Watching the Tide Come In
A New Year. The year of our Lord 2017. Two thousand and seventeen years – more or less – since God’s Son was born into this world. One thousand nine hundred and eighty-seven years since he died, rose from the dead, ascended into heaven and poured out his Spirit on his disciples.
What an exciting time this is to be alive! Some Christians here in the UK are deeply depressed by the things that are happening in our country and in the world. And indeed there are many sad and disturbing things in the news. But if we look more widely and more deeply, there are thrilling and awesome things being reported from all around the globe. The gospel is being preached in places where it was never preached before. Vast numbers of people are coming to faith in Christ. New churches are being planted every day in cities and in the remotest villages.
Our sad decline
Yes, in the UK and in western Europe generally, the tide of the gospel has been going out for many years. If someone asked me when high tide was in the British Isles, I would probably point to the middle years of the 19th century. There appears to have been an extraordinary outpouring of God’s Spirit in the year 1859. In that year, hundreds of thousands of people from all classes of society were brought under spiritual concern and thronged to hear the gospel preach. Throughout that year, Spurgeon preached each Sunday at the Surrey Music Hall. The building could accommodate 10,000 – a thousand more were turned away each week for lack of space. Almost every night in the week he preached at other venues to crowds of thousands. (This at a time when the population was less than half its present size). Nor was he alone. Gospel preachers of all denominations saw vast numbers of people brought under conviction of sin and professing faith in Christ. Spurgeon looked back as that year came to an end and rejoiced:
“The times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord have at last dawned upon our land. There are signs of aroused activity in increased earnestness. A spirit of prayer is visiting our churches, and in its path is dropping fatness. The first breath of the rushing mighty wind is already discerned, while on rising evangelists the tongues of fire have evidently descended…”
By the end of his ministry, Spurgeon was talking in different tones. Speaking thirty years later:
“I will mention only one more sad evil of the times; that is, the stolidity of the people outside with regard to the gospel. Compared with what it used to be, it is hard to win attention to the Word of God. I used to think that we had only to preach the gospel, and the people would throng to hear it. I fear I must correct my belief under this head…
We all feel that a hardening process is going on among the masses. In this vast city, we have street after street where the people are living utterly regardless of the worship of God. Those who attend church or chapel are marked men; and if you were to enquire for them, they would be pointed out to you as remarkable individuals…. there is a sort of heaviness in the air. Do you not feel it?… Things are not now as in our early ministry… The times are out of joint. The world may well be careless, for the Church in many places is full of unbelief… the good ship of the Church is now tossed about with contrary winds…”
Britain and Europe today
Well, what would he say if he could see our country today? London in 1900 was regarded as the most secularised city in Britain. Yet one in five Londoners still attended church regularly. Today, less than 5 % of people across the UK attend any place of worship. Biblical Christianity is derided by politicians, journalists, educationalists and entertainers. Christians who quote the Bible on matters of lifestyle are liable to be sacked from their jobs, or if they do it in public, arrested.
And things are no better across much of Western Europe. It is much easier to find a Bible-believing church in the UK than in most countries across Europe. Countries like France, Germany and Belgium, measured by most criteria, are more secularised than Britain. There are many areas of France where you would have to travel for three or four hours to find a church where the Bible is preached and the message of salvation through Christ clearly explained.
So yes, for us in the West, the picture may seem very grim. But Europe is not the world. The UK is one small country with a population of around 65 millions. The world population stands somewhere around 7.5 billion people. When we look at the people who make up our British society, we are looking at less than one in every thousand human beings. The whole population of Europe amounts to around 11% of the world’s population. And if the cause of the gospel here seems to be in retreat, in many parts of the world it is surging forward. Let me give you some examples.
The first Protestant missionaries arrived in China in the early nineteenth century. Robert Morrison began his work in 1807; three more workers arrived before his death in 1834. But in those twenty-seven years of faithful labour, he had seen few if any Chinese people come to faith in Christ.
W C Burns arrived in 1847, Hudson Taylor in 1854. Such pioneering missionaries as these worked sacrificially but progress was slow. It is reckoned that there were about 350 Chinese converts in the country when Taylor arrived. He founded the China Inland Mission in 1865 and recruited dozens of new workers. And slowly the tide began to come in. By 1873, there were around 8000 Chinese people who professed faith in Christ; ten years later there were around 22,000. In 1900 the number was estimated at 100,000.
