If you’ve been around the Wayfarer Blog for a while, you’ve read the stats about how young people are fleeing from the church. One of our biggest purposes on this blog is to begin a discussion with leaders of teenagers and young people in order to begin to turn this stat around. But this is not a new problem…
Long before the millennial generation started leaving the church without returning, the prophet Ezekiel faced a similar crisis. God’s people, the nation of Israel, had abandoned God, and God had returned the favor by withdrawing His presence from the temple. That left the people alone, vulnerable, and unprotected. The problem is that most of the people of Ezekiel’s day didn’t even know that He was gone – at least for a while.
What followed was one of the darkest moments in Israel’s history. The empire of Babylon invaded the Israelites’ land, destroyed their most sacred places, and carried off their most prized possessions as well as their sons and daughters. A trail of blood and humiliation flowed from the temple toward Babylonian territory. It looked as though the nation of Israel had suffered a fatal blow. The people of God were dead. They were scattered. They were dry.
During this devastating reality, God spoke to a prophet named Ezekiel through a vision. In this vision, God brought Ezekiel to a valley where the bones of Israel were scattered across the ground. These were not just any bones. They were the bones of Ezekiel’s people – his family, his friends, his nation. As Ezekiel, surveyed the situation, God came to Ezekiel with a penetrating question: “Can these bones live?” (Ezekiel 37:3)
I love Ezekiel’s answer. He said, “Sovereign Lord you alone know.” This is a biblical way of saying, “I don’t know. They are really, really dead God. They are way past CPR. I’ve surveyed the scene and it doesn’t look good, God.”
I love Ezekiel’s answer because it is so honest and real. He didn’t diminish the people’s pain by giving a Sunday School answer about God’s power. He didn’t diminish God by giving a cynical answer or one that only took into account what he could see. He said he didn’t know. And in this “I don’t know” moment, God begins to do some of his greatest work. The work began when God asks Ezekiel to start speaking. The speaking of the Word brought together the bones and then the ligaments and then the flesh. Suddenly, what was a bunch of bones began to look more like a group of people.
Still, there was no life. So God told Ezekiel to speak to the wind. In the Hebrew, wind and breath and Spirit are the same word. As Ezekiel spoke to the wind, the wind of the Spirit gave birth to breath, and like the scene in Genesis 2, the breath once again gave life. What started out as a graveyard had become a vast army.
This was a deeply moving and inspiring vision both for Israel, and I think it can be just as inspiring for every follower of God who has surveyed God’s people and wondered if they could live again. The ancient/future collision of Word and Spirit produces what temples or buildings, rituals or programs, and sacrifices or services could never do on their own. And this collision mobilizes the followers of God.
Today the people of God need to gain their mobility. Graveyards need to be spoken into. The people of God need to be called forth. The Spirit of God must blow in again to give life where it seems only dead things remain. Vision must give birth to word. Word must give way to Spirit. And Spirit then can give opportunity for breath and life and movement.
This is what the church should be and do. It is a people movement brought together by Word and Spirit, gathered by vision and reality, and readied to battle for what should be in the world. It is violent, but not in the way the world is violent. It’s violent in the way that true love is violent. It fervently overwhelms with grace instead of furiously overpower with guns. It is community pressed by passion. It is community moved by mission. It is community driven by discipleship. And so it is community that looks more like an entity and less like an institution.
This community is not a new invention. Instead, it is the reclaiming of an old one. It is revolution in the way that most Christian revolutions are. H. Richard Niebuhr states it this way: “The great Christian revolutions come not by the discovery of that which was not known before. They happen when someone believes radically that which has always been there.”
This post is adapted from Dave Rhodes’ book Redefining Normal, available now through our website.