Has the fire gone out of American Christianity? If the fire of the church seems to flicker like a weak flame it is because of the absence of the Spirit of God. The fuel of Christianity is the fire of the Holy Spirit.
Our culture is changing rapidly and some have identified significant threats today’s American culture poses to the Christian faith. I have considered the impact of the rise of secularization and the growing religious pluralism in our society in previous blog posts. An additional threat to Christianity in America is nominalism.
According to the Merriam Webster dictionary “nominal” comes from the root of the word for “name” and means “in name only.” On the 2010 U.S. census 78% of respondents marked the box “Christian” when they were asked to identify their religious belief – how many of those people are Christian in “name only?”
Clearly American Christians are decreasing in practicing the faith. Fewer people attend church on a regular basis. Families are involved in a vast array of secular activities on Sunday mornings. Christians enjoy coming to church for the programming or to connect with their small group, but many neglect coming to the sanctuary to worship God.
There is a rapid decline of commitment to faith in America. When someone was asked 50 years ago if they attend church regularly and they responded “yes”, they meant they attended church every Sunday and probably Wednesday as well. When someone is asked today if they attend church regularly and they say “yes” – they mean once every 3-5 weeks. Many Americans may associate themselves with a Christian denomination but have not been to church or turned to God in prayer in years. We have a large population in the U.S. who are Christians “in name only.” Thirty years from now we will have an entire generation of children who have never been to church or been taught the faith. The fire has gone out.
How Three Christian Leaders Responded to Nominalism
One of John Wesley’s objectives in the 1740s was to rid England of nominal Christianity. British citizens belonged to the Church of England and attending worship was a matter of expectation. Worship of God did not necessarily originate out of faith or religious belief. Worship services were staid, sermons were boring, and the fire of the faith had certainly gone out.
John Wesley was a young, well-educated Anglican clergyman whose heart was strangely warmed in an evangelical conversion experience at Aldersgate. This movement of the Holy Spirit in his life led him to do something absolutely unheard of at the time. He walked out of the church and began to preach in the open air – in the market places, fields and near the entrance to the coal mines.
People flocked by thousands to hear Wesley’s preaching and were enthusiastically moved by the Holy Spirit. This was the beginning of the Methodist revival movement within the Anglican Church that spread like wild fire throughout Great Britain and to North America. Meanwhile, in the America Colonies, preachers like George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards preached in the new frontier sparking the First Great Awakening of Christianity in America.
Phoebe Palmer was born in 1807 to a Methodist family in New York. Throughout her life she longed for a deeper experience of the Christian faith. She married and suffered terrible grief from the loss of children by miscarriage, turning to God in her crises. Phoebe and her sister began a women’s prayer meeting they entitled the “Tuesday meeting for the promotion of holiness.”
In time, it attracted men as well as women – including prominent theologians, several Methodist Bishops and other denominational leaders. Word of these successful prayer meetings inspired similar gatherings around the country, bringing Christians of many denominations together to pray.
At a time when women were not trusted to vote and not allowed to speak in the church, Phoebe became the most influential woman in the largest, fastest-growing religious movement in America. At her instigation, missions began, camp meetings evangelized, and an estimated 25,000 Americans converted. She herself would often preach. Phoebe is considered the founder of the Holiness movement in the United States which began as a renewal movement within the Methodist church; it was a fiery revival within Methodism. It was a significant part of the Second Great Awakening in American Christianity.
In the 1850s Americans were disillusioned with the Christian faith and spiritual things. Preachers kept telling them the world was going to end and it never happened, so there was growing skepticism. Agitation over slavery was causing great political unrest and civil war was threatening the country. There was financial panic over bank failures and unemployment was on the rise.
The Dutch Reformed Church was steadily losing members in New York, largely because of population changes owing to immigration. Jeremy Lanphier was a lay member of the little church and began a visitation program to reverse the decline. Church members remained listless.
One day, Jeremy rented a hall on Fulton Street and advertised noon time prayer meetings. Despite his advertisement, on September 23, 1857, only six people showed up. But six people were six people. They prayed. Next week more people came. Next week there were more. This prayer meeting grew each week until 10,000 people were gathering for prayer daily in New York City alone. The prayer meetings spread throughout the United States – Chicago, Louisville KY, Cleveland, and St. Louis. Lay people led this prayer revival. It was not a program of the church organized by clergy or denominational leaders. The focus of the meeting was prayer and it led to the Third Great Awakening in the United States.