In the years that followed there were huge setbacks and the price paid was very high. In 1900 the Boxer Rebellion broke out. Fifty-eight CIM missionaries and twenty-one of their children were killed by the rebels. But the work of the gospel went on. By 1950 the number of Protestant Christians in China had risen to 700,000. Yes, the number seems impressive but remember, that was still less than one per cent of the Chinese population. And in 1953 the Communist government expelled the last missionaries from the country. They left behind them many young churches which were to face ferocious persecution in the years ahead. Many observers here in the West feared that the cause of the gospel in China would be crushed.
Well, what is the story now – sixty years on? A 2014 headline from the Daily Telegraph tells it all. “China on course to become ‘world’s most Christian nation’ within 15 years”. And the subtitle declares:
“The number of Christians in Communist China is growing so steadily that it by 2030 it could have more churchgoers than America”.
Another writer sums up the situation like this:
“Seldom, if ever, in the annals of Christian history have so many professed faith in Christ in such a short time from so few original believers.
In the vast hinterland where 800 million peasants dwell, isolated, tiny meetings in humble homes have multiplied into vast networks with thousands of churches and millions of members governed by strong leaders. Meanwhile, as urban migration has swelled the population of hundreds of cities, small Bible studies have mushroomed into a veritable forest of congregations, many of them comprised of intellectuals from the most prestigious universities.
Once closed churches have been opened, and now offer multiple services to standing-room-only crowds of Christians and eager seekers from all walks of life, every age group, and both sexes – contradicting communist propaganda that religious faith is the futile refuge of old women and their gullible grandchildren”.
China is officially an atheistic country with a population of around 1.3 billions. How many of those are Christians? No-one knows but it runs into many millions. According to the Telegraph article, “in 2010 there were more than 58 million Protestants in China”. Some researchers say the figure may be much higher. One well-informed organisation estimates that 10,000 Chinese people become Christians each day.
Since 1982 the Chinese constitution has guaranteed freedom to engage in “normal religious activities”. But registered churches which meet legally are carefully monitored. Individual church-goers are tracked and preachers must be careful not to say anything which the Communist Party considers unacceptable.
Bibles can be sold legally but only at bookshops attached to the officially recognised churches and severe restrictions are imposed on evangelism.
Many observers note that the government seems uncertain what its stance should be. On the one side, students at Beijing University attend classes on Christian theology; on the other hand, churches which step out of line may have their buildings bulldozed.
Many Christians have decided that conforming to the state’s demands is not an option. Therefore they choose instead to gather in illegal house churches. The price they pay is often very high. Individual believers may find that they are penalised in many ways. Leaders are frequently arrested, tortured, imprisoned – and many have been killed.
Persecution is a reality for Chinese believers and churches. And the churches have many problems and weaknesses – many of them generated by the very fact that growth has been so rapid. Relative to the number of churches, there are very few well-equipped Bible teachers and a very limited selection of sound resources. Churches are vulnerable to all sorts of false teaching, not least China’s own version of the health, wealth and prosperity heresy. For many Chinese Christians, the great attraction of Christianity is that it offers a better model for society, and the hope of a happier lifestyle. And if it does not deliver that lifestyle, they will be left disillusioned. As one report put it, “millions of Chinese Christians are one unanswered prayer away from apostasy.”
So yes, many challenges and dangers. And yet, when we look at what God has done in China in sixty years, we are amazed and thrilled.
Evangelical witness in Brazil began many years ago. John Calvin sent missionaries to the country as far back as 1557. And yet for 400 years Brazil was almost totally dominated by Roman Catholicism, accompanied by many local superstitions. Protestant missionaries from Britain and North America were active throughout the nineteenth century but they saw little success in breaking down the barriers of entrenched Romanism. In 1914 it was reckoned that there might be around 50,000 Protestant Christians in Brazil.
The next couple of decades saw remarkable progress. By 1930 the number of Protestants had risen to 700,000. But that still made them only an insignificant proportion of the population. But from the 1960s onwards the situation began to be transformed. According to the 2000 census, more than 15% of the population now identify themselves as Protestant Christians. That means that there are around 44 million people who have abandoned the false claims of Rome and embraced some sort of Protestant religion.
