UPDATE: Go into the comments and read the post by Pastor Scott Dontanville. Just go read it.
For those of you who are going to write me a hurt/angry note saying I’m picking on your church, I’m not. And if I am, I don’t know you anyway, so there’s no need to complain.
I just spent ten minutes reading something I’ve read/heard hundreds of times before: an established, traditional church, experiencing some signs of aging, goes through a process diagnosing its problems, developing/selling a plan for the future and asking the congregation to work with the leadership to bring the church through a period of decline into a future of growth and prosperity.
In those plans are predictable words: Plans. Consultants. Marketing. Children. New Staff. New facilities. New families. Communication. Outreach. Programs. Growth.
There’s the necessary optimism. (“Our best days are ahead of us.”) The ever present affirmation (“We’re a great church.”) The spiritual assurances. (“God is at work here.”)
Under the words, you can feel the tension. Generational worship styles have collided. The noise of Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven revolution has been heard by members of the congregation, and there is a bit of unrest in the formerly passive pews. Young people want to know why their church isn’t doing what the other churches are doing. How long are we going to stick with the suits, the choir and the organ? Where’s the band? The projection? The CCM praise choruses? The cool stuff?
The good days of the denominational past are a powerful memory, but the raw competitiveness of evangelicalism’s present is a current reality. People with families are going elsewhere. Young people are shopping around, and what do we have to offer? What if we keep declining? Does our leadership get it? Does our leadership know what “it” is? Can we change if we wanted to? Do we want to? Can we start enough alternative services to make everyone happy?
There is the confidence of previous denominational wisdom in the voice of the pastor. With new staff, a good plan, better facilities, more marketing, we will prosper. We need to work harder and do more. We need programs and outreaches and visibility. It’s always worked. It will work again.
Many of you know this song before I sing it. You could write several more verses.
Many of you know what you won’t hear in this recitation of plans and programs. You won’t hear anything about the Gospel. At all.
The Gospel? We’ve got that down. We preach it. (Don’t we?) We teach it. (Of course we teach it. We baptized 15 last year.) If we don’t have the Gospel right, what are we doing anyway?
Now there’s a question.
Tom Ascol, Director of Founder’s Ministries, has repeatedly said that the challenge facing Southern Baptists and other evangelicals is the Gospel itself. Not numbers or how to grow bigger churches, but the Gospel.
The Gospel is rarely heard in many churches. Whole movements have moved past the Gospel into “felt needs” and “what people want to hear.” Pastor-theologians are rare; perhaps officially qualifying as an endangered species. Any survey or question and answer on the gospel in the midst of our Sunday morning congregations will yield results not much different than what one might hear in France or secular Europe. Oh there will be a LOT more God talk and religious chatter, but the Gospel? The core? The heart? You will be surprised. You ought to be broken.
Tom needs to write the book. (Write the book, Tom.) Our churches, our pastors, our leaders— they need to admit we’ve lost the Gospel, and what version of it we retain we’ve Americanized, diluted, perverted, spun, castrated and/or ignored. The Gospel’s transforming power is largely untapped among the majority of professing Christians. We are not counter cultural. Our first century ancestors wouldn’t recognize most of us as family unless they happened to catch us in church.
We’re about as much of a revolution as the latest sale at the Lexus dealership.
We want Christianity to be like a club the whole family enjoys. (Family values is one of the new code words for “What Gospel?”) We want our version of the gospel to protect us and our kind in the cultural collapse, even as we swim in the cultural sewer and buy into its idolatries. We want Christianity to keep our kids interested in morality and church, but we also want them to wear Hollister, and drive new cars, and go to prom. We don’t want them pregnant or in jail, and even an occasional mission trip would be good. In the end, we want successful Americans producing our beautiful grandchildren. God forbid they take off for Yemen or U.A.E. or Africa.
The Gospel? We want to finance it. We want to build buildings and talk about it. We want to hear beautiful music about it. We want the success of our church and the success of our pastor’s book and the cool songs on the Christian station to represent our Christianity. We’ll study the Bible and say “What it means to me is….” Good choice.
We want to be a Christian niche market. We want to have enough Christian friends for Dinner 8 and for our children to have good friends. We want a gospel that keeps the marriage going and our prayers answered.
Yes Tom, write the book. Please. We need the Gospel of Jesus in America. We need it to be the kind of message that divides the world, stakes claims in the enemy’s territory, overturns the idols in our houses and sends our children into inner cities instead of to the suburbs. We need a gospel that addresses racism, abuse, excess, narcissism, corruption, sexual sin and the passive acceptance of poverty.
We need a gospel that makes us so hungry for reformation that we can’t stand ourselves and our churches to be the same. We need a gospel that makes a preacher a joke if he doesn’t preach it. We need a gospel that plants questions right where we aren’t used to asking them and breaks us on the rocks of integrity and holiness. We need a Gospel that will save us, and that we will will savor.
Write the book and sound the alarm. Zion isn’t quite sleeping anymore, but it doesn’t know that the Lord has left his temple and all we’re left with is the beginnings of judgement in his wake.