Dr. David Lee’s message to the 177th Annual Meeting of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware
Daniel 1:1-20; 3:1-30
I remember a few years back how excited I was when Maryland/Delaware Baptists entered into a missions partnership with the Baptist Union of Scotland. It provided us an opportunity to engage in international missions in a place where language would not be a barrier and where travel was more convenient and affordable. I also believed we could have a kingdom impact despite our limited resources.
A few of our constituents opposed the partnership stating that there were other areas of our world where the need was greater. They were correct in their assessment. Scotland’s population of lostness could not compare to that of many Asian, African, Middle Eastern, or even Eastern European nations of the world.
But there were other key reasons why I felt this to be the place and the time. The International Mission Board was closing down operations there. IMB’s new strategy targeted larger people groups and deeper pockets of lostness. In Scotland we could fill an important gap and help meet a need for them.
I also believed that the church in Scotland previewed where the church in America was headed. I recall a very telling conversation with one of the pastors there. “Our biggest challenge,” he said, “is that the church in Scotland is viewed by the culture as irrelevant.” No one opposed or persecuted them; they just ignored them. In fact, many of the church buildings had either been sold for restaurants or museums or retail venues. The majority who were still open on Sunday housed a handful of mainly senior adults.
I believed we were headed in that direction. My hope was that the partnership would be a wake-up call for us to get serious about our mission before we, too, were viewed as having lost our saltiness and our light to such a degree that the culture around us deemed us irrelevant.
I am still concerned that we are losing our relevance, but no longer believe irrelevance to be our final destination. Of more concern to me is that we are moving quickly from irrelevance to a world that is hostile to the church and to the message of the cross.
I have lived long enough to witness a series of major shifts in our culture and in the church. In my early years of ministry I experienced the last chapters of an era where those bearing the name of Jesus were highly respected. I lived in areas where a person could not get elected to public office without showing evidence that he or she was a member of a local church. Pastors in those areas looked forward to election years because church attendance increased as aspiring politicians came back to church with their families as part of their campaign strategies.
I also lived through the hippy era where every institution was called into question including the church. “Antidisestablishmentarianism” became a household word. (That’s probably an exaggeration!). The local pastor and local church still enjoyed a certain degree of influence and respect, but you could see both eroding.
To me, the Church Growth Movement came as a shot of adrenalin for the church. I had high hopes that the church was finally getting it. Attention shifted to those who were outside the church. On the heels of that came the emphasis on the missional church. I am a big fan of that strategy based upon viewing our ministry areas like missionaries assessing a mission field.
Despite these most recent movements I have seen what I would call a “creeping irrelevance.” The vote of evangelical Christians for a time was sought as a powerful political force. At least politicians cared what we were thinking. I think we could agree that the 2012 election in our local area helps us know that evangelical Christians and the Word of God are no longer the final word on moral and culture issues for those who are making the rules.
I see us though moving past the “island of irrelevance” headed to the shores of a world perhaps similar to the First Century. Religious folks in the Rome-occupied world of the Middle East experienced a certain degree of personal and even religious freedom as long as they colored within Roman lines. Moving outside those lines resulted in severe persecution. Yet, despite that backdrop, those early followers of Christ still “turned their world upside down” with the gospel.
I believe that what we will soon face will more resemble “Daniel’s World,” than it will resemble the First Century world. In the First Century, it still felt like home to those early disciples. It was familiar territory. I am concerned that we may not be far from living in a strange land that we will no longer recognize. We may be about to experience “Daniel World,” an exile of sorts, where our freedoms will be limited. Following Christ will have a price tag. In fact, there will be a lions’ den or a fiery furnace for those who really take discipleship seriously. The fact that during this past election one of our pastors was made a media spectacle, faced threatening and harassing calls, and had to hire additional security for his church services all because he quoted the Word of God in a public meeting, should send shock waves to all of us and awaken us to the strange new world to which we are headed.
In such worlds God declared through the Old Testament prophets that he would preserve a “remnant.” You may have heard terms like “resort living,” or “condo-living” or “city-living.” We need to investigate “remnant living” in a strange and unfamiliar land, because I believe that is where we are ultimately headed.
The story of Daniel and his friends helps us understand how we can be salt and light in that kind of world. Invaders not only set up shop in conquered regions; they also tended to exile the best of the population. By taking the best of their captors away, they enhanced their work force. Taking away the best and brightest from their homeland also minimized the threat of potential leaders who may rally the people in rebellion. Daniel and his friends were in exile. God’s promise to those exiled was that a remnant would survive, be blessed, be a blessing, and ultimately be delivered to their real home.
