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Reigniting our churches

Sam Allberry | September 2nd 2021

“We play with live ammo around here.”

OK, so it’s a line from the TV political drama, The West Wing. A new advisor to the White House has made some suggestions to a senior staffer, who has in turn passed them on to the Chief of Staff, who has then passed them on to the President, who has then used them that very day in a new policy announcement. The advisor is stunned that some thoughts she had voiced almost innocuously are now driving what is coming out of the Oval Office. But, as the senior staffer says, they use live ammo. They don’t have time for the theoretical.

We need to sound something of the same note in our churches. We’re in the business of talking not about policy choices, but the God of heaven and earth. We’re not dealing with hypothetical truths, but actual, life-changing realities. The gospel is not just a really good idea. This stuff is real. 

At least, it should be.

"The repeated feedback I keep hearing from so many is that things feel dry. Sermons are warm but predictable. The text is handled faithfully, but there’s often a lack of connection with real life."

In the past couple of years, I’ve spent more time out of my home country than in it. Each time I come back, I try to take something of the spiritual temperature among my friends and their churches. A small and likely atypical sampling, for sure. But there has been a consistent trend over the past few years. 

Many, if not most, of my friends are at churches regarded as being among the best in the country for Bible teaching. But the repeated feedback I keep hearing from so many is that things feel dry. Sermons are warm but predictable. The text is handled faithfully, but there’s often a lack of connection with real life. There’s little sense of spiritual reality. Imagine the White House staffers diligently discussing matters of national policy, all the while not really believing in the power of the President or the Oval Office to enact any real change. I fear many of our churches are starting to resemble this. 

There will be many reasons for all this, but I’m confident that one cause is that we have forgotten what truth is for. It is too easy to slip into the mentality that God’s truth is there to be dissected, considered, understood, but not really anything beyond that. Now, we must never neglect God’s truth. But that’s the point. It is God’s truth. And yet too often our churches feel like a reading comprehension class back in high school.

There are other errors to fall into, to be sure. I’ve been to churches where there was a huge focus on spiritual experience but little attention to Scripture; a high view of the reality of God but little regard for paying close attention to the biblical text.

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Knowing God truly, experiencing Him deeply.

But is that really the only choice we have? Spiritual reality that’s unguided by God’s word, or exegetical correctness without a sense that God really is for us? Spiritual experience that has little to do with the Bible, or biblical teaching that has little to do with experience?

We must not think so. The word of God comes to us in the power of the Spirit to set our hearts ablaze for Christ. As the disciples who met the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus put it:

"Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” (Luke 24:32)

Some, too wary of shallow spiritual experience have opted for virtually none at all. I’ll never forget one pastor reading through Psalm 150, and when he got to “Praise him with tambourine and dance” added, “if you must.” Clearly, we’re above anything so obviously expressive around here. At the time I rolled my eyes. I wonder if instead I should have challenged him to leave the pulpit. Sometimes we are so concerned with emotional self-control that we prefer no emotion to healthy emotion. But C. S. Lewis warned us long ago that, “A hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.”

What we need is a reminder of what truth is meant to do in our lives –– nothing less than kindle an ever-growing affection for Jesus Christ. A real God is behind these truths. His word is not meant to be a hobby. Gospel truths are not meant to simply hang in the air like nice ideas that never finally make it down to the ground where we actually live. 

It is why I’m excited to commend Adam Ramsey’s excellent new book, Truth on Fire: Gazing at God Until Your Heart Sings. We need this fresh reminder that truth and worship go together. We’re to love God with both head and heart. We’re not to skimp on reflecting deeply and carefully on what the Scripture says; we’re to not stop doing so until our hearts are finding fresh gladness in Jesus.

I’ll give Adam the final word: "Our end goal is to not merely fill our minds with true knowledge about God but for that knowledge to reshape our hearts."

Sam Allberry

Sam studied theology at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford and has served on staff at St Ebbe's Church, Oxford, and St Mary's, Maidenhead. He is now based at Immanuel Church, Nashville. A popular conference speaker, Sam has written several books, including What God Has To Say About Our Bodies, Why Does God Care Who I Sleep With?, and 7 Myths About Singleness.

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