What I have found among young evangelicals is a deep level of dissatisfaction at the church’s lack of spiritual power. I can’t emphasize enough how galvanizing a vision of spiritual warfare can be for millennials, in the positive sense of realigning the church as a center of resistance to dark forces.
As an English professor at a Christian university in Houston, Texas, I have been afforded a unique perspective on the state and direction of the evangelical church, understood in its broadest sense. First, given that Houston is the most culturally diverse city in the country, I have been able to catch a glimpse of what God is doing in the hearts, and churches, of young people from nations across the globe: Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, Jamaica, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Egypt, Vietnam, China, Japan, the UK, Germany and France, Australia and New Zealand, the Philippines, and many more. Second, and on a more personal note, I have been able to keep in contact with alumni in their twenties and thirties who have moved into some form of ministry.
What I have found among evangelicals—again, I use that word in its broadest sense—between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five is a general dissatisfaction with the church. As one would expect, I hear the typical complaints: too commercialized, too entertainment-based, too seeker-sensitive, too accommodating to the culture, too focused on numbers. But I have also discerned a deeper level of dissatisfaction at the church’s lack of power. When I say “power,” I do not mean political power, but spiritual power: the kind of power that does not so much change votes or government programs, as hearts and minds, goals and desires, choices and priorities.
They are tired of just “doing” church. Yes, they are turned off by the backbiting, the hypocrisy, and the cliques, but they perceive that those things are manifestations of a more foundational lack of unity and vision for what God can do through the local congregation. That is to say, they trust that the petty, faith-crushing church politics would either disappear or be reduced to a minor annoyance if there was a firm, unshakable sense among the clergy and the laity that the church was making an impact for the Kingdom of God. Even if the worship, the preaching, and the programs are all solid, without that power and that vision, the church becomes finally impotent, another social club.
As an indication of that desire for a power and a vision they are not finding in the church, more and more young people have turned to the excellent Bible Project videos that can be viewed for free online. At the root of the videos is a biblical dimension that has been increasingly eclipsed since the Enlightenment, a dimension that is laid out most fully in Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible (Lexham Press, 2015, 2019). In this challenging book, Heiser argues, convincingly, that spiritual warfare goes beyond our limited notion of angels and devils.
God intended to work through a divine council of gods (not eternal, uncreated beings like Yahweh, but created spiritual beings), but many of those gods rebelled and eventually worked their corrupt wills through corrupt human kingdoms like Babylon, Egypt, and the various Canaanite tribes. God also intended for human beings to be a part of his council, but we, too, rebelled. God chose Israel to establish a beachhead in the Holy Land against the fallen nations and their false, idolatrous gods, but Israel disobeyed and was exiled to Babylon, the very center of divine/human resistance to God’s plans for the earth (think: Tower of Babel).
Though God prophesied the coming of Christ, he did so in a riddling fashion, so that the rebel gods would be fooled into crucifying the Christ, thus leading to their own downfall. With the resurrection of Christ, the tide of battle turned, and God called a new chosen people, the church, to take his side in the ongoing spiritual war against the fallen gods and the fallen nations. We live in the midst of that ongoing war, attesting to the victory of Christ and reenacting that victory every time a believer is buried and raised again in the waters of baptism.
I can’t emphasize enough how galvanizing this vision of spiritual warfare has been for many young evangelicals: not in the negative sense of fostering a morbid curiosity about dark forces, but in the positive sense of realigning the church as a center of resistance to those dark forces, rather than just a safe space for Christians and their families. Indeed, the other desire I have been discerning more and more in young evangelicals is a heartfelt yearning for a new and fuller understanding of what the church is, or at least should be.
To that end, I have increasingly heard young evangelicals replace the word church with the Greek word that Jesus uses twice, and only twice, in the gospels (Mathew 16:18, 18:17): ekklesia. The Greek for this word literally means “chosen out ones,” a meaning many believers find more empowering, and convicting, than church: which connotes a building (the “Lord’s house”) as much as it does a group of people.
These same evangelicals also like to highlight the setting of Matthew 16:13-20, where Jesus gives Peter the keys of the kingdom and promises that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church. Caesarea Philippi, where the scene takes place, was a center for the worship of the emperor (Caesar), the Greco-Roman god Pan, and the demonic Baal, to whom the Phoenicians (and apostate Jews!) sacrificed their children, often at a place called Gehenna—a word that Jesus uses to denote Hell. Jesus may even have been standing over a cave thought to be an entrance way to the underworld when he gave his promise.
The details here are exciting, not just because they are “cool” in a sci-fi fantasy kind of way, but because they raise the stakes considerably. Not just evil people, but pagan idols, world powers, and the entry way to hell itself cannot prevail. The church is more than a place to train people in virtuous living; it is Gandalf standing on the bridge of Khazad-dum and telling the Balrog (an ancient fire demon) that it cannot pass!
