Yes, we urgently need more and better evangelism. But we must candidly come to grips with several alarming facts. To what extent do those who profess faith at world-class evangelistic meetings actually persevere, over a period of five years from their initial profession of faith? When careful studies have been undertaken the most commonly agreed range is 2 percent to 4 percent; that is, of faith at such meetings are actually persevering in the faith five years later, as measured by such external criteria as attendance at church, regular Bible reading, or the like.
Even such frightening statistics do not disclose the immensity of the problem. Many who profess faith seem to think that Christianity is something to add to their already busy lives, not something that controls, constrains, and shapes their vision and all their goals. The Princeton Religion Research Center, which studies religion in America, has demonstrated that the slight increase during the last ten years in Americans attending church must be set against the marked decline in professing American Christians who think that there is an essential connection between Christianity and morality. The sad truth is that much American Christianity is returning to raw paganism: the ordinary pagan can be ever so religious without any necessary entailment in ethics, morality, self-sacrifice, or integrity.
In short evangelism – at least the evangelism that has dominated much of the Western world – does not seem powerful enough to address our declension.
Perhaps what we most urgently need, then, is disciplined, biblical thinking. We need more Bible colleges and seminaries, more theologians, more lay training, more expository preaching. How else are we going to train a whole generation of Christians to think God’s thoughts after him, other than by teaching them to think through Scripture, to learn the Scriptures well?
I am scarcely in a position to criticize expository preaching and seminaries: I have given my life to such ministry. Yet I would be among the first to acknowledge that some students at the institution where I teach, and some faculty too, can devote thousands of hours to the diligent study of Scripture and yet still somehow display an extraordinarily shallow knowledge of God. Biblical knowledge can be merely academic and rigorous, but somehow not edifying, not life-giving, not devout, not guileless.
Time fails to list other urgent needs that various groups espouse. Some groups point to the desperate need for real, vital corporate worship; others focus on trends in the nation and therefore the need to become active in politics and policies.
Clearly all of these things are important. I would not want anything I have said to be taken as disparagement of evangelism and worship, a diminishing of the importance of purity and integrity, a carelessness about disciplined Bible study. But there is a sense in which these urgent needs are merely symptomatic of a far more serious lack. The one thing we most urgently need in Western Christendom is a deeper knowledge of God. We need to know God better.
When it comes to knowing God, we are a culture of the spiritually stunted. So much of our religion is packaged to address our felt needs – and these are almost uniformly anchored in our pursuit of our own happiness and fulfillment. God simply becomes the Great Being who, potentially at least, meets our needs and fulfills our aspirations. We think rather little of what he is like, what he expects of us, what he seeks in us. We are not captured by his holiness and his love; his thoughts and words capture too little of our imagination, too little of our discourse, too few of our priorities.
In the biblical view of things, a deeper knowledge of God brings with it massive improvement in other areas mentioned: purity, integrity, evangelistic effectiveness, better study of Scripture, improved private and corporate worship, and much more. But if we seek these things without passionately desiring a deeper knowledge of God, we are selfishly running after God’s blessings without running after him. We are even worse than the man who wants his wife’s services – someone to come home to, someone to cook and clean, someone to sleep with – without ever making the effort really to know and love his wife and discover what she wants and needs; we are worse than such a man, I say, because God is more than any wife, more than the best of wives: he is perfect in his love, he has made us for himself, and we are answerable to him.
-This is what D. A. Carson wrote in A Call to Spiritual Reformation, what is, to my mind, the best book on the subject of prayer. In this book Carson goes far beyond merely “prayer is powerful so you should pray” and addresses what is a more fundamental need – how to pray. I know we have been doing this for years (decades?) but the reality is that most prayers I hear (and some that I give) are canned and poorly thought through. From what I hear when eyes are closed is that prayer is more about trite phrases than anything substantive. If you get bored with this kind of prayer then take a number. But in this wonderful book Carson mines deeply into several key prayers of Paul in the N.T. and re-orients our priorities and patterns of prayer. If you want to read one book this next year to help you commune more deeply with God this is it.