In 1 Kings 18 we find one of the most dramatic Old Testament accounts. Elijah, the prophet of the one true God of Israel, challenges the prophets of the Canaanite god, Baal, to a contest to demonstrate whose God is real.
The terms of the contest were simple. The prophets of Baal and Elijah would each prepare an altar and each would sacrifice a bull on the altar. But neither would set a fire on the altar. Instead, each would call on the name of their god and whichever god answered with fire, that god was the true God.
Tim Keller in his recent article “The Decline and Renewal of the American Church: Part 3 — The Path to Renewal” points out that many Christians have seen this Old Testament account as a helpful metaphor for how God brings about renewal in the church. Keller defines a revival or renewal this way: “Revivals are periods of great spiritual awakening and growth. In revivals, ‘sleepy’ and lukewarm Christians wake up, nominal Christians get converted, and many skeptical non-believers are drawn to faith.”
Only God can bring the “fire of renewal.” Human technique and effort alone cannot produce renewal. Nor can the church compel or manipulate the means or timing of God’s work. However, this does not mean there is nothing we can do as we long for a fresh work of God in our lives, churches, and culture. We can build the altar. As noted by Keller, “Christians looking for revival, they are ‘building the altar,’ praying that God will use their efforts to bring a fire of renewal with a movement of his Spirit.”
In the first two installments of his four-part series of articles, Keller gives an account of the decline of both mainline and evangelical Christianity. Both articles are lengthy and nuanced and well worth careful reading. Keller’s point in both articles is summed up this way:
Virtually everyone agrees that something is radically wrong with the church. Inside, there is more polarization and conflict than ever, with all factions agreeing (for different reasons) that the church is in deep trouble. Outside the church, journalists, sociologists, and all other observers either bemoan or celebrate the church’s decline numerically, institutionally, and in influence.
While the church is always in need of reforming and refining, it seems like this moment in American Christianity is in need of something more than refining. This seems to be a moment when something like renewal or revival is needed.
Over 30 years ago Christ Community was founded with the longing and prayer that this local church would be a catalyst for spiritual renewal in Kansas City. That longing and prayer still endures today.
How can Christ Community build the altar?
Keller suggests three altar-building practices.
Recovery of the gospel
It is all too easy for pastors and congregation members alike to functionally forget the radical good news of grace. This is the news that in Jesus we are completely known and loved — not because of anything we have done — but because of what Jesus has done for us.
Theologian Kelly Kapic in his wonderful book You’re Only Human invites his readers to consider two questions. First, do you believe God loves you? He suggests that most Christians would say of course, God loves me. But then he poses a second question: does God like you? How would you respond? He writes:
Have you ever felt that your parents or spouse or your God loved you, and yet wondered if they actually liked you? Love is so loaded with obligations and duty that it often loses all emotive force, all sense of pleasure and satisfaction. Like can remind us of an aspect of God’s love we can all too easily forget. Forgetting God’s delight and joy in us stunts our ability to enjoy God’s love. Forgiveness, as beautiful and crucial as it is, is not enough unless it is understood to come from love and lead back to love. Unless we understand the gospel in terms of God’s fierce delight in us — not merely a wiping away of prior offenses. Unless we understand God’s battle for us as a dramatic, personal rescue and not merely a cold forensic process, we have ignored most of the Scriptures as well as the needs of the human condition.
It is this understanding of gospel love and grace that is the keystone in the rebuilding of the altar.
The second altar-building practice is corporate prayer. While private individual prayer is vital, a quick survey of the history of renewal moments shows a common thread: Christians gathering together to pray for God to work and move.
As we seek the renewal of our churches and communities, prayer is critical. And not just corporate prayer within Christ Community but with other like-minded Christians and churches, especially across racial and socio-economic dividing lines.
Finally, altar-building is marked by creativity. No two renewal moments have looked exactly the same. Building the altar isn’t a matter of simply trying to reproduce the methods from previous moments. It is about looking for fresh insights into this particular moment, discerning how the Spirit is working. A fantastic resource for understanding this cultural moment and sparking creativity is Mark Sayers book Reappearing Church: The Hope for Renewal in the Rise of Our Post-Christian Culture. Get a copy and read it with a group of other believers.
In the story of 1 Kings 18, not only does Elijah build the altar but he saturates it with water. The more soaked the altar is, the more dramatic the demonstration of God’s work and word. As we approach deeply contentious election seasons in 2022 and 2024, and face violence, war, and economic challenges in our nation and world, it is obvious; no mere human can light the fire.
But we trust the resurrected King Jesus who, when He had ascended to the right hand of His Father in Heaven, sent the Holy Spirit. The Spirit in Acts 2 appeared as flames of fire above the heads of those gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost.
This is my prayer: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we pray, we ask, we plead: do it again! For your glory and our good, make yourself known to us, renew us, heal us. Make us faithful to build the altar. We trust you and your timing for the fire. Amen.