From Oct. 31, 2005.
“Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord GOD, “when I will send a famine on the land- not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the LORD, but they shall not find it.
• Amos 8:11-12
On the way to preach at the evening chapel service, I drove past a church building here in our little village. There were probably 30 cars out front, a good crowd on Sunday nights here in the mountains of southeast Kentucky, but especially good because, just a few weeks ago, this building was empty. A few families have left a large Church of God down the road and come down here to start services in this building. Now they appeared to be up to probably 50 people or so. A quick start.
The church that had worshipped in this building before had grown from nothing to several hundred in just a few years. Now they have moved into an elementary school that the board of education vacated, and I expect they may be the largest church in the county right now. The “First Baptist” Church in the county seat runs about 150 on Sunday mornings. This is easily twice that and growing rapidly.
Pentecostal/Holiness churches dominate our county. I’ve never been entirely clear as to how they got such a foothold in such a short time, but they are the clear winners to appeal to this culture. I know that, at one time, Baptist and Presbyterian churches were strong, but in the last 50 years, the Presbyterians have almost vanished and the Baptists have barely held their ground. Pentecostals, Holiness and various kinds of Charismatic, non-denominational churches have flourished and multiplied. I work at a Baptist school, but probably a third of our staff goes to some variety of a non-Baptist, usually Pentecostal-Holiness, church.
It doesn’t take a lot of research to know what is going on in those churches. It is impossible to miss them. They are all over the television and the radio. Our cable system has 6 religious channels, all generously populated with local church and religious programming. The weekend radio is wall to wall Pentecostals and Holiness “worship” and preaching. I’ve visited the local Church of God and the local Charismatic Church several times. None of it is any surprise to me anymore.
You see, this morning, at my Presbyterian Church, I preached to 12 people. That’s not unusual. Several of my folks weren’t there, but I rarely preach to more than 25. We have a Reformed worship service that does everything we believe is important in a God-centered, God-honoring service of public worship. We are a Bible-saturated church. We read it. We sing it. We say it. We pray it. I preach it from lectionary texts and in verse by verse exposition. You’d have to drive a long way around here to find someone more committed to serious reformed worship and preaching than I am.
We don’t have a band. We don’t anoint with oil. We don’t shout. We don’t fall over in worship. We don’t speak in tongues. We don’t clap and jump. My preaching is intelligible, organized and earnest. I apply the message. I am careful to preach the gospel. There are no strange prophecies or emotion-laden prayer groups. We worship decently and in order. We do the Christian year. We say the creeds. I teach the confession.
I’m pretty sure that our church will die in a few years. I’m just as sure that most of the churches in our community that don’t embrace the Pentecostal-Charismatic style of worship will decline, and that many of the Pentecostal/Charismatic/Holiness churches will grow and prosper. I am certain that Biblical preaching means less and less to the average Christian every week in our community. It is a famine, and I am watching it happen in my lifetime.
The average Pentecostal-Charismatic preacher/pastor in our community has no education at all, and it shows very obviously and quickly. Ignorance is not a problem here. Being unintelligible, even bizarrely, dangerously ignorant of the Bible or Christian doctrine is not an issues. What matters is if you have the Spirit, at least as it’s judged here. I am not being prejudicial or bitter when I say that nothing approaching the Gospel is preached in most of these churches. The messages do not understand or beging to explain salvation by grace through faith by Christ. It is not a matter of a distorted or incomplete Gospel. It is religion without the Gospel. It is emotion that is genuine, and communal life that makes life easier in a hard place, but the Gospel, as a message and a truth to be believed, is almost never heard.
You hear a lot about prayer and what it can do. You hear a lot about repentance. There is a call to be holy and to live different. There are many warnings about the devil. You’ll hear assurances that God is on your side and that the Lord can give you the victory. Everything that God wants to do for you will happen at the altar when the Holy Spirit gets ahold of you. There is much said about family. Demons and spirits are very real. Emotionalism is encouraged, but the Gospel and the faith are almost never taught.
Faith? You’ll hear Kenneth Hagin and Oral Roberts’ version of faith, but you won’t hear sola fide anywhere. The Gospel of grace? If you are lucky, and find your way into one of the Baptist or Presbyterian or Methodist churches, you will hear about a gracious God who saves us in Jesus, but this is only a handful of churches. In the majority- the Holiness/Pentecostal/Charismatic majority- the Gospel of Grace is no more likely to be heard than a review of Russian novels.
