I recently learned something about Benjamin Franklin that I had never heard before. Like most people, I knew that he flew a kite in a storm with a metal key attached in order to prove that lightning was electrically charged. But I didn’t know that he was instrumental in bringing street lamps to light up in the night in Philadelphia.
Franklin was concerned that the city was unsafe — full of robbery and even murder. People were afraid to go out at night.
He went to work and discovered an answer. While Franklin didn’t invent the street lamp, he greatly improved on the design (making them more vandal-proof) and then advocated that watchmen be deployed at night to keep the peace.
As the story goes, Franklin first approached the city leaders to get a law passed to put up street lamps everywhere. He was rebuffed, however. The public just wasn’t that interested. Franklin next went to the merchants and made the logical argument that safer streets would bring greater profits. But they showed little interest in doing anything as well.
The problem was that everyone thought it was someone else’s responsibility. They weren’t necessarily against the street lamps. They just didn’t think they should be the ones to do it.
Franklin was the only one who took responsibility. He decided to do what he could do, even if it had a minor impact. He built his new lamp and installed it on the street in front of his own shop.
The results were immediate and surprising. Evening passersby started to gather in the small circle of light in front of his place of business. Neighboring merchants saw how people gathered by Franklin’s door instead of lingering by theirs. The traffic and income increased for Franklin’s business.
Strangely, the number of people who stopped by during the day increased as well. Perhaps people appreciated the safety of his little part of the street at night or simply had his shop called to mind more often.
Soon everyone got on board. Legislation was passed. Civic pride swelled while crime went down. Street lamps were installed everywhere.
Change happened for the good.
The Times They Are A Changin’
In my Sunday School class this past week, we discussed the major cultural and global factors that are contributing to a rapid amount of change: exponential population growth, technological change, income inequality, and shifts in religious thinking. Environmental change threatens our future existence, no matter what you may believe is the source of such change.
Change has always been a part of our collective lives. But it seems that the pace of change has accelerated. Technology is ever-changing. Many of our social interactions are hybrid — both in-person and virtual. We feel overwhelmed by uncertain economic times beyond our control.
This is why I believe that so many people are feeling depressed and anxious these days. It just feels like too much change too fast.
Jesus never promised us a world without change. Or a world of ease. Or a world that didn’t have its places of darkness. “In this world you will have trouble,” He said. “But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33, NIV).
I’ll admit that sometimes I lament the changes I see and also feel burdened by today’s pace of change. But it’s not all bad. We have an amazing access to information like never before. We can connect with people around the globe in seconds. We can tell the story of Jesus in dozens of creative ways thanks to the digital age.
Advances in healthcare mean that lives can be saved. Would we really want to go back to the way healthcare was practiced in the 19th century? Changes in attitudes toward racial issues have led to greater acceptance and love for people who are different from us.
I also take heart in knowing what hasn’t changed. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). The Great Commission is the same (Matthew 28:19-20) and the Great Commandment to love is needed more than ever (Matthew 22:37). The Holy Spirit has been poured out on the church (Acts 2:1-4), giving us immense creativity and power, while the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the grave now lives in us (Romans 8:11).
How should we respond to the rapid change around us?
Roll with the Changes
I’m not saying that all change is good. I’m also not saying that you should accept everything you see and hear. All I am suggesting is that the church needs to have a generous and open posture toward the future.
We don’t have to be afraid. But we may have to adapt.
I think about my friend Trevor who wanted to tell his friends about Jesus while also gathering people in genuine community. He didn’t lament the lack of engagement of people around him or get stuck thinking that people wouldn’t be open to spiritual things. Instead, he launched a series of Art Nights to help people connect with one another and learn about the Spirit’s creative energy. He recently hosted the “Happy Little Trees Bob Ross Painting Night” and packed a room full of people and paint fumes. Everyone had a great time and felt a touch of Christian community.
Or I think about my friend Kevin and his desire to love his neighbors. He has observed how most people aren’t coming these days to a traditional church building. At his own expense, he has contracted with a Christian singer/songwriter to do a concert in his backyard this September. He plans to invite as many of his neighbors that he can as a sign of his love for them and his desire to get to know them more deeply.
Jesus taught us to be about the business of sowing seeds of love and peace and joy while trusting God to bring the growth (see Matthew 13). We need to look for opportunities and go where the people are.
Jesus said to those who were following Him, “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16, NIV).
I believe that God is calling the church to really be the light in a dark time like this. We have an incredible opportunity to shine in the darkness through our faith and good deeds. But the longer we lament the rapid changes around us, the less we will be seizing the moment God has called us to claim.
Light a Candle
You may have heard the old proverb of unknown origin: it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.
So true. But I prefer the Biblical proverb:
“The path of the righteous is like the morning sun, shining ever brighter till the full light of day.
But the way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know what makes them stumble” (Proverbs 4:18-19, NIV).
Church, let’s shine. Let’s be holy — different from the people around us. Sure, there’s a lot of darkness, but we can choose to live in the light. Let’s step into the circle of grace where God has called us to gather. Let’s show people a different way.
It may take some time for people to get on board, but don’t worry about that. You just keep lighting up the darkness.
Pastor Brent McDougal