We live in a great country, a country where almost any person can grow up to become the president, a country that still attracts thousands of new people every year, a country that provides an opportunity for everyone to succeed.
America is a great country. It is not a perfect country, for we still have racism among us, we still have prejudice, we still have poverty. With all these problems, America is still such a great country that if we would open the doors of our country, people would come in by the thousands.
One of the greatest freedoms people enjoy in this great country is the freedom to worship God anywhere, any day, in any manner one chooses. However, things are changing. More and more our country is becoming neutral to religion. More and more those who are religious are becoming the object of ridicule. In many places, God is not welcome anymore. In the name of tolerance, many places do not allow people to talk about religion or discuss issues related to faith.
George Barna wrote that America is becoming a society ruled by moral anarchy. According to him, this moral anarchy can be seen in the attitude and behavior of Americans. As examples, he cites the rapid growth of the pornography industry, violation of speeding laws as the norm, rampant cheating on income tax, identity theft, rising levels of crime, lying and cheating as a way of life, increasing rates of cohabitation, adultery, and other practices that until a few years ago were considered forbidden behavior.
The Christian Church is struggling to influence the nation’s culture because believers have taken a view that there is little they can do to change these trends. This loss of influence comes because believers live in a “me” society. Christians think of themselves as individuals first, Americans second, and Christians third. Because the church has refused to take seriously the cause of Christ in society, the church will continue to lose influence, and biblical principles will become one more option among the numerous options from which Americans may choose.
I suggest that our nation is now in a state of spiritual anarchy as well. Bob Webber, Professor of Worship and Spirituality and my colleague at Northern Seminary, wrote in one of his books that Christians today are living in a neo-pagan society. Worse yet, many church members have accepted the tenets of this neo-pagan culture and as a result, their commitment to the claims of the Gospel does not include the transformation of society. The result is that church loyalty, respect for the ministry, acceptance of absolutes, tolerance of Christianity, reverence for God, a desire to strive for personal holiness have become old fashioned in society and even inside the church.
The rejection of biblical values has created a void that must be filled by something else. Many people in our society have taken God out of their lives. They have substituted God for things that cannot satisfy their spiritual cravings. They removed God and replaced him with empty religious practices that are not biblical. They removed the Word of God and replaced it with the words of false prophets who only deceive. The result is that today there is a generation of Americans who do not have much knowledge of God, no knowledge of the Bible, and little concern for spiritual matters.
Can the church change all this? I asked my students whether they believed the church could make a positive impact on the world with the Gospel of Christ? All of them said it could. If this is true, why then is the church not impacting American culture with the Gospel of Christ?
The only way for the church to impact our culture is by returning to the vision Jesus gave to his disciples and to the New Testament church. The church today must accept anew the challenge of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20).
Jesus told his disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations.” The problem today is that few Christians are willing to go and make disciples. It is easier to stay at home and let the preacher do the work of evangelism. Many church members forget that believers must be Christians in the world, even when it is tough being a Christian in the world. It is easy being a Christian inside the church, a place where everyone accepts faith and spiritual values. However, as long as believers are satisfied with being believers inside the four walls of the church building, the world will never be confronted with the claims of the Gospel of Christ. In order to make a difference in the world, you and I must go! We must go! Jesus said: “As the Father sent me, so send I you” (John 20:21). Because we are a sent people, we must go.
Go, and do what? Jesus said: “Make disciples.” Making disciples in the world is the mission of the church. As followers of Jesus Christ, we must make disciples. Jesus did not call his disciples to make church members. Any person can become a church member. Becoming a church member is the easiest thing in the world.
Jesus commanded his disciples to make more disciples. That is what Jesus wants: more disciples. A disciple is a student, one who learns from Jesus. However, people today do not want to become disciples. Being a disciple of Jesus is hard. Discipleship demands time, it requires sacrifice. Jesus said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters–yes, even his own life–he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26-27).
To hate does not mean to be angry with someone or to have ill feelings toward another person. It means to make a choice – it is loving or not loving. To be a disciple of Jesus means to love Jesus more than one loves family, to love him more than one loves oneself.
To be a disciple of Jesus is to take his cross. Many people today do not want to take the cross of Christ. This is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book The Cost of Discipleship (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1959), p. 36, called “cheap grace.” “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” When one takes the cross of Christ, one is called to suffer with him, one is called to make sacrifices for him, one is called to die with Jesus on that cross. As Bonhoeffer wrote: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” (p. 79). To die on the cross is to die for others. Jesus demonstrated this truth when he died on the cross to save others.
Believers must be willing to die on that cross if they are to make a difference in the world. Jesus said: “In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33). This is the reason some people refuse to be followers of Jesus. They do not want to give up anything for the sake of Christ. Some people want the glory but not the crown of shame. They want to enjoy life, not to die on a cross. They want to get more, not to give up everything. However, this is precisely what Jesus wants. Jesus wants disciples, faithful disciples, men and women who are willing to follow Jesus, wherever he leads. Jesus wants disciples who are willing to sanctify themselves for the sake of an unbelieving generation. Jesus wants men and women who are willing to accept the mission bestowed on them, people who are not willing to fail in carrying out that mission.
Jesus also commanded his disciples to teach the new disciples to obey everything he commanded them. If the church is to make a difference in the world, it is because believers are willing to become teachers. “Teach them to obey.” The disciples of Jesus are obedient people. They obey the laws of God and the laws of men. If believers are going to teach people to obey the laws of God and men, they also must obey them. Obedience begins at home. Jesus told his disciples to teach the new disciples to obey “everything I have commanded.” Everything. People cannot choose what to obey and what not to obey. True believers discover God’s will for their lives and follow it.
I believe the church can make an impact on our nation. I believe the church can make an impact on our world. The truth is with the church: the Word of God is truth. The power to change the world is with the church. “And you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.” The church has been authorized by Jesus himself: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations.”
One of my favorite verses in the New Testament is found in Acts 17:6: When Paul and Silas came to Thessalonica, the people there said: “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also.” Those early believers were turning the world upside down with the gospel of Christ. They were transforming the world with the good news of Jesus. Today, we cannot even shake the communities around our churches with the Gospel, much less turn it upside down. The Lord needs you; your church needs you; our nation needs you. Let us join hands in our common mission and together, let us transform the world for Christ.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary