Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Human Innovation vs. Divine Intervention

[This entry follows a sermon called "Trust and Obey".  Click on the title to listen to the audio.]

Blogs are often used as a soap box of one kind or another.  In the subcategory of 'blogs written by Christians,' it is no different.  It's not unusual to find a man or woman railing against one thing or another in culture or even in the church.  Recently, I was interested to hear Tim Keller comment about being a scoffer.  I'm trying to quote from memory here, but he said something close to this: "The internet breeds scoffers...[because]...if you are a scoffer, you'll get more traffic to your blog."  This is so true, and I want to say, right up front, that I am my primary audience in today's blog.

I begin this way because I am going to write about the tendency to rely on human innovation verses divine intervention.  It would be ridiculous and wrong for me to say that all innovation is wrong.  For example, while reading this article, you could be in a different city, a different state, or a different nation.  You might be at home, at work (hopefully on some kind of break), or just out at a local wifi hot spot.  The innovation of the internet makes sharing information possible, and that's a good thing, generally speaking.  A blog like this being posted as soon as I hit "Publish Post" makes it possible to share worldwide, and that's a pretty fantastic thing when you think about the call to take the gospel to the world.  It's no substitute for actual, flesh-and-blood people moving to a different culture for the sake of the gospel, but the internet can be a great tool.  So, innovation, in and of itself, is not a bad thing...it is actually a great thing.

And...truth be told...innovation is not an innovative idea.  It's been around a while.  King Hezekiah led the people of Judah to look to the innovative military strength of Egypt rather than looking to God for their salvation from the Assyrians.  Our congregation studied this in Isaiah 30 on Sunday, and in fact, chapter 31 goes on to echo the same message.  Take a minute to pull out your Bible or just click and read Isaiah 31.  The clear problem is that the people are relying on Egypt when they should be relying on God.  The real folly of this strategy is exposed in verse 3: "The Egyptians are man, and not God, and their horses are flesh, and not spirit."  Can it get any clearer than that? 

Verse 4 goes on to say that God is like "a lion or a young lion [who] growls over his prey, and when a band of shepherds is called out against him is not terrified by their shouting or daunted by their noise."  Usually, the Scripture portrays God as a shepherd (e.g.- Psalm 23), but here, He is likened to a lion who can't be stopped from getting His prey.  Those for whom God fights have His tenacious and awesome power, which cannot be defeated, on their side.  They can truly say, "If God is for us, who can be against us?"  Yet, Hezekiah led his people in failure.  They trusted in the innovation of Egypt rather than the intervention of God.  It was a plan that was not God's plan (30:1), and for that reason, it would fail.

The same temptation which drew King Hezekiah into sinful failure does so to pastors and churches today.  Innovation, though not a bad thing, can tempt one to unbelief...believing that human innovation is a superior substitute to divine intervention.  The pressure is on a lot of pastors to produce numerical results.  Church leadership meetings are held where a pastor is told he must produce "x"% growth in attendance and "y" baptisms in "z" months or he may get the axe.  I know this from experience.  As a youth pastor in Florida, I was in meetings like this, I was evaluated based on these statistics, and I know the pressure it produces.  Even without external pressure, there is still internal pressure.  It might not be the same numbers-driven pressure, but there is a good and right desire to see more men and women saved and growing under the preaching of the gospel.  I long to see it in my own congregation!  However, the temptation, when one feels such pressure (externally or internally), is to turn to something fast...something that will 'produce'...maybe some innovative technique.

It is true that the church growth movement has produced scores of books that seem to feed this temptation rather than fight it.  One website I perused in thinking about this topic advertised a church growth system which promised to double the size of your congregation...it's been done in 90 days in other churches, and it can work for you!  In fact, to entice the well-meaning pastor to buy said program, the website asks the question, "How will you choose to be remembered by your present congregation?  Will you be remembered as someone who made it all happen?"  It turns my stomach to even type such things, and I hope it turns yours to read them.

After all, Isn't this what Hezekiah thought of Egypt's help?  The Egyptian army was the "it" that would keep Assyria off Judah's collective back...not God, Egypt...not spirit, flesh.  Today, "its" abound.  There is a program and a tool for just about anything in church ministry, and the truth is...they're not all bad.  For example, I've been trained in several different personal evangelism courses in my Christian life.  I learned the Romans Road early on...I picked up Evangelism Explosion in seminary...I learned the FAITH outline as a youth pastor in Florida.  Right now, our congregation is using Matthias Media's Two Ways to Live to help teach personal evangelism.  There's nothing wrong with any of these, per se...there's just nothing magical about them either.

Here's the sad fact...learning these evangelistic tools didn't make me more evangelistic personally.  None of the "its" worked, but it's not "its" problem...that's a mouthful!  "It" couldn't do what only God can do.  The only way lasting growth in personal evangelism has come in my life is as a result of the work of the Holy Spirit...most recently, God used a book on hell to grow me in this area!  The same is true for all programmatic approaches.  Given proper content and motivation, there's nothing wrong with a program...I'm not saying we should rid the world of every program.  What's wrong is when we think the program is the "it" that will really grow the church, will really make disciples, or will really bring the lost to Christ.

Think about this.  Having a desire to see men and women saved and growing in Christ is a biblical desire.  It's needed more than ever in the church...I need to continue growing in it.  So, with this good and right desire, what comes to mind when we think about what is needed for our congregation to see this happen?  Fill in the blank: "If only our church had/did ___________, then more people would be saved."  What would you put in that blank?  Was it the mighty work of the Holy Spirit?  If not, shouldn't it be?

I realize there is a danger in writing this kind of blog entry because some will swing the pendulum so far away from innovation that they will conclude it's all bad.  That's not the point.  The point isn't to rid the world of innovation...innovation will happen whether we want it to or not.  As I said, we can use human innovation to communicate the gospel to a culture immersed in it.  However, when we trust man's innovation to do what only God's intervention can do, then we've steered way off course.  Apart from God's intervention, all the innovation in the world will be useless...it is "Rahab the Do-Nothing" (30:7).