For Worn Out Worshippers
I’ve noticed something about American Christianity; everybody’s worn out. Part of it has to do with our high-paced non-stop social media fixation. Christians are as bad as anybody about using social media to bombard themselves with information. It’s easier to entertain ourselves on our news feed than it is to do the hard work of spiritual growth. Entertainment and thinking are increasingly separate enterprises.
But this doesn’t produce the good kind of tired. There’s a difference between tired from and tired of. If you take a look around, you’ll see a lot of tired of but not a lot of tired from. There are lots of good candidates for what we’re tired of; politics, arguments, disunity and chaos. But if we’re going to get a little bit more specific, many people are tired of Christianity being reduced to a voting block.
Then there’s the self-loathing from the ex-evangelical block, people who have left evangelicalism but spend their lives writing books, recording podcasts, and speaking at events about how much they despise their former tribe. I’m tired of the profiteering.
The word, Christian, and evangelical more specifically, has lost a lot of meaning in the last few years. The freshness has receded right out of the term, and now it’s a musty label instead of a vibrant proclamation. Almost everybody is tired of that.
In America, no one is a first generation Christian. No one has the luxury of starting from scratch in the church. The weight of history - positively or negatively - bears down on every congregation. While each person may begin a new life in Christ, we are all heirs of tradition, and subject to more than a little PR. You don’t get to choose other people’s perception of the church, but you do get to decide whether or not you’re going to try to change their mind.
The tendency when you’re tired of something is to withdraw from everything. Instead of identifying the blockage and addressing the problem or hitting the right pressure release valve, we’re more likely to shut the whole operation down. By doing this, though, we’ve succumbed to the very thing we’re tired of - lifelessness, to put it bluntly. It’s like traveling, you haven’t done anything all day but you’re exhausted.
The American church is missing its lifeblood and we need to get it back. The more I think about it though, the more convinced I’ve become that the answer won’t be found in a rehabilitation effort toward our nationwide reputation. If the past few years prove anything, it’s that manipulating the public image of Christianity, Inc. has probably done more harm than good. Changing our perspective at the lowest level, addressing the frustration and hope that we feel on the local level, in community, and among people who know us is the surest way to reorient ourselves away from what we’re tired of and toward something we can be tired from.
Sometimes you have to go somewhere new to reset your perspective. I’d like to suggest the book of Haggai.
You might think Haggai a random book to bring into this conversation. It’s not one we talk about very much - unless we’re talking about books we don’t talk about, and then Haggai comes up a lot. Chances are you haven’t studied Haggai, and unless you’ve been really faithful to your Bible reading plan, you may not have been within two books of it in years. On the surface, there’s not a lot to see.
These three final books of the OT are the closest we get to the first century before the New Testament. These are the stories of the ones who came back from the exile. They were the remnant, the heirs of the promises Isaiah and Jeremiah made about the future of Israel after they had been conquered.
We don’t know much about Haggai. Like many of the Old Testament prophets, he comes out of nowhere, and this itself is significant. The prophets came in the name of God, not their previous roles or accomplishments, not by virtue of their status in society, not by their appointed position. Haggai is completely unknown, foreign to the reader, in the same way that the Word of God had been foreign to the people of Israel in that generation. His two-page sermon bursts into the life of Israel as a much-needed work from God. One of the commentators put it so well, “We know only that he was a servant of God, and more than this is not needful for us, or it would have been revealed.”
The Holy Spirit isn’t usually credited with an overly large role in the OT, but in the books of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi he takes center stage. These three prophets are uniquely situated after the exile and before the work of restoration was complete. They were the ones who prophesied to people who had been beaten down in every conceivable way for two generations.
The book of Haggai reads more like a sermon than anything. The prophets address to the tired, discouraged nation moves from confrontation to exhortation and from rebuke to comfort. Haggai confronts the complacency of the Israelites in his first message. The Israelites moved back to Jerusalem and for the first two years, they struggled to rebuild their city and the temple. For the next fourteen, the temple sat in ruins, until Haggai came back to Jerusalem. His charge is simple: consider your ways.
Haggai knew his stuff. He refers to Jeremiah, Deuteronomy, Ezekiel, Leviticus, and Isaiah. The content of his message isn’t particularly new. Most of what we have in Haggai is a reminder.
It’s interesting what we choose to remember about the past. The people in Israel were discouraged when they began to rebuild the temple, because many of them remembered seeing and hearing about the temple in its former glory. They asked, “Is this even going to compare with the old one?” Their worship was being hindered by misplaced nostalgia. They lost sight of the fact the temple wasn’t nearly as important as the God who dwelled there.
It’s not unlike our own cultural nostalgia, whether it be for the Reagan years, the civil rights movement, or the Christian heyday of the 1950s. God doesn’t promise to bring back the past, he promises to be with us in the present.
In Jerusalem, excuses had become the norm; instead of building God’s house, the people built their own, and they went about their own business so that they didn’t have to do his. But Haggai makes one thing very clear. Although it looks like the people of Israel were cheating God, they were actually cheating themselves. The reason they were lethargic, dissatisfied, and lacking was because they were withholding their worship from God.
Haggai reminds us of a simple lesson: the remedy for worn out worshippers is worship. We need a renewed zeal for the name of the Lord. Our efforts in the public square will never amount to anything if we haven’t first made God’s name great in our own hearts.
It wasn’t until the Israelites put their excuses aside, refocused on God, and began to build together that they experienced the Spirit of God afresh in Jerusalem. We won’t find relief from our fatigue until we stop focusing on what we’re tired of and pour ourselves out in the service of God.
These three prophets show us that the Lord is always beginning something new. Malaise is a precondition for a new work of grace. Our job is to reorient, refocus, and return to what we’ve been called to do - love God with our whole hearts, worship him, make disciples, love our neighbors. Our national reputation will follow along.
Cole Feix is the founder of So We Speak and a regular writer. Follow him on Twitter, @cfeix7.
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