Restoring Spiritual Health to Your Church
by Dudley Foord
Interact Magazine 1991
Volume 2 Number 1
1. The Problem We Face
I wish to throw down the gauntlet that many of our churches are spiritually weak, superficial, self-indulgent and moulded by our culture. Christian attitudes towards use of money, priorities of time, work and leisure, divorce and remarriage, increasingly reflect our culture rather than Biblical teaching.
We live in a secular world where man, not God, is the measure of all things. Our culture, therefore, seems to discourage prayer. We are surrounded by every type of gadget, appliance and a vast catalogue of technological achievements which spawn great thoughts of man and leave room for small thoughts of God.
In general terms our churches, embedded in this secular culture, are in spiritual decline and suffer spiritual health problems. We are conformed to the world’s ways, unwittingly adopting its idolatries. Prediction and planning have taken over from the apostolic pattern of calling upon God in prayer. We have been hijacked by activism and pragmatism. In this respect James Packer comments, ‘But I urge most emphatically that the renewal of the church is in essence a spiritual and supernatural matter, a working of the Holy Spirit enriching our fellowship with the Father and the Son, and it takes more than clever social engineering to bring it about.’ What little praying does exist in our churches seems to be somewhat superficial, and lacks the character of the prayers recorded in the Bible.
Other well-known Christian leaders have expressed similar concern. Martyn Lloyd-Jones declared: ‘the spiritual situation has deteriorated rather than improved. I am convinced that nothing can avail but churches and ministers on their knees in total dependence on God.’ He continues: ‘to me the missing note in modern evangelicalism is godliness, or what was once called spirituality. We evangelicals are too smug, too self-satisfied. The notion of being humbled under the mighty hand of God has gone. Today a vague sentimentality has replaced deep emotion, there is little fear of the Lord.’ Dr. John Stott also commented that ‘we need revival, a mighty supernatural visitation of the Holy Spirit in the community. Nothing else will save our church from its spiritual torpor.’
The writings of Peter Kaldor and the statistical surveys of the Joint Churches’ Census indicate an alarming decline in church attendance. John Smith writing in ‘Advance Australia Where?’ bemoans a delinquent Australian church and says, ‘We will have to make some savage changes to our church agenda … our evangelism is usually uninspiring, unimaginative and unsuccessful.’
Let me overstate the case to make a point. Let’s imagine we are comfortably seated in a jetliner which suddenly loses altitude when three of its four engines cut out. The pilot advises that collision with the ground is 15 minutes away. In that crisis situation only one thing matters – how to start the engines.
If the pilot is successful in restarting the engines, then other issues can be explored, eg better inflight service, faster baggage delivery and cheaper fares. But in the crisis situation only one concern remains: how to correct the engine failure, how to regain power.
Spiritual health and vitality have been withering away in our churches almost imperceptibly and only a Sovereign, God-given spiritual awakening can bring back the fullness of Christ and spiritual health.
Jonathon Edwards exercised a powerful ministry in North America 200 years ago. Under God, he was instrumental in remarkable movements of the Spirit of God that have become quite famous and are well documented. Edwards maintained that it is God’s will that the prayers of His people should be the great and principal means of carrying on the designs of Christ’s kingdom. In this, Christians have a positive duty to pray for a spiritual awakening. In a thought-provoking passage he said, ‘If we look through the whole Bible and observe the examples of prayer that we find there recorded, we shall not find so many prayers for any other mercy, as for the deliverance, restoration and prosperity of the church and the advancement of God’s glory and kingdom … the greatest part of the Book of psalms is made up of prayers for this mercy …’
It is part of the function of leadership in a local church to model and mobilise Christians to pray for a spiritual awakening. An effective prayer life is not an option for the leaders – its omission is unthinkable. Only those who have grasped the Biblical importance of prayer should exercise the prerogatives of leadership over God’s people. Paul, aware of the importance of prayer and of his own need, wrote ‘as you help us by your prayers’ (2 Cor.1:11) ‘pray also for me’ (Eph.6:19).
Bonhoeffer believed that ‘the first condition which makes it possible for an individual to pray for the group, is the intercession of all the others for him and his prayer. How could one person pray the prayer of fellowship without being steadied and upheld in prayer by the fellowship itself?’
Russell Shead in concluding a Paper on Prayer and Leadership writes: ‘Prayer is the most important element of the Christian life, the nerve centre of our fellowship with Jesus, in conjunction with the serious reading of Scripture. But if prayer has declined to the level of mere lip-labour, disaster can be averted only if God in grace visits His church with a divinely-instilled longing for reality. Leaders, we conclude, will best fulfil their ministry if they pray much and succeed in mobilising those over whom they exercise authority to sustain them in prayer.’
Henry Martyn movingly expressed such an ambition: ‘After all, whatever God may appoint, prayer is the great thing. Oh, that I may be a man of prayer.’ But where, we repeat, are such prayer warriors today? And where have the prayer meetings gone?
It is hard to escape the conclusion of Don Carson that today Christians in the West are found to be prayerless. In stark contrast, the prayer dynamic of the Korean churches is impressive. Observers lament that the Australian churches know little of the discipline of prayer. For 365 days a year Korean churches meet for pre-dawn prayer. This, therefore, is a clarion call to Christians in each local church to gather for prayer that God will awaken and restore spiritual life in our congregations.
Rev Dudley Foord is an Anglican minister engaged in a church planting and establishing ministry in South West Sydney and is also a parish consultant for the Anglican Diocese of Sydney, Department of Evangelism.
© Rev Dudley Foord (1 March 1991)