think that my book Prepare Your Heart for the Midnight Cry (SPCK) will be a mini wake-up call in advance of the big one. For when this Midnight Cry comes it will be too late for the foolish virgins to become wise. But it is not too late now.
There are three categories of people described or implied in the parable of the ten virgins: the wise virgins, the foolish virgins and Christians not asleep but who lead the way in waking up the Church that will result in the greatest revival in the world since the days of the early Church. These people will announce the soon coming of Christ and, incredible as it may seem to us now, the world will believe it!
Sixty years ago I had a vision of revival that went right around the world. It is what I have looked forward to all my life. The message, in short, was: Jesus is coming soon. And everybody believed it. People everywhere were shaken rigid. I am very aware that they don’t believe this now. They laugh at the thought. But no one will be laughing then. What is more – in my opinion – it is coming soon.
What should sadden us at the present moment, however, is that the world does not respect the Church. There is virtually no fear of God in the land.
When Jonathan Edwards preached his sermon ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ on 8th July 1741, the immediate fallout was that men held on to church pews and trees outside to keep from slipping into hell. God only did this once during the New England Great Awakening. But the power of it was so profound that word of that sermon and its immediate effect spread all over New England in days and all over England in weeks. For some reason God does this sort of thing rarely. But when he steps in like that the world is affected by it.
In 1802, in an area called Cane Ridge in Bourbon County, Kentucky a Methodist lay preacher stood on a fallen tree on a Sunday morning before 15,000 people, taking his text from 2 Corinthians 5:10 – “We must all stand before the judgment seat of Christ to give an account of things done in the body, whether good or bad”. As he spoke hundreds fell to the ground by the power of the Holy Spirit. It was the beginning of the camp meeting phenomena. The Great Awakening lasted for over 20 years. The Cane Ridge Revival lasted only four days.
Both of these phenomena brought about a fear of God that spread all over America for a good while. But who fears God today? Not many, I suspect. An awakened Church will help restore a fear of the Lord in the nations. No election will do it. No act of Parliament will do it. But God can do it. And I believe he will do it. Soon.
RT Kendall was the minister at Westminster Chapel, London from 1977-2002. His latest book Prepare Your Heart for the Midnight Cry (SPCK) is out now