Quenching the Fire in the Free Church – (This months editorial from the Record – you can purchase your copy of the magazine from your local Free Church or the Free Church offices/bookshop).
We all know to a greater or lesser degree the danger and power of fire. Some of us have been literally burned; others have watched in horror as homes and possessions have gone up in flames. The recent disaster at Grenfell Tower elicited such sympathy, support and anger because all of us shuddered at the prospect of being caught in a towering inferno. It may make a nice movie but the reality is beyond contemplation.
Which is why the imagery of fire often used in the Bible sometimes leaves us feeling very uncomfortable – especially when it is associated with God. We want our God to be cuddly, and its kind of hard to cuddle a consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4:24)!
As I survey the church scene in Scotland today I see a desperate need for the church to rediscover the fire of God. In this article I am not going to comment on other churches (those of our readers who come from other backgrounds are of course welcome and I hope you can learn from our weaknesses and strengths as well) – my burden is for the Free Church on this issue. Far too often we are not on fire, but rather are like a wet blanket. Sometimes you go into church meetings and, rather than ignite, they pour cold foam on any lingering spiritual flame you may have had. Some worship services are like that. We come into the presence of the living, holy, joyful God, before whom even the angels veil their faces, and it appears as though we are totally unmoved – the ultimate in spiritual cold.
The Danger of Professionalism
So many middle-class evangelical services that I hear broadcast are professional, polished, produced affairs – and as dry as dust. Being an occasional watcher of GodTV I know of course there is a danger of false fire, and that the wind and smoke of noise does not equal fire – and that there is nothing inherently wrong with being professional. But it seems to me that there is a spiritual version of political correctness that may extinguish and quench the Holy Spirit. In the Free Church we face the danger that we could fall into a ‘professionalism of worship’ which is very nice and appeals to people – but ends up worshipping a God who is not there.
Often I find that church meetings, discussions or decision-making times are infected by what I can only call a fire-killer. It’s as though some people believe their mission is to be a fire extinguisher in the House of the Lord. The glass is always half-empty and potentially 100% empty. They see a problem in every opportunity. They are so scared of change. Most people have the sense not to express that – they just ignore any enthusiasm for change.
An American pastor once visited our General Assembly and remarked to me afterwards how much he loved it and especially the part where someone had stood up and made an impassioned plea for change. In his own denomination this would have led to lots of argument. In this Assembly he was amused that commissioners stamped their feet (this is much more Presbyterian than clapping) in approval and then just promptly ignored the proposals. The late great Douglas MacMillan once gave me a piece of advice – ‘Don’t speak at your first Assembly.’ When I disobeyed and ended up proposing a programme of church planting which was accepted, he came up to me afterwards and said, ‘Well done, but you do realise that no-one will do it.’ I thought it was a touch cynical but he turned out to be a prophet.
I was in a church meeting once when we were told about a major change being proposed in that congregation. ‘But we are comfortable with the way we are – why should we change?’ I appreciated the honesty, but the spirit was all wrong. Is it not the case that churches will talk a great deal about radical Christianity and yet, when given the opportunity to practice it, rarely do so?
Is the Free Church getting too comfortable?
We have many things to be encouraged by. We are one of the few denominations that are growing: new churches are being planted, new people are coming in, Edinburgh Theological Seminary is filling up nicely, finances are stable and various new initiatives seem to be getting on. We didn’t split, despite the numerous dire warnings, after we changed our position on what was permitted in public praise. Compared to where we were in the dark days of the 1990’s the Free Church seems like a renewed and revitalised denomination. And to some extent it is.
But when you start from a low base, which relies on its glorious past, it is too easy to take any positive growth as a sign that everything has been restored and to forget how far you have fallen. When I come to St Peter’s in 1992, there was a literal handful of people meeting in a building that could seat 900. Within a couple of years we had risen to 40 and the people were really encouraged. But a stranger coming in would have a very different perspective – not knowing from whence we had come, they would only have seen a small group of people in a building designed to hold many, many more. And in a sense their perspective was the more accurate one. The handful of people meeting in St Peter’s knew about McCheyne but had to all practical intents and purposes forgotten the revival, renewal, church planting, social action and evangelism that the first 25 years of the church had seen. When viewed from the perspective of seven people meeting in a dank hall, 40 people was revival! When viewed from the perspective of 1,000 people crammed into the building Sunday after Sunday (and many weeknights too), 40 people is Ichabod. When we view things from the former perspective we tend to breathe a sign of relief, pull up the drawbridge and enjoy our comfortable life. When we view it from the latter we have a sense of eternity and a desire to see God glorified, not in nice comfortable churches that suit our lifestyles, but rather in the dead being brought to life! We want to see the ‘greater works’ that Jesus promised.
I wonder where we are in the Free Church today? Are we happy that ETS is now relatively full and we have enough ministers to fill our congregations? Does it not bother us that to reach the people of Scotland we need hundreds of new churches, thousands of evangelists and tens of thousands of new Christians? Oh – but remember how bad things were 25 years ago. Indeed, do so and be thankful for the sign of any small shower. But we need to look back beyond that. We need to remember what God did through our ancestors in the 1840’s. The hundreds of churches, schools and manses that were built. The passion for mission both home and abroad. The fiery zeal for social justice – whether supporting the Highland people in the Clearances or feeding the starving during the potato famine through purchasing grain from Russia or Thomas Guthrie’s Ragged Schools educating tens of thousands of the poor. The Lord has stopped us falling over the cliff, and even enabled us to turn around – but lest any of us are tempted to think that we have arrived – we have only just begun.
We need to see the Fire of God
We need to see our God as the consuming fire who in his holiness and glory is going to consume all that is evil, wrong and worthless. We need to remember the Jesus whose eyes are like burning fire (Revelation 2:18). I have my doubts about the worth of computer programmes which monitor the Christian’s online viewing habits in order to provide some kind of check and disincentive. If I am not aware that I am at all times in the presence of ‘the God who sees me’ (Genesis 16:13), then I am in deep spiritual trouble, whether I watch online pornography or not! We need a deeper awareness of the holiness and awesomeness of our triune God.
We need the Fire in our own hearts to be kindled
Lev. 6:12 The fire on the altar must be kept burning; it must not go out. Every morning the priest is to add firewood and arrange the burnt offering on the fire and burn the fat of the fellowship offerings on it.
The fire on the altar must be kept burning. Actually you can’t keep something burning that has never been on fire. Throwing logs on a log fire is no use if the fire is not lit. Pascal speaks of an experience he had in 1654.
GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacob
not of the philosophers and of the learned.
Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.
GOD of Jesus Christ.
My God and your God.
Your GOD will be my God.
Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except GOD.
He is only found by the ways taught in the Gospel.
Grandeur of the human soul.
Righteous Father, the world has not known you, but I have known you.
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
I have departed from him:
They have forsaken me, the fount of living water.
My God, will you leave me?
Let me not be separated from him forever.
This is eternal life, that they know you, the one true God, and the one that you sent, Jesus Christ.
I left him; I fled him, renounced, crucified.
Let me never be separated from him.
He is only kept securely by the ways taught in the Gospel:
Renunciation, total and sweet.
Complete submission to Jesus Christ and to my director.
Eternally in joy for a day’s exercise on the earth.
May I not forget your words. Amen.
When Paul commands us not to quench the Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19), he precedes it by an exhortation to rejoice and pray always. Perhaps the reason we are in danger of quenching the Spirit is because we have forgotten the joy of the Lord and instead become a complaining, fearful people. Perhaps most of all, we haven’t a clue what it means to pray continually. It’s time for repentance to begin with us.
Rev. 3:18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness, and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.