1859 Revival

1859 – an amazing year. A year of revival. A time when the Spirit of God moved in a mighty way and many were converted. For a time the face of Ulster church life was deeply affected. The impact on the wider society was also profound, with crime rates, for example, dropping significantly. The best means of social reform was clearly a widespread turning to living Christian faith. For an exhilarating time the preaching of the gospel was heard and accepted by large numbers. Congregations grew by the addition of new members and, just as importantly, existing members who had actually been unsaved were soundly converted. Those must have been heady days to live through.

It was, as we might expect, not all plain sailing. There were those who opposed the revival, in whole or in part. For some it was a matter of opposition to the kind of religion that spoke of grace, sin, salvation and conversion: they simply could not stomach it, and various means were found to explain it away in purely material or psychological terms. Crowded factory conditions were blamed, for example, despite the many conversions that took place in the open air. But if the very idea of conversion is rejected, any other explanation becomes acceptable.

Others objected to elements of the revival, without dismissing it entirely. For some the common scene of uneducated people, even women, preaching and leading meetings was too much. For others, and this was not an uncommon reaction, the strange phenomena accompanying many of the revival meetings were problematical. Shouting, weeping, groaning might be acceptable under the pressure of emotion, but the sometimes dramatic bodily prostrations caused anxiety and raised questions in the minds of many observers. Could such physical manifestations be the work of God? Could such disorder be the result of the Holy Spirit’s ministry?

From the safe distance of one hundred and fifty years it is easy to assume that we would have been among the hearty supporters of the revival. We can readily see how much good was done during those days. We can find explanations for the phenomena that make a degree of sense of them. And yet some of the objections voiced are not all that different from the kind of criticisms heard in our own circles regarding various contemporary religious movements. We may we be warranted in our criticisms, yet would we have been sufficiently discerning in 1859 to accept what was good and reject what was dubious without writing off the entire movement?

We often hear Christians say that what we need is revival. Are we prepared for what revival might actually mean? If 1859 is any guide, the demands that would be placed upon church leaders and church members would be extreme. There were daily prayer meetings in some places, many gatherings for preaching and the sharing of testimonies. For some ‘normal’ life must almost have come to a stop. As always when there is a work of God, the devil too will be active, and if anything the ferocity of spiritual warfare will increase. 1859 was not only a year of revival – it was also the year of the first publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, a book which enabled Richard Dawkins to describe himself as an ‘intellectually fulfilled atheist’.

Revival, wonderful as it might be in many respects, would not be the final and complete answer to the spiritual state of the world. The effects of the 1859 revival did fade in time. The Lord may work in revival if he so chooses – he is, after all, utterly sovereign. His usual way of working, however, is the slow spread of the gospel through the witness of his people and the preaching of those he has called to the task. Not as spectacular as revival, but that is the work most of us have been assigned.

Rising Costs

It certainly came as a great relief to churches and Christian organisations. At the end of January the British Government lost several significant votes in the House of Lords in relation to its Equality Bill. The whole subject of ‘equality’ is an explosive one, but the proposals contained in this Bill in relation to churches and faith-based organisations were especially worrying. Had the Government succeeded in getting its Bill through Parliament in its original form, it could have been illegal for a church of a faith-based group to insist on Christian standards of conduct in anyone it employed, unless the person were engaged specifically in a preaching role. Youth workers and many others would not have been covered by the exemptions the Government was offering.

Although reassurances were given by Government Ministers, the legal advice obtained by a number of Christian bodies indicated that the wording of the Bill could pose a serious threat to their freedom to employ only those who accepted Christian ethical standards for sexual conduct. To refuse to employ, for example, an openly-practising homosexual could well have led to Court action, with a real probability that the complainant would win. Efforts by churches to reason with the Government came to nothing, but an amendment proposed by Lady O’Cathain, was passed by a significant majority.

