The pendulum swings back and forth so rapidly in our days that you may not have noticed that insignificant is in. Church size still lands pastors book deals and conference platforms. Youthful boasting of plans to fix the world catch the media's attention. But the pushback has been strong, and not just from Christian leaders who toil in obscurity. Rather, some of the most prominent evangelical voices have raised concerns about our penchant for regarding bigger and newer as better.
Christianity Today senior managing editor Mark Galli launched one salvo with a column, "Insignificant Is Beautiful." He observed that Generation Y aspires to serve the cause of social justice and change the world. They want to be significant, to be remembered for cleaning up the environment, ending sex trafficking, eradicating HIV-AIDS, and much more. These are good and godly aims. But how do we know, Galli asks, whether this yearning is something more than "ego masked as altruism"? Might compassion masquerade as narcissism? It does if we talk a big game about changing the world but can't love our neighbors and take responsibility for what and who is right in front of us. Galli writes:
I have a good friend who has been caring for his elderly mother. She sits in a wheelchair, complains a lot, and requires constant attention—to the point of cleaning her up after regular bouts of diarrhea. What my friend and his wife are doing is heroic, virtue with a capital V. But it is hard to see how it is "world changing" as we normally think about such things. Such an act doesn't even change the mother's life, only makes it less miserable. It's not even "significant," by our usual calculation, but "merely" an act of love.
Galli has company in his concern. Writing earlier this year on "The Glory of Plodding." Kevin DeYoung said: "What we need are fewer revolutionaries and a few more plodding visionaries." Bono is a generational hero committed to healing the world but not so committed to serving the local church. Maybe Bono isn't the best role model, DeYoung suggests.
With all due respect, what's harder: to be an idolized rock star who travels around the world touting good causes and chiding governments for their lack of foreign aid, or to be a line worker at GM with four kids and a mortgage, who tithes to his church, sings in the choir every week, serves on the school board, and supports a Christian relief agency and a few missionaries from his disposable income?
DeYoung wonders whether young Christians are tired of the church because they haven't learned to be ordinary, to be part of the crowd. They don't yet realize life is characterized by routine. Marriage, parenting, church service, and work take discipline. And discipline isn't a valued virtue today. We honor the revolutionaries. But they mislead us unless they lead us to love the same old gospel message and the same old people in our families, neighborhoods, and churches.
Let me add my amen to the chorus of thousands who have already commended these writers for bucking contemporary fashion. They remind me of how Fyodor Dostoevsky criticized Russian revolutionaries in the 19th century. It's easy to love humanity in the abstract, Dostoevsky wrote through his character Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov. But at close quarters, it's nearly impossible to love our neighbors. In fact, these revolutionaries who profess such great love for humanity actually burn out and turn against their neighbors when the world does not change. So they fail to do Jesus what Jesus has commanded (Matt. 19:19; 22:39).
I feel somewhat conflicted, though, when I try to temper youthful expectations. After all, I've recently co-authored A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories That Stretch and Stir. Historian John Woodbridge and I didn't write the book for those who are comfortable with the status quo. We trust that the Holy Spirit is nudging Christians to ask God for revival in their communities, nations, and the world. We believe that after reading about ways the Lord has awakened his church in the past, Christians today will see ways they have been satiated by small things and lost the taste for the big things. Because Jesus is Lord, everything changes. Our timeworn routines should not satisfy. God calls us to responsibility in these routines, to be sure. But they can also become hindrances to faith when they block us from considering what God can do in his glorious might. After all, God created the heavens and the earth! Surely he can revive our churches to glory in the gospel, to behold his beauty, and to tell of his works so that our neighbors might believe.
Oddly, it was someone who didn't see large-scale revival who taught me to pray this way. Martyn Lloyd-Jones read about revival, taught about it, advocated for it, and prayed fervently to see it during his tenure as pastor of London's Westminster Chapel from 1938 to 1968. He said:
I do not understand Christian people who are not thrilled by the whole idea of revival. If there is one respect in which God confounds the wisdom of the wise more than in any other it is revival.
Yet for all his prayerful enthusiasm for revival, this Welshman never saw it in England. In fact, revivals continued to lose their esteem among Christians during Lloyd-Jones's lifetime, a process that continues today. He found Christians willing to convene committees and organize campaigns to reform church theology and practice. But they wouldn't pray for revival. I've found much the same in my brief history of studying and writing on the subject.
So why bother listening to Lloyd-Jones? Why bother reading about the revivals that touched America, East Africa, China, Korea, India, and elsewhere? Why bother asking for something we haven't seen and so often misunderstand? Why not find contentment in our routines? Because like Lloyd-Jones, our vision of God expands when we ask him to bless his church with revival like we read about in the Old and New Testaments. It helps us strike the right balance between pleading for God to do what only he can do and striving in the meantime to bolster the church as faithful ministers of the gospel. Hope for the spectacular need not lead us to neglect gradual gains. But the modern crisis demands a God-sized response. Lloyd-Jones said:
We persist in thinking that we can set the situation right. We start a new society, we write a book, we organize a campaign, and we are convinced that we are going to hold back the tide. But we cannot. When the enemy comes in like a flood, it is the Lord who will raise, and does raise the banner. The fact of revival proves, I say, so clearly again and again the impotence and smallness of man left to himself.
Once again, I commend those Christian leaders who call us to responsibility in our everyday routines. They have identified the narcissistic discontentment that plagues us, especially in youth. Our churches will be better places if they swell with plodding visionaries who understand that insignificant is beautiful. And they will be better places, too, if those believers ask the Lord to bless his people with an even greater sense of his grace and love that will overflow into our communities.
Collin Hansen serves as editorial director for The Gospel Coalition. He is the co-author of A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories That Stretch and Stir.
This article first appeared at thegospelcoalition.org.
The Gospel Coalition's 2011 national conference will be held in downtown Chicago from April 12 to 14.