I love to read how the forbearers of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) stirred up thousands upon thousands of people in the late 18th and early 19th century. Some estimate that when Barton Stone held his revival at Cane Ridge, Kentucky in 1801, nearly 30,000 people showed up. That’s 10% of the entire population of Kentucky.[i] Can you even imagine that?
Today, I believe a good question we should ask ourselves is: What in the world were these folks preaching? How did they start a movement that would later become one of the largest denominations in North America?
I believe they simply had the audacity to fully commit themselves to following Jesus at all costs.
Following Jesus was not something that they did casually, haphazardly, timidly, or reservedly. They followed passionately and fervently, eagerly and urgently. And following Jesus was not something that they did privately. They followed Jesus very publically. And they did not care who they offended, or if those with political or ecclesial authority opposed them for it.
They unashamedly imitated Jesus who said, “Oh, King Herod, wants to kill me? Well, you tell that fox that I must keep doing the business of the one who sent me. I must keep liberating people from demonic evil, systemic, cultural and personal. You tell Herod I must keep bringing people healing and wholeness today, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. And you tell them that I must take this mission all the way to Jerusalem. That’s right, you tell that fox for me that I must do these things. Not that that I might do these things, not maybe, not that I am going to try, but that I must be on this way.”
I believe Barton Stone simply put the word “must” back into a Christianity that had grown apathetic, moderate and mainstream.
He preached that Christians must put God’s word over culture, the way of Jesus over the way of the world. We must denounce all man-made creeds and confessions, and we must commit ourselves to following Jesus at all costs.
“Oh, the presbytery thinks we’re going against the doctrinal grains of the church do they? Oh, the government thinks we are bucking the political system? Well, you tell those foxes that we must keep following Jesus today, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. We must keep fighting for the inclusion of all at the communion table. We must keep preaching against the demonic evils of slavery. We must keep standing against the power of the clergy over the laity, the power of Bishops over the clergy and anything else that does not jive with Jesus! You tell those foxes that we must be on this way.”
I do not believe we can overemphasize how committed our forbearers were to the gospel even when the gospel was directly opposed culture. At Cane Ridge, during a time when Presbyterians believed only like-minded Presbyterians could receive communion, Presbyterian Barton Stone invited an African-American slave, a Baptist, to not only receive communion, but to actually serve communion. And if you could ask him why he included this man, I believe he would simply say, “I must include him.”
And later, when Stone inherited two slaves, he immediately emancipated them. Trouble was that they were living in Kentucky long before the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. So what does Stone do? He tells his family and his two former slaves, “Pack your bags, because we must move to Illinois because our new friends must be free!”
And thousands of people from all over the then expanding United States responded to Stone by saying, “We must join this movement!” And by 1960, the movement they started exploded into a denomination with 1.6 million members.
Now here’s the troubling news. In 2012, we only had 625,000 members. Since 1960 our denomination has had a 60% decline in membership.[ii]
There are many complex reasons for this decline. However, this morning, I want to suggest that one of the reasons is that somewhere along the way we have taken the word “must” out of our church vocabulary.
We have lost our passion to follow Jesus at all costs. We have lost our drive to place the law of God over the law of the land to the point that it creates some opposition. We have lost a sense of urgency to be a powerful movement for wholeness that upsets the powers that be in our broken world. Our faith has become more of something that privately changes our souls instead of something that publically changes the world. Our faith tends to embrace the culture instead of challenging the culture. Watered down by peer pressure, our faith has become mainstream, mainline and moderate.
In fact, when you look up the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) on Wikipedia, you will discover that we are described as a “mainline denomination in North America.”
Barton Stone would roll over in his grave! For he followed a Jesus who was far more upstream than mainstream, more radical than moderate, always swimming against popular currents of culture. He followed a Jesus who must be on the way to truth and life, even if it upset folks along that way.
Do you remember the story of twelve-year old Jesus when he did the unthinkable by leaving his parents behind? When his upset parents finally found him in the temple, Jesus asked, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house” (Luke 2:49)?
After healing Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, the crowds used all of the peer pressure they could muster to prevent Jesus from leaving them, but he replied, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God in other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43).
Warning the disciples who resisted suffering and persecution, Jesus said: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and scribes and be killed and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9:22).
When he encountered a man who needed to stop stealing from the poor, Jesus said, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today” (Luke 19:5).
Right before his arrest on the Mount of Olives Jesus describes his death by saying: “For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me” (Luke 22:37).
Jesus selflessly and sacrificially travels to Jerusalem, to the city that is known to kill the prophets, not casually, haphazardly, timidly or reservedly. But with passion. With eagerness. With urgency in his steps, conviction in his heart, and the word “must” on his lips.
Now tell me when is the last time you have ever said aloud or silently:
“I must share the love and grace of Christ with someone today.”
“I must find a way to love this one who no one else loves today, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow.”
I must find a way to forgive this person who has hurt me today, the next day, and the day after.”
“I must feed someone who is hungry.”
“I must share hope with the hopeless.”
“I must do my very best in preparing to teach this Sunday School lesson for these children this morning.”
“I must make sure my children are in Sunday School this morning.”
“I must attend Sunday School this morning.”
“I must visit the nursing home this afternoon.”
Truthfully, as a pastor, I do not hear many folks use the word “must” in the church these days. I hear the word “might.” “I might, if nothing else comes up.” “I might if everything else goes alright this week.” “I’ll check my calendar, and then I might think about it.”
And I hear the word “try.” “I’ll try to help out if I don’t have somewhere else to be.”
And I hear many “maybes.” “Maybe I’ll be able to work a little on that project. Maybe I will be able to give a time this week.
And sometimes I hear all three: I might try harder to be more faithful, maybe.”
But think about what kind of church this would be if we all had the same type of urgency and passion as our Lord. “Can you help with our children on Wednesday nights?” “I must help with our children.”
“Can you serve on this mission project? “I must serve on it!
Will you follow Jesus at all costs?” “We must!”
The good news is that I believe this urgency and this passion can be as contagious in the twenty-first century as it was in the nineteenth century.
I believe Central Christian Church can bring revival to our city as we encourage many others to join us saying…
I must join this movement for wholeness in this fragmented world.
I must join this mission to share the gifts God has given me.
I must serve on a ministry team to make a difference in this world.
I must take a stand for the Word of God, even if it gets me into some trouble.
I must do what I can to change this city, our region and our world even if it goes against the powers that be.
I must follow Jesus even when it is not popular or socially acceptable.
I must love my neighbor as myself.
I must do unto others as I would have them do unto me, even if my friends forsake me, and my enemies wish to do me harm.
I must deny myself, pick up my cross, and carry it wherever my Lord leads, even if it means losing my life. Let us pray together.
O God put conviction in our hearts, urgency in our steps and the word “must” on our lips as we serve selflessly and sacrificially all the way to Jerusalem, in the name of Jesus the Christ, Amen.
[i] Duane Cummins, The Disciples: A Struggle for Reformation (St. Louis: Chalice Press), 2009.