[An extemporaneous talk shared at Fair Oaks Church in Fairfax, VA on Sunday, Jul 8, 2012]
Let’s give these young people another hand. That was tremendous. It just shows the heartbeat of this group. In a very real sense, when you think of it, they’re in many ways the heartbeat of our church and ever increasingly so. I think that’s a good thing.
I want to talk to you today about what I consider to be the saddest words in the Bible. That’s a pretty strong statement, a broad-brush statement, but I think it’s true. They’re found in the book of Judges, and I’m going to read from that in a moment.
Jonathan Edwards was a pastor in America in Enfield, Connecticut, a couple of decades before the Declaration of Independence. He and a number of other clergymen, particularly he as sort of the brainiac of the group, and George Whitefield, the great orator of the group, were responsible for being catalysts for something called the Great Awakening in this country. I’ve often told you that was, I think, what tempered the revolutionary spirit that was sort of a spirit to break free that turned out so well in this country, even with its difficulties and challenges and so badly in France, which was a purely secular exercise and led to despotism and bloodshed, the French Revolution.
This was because our revolution had been fueled and informed and at least tempered by the spiritual dynamics of the Great Awakening. Whitefield would preach out in the open air and didn’t use notes. People would hear him. They said he could speak the word Mesopotamia and just capture the emotions of people. He had that kind of speaking ability, speaking outside before thousands. Benjamin Franklin often went to hear him speak.
Jonathan Edwards was different. He read his sermons. He had poor eyesight, so he actually had to have a candle on the pulpit (this was 1760-something), and he would hold the manuscript up and when he read it. Probably not the best speaking style, but he preached a very famous message in Enfield, Connecticut. My younger brother, Greg, is the pastor of Cornerstone Church up in Connecticut, just a few miles from where this all took place.
His famous sermon (you may have heard about it in American literature) was called Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God. It was one of the great sermons of the time. Jonathan Edwards was a great theologian, a great man of God. His grandson was a man by the name of Aaron Burr. Aaron Burr was a politician. He was, at one time, the governor of New York. He was the vice president of the United States, but he was a pretty infamous character in our national story.
You may know him most famously for the duel he had with Alexander Hamilton where he shot and killed Alexander Hamilton. You may know some of the story where after he was vice president, he went out West and literally basically tried to organize his own country with him as the emperor. He was later tried for treason. His story was the story that would loosely enform the famous play Man Without a Country.
How do you go from great theologian, moral statesman to the prototype for the disreputable, self-seeking, self-serving politician in two generations? It’s a great question. Well, I think the key is here. We see this. Judges, chapter 2, begins with the word, “Joshua son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died at the age of a hundred and ten.” Now that’s sad, but those are not the saddest words in the story here. He was a great man, a great leader. He mobilized the people to cross the Jordan. They occupied the land.
“And they buried him [Joshua] in the land of his inheritance, at Timnath Heres in the hill country of Ephraim, north of Mount Gaash.” Verse 10: “After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers…” This is a euphuism. They died. They all passed away. Here are the sad words: “…another generation grew up, who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel.”
That’s sad. These people had this tremendous heritage. They had this tremendous head start, tremendous evidences of the work of God. But a whole generation of people grew up totally clueless about spiritual things, totally clueless about the richness of their heritage culturally and spiritually. They didn’t know the Lord, nor his great works. “Then [literally, as a result of this] the Israelites…” There’s always a relationship between taking your eyes off the Lord as a culture, as an individual truly, and a decline of lifestyle. That’s true culturally.
“[They] did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals [false gods]. They forsook the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them. They provoked the Lord to anger…”
Saddest words. “Another generation grew up, came up, and they knew not the Lord.”
I would suggest to you we’re only a generation or two away from extinction in a very real sense when it comes to some of the values and some of the things I think we hold strong. This is particularly true in the spiritual realm.
I’ll talk to people about spiritual things. “Well, you know, my grandfather was a preacher. My grandmother and my grandfather, my great-grandparents were devout in faith, but we have no connection with that now in our lifestyle.” How does it go where it descends to future generation and it passes away?