Of course, we’re not saying that all of these are true believers. The words “Protestant” and even “evangelical” are used in Brazil for any form of Christianity other than Romanism. The “Protestant” movement in Brazil is very much coloured by Pentecostal and charismatic doctrine and practice. There’s much confusion and many abuses. The Guardian back in 2014 reported on the birth of a new Pentecostal mega church:
“As the curtains part to reveal a giant gold replica of the Ark of the Covenant, a preacher in a skullcap walks on to the stage and extols family values to a congregation of thousands. The believers raise their hands and rock their heads in a communal prayer that starts in a whisper and builds to a crescendo. Female ushers in flowing white robes, gold waistbands and gold shoes smile serenely in the aisles as they collect donations.
Brazil’s newest and most spectacular Pentecostal church, the Temple of Solomon, has been drawing throngs of worshippers and curious onlookers to its daily services since the $300m (£185m) building opened earlier this year and immediately became a symbol of the rising power of evangelical Christianity in this largely Catholic nation”.
And yet the fact is Roman Catholicism has lost its grip on millions of its adherents. And they are now open to the Bible. They may not know very much about what it teaches but they believe that it’s true, and they know that it’s to Jesus, not the Pope or the Virgin to whom they must look.
The beginning of reformation
And many of these converts from Rome are now beginning to discover the true gospel. Richard Denham, a veteran British missionary told the story of his own discovery of the reformed faith in the Evangelical Times in 2007:
“God used articles in the early issues of the Banner of Truth magazine… to help us understand more clearly the need of a sovereign work of God’s grace in the salvation of a soul…
Having witnessed first-hand the miraculous saving power of God to transform lives — and having experienced our own weakness — we felt a pressing burden to share these truths with Brazilian believers.
We sold our boat and opened a gospel bookstore in Manaus, the capital of Amazonas. While we rejoiced in the sale of thousands of Bibles published by the Brazilian Bible Society, we felt the lack of solid reformed literature…
By 1966 it was clear that God would have us begin publishing reformed literature in the Portuguese language… more than 150 titles have since been published, that personal word and contribution continue to encourage us…
In 1985, through the encouragement and participation of Bill Clark and Edgar Andrews of Evangelical Press, FIEL began holding an annual leadership conference with a focus on the great truths of the Reformation… For the past four years also, FIEL has held annual youth conferences in Brazil…
A quarterly magazine Faith for today, begun seven years ago, is currently sent free to more than 20,000 leaders. Hundreds of letters have been received from pastors whose hearts have been moved to gratitude for the gift of salvation by grace alone…
Encouraged by FIEL conferences and publications, a Presbyterian pastor has been holding a reformed conference for the past few years in Manaus, the city where our vision to spread the reformed faith began…
Some fourteen years ago we were invited to visit a Presbyterian group in Recife who sought encouragement in promoting the faith of the Puritans. Since that time the Puritan Movement has published many good books and a magazine, and has held regional Puritan conferences in Brazil. One of their leaders has spoken at FIEL conferences in Brazil, Portugal, Mozambique and Angola…
For the past few years a Reformed Baptist conference has been held in the State of Rio de Janeiro — which has also ministered to a number of Assembly of God pastors who see the need of sound doctrine…
…Reformed Baptists have been encouraged by the formation of the Brazilian Baptist Reformed Fellowship led by Gilson Santos, the pastor of our local church here in Sao José dos Campos. For the past two years an annual conference has been held…
… we rejoice at having witnessed a revival of the reformed faith in Brazil and around the world during the past forty years…”
The last ten years
That was ten years ago. And in those ten years, what amazing things have happened! One reformed (Presbyterian) pastor wrote four years ago about:
“the surprising growth of Reformed faith among Pentecostals. There are innumerable examples of Pentecostal pastors turning to the Reformed understanding of Scriptures. Sometimes even entire Pentecostal churches have gone through this change. I quote here an e–mail I received some weeks ago from a former Pentecostal pastor:
‘Your book Spiritual Worship made our whole church stop speaking in tongues and changed our whole liturgy. We even had to change the sign on our building from “Assembly of God” to “Reformed Church.” We have become Calvinists within the Pentecostal tradition, a unique movement that has arisen in our day. Because of this bold move on our part, our small church began to grow numerically as never before. The first basic change we made was to create a theological seminary, free, every Tuesday from 20:00 to 22:00. We have students from many denominations: Assembly of God, Foursquare Gospel, and many from neo–Pentecostal, prosperity gospel churches. Our Sunday evening worship is very simple: prayer, worship, preaching of the Word, not to mention the fact that on Tuesday and Friday, because of the great enthusiasm for the Word of God, we are dividing the service into two parts with two messages, and sometimes some brothers stay until five in the morning studying and praying’.”