The controversy over the Equality Bill has simply served to highlight the fact that Christians’ freedom to practise their faith in the public arena is coming under increasing pressure from various directions. A Christian teacher, Olive Jones, was sacked after offering to pray for a sick pupil during a house tutoring visit. Her managers were afraid, it seems, that her comments about faith could be seen as ‘bullying’. Lillian Ladele, a Christian registrar who refused to perform same-sex civil partnerships, was dismissed and eventually lost her case for religious discrimination at the Court of Appeal. Nadia Eweida was asked by British Airways to remove or hide the cross she wore around her neck at work, although religiously significant items such as turbans and hijabs are permitted for BA employees. She subsequently lost her case for religious discrimination at the Court of Appeal. In many situations it seems that the authorities operate double standards which penalise Christians but not followers of other religions. Former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan-Smith commented recently that Christians in public office are made to feel as though they must apologise for their faith. The Prime Minister may say that Christian engagement in politics is beneficial for building a better society, but the actions of the Government he heads speak a very different message.

There are rays of light. We should be thankful for them. The victories in the votes on the Equality Bill are a good example, and the approach of a General Election encouraged the Government to abandon the proposed changes so as not to slow down the passage of the entire Bill. Another encouraging case is that of Christian hoteliers Ben and Sharon Vogelenzang. A Muslim guest accused them of insulting Islam in the course of a discussion which arose at the hotel. They were arrested and prosecuted under the 1998 Public Order Act, but were cleared by the Court when the case came to trial. A price, however, was paid in an 80% fall in business. A significant proportion of their income came from guests who were outpatients at a local hospital which withdrew its business when the prosecution began. A legal victory does not necessarily solve all the problems.

We are living in a society where even outward respect for Christianity is waning and this is evident in some of the cases we have cited. All is by no means lost, but the cost of discipleship for many will increase significantly. We must be ready to support, encourage and, perhaps, suffer.

The Invisible Church

News reporting is – of necessity – very selective. Some stories are covered at length and in detail, some are accorded a brief mention, others never make it to mainstream media reports. All kinds of factors colour what is served up to readers, listeners and viewers: remoteness, sensation-value, public perceptions of interest or significance, racial, religious and cultural biases, even the simple availability of a reporter to cover a story. It is fascinating to compare the news stories covered by British news media with those from other countries, even in their English-language services. British news consumers are totally in the dark about large tracts of the globe, and are probably little concerned that that is the case. The same probably holds true in most nations.

Many stories never see the light of day. Among them are generally accounts of the pressures faced by the Christian Church in various parts of the world. Perhaps because of a pursuit of ‘balance’ and ‘neutrality’, perhaps because of ignorance, perhaps because of the increasing marginalization of Christianity in the public arena, the hardships endured by many of our brothers and sisters are largely unknown outside a fairly small circle.

Iraq is constantly in the news at present. It appears that, despite continued terrorist outrages, sometimes on a considerable scale, the underlying situation is improving. But not for everyone. As Christians close to the situation will tell you, the predicament of Christians in Iraq is increasingly desperate. In Mosul in the north fanatical terrorists who control the streets are now targeting Christians. Recently twenty Christians were murdered and six homes torched. Unsurprisingly Christians are fleeing the area, leaving everything behind them. One ray of light is that the church in Kirkuk continues to meet and is able to operate a school and a clinic. In contrast, the congregation in Baghdad, which used to number about 1200, is now down to 60 or fewer. Some children’s ministry continues, but the difficulties are great. In Basra fewer than 10 elderly people now meet and all the young have left.

All this in a country where, before the war, Christians enjoyed a greater degree of freedom than in most of the neighbouring countries. The reasons for this were mainly political, but none the less the cause of the gospel was advancing. Now western forces may be – to some degree – in charge, but the church is declining rapidly. Many have fled to safer locations, others would go if they could. It would be hard to blame them.