What can I do to try to ensure that not only my daughters but their children and then their children’s children grow up with an authentic, real, fervent, first-hand faith? How does something like this happen? How do you go from Jonathan Edwards to Aaron Burr? Let me make some observations here. It happens when…
1. Spiritual things cease to be a top priotiy. It doesn’t even mean they have to be off the stove, but they’re on the back burner. It doesn’t mean they have to be out of vision, but it’s sort of in a peripheral area off their radar. They cease to be a top priority (spiritual things, spiritual values).
The greatest thing you can communicate to the next generation, my friends, and the greatest thing they need to figure out is what God’s plan is for their life and then the encouragement to do that plan. Now this goes back to the giving of the words of God to the Jewish people, the Israelites. Listen to Deuteronomy 6.
“These are the commands, decrees and laws the Lord your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the Lord your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you, and so that you may enjoy long life. Hear, O Israel, and be careful…” In other words, “Pay attention to this!” “…so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the Lord, the God of your fathers, promised you.”
Then comes the Hebrew Shema, which is their call to worship. “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts.” Something has to go inside. “Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”
Now I made this statement at nine o’clock, and I’ll make it now. Please do not misunderstand me. I’m not against this practice. It’s a very good practice, I think. A lot of homes (and maybe you participate; don’t raise your hands) have maybe what used to be called a family altar. You have a structured time when you come together as a family and you read Scripture and you have prayer, family devotions. This is not something Karen and I ever did in our house. I’m not against it. I think it’s a very good practice.
Let me just explain why before you call me a heretic and run me out of town. Because I knew that if I were to gather my daughters together and open my Bible, I all of a sudden ceased to be dad, and I became preacher. In my own mind, I would become preacher. I’d start screaming, pointing my fingers, spitting, talking about if they disobeyed they’re going to hell. I mean, I’d be saying all kinds of stuff. Yeah!
You say, Well did you not communicate things? No, the way we did it was we walked along. They brought things up. It was part of the lifestyle. I think even if you do structured stuff, that’s still where the real deal is in that some of the greatest teaching moments you have with your kids are not when you’re trying… Churchill said, “I’ve always enjoyed learning, but I’ve never enjoyed being taught.”
You have to realize this has to become a priority. Another observation as to why another generation growing up knowing not the Lord happens…
2. There’s no such thing as third-hand faith. Now you’ve heard of second-hand stuff. Second-hand faith is really no faith, but third-hand faith is even worse. Let me illustrate it for you in one of the great problems I see in American culture. It has to do with pancakes and syrup. It’s a serious issue.
Jennifer is down here. David and Karen are visiting us this week. One morning Jennifer made pancakes for us. My wife brought out the obvious real Vermont maple syrup we had actually taken ourselves from a tree in Vermont (that last part is not true, but it’s real Vermont syrup). My wife and I like real Vermont syrup. The diner down the street here stopped serving it. We take our own. When we forget and leave it on the table, they just store it and give it to us when we come back. “Bring your own bottle” means something different to us than to some of you. It’s more of a syrup kind of deal.
So the syrup is out there. Now Jennifer, our daughter, who will be 35 this year (a young 35) likes real maple syrup, because she was raised correctly, but she also can use Mrs. Butterworth’s or Aunt Jemima. As you know, it’s a petroleum-based syrup with rat parts and bone bits and all sorts of… You just have to read that fine print. You thought the high fructose syrup was the worst part. No, no, no, no. She likes that too.
So what happened is we have this authentic (and I might add, correct) belief that the best syrup is real Vermont maple syrup. Our daughter doesn’t share that conviction because one of the great failures in our lives was to communicate the passion requisite for that kind of attachment to that condiment. She is indifferent to it, all right? Now her kids prefer the petroleum-based fake stuff to real maple syrup. That is what’s wrong with America.
Now I’m making a point here, and that is you go from something that’s authentic, to an indifference, to a place where eventually the artificial is preferred to the real. Now of course the syrup is a silly issue. With butter and margarine, it’s a silly issue. With spiritual things, it’s a serious issue, because you begin with authenticity. If it’s not transmitted correctly to the next generation you begin to move into an area of indifference where they have a form of godliness, they have the structure and the traditions and the customs and the moral sense but not the real burning sense of faith.
