“God isn’t beholden to the majority! Heaven doesn’t stand and wait until 51 percent of the church is ready to move!”
I sat in the shadowed recesses of my first pastoral office, behind the makeshift desk made from a stained lumberyard door. A fake-brass 1960s gooseneck lamp illuminated my aging Selectric typewriter.
Late on a Thursday night, I was pondering the audacity of the lines I had just written—measuring them against the two tiny congregations to whom I would preach in 36 hours. These were saints accustomed to strong, inspiring words. Their previous pastors had included Mark Finley, Russell Burrill, and Ron Halvorsen, among other Adventist luminaries.
And yet the darkness hadn’t receded much. Decades after their organization, both congregations struggled to gather 35 souls on a pleasant Sabbath morning. Tucked into the tangle of small towns, deep woods, and mostly untillable land between Hartford and Worcester, Springfield and Providence, these congregations and these believers were little like the confident, self-assured churches in which I had grown up on Adventist campuses.
The struggle to continue to believe was apparent on their upturned faces every Sabbath morning. Half were “spiritual widows”—godly women whose husbands never joined them for worship. Another 25 percent were children and teens awaiting their chance to move toward things upscale—in houses, jobs, and yes, churches. Only a handful of intact “nuclear families” dotted the two congregations.
My sentences were studded with the language of obligation: “should,” “ought,” and “must.”
Whom was I trying to persuade with my exclamation points? Myself?
The Adventism I had inherited in those large and well-lit sanctuaries had made it seem that everything that needed to be accomplished could be achieved through the diligent application of well-planned effort. Though the double-barreled dictum of the fourth-century bishop Augustine never showed up in the church bulletins of my childhood, it was infused in every line: “Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you.” And there was no lingering doubt about which of those two activities was more important.
My world was saturated with Adventist nouns: “effort,” “risk,” and “faith.” My sentences were studded with the language of obligation: “should,” “ought,” and “must.” I prayed only until my impatience with sitting still made me bolt from my hand-me-down office chair and go out there to draw visitation maps, drive many miles, and, metaphorically at least, “rally the troops.”
Missing was an adequate theology of grace and prayer, and of the holy boldness that ultimately derives better from 40 hours of open-hearted praying than 4,000 miles a month on the Subaru odometer. The time not spent in prayer will always be 100 times more taxing, and rarely reaches either heaven’s goals or ours.
The source of the remnant church’s needed courage and risk-taking in these last days won’t be the strategic brilliance of its well-planned initiatives or the tireless investments of its leaders, members, pastors, and evangelists. “For thus says the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel: ‘In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and confidence shall be your strength’” (Isa. 30:15, KJV).
Unless the gospel—with its undying declaration of the unmatched power and grace of Jesus—suffuses all our doing, we will exhaust wave after wave of us-inspired armies to attack the barricades of secularism and unbelief and thus “wear out the saints.” Good praying—long, earnest humility before a God who declares that nothing can hinder Him from saving “by many or by few” (1 Sam. 14:6)—will help us find the new methods, the innovative strategies—the five smooth stones—that ultimately bring the giants tumbling down.
The church I want to belong to is . . . prayerfully courageous.