Pastoral encouragement from St. Patrick and Philip Doddridge

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“No one wears shoes”: Encouraging lessons for pastors in a secularized culture

March 21, 2023 -

A man in black pants walks barefoot on a beach. © By fotoduets/stock.adobe.com

A man in black pants walks barefoot on a beach. © By fotoduets/stock.adobe.com

A man in black pants walks barefoot on a beach. © By fotoduets/stock.adobe.com

A new survey from the American Enterprise Institute examined “faith after the pandemic,” asking “how COVID-19 changed American religion.” Among its findings: “Religious attendance was significantly lower in spring 2022 than it was pre-pandemic.”

To be more specific: in spring 2022, 33 percent of Americans reported that they never attend religious services, compared to 25 percent who reported this before the pandemic. Only one in four Americans report attending religious services at least once a week, and “twice as many adults decreased attendance than increased attendance.”

These findings are consistent with the post-Christian cultural narrative we have watched unfold across recent decades in our secularized society. As biblical morality is increasingly marginalized and stigmatized, it’s easy to become discouraged.

In a consumeristic, materialistic culture that determines success by popularity and possessions, having less of either means we are less successful. When the church is an institution that measures itself in institutional terms (“buildings, budgets, and baptisms,” in my Baptist part of the world), the institution must succeed for its leaders to consider themselves successful.

To be sure, we should want to see more people won to Christ, more churches growing, and more ministries making a tangible difference in the world. We should want to see divorce rates plummet, elective abortion decline, and racism and poverty countered by the grace and compassion of Christ. The increasing secularization of our society should grieve us as we seek to be its salt and light (Matthew 5:13–16).

But there’s more to the story, as we were reminded last Friday.

St. Patrick and Philip Doddridge

The man we know as St. Patrick died on March 17, 461. Americans celebrated St. Patrick’s Day again this year by wearing green, participating in parades, and otherwise pretending to be Irish (unlike the 9.7 percent who actually are).

You probably know the basics of Patrick’s story: he was born in England but captured by Irish invaders at the age of sixteen and enslaved to an Irish farmer. Somehow he came to faith in Christ; six years after his enslavement, he escaped and returned home. After seven years of Bible study, he returned to Ireland as a missionary. The Irish were almost completely without Christ, worshiping the elements and spirits in trees and stones and engaging in magic and even human sacrifice.

Patrick had no illusions about the risks he was facing, testifying: “Daily I expect to be murdered or betrayed or reduced to slavery if the occasion arises. But I fear nothing, because of the promises of heaven.” When his career was done, he had established some two hundred churches in Ireland and led more than one hundred thousand people to faith in Christ despite more than a dozen attempts on his life. He is the patron saint of Ireland to this day.

However, there’s even more to St. Patrick’s story. In the following century, Irish Christians who were the spiritual descendants of his ministry sailed back to Britain, where they evangelized the heathen who had overrun the country. They established monasteries and copied books being destroyed elsewhere. According to Thomas Cahill’s fascinating book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, these men “single-handedly refounded European civilization throughout the continent.”

As a result, St. Patrick’s story proves this fact: you cannot measure the eternal significance of present faithfulness.

Here’s another example: last Sunday marked the anniversary of Philip Doddridge’s ordination in 1730 as a nonconformist minister in England. You may not be familiar with him, but his book, The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, was influential in bringing English statesman William Wilberforce and many others to evangelical Christianity. And Wilberforce led the effort that eventually overturned slavery in England and was instrumental in abolishing it in the US.

Once again, you cannot measure the eternal significance of present faithfulness.

A mentor’s wise question

In the Lenten season it is common for us to ask what we should give up in gratitude for Jesus’ death and resurrection. My wife and I were discussing this fact the other day and she reversed the question.

Rather than asking what we should stop doing for Jesus, what should we do for him?

Her question brought to mind a question a mentor asked me many years ago: “When you stand before Jesus, if he asks you, ‘Whom did you bring me?’ what will you say?” The best way I can express my gratitude to the risen Christ is by leading someone else to meet the risen Christ.

To this end, I am encouraged by the fact that present faithfulness leads to eternal significance, whether such significance is apparent today or not. Every seed of the gospel planted in the soil of souls matters. Every word and act of obedience lets my “light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

When you and I faithfully preach, teach, and share the word of God, we can claim God’s promise that “it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11). As Oswald Chambers observed, “You can never be the same after the unveiling of a truth.”

The tale of two salesmen

We should view the secularization of our society not as a cause for discouragement but as a call for resolve. The sicker the patient, the more urgent the physician. The darker the room, the more necessary and powerful the light.

The story is told of a shoe company that sent two salesmen to a tribal region to determine the potential for their products.

One reported back, “There is no market here—no one wears shoes.”

The other responded, “There is a huge market here—no one wears shoes.”

Which “salesman” are you?

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