By the time you get to that next generation, they have none of that. That’s where anarchy comes. That’s where rebellion comes. That’s where apostasy comes. There’s no such thing as third-hand faith. Faith always has to be first hand.
3. Rules without relationship. I talk about that a lot. A lot of times another generation grows up, it doesn’t know the Lord because all they think of when they think of spiritual things is a bunch of burdensome rules, a bunch of older people telling us what we can’t do or what we should do.
It’s not tied to a relationship. Life has rules. There are rules. There are good rules. They’re there for a reason, but they have to flow from relationship. If you divorce them from relationship, what you have is you have the breeding ground for resentment and anger, and anger then leads to rebellion. This is how this cycle works, the curve works. So yeah, we need to communicate values, but more important is the relationship.
My friends, you say, God has rules? He sure does, but if you’re concerned about a relationship with God, the rules really don’t matter. Seriously, Pastor? Yes, and I’ll tell you why. Galatians says, “Walk in the Spirit of God, and you will not fulfill the things of the flesh.” It goes on to describe love, joy, peace, long-suffering, meekness, temperance, hope, etc. He says, “Against such thing there is no law.” There is no law!
You’re never going to find on the books of any place, “Thou shalt not love. Thou shalt not be joyful.” I’ve been to some churches where I thought that was in their code, and I’ve met some people who I think believe that. You don’t have to make a law, because if you’re loving, if you’re joyful, if you’re long-suffering, then by definition you’ll be avoiding those negative things. So you focus on the walking in the Spirit.
You see, legalism says, “We’re going to focus on all the don’ts.” No, what you do is you focus on the things God wants you to have, and you get into that relationship. You see? The closer your relationship with God is, the less inclined you’re going to be to disobey him. But if there’s a disconnect between you and God, then you’re going to find that works. Rules without relationship.
4. Ministry fossilization. I love this point! This is one of the reasons kids grow up in church and don’t go to church, because ministries have allowed themselves to become fossils. They freeze in time. There are a lot of people who want everything to be just like it used to be. Andy Griffith died. R.I.P. Rest in peace. I’ve Tivo’ed several Andy Griffith episodes. I’m going to watch the pickle one (my favorite) sometime today. He was a very interesting guy.
I love that. People say, Wasn’t it great back then? Oh, it was a simpler time. Mayberry was not real. Oh, it was better in the 50s and early 60s. Really? Ever hear of segregation? This country wasn’t perfect back then. Be careful what you wish for. We have our problems now, had our problems back then. What’s my point? We’re all nostalgic. Nostalgia: -algia is a word from the Greek. It means pain. Fibromyalgia. Nost- is a word that means a memory or the past. So nostalgia is a painful attachment to the past, and a lot of people have that. They want things to be just as they were.
My grandmother is 97 years of age. God bless her! She still lives by herself. She is in declining health. She has had some episodes now. Members of the family are staying with her around the clock, so it’s going to be a very short time before she has to find some kind of assisted living. It’s going to be a big moment. Please pray for her because she is not going to be a very happy camper on this. When she ain’t happy, the state of Michigan is not happy, frankly.
I think I told some of you this, but a few years ago, she told me, “David…” Now she is a Christian lady, reads her Bible. “David, none of you young men are preaching the gospel anymore.” I’m a preacher! Right? “Well, I thought I was, Grandma.” “No! You got rid of your hymnbooks. You got rid of your pews. You have chairs. You have a movie screen that comes down. You don’t wear a tie to church anymore. You don’t have Sunday night church.” (She never went to Sunday night church, but that didn’t really matter. You know? It should be there if she needed it.) She says the only man preaching the gospel in America is Charles Stanley.
Now Charles Stanley is a great preacher, but I was a little bothered by that. I’m her oldest grandson. She has already asked me to preach her funeral. “Do you want me not to preach the gospel at your funeral, Grandma?” So Charles Stanley was here four or five years ago speaking at an event here in this auditorium from this platform, and I was spending some time in my office with him. He had one of his books. I said, “Would you autograph that to my grandmother? She is a big, big fan, watches you on television all the time. She can’t get out to church.”
