On this date in 1674, Isaac Watts was born. Watts changed the way the English church worshiped. Before he came along, Protestant churches in England and Scotland would only sing hymns that were rhymed translations from the book of Psalms. Which isn’t a bad practice, unless, of course, you want to talk about Jesus, the Cross, the resurrection or anything from the New Testament.
Watts changed all that. In one sense, he was the English church’s first contemporary worship leader. Thanks to someone who dared to do what hadn’t been done before, we now have “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross;” “Alas and Did My Savior Bleed;” “Joy to the World;” “O God, Our Help in Ages Past;” and around 750 other hymns.
In his later years, Isaac Watts once complained about hymn singing in church: “To see the dull indifference, the negligent and thoughtless air that sits upon the faces of a whole assembly, while the psalm is upon their lips, might even tempt a charitable observer to suspect the fervency of their inward religion.”
On this date in 1939, after just a month in America where he was to lecture, Dietrich Bonhoeffer went back home to Germany. Writing to Reinhold Niebuhr, he explained his decision:
I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.
Bonhoeffer chose to go back to his home country (booking passage on what would be the last passenger steamer to cross the Atlantic) even though he knew it was dangerous. He had hope in the gospel. He believed that after the war he could help reconstruct the Christian life in Germany, but only if he shared in the sufferings of his brothers and sisters in Germany.
Bonhoeffer was ultimately hanged in a German concentration camp in April 9 1945, two weeks before the camp was liberated by US Infantry divisions.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer chose danger over safety; solidarity over separation; and persecution over personal comfort. Did he fail in his desire to participate in the rebuilding of the church in Germany because he was executed? Not in the least.
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
On this date in 1910, the World Missions Conference opened in Edinburgh, Scotland. There were 1200 delegates, primarily from North America and Northern Europe.
People were optimistic and hopeful. The 1800’s was a century of great missionary expansion, with the world’s population of Christians expanding from less than 25% to greater than 35% (note: these figures come from Stephen Lawton’s The Christian History Devotionalwhich has no footnotes or verification). They adopted the theme, “The Evangelization of the World in This Generation.” However, as Lawton notes,
They were unaware that brewing in Europe and elsewhere were totalitarian ideologies whose followers would also show great confidence—and would be willing to change the world by force not persuasion.
So where are we now, more than a century after Edinburgh? Here are a few observations:
Evangelism itself is more global. As mentioned above, the first World Missions Conference in Edinburgh primarily drew representatives from Northern Europe and North America. But at the 2010 World Missions Conference, also in Edinburgh, there were delegates from more than sixty nations. Lawton writes, “the missions scene was dramatically changed with thousands of missionaries from Asia, Africa, and Latin America—some taking the gospel to their own people but some taking the word to an increasingly secularized Europe and United States.” In conjunction with the June Edinburgh meeting there were also meetings held in Tokyo in May, Cape Town in October, and Boston in November.
Evangelism is more ecumenical. The first Edinburgh conference was exclusively Protestant. The centennial Edinburgh conference included representatives of the Evangelical, Protestant, Orthodox and Pentecostal churches, as well as the Roman Catholic Church.
The world is less Christian. Like I said earlier, I’m not sure where Lawton got the figures, or by what criteria he says the world was 35% Christian in 1910. That number seems high to me. But for sure, that number seems ridiculous today. The Pew Forum marks the world Christian population at 31%, but that number is inflated with individuals (and even entire countries) that self-identify as Christians but have no concept of a personal relationship with Christ.
There is still so much work to be done. Edinburgh’s rallying cry of “evangelization in this generation” has to be our cry as well. Jesus said, “The gospel must first be preached to all nations, and then the end shall come.” (Matthew 24:14) Ironically, 106 years after Edinburgh, Southern Baptists are meeting this week in St Louis, and are talking about the very same things. Their theme? “Awaken America. Reach the World.”
On this date in 2005, Kenneth Taylor, author of The Living Bible, died at the age of 88. Taylor, the father of ten children, was burdened that his children couldn’t understand the King James Version of the Bible. So he began work on a paraphrase, using the KJV and the American Standard Version as his texts. He began with the Epistles, and released Living Letters in 1962. Since no established publisher would accept his manuscript, he started his own company. He named it Tyndale House Publishers after William Tyndale, the martyr who first translated the Bible into English.
Living Letters was followed by Living Prophecies (1964), Living Gospels (1967), and other portions of the Bible. Finally The Living Bible, complete with its distinctive green cover, was published in July 1971. Millions of readers loved it, and by 1974 it accounted for 46 percent of U.S. Bible sales. Even as late as 1977 it still outsold other versions.
Here’s the thing: I make fun of The Living Bible a lot. I cringe at Acts 4:36 in “The Green Monster. They’ve changed it online now, but here’s how it reads in my 1972 Second Edition:
I turn my nose up at The Living Bible and say things like, “Well, it’s not a translation. It’s a paraphrase of another English translation, which wasn’t all that accurate to begin with.” I’ve pointed out that Taylor’s ThD was not in Greek or Hebrew.