That story could be multiplied many times over. The FIEL conference now brings together more than two thousand earnest listeners. Thousands of reformed books are sold and read each year. Countless Brazilian Christians are listening to Bible preaching on the internet. Reformation is coming to Brazil.
And Brazil is not unique in Latin America. All across that continent, the power of Rome is being broken and people are turning to seek for a religion of the heart. The work of Reformation is perhaps more advanced and moving more quickly in Brazil than in other countries, but the same power is at work in many places.
How much do I need to say about Iran? We have had the opportunity to hear first-hand evidence of a great work of the Holy Spirit among Muslims in Iran in our own time. When did it begin? It was in the 1970s that we began to hear reports of Iranian Muslims turning to Christ. It is illegal to preach the gospel to Muslims in Iran; to leave Islam and become a Christian is a capital crime. And yet in the last twenty-five years many thousands of Iranians have done just that. No-one knows exactly how many. Some estimate a hundred thousand; some reckon it may be five times that number. CBN news is prepared to talk about three million Christians in Iran today, most of them ex-Muslims.
Many, of course, have fled from Iran, having become Christians. And many more have exited the country because they want to become Christians. Iranians arrive in Denmark, Germany, Turkey, the UK or further afield – and they seek out churches and ask to be taught the way of salvation. All across the UK I am hearing from evangelical pastors about the Iranians in their congregations who are seeking and finding salvation. Many of the converts report that their first interest in Christianity came as the result of a dream. It was a dream that moved Cornelius to send for Peter. It seems that God is using the same means to draw many Iranians today.
Iran has been perhaps the most notoriously hard line anti-Christian Muslim state in the world. But there – in the stronghold of Satan – Christ the Messiah is breaking the power of Islam.
Well, there are three examples for you. But we could talk about many more…
Africa – India – Sri Lanka – Albania – Romania…
Across many parts of Africa, Bible believing churches are growing at an extraordinary rate. We hear from Kenya how open people are to the gospel and how many are coming to faith. We hear from Zambia about the progress of the reformed faith. The Lord has raised up powerful reformed preachers and teachers in that country who are leading many churches into the whole counsel of God.
Some parts of India are seeing astonishing awakenings. We were visited a few years ago by an evangelist from Andhra Pradesh, a true gospel preacher – he has himself baptised around 10,000 new believers, many of them converts from Hinduism. The evangelists he has trained have baptised many more. The vast majority of those converts have remained faithful despite intense persecution.
What about Sri Lanka – and the churches of the Lanka Evangelical Fellowship? That whole movement began with the conversion of a single man. What about Albania? As far as we know there were no more than a handful – yes maybe five – believers alive in that country in 1990. Today, there are scores of gospel churches throughout the country and new ones being planted every year. What about Romania and the thrilling growth of gospel witness after the fall of Communism there?
The tide is coming in. I believe there are more evangelical Christians in the world than ever before. There are more Bible churches in more places than ever before. Yes, across the world, and especially here in the West, we are seeing intensifying opposition to the kingdom of Christ. But still the kingdom grows.
Promises and Prospects
And isn’t that what we should expect? “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches” (Matthew 13:31-31).
How tiny the seed of the kingdom was at its beginning – a single convicted criminal hanging on a cross. But it grew – a hundred and twenty believers meeting in an upstairs room. And then it became a church of more than three thousand devoted believers. And then it broke out from its Jewish shell to become a network of churches across the Roman Empire. Today, the tree of the kingdom can be seen all across the earth. And it is still growing.
Believers are forbidden to despair. The promises that the Father made to his Son still stand:
“Ask of me and I will make the nations your inheritance and the ends of the earth your possession. You will rule them with an iron sceptre. You will dash them to pieces like pottery” (Psalm 2: 7-8).
And who knows? Maybe the King will yet bring his iron sceptre to bear on this country. What he is doing elsewhere, he can surely do here.