“I certainly will. What’s her name?”
“What should I put?”
“To Lavelle Greene: Your grandson is a tremendous preacher of the gospel.” I still don’t think she was convinced.
Fossilization is when we have to freeze-frame it, okay? I mean, watching these young people get up there. There are different instruments than some of us are used to. I mean, it used to be organ and piano in church, right?
I was at the Nets game. We were there Friday night, the night they lost. What I was noticing (and I’ve noticed this for years) is when I was a kid, we used to go to the game. In fact, one of my teachers in high school was the organist for the Detroit Tigers baseball games. They only learned how to play parts of songs. They just stop, because you have to fill it in. they don’t have organs at games anymore. They have rock music and some country music. You can tell the difference because you can understand the words of country music. I don’t know any of the songs, but every player has his song when he is coming to the plate. I don’t know what my song would be, but every player has his song. It’s a different methodology. Now I’m a purist. I like baseball. I think there’s a great heritage, but baseball is the same; it’s just the methods have changed a little bit. The message is the same; the methods do change.
When I was starting out in ministry, I started out in ministry when I was younger than some of these kids because we had something like this church had: a bus ministry. This was during the Baby Boom. Everybody had nine children and looked for ways to get them out of the house and just hope they got eight of them back by the end of the day. I’m not kidding, right? You could buy these rickety old busses at auction.
They hadn’t invented insurance yet, so nobody sued anybody. If you lost a kid, it was just like, Well, it’s just the way it goes. We can save on groceries. What we’d do is we’d go bus blitzing. Karen and I did this as kids. What they did is send the teenagers out to go try to invite kids to come to church. Here was the plan. Here’s how we did it. We all got a big scoop of candy and put it in our pockets. We’d go to parks where kids were playing and say, “Hey, kid. Do you want some candy?”
Now, if we tried to do ministry with that method today we’d all be registered sex offenders. It doesn’t work. Things change. Ministry fossilization. I know we’re laughing about it, but it’s one of the reasons another generation grows up. Because there are people who won’t sacrifice certain stylistic things, and they’re willing to sacrifice kids on that altar. God, help them. So what do we do about it?
Let me give you three things, and I’m done. Here’s how we correct that. I think we’re doing these things here, but let’s keep on. Let’s not get complacent, and let’s teach and model the Word of God. I mean, it’s so basic.
1. We have to teach and model the Word of God. Teach them what the Bible says, and then live out what the Bible says. This is so vitally important. We have to demonstrate this to the kids. You know, I’m here today. I’m going to be 56 years old this month. This December is the thirty‑fifth anniversary of my ordination, when I became a pastor. I’ve been doing this a long time. I know my parents influenced me in a lot of things, but I am telling you something.
I really believe one of the great reasons I’m here doing what I’m doing is because I was the beneficiary of something these kids have here. When I was a teenager, I was the beneficiary of tremendously vibrant youth departments. So was my wife at the church she went to. We went to rival churches in the Detroit area. In my youth department (it was a big church), from tenth to twelfth grade, there were 400 kids on Sunday morning in this youth group.
I’ve done some calculation in my head that about a quarter of those kids wound up going to some kind of Christian college or Bible college, and about 75 of those kids wound up actually going out into vocational ministry. From that 400, there are still 30 to 40 of these people somewhere in the world serving full-time as missionaries, pastors, Christian workers in churches, some of whom have retired, some, like my best friend growing up who was a missionary to Brazil, went on to heaven. My best friend in school, in college, who roomed with me, last year went on to heaven.
Serving God, and I think that made a difference in the culture. Youth camp. We went to youth camp. Camp is coming up. You know, we already have I think more than 100 kids going to camp this summer already. We can do better than that, but that’s great. That’s the most we’ve sent in a number of years. Now camp. This is different than when I went to camp. Our camps were primitive. We didn’t have food. They put us in caves. The guys were sent out hunting. That was our activity to bring in the game. The girls would dress it and cook it and so forth.