Such things I have heard and read in conversations, study Bibles, and numerous blog posts, but it wasn’t until I read Dean Briggs’s Ekklesia Rising: The Authority of Christ in Communities of Contending Prayer (Champion Press, 2014) that I encountered a wider view of ekkelsia with the power to draw in young evangelicals. Briggs, a teacher, author, intercessor, and former pastor who has worked with TheCall and the International House of Prayer, affirms, in his own way, all the things I have said in this essay—and then ratchets it up a notch. Specifically, he defines and develops three aspects of Jesus’ words to Peter in Matthew 16 that throw light on what the church could and should be.
First, he argues, and backs up his argument well, that ekklesia, as it was used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) and in the democracies of classical Greece, meant far more than a group of people assembled together. It connoted a ruling assembly with expansive powers and authority. Its function was such, Briggs continues, that when Christ used the word ekklesia, he meant to establish a group to carry out the “task of governance, justice, and the overcoming of evil” (119). Implicit in Christ’s calling and commissioning of his ekklesia, Briggs boldly proclaims, “is a threat to every corrupt human government and demonic principality” (120).
Second, in order to empower us to combat and defeat those demonic and human principalities—Heiser’s fallen gods and the nations they rule over—Christ equipped us with tools. He calls those tools keys in Matthew 16, and those keys are meant, quite literally, for the closing and opening (binding and loosing) of the gates of Hades: that is, the gates of death. These gates, Briggs explains, “represent not only demonic barriers over cities or regions, but forms of personal imprisonment” (149). It is up to us either to use the keys of knowledge (via divine revelation) to open the gates and set the prisoners free, or to storm them and break them down through the power (authority) of intercessory prayer, fasting, and repentance. We can do such things individually, but there is greater force when we do them together as an ekklesia—one that, in accordance with Matthew 18:15-20, is bound by accountability and discipline and includes at last two or three believers who agree together to make Christ their Lord and to use the keys given them for tearing down strongholds.
Here, certainly, is a vision to wake up young evangelicals—or, for that matter, evangelicals of any age—who feel bored in church or fear that church is irrelevant. Briggs’s reminder, and challenge, that in “acts of binding and loosing, the ekklesia is authorized to shift an entire nation in prayer” (170) offers a needed rallying cry for believers who desire for God’s Kingdom to come and his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. We are on the frontlines of a spiritual war that has been going on from before the creation of Adam and Eve, and we have access to the power, authority, and knowledge to infiltrate the enemy camp and tear down its carefully guarded gates. Not that Briggs means this in any triumphalist way; his concluding chapter makes clear that we are not a literal army but humble servants who rule beneath the rule of the One in whom all authority resides: see Matthew 28:18, which is the foundation on which the Great Commission of verses 19 and 20 is built.
Were this all Briggs had to say in Ekklesia Rising, it would be enough, but he offers one further insight that young evangelicals desperately need to hear. Much has been made, and rightly so, of the gender confusion that is rampant among secular and Christian students alike, but many are too quick to confine that confusion to sexual desires and preferences. At the core of the confusion is a breakdown in the understanding (and acceptance) of our God-given masculinity and femininity, a breakdown that has led to a feminization of the church and a stigmatizing of masculinity, good or bad, as toxic.
In what is the most insightful, and most controversial, part of his book, Briggs makes it clear that the Bride of Christ is not synonymous with Christ’s ekklesia. Whereas the Bride is essentially feminine—its purpose and themes are “[i]ntimacy, fellowship with God, holiness, surrender, discipleship, zeal… [t]he beauty of the Lord, refinement of the human heart, [and] fullness of love and devotion”—the ekklesia is essentially masculine—its complementary (rather than identical) purposes and themes are “[u]nity, legislation, governmental decrees, war, judgment, binding, loosing… [e]xpansion of the kingdom of God, revelation of Christ, rulership in prayer, [and] justice” (181-182).
While conceding that “strong men do many bad things,” Briggs insists “that it takes strong, good men in every generation to stop strong, bad men. It is a liberal fantasy to think that masculinity is the root issue, or that neutering male strength will somehow balance the books” (179-180). If, Briggs concludes, “the feminine right of the Bride is to be governed by the impulse of love, then in similar fashion it is the right of the ekklesia to be governed by the impulse of rulership…. The masculine call to governance must begin to grip us. War should stir our blood and rouse our passions—men and women alike” (180).
This generation, I am convinced, needs to sing again the old Victorian hymn: “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” But that hymn will lead us, not to a physical war, but to a spiritual one for which we have been commissioned, organized, and equipped. It will be a battle worth fighting—for every age and every generation.
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