These three Great Awakenings in American history were led by ordinary people that God used to start revivals. They were launched in response to the very things that are threatening Christianity today – rationalism, religious pluralism and nominalism.
Pentecost – The Promise of the Fire
In the first chapter of Acts we find the account of the ascension of Jesus. Jesus is taken up to heaven, but before he leaves he gives his followers specific instructions. They are to go to Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit. They have been baptized with water; now they will be baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
The disciples ask Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6 [NRSV]). What the disciples fail to understand is that God’s kingdom is not a geographical location, a territory or a political realm; it is the rule of God over human hearts. The kingdom of God has come, it is near, yet it is still not completely fulfilled yet. The kingdom of God is in the process of restoration. We are in the in between time.
The restoration of American hearts to God
If we pray, “Lord, Thy kingdom come,” if we pray to God for the restoration or America to Christianity, what we really must ask for is not a restoration of a geographic area to God but a restoration of American hearts to God.
“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” (Acts 2:1-2 [NRSV]).
Fire appeared – tongues of flame sat above every person and they could speak in different tongues and understand different languages. The Holy Spirit empowered them to do what God needed to be done to restore the kingdom of human hearts to God.
When they receive that power in Acts chapter two, there is an evident change. Once men and women of fear, they are filled with boldness. Once hiding behind doors that are locked, they unlock the doors and go out into the community to proclaim and witness to a resurrected Messiah. The early Christians are a people “on fire”, ready to speak out and proclaim Jesus starting in their city, moving out through their nation and then as Christ instructs to the ends of the earth.
Our Response to Culture Shift
How does the story of Pentecost and the stories of the beginnings of the three Great Awakenings of Christianity inform our response to today’s Culture Shift? What is the faithful Christian’s response?
First, Pray. Pray and wait for the power of the Holy Spirit to come upon the Church. Pray for a new and fresh outpouring of the fire of the Holy Spirit in our day. Pray and wait. This prayer need not be instructed by the clergy or elite of the church. This prayer need be lifted up from the grass roots – it should begin with lay people, working people, everyday people out in the world in the streets in businesses coming together with other Christians regardless of denomination affiliation and seek God’s outpouring of the Spirit once again.
The Holy Spirit is what sustains the church, revives the church, restores and renews the church in every age and every generation all throughout the world. We must not rely on our own power, but on the power of God. It is God’s power that will move and change the world around us. It is God’s power that will enable us to be witnesses of love.
Second, Move. After Jesus ascended to heaven, taken up in a cloud, the disciples stared up into the sky for a long time looking after him. Stunned, not knowing what to do, the angels standing near them said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11 [NRSV]).
This was not what they expected. They were alone and on their own. They did not know what they would do without their Lord and leader; they could not imagine that the promise that was coming was even greater than his physical presence. The disciples were not to continue to stand there looking after Jesus, they had work to do. The presence of Jesus will be with them in the spiritual outpouring they are about to experience. They are to return to the city to be empowered for their prophetic witness.
At Pentecost when the Spirit is poured out God’s presence became an indwelling presence available to every believer. The fire of God came as a flame that not merely rested over their head but filled their heart with a spiritual fire that fueled their lives, the work, ministry, movement and the founding of the Church.
Three, Revival. The Christian Church in America is longing, aching, primed and ready for revival. The next Great Awakening of American Christianity is at hand. Now is the time for a new movement of the Spirit. Now is the time for a new outpouring of fire, a new Pentecost. The response to nominalism is revivalism. Now is the time for the church to “catch fire!”
Preached by Rev. Jan Jokinen Davis on Sunday, February 15, 2015 at First Rowlett United Methodist Church.
 Merriam Webster On Line Dictionary, www.meriamwebster.com.
 William Abraham, recorded in Perkins School of Theology DMin class notes.
 Dan Graves, Jeremy Lanphier Led Prayer Revival, Christianity.com, accessed February 2015. http://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1801-1900/jeremy-lanphier-led-prayer-revival-11630507.html
 Sacra Pagina, Acts of the Apostles, p. 29.
 Sacra Pagina, Acts of the Apostles, p. 30.
 William Arthur, Tongues of Fire, p. 15.