We could multiply examples from different parts of the world. For many the cost of Christian commitment is high and in some places any Christian activity is covert. In theology we speak of the ‘invisible church’ when we refer to the whole body of true believers, whose composition is known only to the Lord. Not all are happy with the terminology – surely true believers are inevitably visible? In at least one sense, however, there is certainly an ‘invisible’ church – the church unnoticed or ignored by the media, too often unknown even to fellow believers. Success-oriented western churches have little idea what to make of believers struggling for their very existence in harsh and hostile environments, even when they do become aware of their existence. The invisible church is made up of our brothers and sisters in the Lord, for whom we are to pray and whose pain we are to feel (Hebrews 13:3). We should seek to be as well informed about their situation and needs as possible, for prayer and practical support. There is no ‘invisible’ church as far as the Lord is concerned. There should not be for his people either.

Heaven on Earth

‘But our citizenship is in heaven’, Paul writes in Philippians 3:20. There are days, aren’t there, when you feel that as a Christian you really don’t belong in this present world? Our attitudes, our values, our standards of conduct, our entire outlook, seem more and more out of tune with the society we are living in. To many around us we are well-nigh incomprehensible. In the public arena Christians often seem to be fighting a rearguard action for the preservation of such expressions of Christian standards as remain in national laws and institutions. Occasional victories are offset by the sense that the tide is running strongly against us. So far only a few voices suggest that Christianity is actually dangerous and that to teach it to children is abusive, but respect for Christianity, especially when it is depicted as ‘fundamentalist’, is fast ebbing away.

We can sympathise with the Philippians. They did not even have the remnants of a Christian consensus in society to offer some support. They were set down in the midst of a thoroughly pagan city where even the Jewish community was so small that it could not muster enough men to establish a synagogue. All in the congregation were first-generation believers, with no Christian background or experience to provide guidance for godly living in an ungodly world.

They were in effect a colony of heaven, established on earth. To Philippians that was an easy concept to grasp: Philippi had been re-founded in 42AD as a Roman colony for the settlement of discharged veterans from the army that had defeated Julius Caesar’s assassins. Citizens had the same rights as those in Roman cities in Italy. They were a colony of Rome situated in Macedonia.

The Christian colony was in effect a piece of heaven on earth – not in the sense that it was a perfect community with no problems, but in the sense that its citizens derived their life from a heavenly source and owed supreme allegiance to a heavenly King. At times they might be regarded with suspicion by the Roman authorities who were usually paranoid about sedition. Had the city authorities not, a few years earlier, thrown the Christian evangelists Paul and Silas into prison, in the days when the congregation was being established?

Christians then and now serve another King, one whom they know will return to judge the world and complete the salvation of his people. As Paul refers to heaven, that thought of the returning Lord, and the hope which Christians have in him, comes to the forefront of the apostle’s mind. As he says, from heaven ‘we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly bodies to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself’ (Philippians 3:20-21). To be a citizen of heaven is to have a sure hope of glory and victory when Christ returns.

Heavenly citizenship, however, could also be misunderstood to suggest despair regarding the present world, passivity and withdrawal from engagement with society, things of which Christians have often, and sometimes justifiably, been accused. Paul will have none of that. The colony of heaven is placed by the Lord on earth, in a particular geographical, historical and cultural context. The saints Paul addresses are ‘in Christ Jesus … at Philippi’ (1:1). They are not evacuated to heaven. Even the great apostle must stay for the present (1:24-26). So must we. There is work to be done. The Lord leaves his people on earth for a purpose. Although they live ‘in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation’ (2:15), they are to ‘shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life’ (2:15-16). The Lord himself spoke of his disciples as ‘the light of the world’ (Matthew 5:14), with the responsibility to let the light shine. We must live in a manner which brings glory to the King whom we serve and the country to which we belong, faithful in proclaiming by life and word the message of salvation and hope which our perishing society desperately needs. Citizens of heaven cannot seek a quiet corner where they can live out their days in as much ease as possible. The Lord has commissioned his Church to make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20). The light must shine and the Lord’s redeemed will be brought into the Kingdom in preparation for the King’s return.