I am convinced that we need to begin now making preparation for what lies before us. I want to stir your thinking. If we are to be remnant leaders in this new and strange world, what can we do to advance God’s kingdom? Let’s start the conversation here.
• We must give primary attention, focus, and resources to making real disciples. That has to become our No. 1 priority. Only those who are sold out to Jesus will survive “Daniel World.” Our “all about me” religion that has become so prevalent will not see us through “Daniel World.” No wonder we are seeing so many people declaring themselves as part of the “unaffiliated” or the “nones” because of what people see when they investigate institutional religion. There are times when my heart is broken by what I see in our churches. It certainly must break the heart of a God who gave his Son to die for his church. Mark this down. Only “real disciples” with make a kingdom impact in Daniel World.
• We must teach our fellow believers that follow-ship comes with a price. This is not a new concept. Early believers assumed suffering was just part of following Jesus. Our forefathers would be surprised that we assume we can live the Christian life without pain or persecution. Suffering was not only a part of a disciple’s journey; it was a badge of honor to be chosen to suffer for the one who gave it all for us. “Lion’s Den” and “fiery furnace” will both take on a new meaning as we move through the 21st Century. Only real disciples when faced with a 21st Century lion’s den or a fiery furnace will stand. “Cultural Christians” or “nominal Christians” will yield. They will denounce the faith. They will bow to religious or political pressure. They will do whatever they must do to avoid suffering and pain and the loss of creature comforts.
• We must constantly remind our brothers and sisters that our citizenship is somewhere else. We are pilgrims. Our citizenship is in heaven. This is not our home. The investments we make should have eternal significance. If we take our eyes off the ultimate goal of glorifying God, bringing honor to the name of Jesus, serving him and serving those he loves, and telling his story, we will lose our way.
• We must build Galatians 6:2 churches that help disciples bear their burdens rather than add burdens to them due to our dysfunction. Our “assembling ourselves together” will take on a new urgency. Those who take the faith seriously will be beaten up in the world. They don’t need to be beaten up again when they come to church. They need the empowerment and encouragement and the love of a true koinonia that takes serious the call to “bear one another’s burdens.”
• We must concentrate on building the kingdom of God, rather than building our individual kingdoms. We are becoming more selfish and self-centered and independent every day or so it seems. Isn’t that the very thing that got us in trouble in the first place, even as far back as the Garden of Eden? Self-denial and self-sacrifice must be the posture of life in Daniel World for real disciples to make a difference.
• We must adapt our basic strategy for sharing the gospel. Daniel was a powerful witness. But notice what made the difference. Time for gospel sharing will come when people see that we are real, sold out, and willing to pay a price for what we believe. Otherwise they will ignore us. Babylonians didn’t hear about the one true God at Daniel’s church. They saw God at work in him as he engaged their world. Then they listened. Don’t miss the declaration of the King when he saw the genuine faith of Daniel and his friends exhibited in a lion’s den and a fiery furnace. I cannot overstate how significant the witness of one’s daily walk will become as we engage the culture before us. They will not listen and take seriously our verbal witness, unless it is underwritten and substantiated by an authentic walk with Jesus. By the way, Jesus taught us that our love for one another would be the premier quality that caught the attention of our culture. And we are so tragically removed from possessing and practicing that degree of love even in our churches.
• We should constantly remind our people about the power of God. Ministry in “Remnant World” will be hard. It will be costly. It will be discouraging at times. But when you add the power of God to “change people” and to “change things” to the formula, it ought to excite us about the mission before us. Moving forward, the only thing that will keep our job from being an impossibility is the power of God. We serve the same God that delivered Daniel and his friends. God chose to deliver Daniel and his friends from the lions and the bears. Some of us may not be delivered. Some of us may face the fate of Stephen in Acts 7. But we know that the ultimate sacrifice for our God can bear eternal fruit because of his power. I am not predicting gloom and doom, because real Christians strive in times of challenge and persecution, even in places where they are forced to go underground. Add to that what Paul’s reminder that our work and sacrifice in Jesus’ name are never in vain.
• We must stay as close as possible to others who are part of the remnant. More than ever we will need to do this together. We will not be able to go it alone. No matter how good things may be today in your life or in your church, there will come a time when we will need each other.
I hope I am wrong. I hope what I see never comes to pass. It is hard, however, to ignore the signs. Therefore, I challenge all of us to begin now preparing for remnant living in a strange land.