Advertising Ashes

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Man on fire

You never have to advertise a fire. —Leonard Ravenhill

Are you growing increasingly distressed by the worldly attempts by many churches today to market their church? Does the latest church fad sweeping the nation leave you cold? Are you growing nostalgic for "the olden days" when a preacher would walk into the pulpit and by the unction of God set the place ablaze?

Now that everyone in the United States has a blog—it seems like it, doesn't it?—I read an increasing number of sites that are advertising that they have the solution to whatever the Church's problem is. We all know what the problems are. Just a glance at the Top 25 bestselling Christian books in your local Christian bookstore will tell you:

  • Your church needs better marketing.
  • Your church needs to understand community demographics better.
  • Your church needs to have purpose/mission.
  • Your church needs to be relevant.
  • Your church needs to be authentic.
  • Your church needs to reach out to whatever group of people it's failed to reach in the past.
  • Your church needs to be concerned with end-times prophecy.
  • Your church needs to have a better men's/women's/youth/children's ministry.
  • Your church needs __________.

In a charismatic age, when even the crustiest Presbyterians are raising their hands in worship, how is it that we have forgotten the only thing the Church needs? Why have we forgotten the Holy Spirit?

You never have to advertise a fire. That's the answer to all these books clamoring for attention, trying to get you to buy to find out the "Super Secret Christian Formula" that will suddenly take you, your family, and your church to the absolute pinnacle of Christian experience.

Yet nothing draws people like a fire. You see a fire, you immediately start wanting to linger, to see what is burning, to watch what happens next. Fire evoke memories of stories told while camping, the community around bathed in the amber glow of timelessness and wonder. Fire heals, cleanses, and illumines. It spreads and envelops.

If there is any one characteristic of the Church in America in 2005 it is that for all our bluster, our bestselling fixes, and our introspection over the failure of believers to rise above the secular mire, no other answer can come but that we need the fire of God poured out on us.

John Eldredge, bestselling author of Wild at Heart, claims that men find church boring. David Morrow recently wrote Why Men Hate Going to Church. I have the simple answer for that: they are not encountering the Holy Spirit in the churches they attend. Someone who regularly attends a church that is filled with people overflowing with the Holy Spirit and who experiences the Holy Spirit in power in those meetings will NEVER be bored and will NEVER hate gathering.

But this is not most churches.

Ever heard of the aviator cults? These were primitive people who lived in remote areas untouched by modernity. As aviation grew, these tribal people started seeing huge, unusual birds in the sky. They were a sign. And some of those tribesmen were startled when a metal bird descended from the clouds and tall, white people emerged from their bellies. These people were like the gods themselves. So when the gods got back into their metal birds and flew away, the tribesmen were compelled to erect effigies of them and the odd bird they came in. Totemic planes built of reeds were set up in hopes that the gods would some day return and bless the people. This persisted for generations.

Today, our churches resemble aviator cults. We have a vague memory of generations ago when God showed up in our churches in power. But as time goes on, the story breaks down, the reason for it becomes muddied, and we start dancing around trying to make the aviator gods return. Churches do this in a variety of ways. Most churches entertain, rely on clever marketing campaigns to put posteriors in the pews, or scour the demographic data to tailor their message to what the neighborhood wants to hear. They advertise the ashes of the fire that might have once burned brightly, but is no more. They'll sculpt the ashes into amusing shapes and toy around with the properties of the ashes until they've mined all the ashes are worth—but on reflection, the ashes remain ashes and the fire is eventually forgotten.

You never have to advertise a fire. The Holy Spirit's fire in a church will obliterate whatever feeble gains a marketing campaign can create. The Holy Spirit's fire in a church catches in the community and changes lives profoundly. The Holy Spirit's fire cleanses, renews, and empowers.

For all too many churches today, there is no fire, only ashes. This is the dirty little secret that no one can utter. And when the Sunday service is over, it's the nagging doubt in every person's mind as they walk out wondering why they feel so empty even though they just spent all that time in church.

Everything besides the Spirit will fail to change this condition. The Christian pundits out there are misdirecting people into thinking there are other ways to get there, but there aren't. Only the Spirit of God satisfies. And once you have the Spirit, all that other dross is burned away.

It's time to stop pretending. For too many the Holy Spirit has become a dim memory in a dim church filled with dim people. God, send us your Fire!

12 thoughts on “Advertising Ashes

  1. You don’t see the fire because Christians have decided they didn’t need to pay the cost in prayer and committed obedience. As soon as those are in place- the fire will come and no one can stop it.

  2. ilona,

    I don’t know if that is all we need. Many things in our society are fundamentally different than in the days of the great revivals of the past.

    When the Welsh revival came, businesses closed down and people were in church day after day for weeks. But if a real revival hit a church today, do you really think that people would spend a week at church like that? If you didn’t go to work for several days, you would lose your job. Businesses wouldn’t close down like they did a long time ago.

    That’s just one thing that comes to mind. I’m not saying it’s not possible to have a revival like the old ones, but with our culture so different from the last great revival days, I’m not sure how it would look or if it would be as effective. I just don’t know.

  3. I believe you are so right. “Advertising ashes” is exactly what we are doing. I have not even discussed this with anyone, but I have been very uncomfortable with a new “program” at our church that is designed to make visitors feel welcome. Well…if the Holy Spirit is at work in and through us, aren’t we naturally going to welcome visitors without a “program”? Isn’t offering them coffee, a donut, and chocolate just a very cheap imitation of The Only One who satisfies? Just one very small example. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be hospitable….it is just that it seems so artificial. I am a new reader and appreciate your insights. Thank you for articulating this so perfectly.

  4. Oh, thank you! This expresses my sentiments so deeply… and I like Patricia’s comment… the coffee and donuts are “junk food” in place of the real food which the Spirit holds out to us…

    “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without price…listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” (Is. 55:1,2)

    And, maybe this focuses the problem for us… maybe we have too much “money” in various ways… which leads us to “spend [our] money on that which is not bread” (v.1) I know I am sometimes guilty of unwise “spending.”

  5. Anonymous

    My church too has made some changes to make visitors feel more welcome and I don’t feel the Holy Spirit anymore and I am struggling to not leave on a weekly basis. Maybe it is my anger, because I am angry at the church even though I know the pastor has a deep heart for God.

  6. There is nothing wrong with making a church hospitable to those who come. In fact, I believe this to be essential for a healthy church. Just because a church is attempting to be more friendly and hospitable does not mean it’s on the road to hell.

    However, hospitality and friendliness CAN’T be a substitute for the Spirit of God. Therein lies the issue.

    So cultivate hospitality and friendliness, have coffee and donuts, have people talking for an hour after the service is over, but make certain the Spirit of God is in the service and is driving the hospitality and friendliness. Otherwise, it’s not honoring to God.

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