In the fast lane

Where did last week go? Last month? Last year? Do you find yourself asking questions like that? Doesn’t life seem to fly past, almost in a blur sometimes? No. it isn’t a sign of getting older – I refuse to believe that. Of course time is not passing any more quickly, but the truth is, almost everything that people do is getting faster, and the implications are wide ranging, not least for the Church and for Christian discipleship.

The trend is well summed up in the title of a recent book – The Great Acceleration. How the World is Getting Faster, Faster, by Robert Colvile. Colvile argues, on the basis of all kinds of studies, that the idea that life is speeding up is not just a perception but is hard fact. In the early 1990s investigators visited 31 cities and measured how long it took people (who were unaware that they were being observed) to cover 60 feet of unobstructed pavement. When the experiment was repeated 15 years later, it was found that people covered the same distance in around 10 per cent less time. They were literally going faster. That’s just a symptom of greater changes in society, but a very significant one.

With recent developments in technology people can get what they need faster and have come to expect that they will be able to do so. Who is willing to wait for a shop to order an item and be told that it will be there in a week? Virtually nobody. They will order online and become restless if delivery takes more than a couple of days. Speed is everything, and online retailers know it. A tenth of a second increase in the loading time of the Amazon website will cut sales by one per cent. Google found that by improving loading times for its site by as little as 400 milliseconds raised traffic by 0.5 per cent – a significant increase given the volume of traffic involved. It makes you dizzy just trying to think about it.

There are certainly advantages in these developments, although pity the poor retailer trying to compete with the online behemoths. How do you stay in business when the customer checks an item on your shelves and goes and orders it cheaper online and has it delivered to his door or to some convenient drop-off point? Of course many will go under. The theory in the workplace may be that workers will be able to accomplish so much more given these electronic resources, but the truth is very different. Studies show that an office worker will check his or her e-mail 30 to 40 times an hour. An average employee spends 11 minutes on a task before switching to something else, and changes focus within the current task every 3 minutes. At the top of the corporate tree, the day of a CEO of a Fortune 500 company is so chopped up by electronic messages that on average he has only 28 uninterrupted productive minutes a day. How does anything significant ever get done?

So what about the Church and its members? The busyness and accelerating pace of life mean that attention spans shrink and minds buzz in all directions. Time with the Lord in prayer and meditation on Scripture is squeezed into ever-diminishing spaces. No wonder there are ‘Bibles’ offering three-minute or five-minute devotions. Any day now there will be a 30-Second-You Don’t-Even Need to Stand-Still Bible (or perhaps there is one). A few blessed thoughts and a quick check on the latest blog from your favourite celebrity preacher, and you’re good to go-go-go.

So many forces in society are encouraging high-speed superficiality, yet healthy Christian discipleship requires slowness – time invested in prayer, Bible study (not Bible dipping), private and corporate worship. ‘Be still and know that I am God’ (Psalm 46:10) is a baffling concept to people who are never really still, or who perhaps are afraid to be. There are no short cuts to Christian maturity, and bite-sized devotions make for bite-sized spirituality. Perhaps it is no surprise that many Christians look very little different from the world around them. If time and space for God are not available, then something is seriously wrong and hard questions need to be asked, and perhaps hard decisions made.

As in so many respects, Christian faith is counter-cultural when it comes to the pace of living. If Jesus is really to be Lord, maybe some slowing down and switching off will be required. Who knows? Perhaps you will catch up with some of those other whizzing Christians at the next set of traffic lights?

Gospel Opportunities

It is not unspiritual in gospel work to make plans, to look ahead and give careful thought to how and where witness should be carried on. The apostle Paul was a missionary who thought carefully about the next steps in his work and who had in mind places where he hoped to preach the gospel and minister to the Lord’s people. Rome, for example, was much on his mind (Romans 1:10-12).

The danger, however, is that we come to rely on our plans or our methodology instead of relying on the Lord. It is, after all, his work and we need to be seeking his leading and guiding regarding gospel ministry, taking the opportunities he provides, not the ones we have decided we want. Again Paul is an excellent example. Let’s take a look at what he says in 1 Corinthians 16:9.

As he writes to the Corinthians from Ephesus he is planning ahead, perhaps for an extended visit and then a trip to Jerusalem with the collection for the poor. He is however conscious of an overruling factor: ‘if the Lord permits’ (v7). At present the Lord is overruling. Paul cannot move on from Ephesus ‘for a wide door for effective work has opened to me’. The Lord is providing significant opportunities and Paul has to respond appropriately. Literally he says that a door stands open and remains open. This is not a fleeting opportunity. There can be no doubt that in Paul’s mind that it is the Lord who opens doors of gospel opportunity, as for example at Troas (2 Corinthians 2:12). The sovereign, gracious Saviour opens doors that no-one can shut (see Revelation 3:8). This is, in every sense, his work.

If this is the case, we surely need to discern the opportunities he is providing. Whilst we may ‘push’ at doors to see if they will open, we must not be guilty of trying to force open a door that we have decided we want to go through. We require submissive spirits and contentment with what the Lord provides. We also need a readiness to exploit the opportunities the Lord gives: open doors are to be entered. Above all we surely need to pray for open doors. Note Paul’s request in Colossians 4:3 ‘pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ’. Prayer to the sovereign Lord is essential. It is because he is sovereign that we pray.

Paul is conscious that the Lord is providing ‘a wide door’. In Ephesus he has many opportunities for ministry. The work, described in Acts 19, is among both Jews and Gentiles, including the sick, practitioners of magic and even some public officials. From this influential city the gospel spread into the surrounding area ‘so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.’ Wherever the Lord has placed us there is scope for gospel ministry that will make use of all our gifts and resources. Disciple making, in obedience to Matthew 28:19, is always possible.

Note that Paul speaks of ‘effective work’. He expects success. Sometimes we are suspicious of ‘success’ in gospel work in reaction to an unspiritual focus on, for example, numbers. Nevertheless faithful work can expect to be blessed with ‘biblical success’ – the Word of God coming home to the hearts of men and women with transforming power, bringing the spiritually dead to new life in Christ and renewing them in his likeness. When the Holy Spirit applies the Word, lives will be transformed and gospel work will be ‘effective’, all to the glory of God.

Paul’s experience in Ephesus also offers dramatic evidence that ‘there are many adversaries’. He is utterly realistic about the warfare entailed by gospel work, and the record in Acts 19 bears this out, not least in the riot stirred up by the Ephesian silversmiths. ‘I fought with beasts at Ephesus’ he says in 1 Corinthians 15:32. This is not a contradiction of the ‘open door’ of which Paul speaks. In a sense it confirms it; where there is effective work, the enemies of the gospel will be stirred to oppose it. Behind the human adversaries of course stands Satan, the ‘roaring lion’ of 1 Peter 5:8.

Nothing has changed in this regard. Gospel work is warfare (Ephesians 6:10ff) and there are still ‘many adversaries’. Such warnings should help to guard us against complacency and confidence in ourselves and should keep us spiritually watchful. We must not be intimidated, however. Effective work will be opposed and that very opposition may show that the Spirit is rescuing sinners from the enemy’s grasp. Christ has bound the strong man and his possessions are being plundered (Matthew 12:29). The work will accomplish the Lord’s perfect purpose.