Proper expectations are always helpful on the front end of any endeavor. Marriage, a road trip, parenting, foster care, a graduate program, a career, and every other longterm investment fit this paradigm. Having realistic expectations sets the trajectory and significantly prepares the way for hopeful endurance.
AN EXAMPLE IN HISTORY
Following times of revival that reached their zenith in 1839 in Kilsyth, a quaint town in Scotland, gainsayers of revival loved to point out the unbroken immorality of the town. They reasoned that since Kilsyth remained largely unchanged in that day and especially in the following generation, there must have been no genuine revival. Social and civil life proceeded as it always had, broadly speaking; therefore, how could any great movement of God have occurred?
Islay Burns, author of The Pastor of Kilsyth, responded to such reasoning with this penetrating observation:
When was it that Christianity or the Christian Church ever by its influence permanently pervaded, and regenerated, and transformed the world? It is not in the world, but in the people whom it gathers out of the world that its vivifying and new-creating power is fully seen… I suppose the visible effects produced by Christianity in the days of its first triumphs on the general tone of society in the great centres of its influence was not great. We have no reason to believe that in such communities as Ephesus, and Corinth, and Rome, the whole face of things palpable to an observer’s eye was changed,—that those cities of the world were visibly transformed into cities of God. I suspect an intelligent and shrewd observer might have passed through Corinth, and even lived in it for weeks, during the very time of St. Paul’s ministry there, and yet never have seen, or heard, or suspected that anything extraordinary had taken place, or was going on there. He would find the streets, doubtless, as gay as ever,—society in all its relations as foully corrupt,—the tone of public sentiment and feeling as frivolous and godless. I wonder if some twenty years after St. Paul’s coming there, “to Corinthianize” had ceased to be the expressive title for the life of those who to the fullest measure fulfilled the desires of the flesh and of the mind? There is at least no trace of any such transformation in any records of that time that have come down to us. On the contrary, the whole Roman world, and the entire frame of society then existing, went on, as all history testifies, corrupting, and inwardly rotting more and more, until in the end it was, not regenerated and renewed, but swept away and buried out of sight. The Church was not so much the restorer of the old society as itself a new and nobler society rising out of the ruins of the old,—the ark that rose aloft above the universal wreck, and bore in its bosom the germs of another and better order of things. That besides this, and even at the time, it exercised, by its very presence, a certain salutary influence on the relations of social life beyond the circle of its own immediate pale, we need not doubt; but that influence at the best was slight and partial, and was of no avail whatever to arrest the tide of general corruption and licentiousness which had long before set in, and was now rushing on to its highest flood. And such, more or less, is its history in every nation and every community to which it comes.
WHAT CAN WE EXPECT?
Burns is right. The church’s effectiveness is not witnessed in changes occurring among those who are perishing, i.e. society at large. Instead, the church’s success with the gospel is seen in “a new and nobler society rising out of the ruins of the old,” for it is to the church, that new people comprised of those who believe, that the gospel is the power of God (1Cor. 1:18; Rom. 1:16).
Is the gospel able to change the world? Yes, of course! It is able to radically alter and improve every sphere of life from the home, to school, to politics, to medicine, and wherever else men and women and children submit themselves to Christ in faith. But understanding that the alteration of the world (and perhaps New Orleans) is not God’s plan in this age, and that the kingdom will not come without the King (Zeph. 3:8-20), we pray for peace here and now (1Tim. 2:1-2) while we labor with right expectations that our Savior will save his people through our message. This will happen, and by God’s grace we will succeed, even if our city continues to be visibly perishing.