How do Turnaround Pastors lead God's people in post-Christian America?
As the headlong slide toward the abyss accelerates, many will look to the past for guidance into the future. They will look to the distant past.
All the way back to 587 B.C.
The prophetic voices of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel model what is needed today: how to prepare God's people for life in a society sliding toward the brink.
In the centuries before Jerusalem's destruction (in 587 B.C.) God warned his people time and again that he would abandon them to the consequences of their sins if they did not repent.
When God Abandons
Israel sustained it's rebellion for centuries. But God remained patient, for a time. Forbearance ended when retributive justice befell Jerusalem in 587 B.C. He forsook them to the hands of the Babylonian invaders.
When God abandoned the nation, its way of life perished.
- The walls of Jerusalem were torn down
- The temple was burned
- The Davidic dynasty was terminated
- Leading citizens were enslaved
- A way of life they had known for almost 1,000 years ended
- Rhythms and rituals of worship burned with the temple
- Peace and order disappeared when government and social structures fell
A way of life, a culture, a civilization perished when God abandoned those who abandoned him.
The plight of God's people in America is not precisely analogous to that of God's people in ancient Israel. Neither has the Church replaced Israel (here or anywhere else), nor were the organs of American society wholly devoted upholding God's Law as a way of life for all citizens.
But in the past American governance, social mores and popular culture informed, to varying degrees, a culture that was friendly to the People of the Way.
That is all past.
We are now in days like those of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. People of faith dwell in a rebellious society sliding into chaos because God no longer holds the center.
All around us we see that indeed, "God gave them up" (Romans 1:24) because "by their unrighteousness [they] suppress the truth" (Romans 1:18).
So the Turnaround Pastor does not look to the last thirty years for guidance on how to lead. He does not look to the previous century of denominational experience for counsel on how to prepare his flock for what is soon to follow. He most certainly does not find a roadmap for the future in the expectations of the church.
There will be little of use in those hallowed venues because in America today God is doing a new thing.
God Does A New Thing
A culture hostile to faith seethes around the people of God in America today.
- Gone are the days when public education supported biblical values.
- A legal system that once lent support to the walk of faith has become the instrument of systematic repression.
- Community leaders, elected officials, law enforcement and the courts are no longer bound by truth and written codes of conduct.
- The arts, which formerly celebrated the virtues of faith, modesty, fidelity, agape and honesty, now revel in profligate immorality.
God is doing something different here. Something Americans have never before experienced. He has blinded a nation that refuses to see. He has deafened a people who will not hear. He has appointed deceivers to govern those who will not abide in truth.
And the former days will be no more.
But as in Israel before the Exile, so in America today, those who shepherd the people of God must prepare them for life in a world they will scarcely recognize.
Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel ministered to the people of God while the only world they had known crumbled around them.
The Need for Discernment
It is time that we pay attention, ponder the significance, and prepare for the future. There is no reason this should surprise anyone. About the prophets Walter Brueggemann has written,
These new actions of God which they articulate are not new actions that were new on the face of it. That is why the poet asks with astonished impatience, "Do you not perceive it?" (Isaiah 43:19).1
The pre-exilic prophets understood what was happening around them while their countrymen were oblivious. Today Turnaround Pastors must discern what God is doing and prepare their flocks for something few of them expect.
Preparing God's People for Exile
As it was in Israel before 587 B.C., God's people are in dire need of a prophetic voice to prepare them for what's ahead.
These three poetic traditions of Jeremiah, Ezekiel and 2 Isaiah are cast in the difficult role of providing voice and articulation to the faith and experience of this community in a very odd circumstanceâ€¦ In this brief definitive period in Old Testament faith, pastoral responsibility was to help people enter into exile, to be in exile, and to depart out of exile.2
The Israelites faced the daunting task letting go of the only way of life they had ever known, to lean into a strange and different world that awaited them. Everything that created structure, peace and order perished.
- There would be no priests to interpret the law of the land for them.
- There would be no calendar of festivals to create the rhythm of life through the year.
- There would be no king to sit upon the throne promised to David forever.
- There would be no Day of Atonement to purge the nation of Israel of its sins.
- There would be no thanksgiving or praise sacrifices to celebrate and rejoice in God's goodness.
- There would be no possession of the land by right of inheritance.
- There would be no burnt offerings or sin offerings to mollify the guilty conscience and restore fellowship with God.
- There would be no High Priest to intercede before God in behalf of his people.
Turnaround Pastors face a challenge similar to that faced by the pre-exilic prophets: to prepare God's people for life in an alien environment.
Mind you, the mission of God is not attenuated nor is our role in any way diminished. But how the people of God live and how they take part in the mission will necessarily evolve and change.
It is the wise pastor who prepares them to answer the difficult questions that now beset us.
- How do we live faithfully in a culture that disapproves of biblical piety?
- What does it mean to be subject to a government hostile to Christian faith?
- When is it proper to speak in opposition to obdurate sin?
- Where do we educate our children to protect them from the corrosive hostility of godless worldviews?
Where do we start?
- Teach your people to place their hope in God, not in perishable riches.
- Warn them that all who wish to live quiet and godly lives will endure suffering as the darkness falls.
- Challenge those who year for the old ways to face the future with faith.
- Retrain the exhausted culture warriors to conduct search and rescue missions.
- Boldly declare that one day the Exile will end.