You will hear the Christian’s responsibility to change the moral condition of society. Our community has a lot of anti-drug crusading going on these days, and the churches are very involved. Our local churches love the Ten Commandments fight, the prayer in schools fight, and the gay marriage fight. Mobilizing these churches for conservative political causes is easy work. They are ready to vote against alcohol and they are ready to march against drugs. If reforming society by getting Christians to vote and march is your passion, the churches here are wonderful.
In these churches, most of what you will hear that is worth believing about Jesus will be in the music. There’s music everywhere. Contemporary worship choruses. Mountain bluegrass. Country gospel. It’s on the television, on the radio and in every church. It seems that every church has 4 or 5 musical groups that love to sing. Music touches mountain people, there is no doubt about that. I’m not immune to it. I enjoy much of the mountain music, even as I recognize the uneven truths of the Gospel in it. The music is full of songs about heaven, mama and the need to repent. I am grateful for the times the Gospel shows up in some of this old music, however, because it is frequently more clearly stated in some of those songs than in the pulpit.
You can hear the Gospel preached clearly if you know where to look. There are national radio ministries that reach into our county from another county. (Thank God for them.) Of course, there are the usual con-artists and charlatans from the Word-faith side of the fence. Some of the Baptist ministers here have discovered John Piper and are reading and preaching the Gospel more clearly. We have some good men here in some churches that have little interest in a true Biblical ministry. Pastoral turnover is very, very high. Mountain people want their preaching to be emotional and confrontational. They don’t like a paid, professional ministry and they are suspicious of education. They hardly recognize the power of the Gospel as it is presented in Romans. They value authenticity, but they do not recognize the Biblical deficiencies in their definitions of it.
An educated ministry has a hard time relating to an uneducated culture. I’ve learned this many times. This is a place where feelings and emotions are the currency of religion, and the minister who seeks to emulate Spurgeon or Lloyd-Jones will have a difficult time. What works at Piper’s church or Dever’s church won’t work here.
The parking lot of the Pentecostal Church reminds me that I live in the midst of a famine of the Word of God. Like Luther’s time, the truth of the Gospel has been lost under the rubbish heap of mountain religion. The decline of a culture often catches the church asleep, and before you know it, the ability to even explain the Gospel is in perilous distress.
I have friends- good, educated, Biblically committed friends- who go to these churches. They are well aware that they seldom hear the Gospel and almost never hear Biblical messages. They go for the music, the children’s programs and the atmosphere of believing that God can and does act in people’s lives. They have adjusted just fine to sitting under a ministry that has little need for the Gospel or Biblical preaching.
It is discouraging. I drive past that parking lot- a scene that is repeated all the time in our community- and I wonder if I live in an anomoly or in the beginnings of the end of a kind of Biblical Christianity in our culture. While I know there will always be places where the Word and the Gospel are loved and valued, I am living in a place where the truth is dying, and what is replacing it is not the Gospel at all.
I often wonder if I should change? Should I embrace the local culture somehow and try to find a “reformed” mountain Christianity. So far, it stifles me. I cannot see where to start. Maybe it is right in front of me, and I am just afraid. Maybe I and other pastors here are carrying the light until another generation can take it up and shine it brighter in this place.
As it is, Reformation Day has come and gone, and the parking lot at the newest Pentecostal church in our county is full, while my church grows emptier.
Am I to blame? I end this Reformation Day wondering if I have furthered the famine or if I have done the best I can do to ease it. I do not know. God will have to be my judge. I dream of a church that is full, but every time we sing a reformed hymn, I am looking at faces that want to be elsewhere where the songs are recognizable and the atmosphere is familiar and informal. A few years ago a new family came with relatives to our church . They tried. I tried. We simply couldn’t keep them. I couldn’t be that mountain preacher. They couldn’t be those reformed Christians. There was a Charismatic church that suited them. It was a sad day when they left, particularly because they left me not with certainties, but with doubts.
“We long to see your churches full” wrote the hymnwriter. That is my desire, and as my time in ministry grows shorter, I want to see the Gospel loved and the Word of God hungered for among God’s people. I pray that I see a Reformation Day when there is evidence that the famine is lifting, and God’s Word is doing its work once more.
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Photo by Jimmy Emerson, DVM at Flickr. Creative Commons License