Archive: Facing Spiritual Starvation

by Charles W. Keysor, Editor

Browsing through some back issues of Good News I read again an editorial written back in 1970: “How Laymen Can Survive.” I was struck by the fact that its subject, spiritual starvation of the laity, is still with us. In fact, it remains the major source of anemia in United Methodism—probably the main reason we have lost over 1,000,000 members since 1968.

There is need to think afresh about spiritual starvation, for many United Methodists exist in what is best described as a spiritual Sahara.

First, the problem.

Without sound, consistent preaching and teaching of Bible truth, how will non-Christians be saved? How will children in our Sunday schools come to know Jesus Christ personally? How will those who are Christians “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?” How will the church seem different from any civic organization? How will it answer people’s deepest and most intimate questions if its message has lost an eternal dimension?

Across the church, anguished voices protest the famine of Scriptural Christianity. Anyone with ears not stopped shut can hear the cries. Listen …

“I was about to give up because our church is so far removed from … the teaching of Jesus.” (Oklahoma)

“In our section of the country, a great number of United Methodists have left our denomination simply because they could not live on the ‘straw’ they were getting.” (Washington)

“We asked the bishop for a Gospel preacher. People, I think, are hungry for this kind of food.” (Texas)

“We work for revival in a church that is almost dead.” (Iowa)

“I can no longer sit under poor preaching and denial of the Word of God. Our minister says that Revelation is ‘rubbish’ and Paul’s conversion is ‘cheap dramatics.'” (Minnesota)

The voices of starving laypeople! Hundreds of such outcries have come to Good News since 1966—from United Methodists around the world. The problem is universal; it is the death-cry of a once-great church that is starving spiritually.

What is the answer?

The church needs to come to its senses. It must begin doing what Jesus said was the basic responsibility of Christian leaders: “Feed my sheep.” (John 21:15-17) Unfortunately, much of the feeding in United Methodism has to do with non-spiritual matters. Until the Holy Spirit brings dramatic changes in many hearts and minds, the sheep won’t be fed. This means that laypeople face three stark alternatives:

(1) Quit and find a church where Gospel priorities are not ignored.

(2) Continue starving spiritually, i.e. commit suicide.

(3) Take the initiative and create what the church institution itself seems unwilling or unable to provide: opportunities for spiritual growth.

This third alternative seems most likely to please God. Obviously, He does not want His children to commit spiritual suicide! We do not think He wants believers to quit the church, far-gone as it may be. Had God wished this, Jesus would have departed from the Jerusalem Temple. But He did not. Instead, our Lord worshipped and taught in the Temple, even though He was vigorously critical of its leaders (Matthew, chapter 23). The example of Jesus requires us to remain and be used as God’s leaven.

It is often true that we don’t depend radically upon God’s grace until we face some personal crisis. That was Paul’s thought when he wrote: “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (II Corinthians 12:10)

Could widespread spiritual starvation thus be a blessing in disguise? Could this crisis force UM laypeople to take the initiative and begin exercising their ministry as a “priesthood of all believers?” Could the present emptiness lead, in sheer desperation, to some spiritual awakening of the people?

Recently a pastor from another denomination talked with a UM layman. “How come,” this minister asked, “that I see some of your lay people conducting Bible studies and active in witnessing? My people come to church and sit and listen—but I can’t get them to DO anything!”

Our United Methodist extremity may, indeed, be God’s opportunity!

Somehow we must find a way to stand faithfully and at the same time create opportunities for Christian growth. How can this be done? How can the widespread apathy and hostility toward things spiritual be overcome?

We begin with this word from the Lord:

If God is for us, who is against us? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies, who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. (Romans 8:31,33-35,37)

Because of this great assurance we dare to say, with the Apostle Paul, “I CAN do all things in Him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13)

I know a husband and wife who are claiming this victory. Their church situation is far from ideal. Nevertheless, they teach an adult class and once each week there is an “open house” in their home. Young adults feel free to drop in for friendship—and for spiritual questing. This has been happening for several years; and as a result a number of young adults have awakened spiritually and have grown in Christ. Many have brought their new-found faith to the church, where some have begun teaching. Thus more Biblical Christians are involved in the church as the couple’s home-class ministry bears Gospel fruit.

It can be done—without a majority! Without ponderous committees. Without denting the church budget. All that is needed, really, is a few people who are willing to pioneer … who love God’s truth … and who believe that God-plus-one is a majority.

Who says Christians should always expect everything to go easily when we are doing God’s will in a world that is hostile to Him? (James 4:4)

At this point a prophetic word must be spoken. Many people act like helpless babies. They always insist that they must be FED … by the preacher, by the Sunday school class, by prayer/sharing groups. The emphasis is always on what others can do to help ME; never, apparently, is there a thought of being responsible for self or others. Like tiny babies, these want only to be spiritually bottled, burped, and bedded.

Have they no Bibles? Are they unable to read and think? Are they strangers to the Holy Spirit, the supreme Teacher? Can’t they read Christian books, draw strength from Christian friends? Is there no deep and abiding relationship with God, who has promised that no believer would be ever alone—in this world or the next? Is there no solace in prayer? Is there no finding of self by losing of self in service to Christ and His Gospel?

To lie back complaining passively, “I am not being fed!” is a copout … an excuse to escape taking responsibility to grow as a Christian in spite of obstacles. We are, remember, supposed to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work His good pleasure.” (Philippians 1:12,13) Wallowing in self-pity, we easily forget Whose we are—and in Whose strength we stand.

John Wesley faced heavy opposition when he began preaching the Gospel in the 18th century Church of England. Doors were slammed in his face. He was condemned as a trouble-maker and “enthusiast.” Yet he persisted. He kept on because God had laid upon him the obligation of the Gospel. Never quitting the Church of England, Wesley formed Methodist Societies where starving people could find Christ and could then grow in grace.


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