But what I forget is that The Living Bible’s publication in 1971 coincides with when I learned to read. The first Bible I remember owning was The Children’s Living Bible. I devoured it. That was followed by my sister’s copy of The Way, which I still have.
My point is that it never occurred to me that the Bible wouldn’t be easy to understand. Because of Kenneth Taylor’s boldness, vision, and dedication, I grew up loving God’s Word.
As a pastor I’m often asked which translation of the Bible is “best.” My answer: the one you’ll read. Because the most scholarly, literal, accurate translation of the Scripture that sits on your shelf is inferior to the most basic paraphrase that you hide in your heart.
Two deaths happened on June 9, separated by about 1800 years. One was an emperor; the other a missionary. Both contributed to the spread of Christianity.
In AD 68, the Roman emperor Nero cut his own throat at the age of 30. Nero was a notorious persecutor of Christians. According to Tertullian, he was responsible for the deaths of both Peter and Paul. The early pagan historians Tacitus and Seutonius describe Nero’s persecutions in gory detail, including setting Christians on fire to light his garden parties at night. But although these historians were not Christians themselves, they both acknowledged the role Nero’s bloodlust had in generating sympathy for the martyrs. Two hundred years later, Tertullian would write, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
Nearly two millennia later, on June 9, 1834, missionary William Carey died. Carey spent nearly 40 years in India without a furlough– leaving England in 1893 and remaining in India for the rest of his life. He translated the Bible into Bengali, Oriya, Assamese, Arabic, Hindi and Sanskrit. Considered the father of modern missions, Carey laid the foundation for how missionary work is done today. His best known quote: “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.”
On June 6, 1844, George Williams began the first Young Men’s Christian Association in London. Williams was concerned that young men, drawn to urban centers for work, were abandoning their religious upbringing when they met with the temptations of the big city. So the 23 year old Williams began meeting for Bible study and encouragement with eleven other men. Thus the YMCA was born.
Initially, physical exercise was an afterthought at the “Y”. According to the Christian History Devotional:
At its founding, the group professed itself to be for “the spiritual improvement of young men.” The men engaged in Bible study and attended lectures and religious discussions, although physical exercise in time became part of the program.
What happens to an organization when it forgets the reason it was founded? When a secondary function of the program becomes the driving force of the program?
I’m not knocking the Y. I’ve been a member for nearly two decades. But I’ve heard enough locker room conversations and walked past enough pickup basketball games to know that the C of YMCA is often forgotten. (For what it’s worth, so are the Y and the M). It is still a great organization, but like Harvard and Yale, which were both founded on Christian principles, or the RMS Titanic, which was built to deliver the mail (RMS= Royal Mail Steamer), it is easy for an organization to forget why it was founded.
On this date in 1820, hymn writer Elvina Hall was born. Her best known hymn came about as a result of being bored in church. Sitting up in the choir loft, thinking to herself how long-winded her pastor was that morning, she wrote these words on the fly leaf of her hymnal:
I hear the Savior say
Thy strength indeed is small
Child of weakness, watch and pray
Find in me thine all in all.
Jesus paid it all
All to Him I owe
Sin had left a crimson stain
He washed it white as snow
Maybe it was the feeling of not having the strength for such a long sermon. Maybe it was the understanding that if Jesus paid it all, our allegiance, our focus, our attention, and our devotion are owed to him.
Maybe through a long sermon. Or maybe, just maybe, instead of one.
Parents, next time you see your children scribbling away on the back of an offering envelope, go easy on them. It could be they are writing the next great hymn of the church is going to be written.
However, if it’s the inside cover of a hymnal, they had better be.
On this date in 165 AD, Justin Martyr was scourged and then beheaded after he refused to sacrifice to the pagan gods. Justin was born in the biblical city of Shechem, and early in his life followed the philosophy of Plato. But his life was changed when he realized God was pursuing a relationship with him through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In his first Apology, he took parts of the Bible that the pagans found hard to believe and observed that the pagan myths were much harder to accept and often contradicted each other. According to Lang’s Christian History Devotional:
Perhaps the most appealing statement in the Apology is “never was the crucifixion imitated in any of the so-called sons of Zeus.” Justin had hit upon the core of the gospel: a son of a god—rather, the one Son of the only God—gave himself up, the innocent suffering in place of the guilty.
In 1972, Née Shu-Tsu, better known as Watchman Nee, died in a Chinese prison. As the founder of over 400 local churches, Watchman Nee was a threat to the new Communist regime, and so spent the last twenty years of his life in prison, allowed no visitors except his wife.
When the authorities cleaned out his cell, they found this scrap of paper:
“Christ is the Son of God who died for the redemption of sinners and was resurrected after three days. This is the greatest truth in the universe. I die because of my belief in Christ. Watchman Nee.”
G.K. Chesterton was born on this day in 1874. Chesterton was a larger-than-life personality (literally–6’4 and over 300 pounds). He was a great influence on CS Lewis. His best known work, Orthodoxy, is the source for some of my favorite quotes:
The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.
Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.
There are two ways to get enough. One is to continue to accumulate more and more. The other is to desire less.
The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.
Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.
Dear Sir: Regarding your article ‘What’s Wrong with the World?’ I am. Yours truly,