We didn’t have water. We didn’t have fun. Preachers preached hours on end, and they were all old. We didn’t have the coolest youth funny guy come and speak, you know, with all kinds of games. I am not making this up. The average age of the preachers who came to preach to the kids at camp was 60 years of age. How is that for relevance? They’d start talking about Glenn Miller’s music being bad and stuff like that. None of us would understand what that was.
Now the point I’m making is we have to communicate the Word of God. Support this camp endeavor. You say, I have a nephew, Pastor. I have a grandkid. There’s a kid on our block who seems to have lost his way. Pay his way to camp. I can’t guarantee you anything, but there’s a great chance this kid will get saved, and it will change the direction of his life. You want to help your neighborhood? You say, Well that’s a big investment. Seriously? I think if we’d had been doing more of this in this country, we’d have less problems than we have today. Can I have an amen?
2. We must rehearse the works of God. Tell people what God has done. Did you see what happened up here? Did you see this? Nicole gets baptized over here, all right? Matt baptized her. That was cool. Was that your first baptism here? All right, cool. You did well. You brought her back up, which is the main thing.
I was watching that. I was watching on the screen, but I couldn’t help but see Lauren, who was getting ready to lead. She was standing over here almost bawling like a baby, just crying. Lauren, are you in here right now? I don’t think she is in here right now. She was in the last service. Why? Because her friend was getting baptized. Then she prayed, prayed for her friend. The works of God.
You say, What’s God doing today? God is not parting the Red Sea. But, when it comes down to it, that’s what the whole parting of the Red Sea was building up to. The plan of God through Israel was to bring Jesus to the world, to the cross, and the baptism is the picture of the death, burial, resurrection of Jesus. That’s what’s going on here. The works of God.
3. We must encourage the worship of God, people to connect with God from their heart. Now body language is not important to me. I was raised fundamental, independent, against-everything-and-everybody Baptist. Our big enemies were Communists and Pentecostals, and not necessarily in that order. We were sort of told, “People who put their hands up in the air, that’s just… We don’t do that. We’re Baptists.”
Still, I have problems. I’m like Ricky Bobby. I’m just having problems putting my hand up, you know, like in that movie. I have a hard time putting my hand up. Some of you will get that reference; some of you won’t. If you don’t, don’t worry about it. It’s very funny, though. My wife will put her hands up. I just wish was as liberated as my wife. These kids are putting their hands up.
I was sitting there thinking, It really isn’t about whether your hands are up or down. It’s about the heart. My heart is right with my hands in my pocket, chewing my gum, loving Jesus. I love to see it. I really do. I love to see that spontaneity. I love to see what’s happening in the heart. Encourage the worship of God. “There arose another generation which knew not the Lord.”
My grandkids don’t really know who Barney Fife was. My daughter never heard of Dr. Kildare. There are a lot of things I experienced in my childhood that they’ll never know, and that’s okay. But when I was a kid, it was modeled in my home, it was taught in my church, it was noised about my friends that Jesus Christ is Lord. That was transmitted into my heart. I didn’t just get taught it; I caught it. I hope my kids have caught it and their kids have caught it and will catch it.
If you want to give a mission statement for what this church ought to be about, one of the great things I love about this church is its eclectic blend. There are about 30 different nations represented in this body. Socioeconomic. We have people who are on fixed incomes. That means you’re broke. You have people who have a good amount of money. You have people from all strains and walks of life. We’re eclectic. One of the best demographics of this church is that we’re intergenerational.
I don’t like it when a church is all young or a church is all old because it means somebody is being closed off. Young people aren’t respecting older people. Older people aren’t welcoming younger people. But when you’re together… The Bible teaches intergenerational. Young people are taught by older people. They’re modeled. We have people in their 90s who are coming. We have people who are 9 and younger here. We learn from each other, and we honor each other because we want to be part of the solution, not the problem.
The thing that will destroy America is not whether one party wins or one party loses. The thing that will destroy America is not taxation and the budget and the debt. These are all real issues. I get that, but the great problem in America, the great risk is that one day…and maybe it’s almost on the horizon…there will rise up a generation that knows not the Lord. Let’s do our part to make sure that doesn’t happen. — DRS