Sabbatical Ponderings – Week 4
This past Sunday I visited two worship services in two different churches that both belong to the Stone/Campbell Family of Churches. These congregations are Northway’s spiritual siblings. And while there were things that they are both doing “right,” and from which we could most certainly learn here at Northway, I came away from both of Sunday’s visits with a deeper sense of uneasiness than I had from any of my previous visits with churches from well outside the boundaries of “our” spiritual family.
In my first three weeks away I spent time worshipping with and learning from congregations of the confessional and liturgical wing of the church, Roman Catholics and Anglicans to be specific. I felt a high degree of spiritual compatibility with these churches that I visited. Of course, there are beliefs and practices in these churches with which I would strenuously and conscientiously dissent. But their seriousness about Christianity, their commitment to Jesus Christ, and their efforts to be faithful to God’s mission all resonated deeply within me.
This week, with churches much closer to my own settled convictions, at least on paper, I found myself, strangely, even more deeply at odds. I had frankly, not expected this. I went to church on Sunday thinking that I would detect a strong family resemblance, especially in the preaching, which I expected to be thoroughly Biblical, and at the Lord’s Table, which I thought would be the central act of worship. Of course, I was prepared for the distinctive practices and personalities of these siblings in the Stone/Campbell family of churches, but I at least expected familiarity. What I got surprised and disturbed me. And as I have processed the experience, I have come to the conclusion that what bothered me so much about what I experienced on Sunday is the way that the Gospel was muted in both of the churches that I attended. Not absent, mind you, for as long as the Lord’s Supper is observed, no matter how casually or haphazardly, the Gospel remains in the picture. You can’t break the bread and not be mindful of how Christ’s body was broken for us, or pour the cup and not be mindful of how Christ’s blood was shed for us. But even in churches where the Lord’s Supper is observed, the Gospel can still be muted. It certainly was in the two churches that I attended last Sunday. Their problem, as I see it, was that they both “assumed” the Gospel.
“Assuming the Gospel” is something that has been written about frequently in some parts of the church in recent days. It is the mindset that says, “Well of course we believe the Gospel. Can’t we move on now to some more pressing, more relevant, issues?” And the assumption is, of course, that there are lots of issues that are more pressing than the Gospel. Theologian Don Carson says this is the slippery slope that leads us to assuming the Gospel.
Our hearers are inevitably drawn to that about which we are most passionate. Every teacher [or preacher] knows that. My students are unlikely to learn all that I teach them…they are most likely to learn what I am excited about. If the gospel is merely assumed while relatively peripheral issues ignite our passion, we will train a new generation to downplay the gospel and focus on the peripheral.
Today there are endless subgroups of confessing Christians who invest enormous quantities of time and energy in one issue or another: abortion, pornography, home schooling, women’s ordination (for or against), economic justice, a certain style of worship, the defense of a particular Bible version… Not for a moment am I suggesting that we should not think about such matters or throw our weight behind some of them. But when such matters devour most of our time and passion, each of us must ask: “In what fashion am I confessing the centrality of the gospel?”
In Marks of the Messenger: Knowing, Living, and Speaking the Gospel (IVP, 2010), J. Mack Stiles writes that “Losing the gospel doesn’t happen all at once, it’s much more like a four step process” –
Step1: The Gospel is Accepted;
Step 2: The Gospel is Assumed;
Step 3: The Gospel is Confused;
Step 4: The Gospel is Lost.
So, how do you know if a church is beginning to assume the gospel? Well, the answer, Stiles says, is when you no longer “hear the gospel.” He asks a series of diagnostic questions: “Was the gospel in the sermon Sunday morning? Could the uninitiated hear that sermon and come to real faith in Christ? Could you have preached that sermon if Christ had not died on the cross and been raised from the grave?”
And in both cases last Sunday, the answer to these questions was that there was no Gospel in the sermons that I heard preached. It may have been assumed, but it certainly wasn’t spoken. What I heard was not “this is what God has done for you in Jesus Christ,” but rather, “this is what you must do.”
Tullian Tchividjian, one of Billy Graham’s grandsons and the Pastor of the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, explains what’s wrong with this kind of preaching.
The “what we need to do” portions of the Bible are good, perfect, and true–but apart from the “what Jesus has already done” portions of the Bible, we lack the power to do what we’re called to do. The good commands of God, in other words, do not have the power to engender what they command. They show us what a sanctified life looks like but they have no sanctifying power. Only the gospel has the power to move us forward. This is why the Bible never tells us what to do before first soaking our hearts and minds in what God in Christ has already done.
The preaching I heard in one service last Sunday morning suffered from what Dr. Hunter Beckehymer, my preaching professor at Brite, called the “Christ Cliché.” This is the kind of preaching in which the topic for the day gets introduced with great detail and care, occupying the bulk of the sermon, and then Christ gets wheeled only at the very end as a kind of quick-fix. “You ought to talk at least as much about Jesus Christ in a sermon,” Dr. Becklehymer told us, “as you do about the question that you believe He answers and the problem that you think He solves.” And this was the problem with the first sermon that I heard on Sunday. Jesus didn’t make His appearance until the very last minute, and only then as an aside, as an afterthought, as an “oh, by the way,” and as an “as we all know.”
The preaching in the second service was even more problematic. It suffered from what Michael Horton calls “Christless Christianity.”
“Do more, try harder.” I think that this is the pervasive message across the spectrum of churches today. It can be exhibited in an older, more conservative form, with a recurring emphasis on personal morality… At the same time, more liberal bodies could be just as shrill… with their weekly calls to social action rather than a clear proclamation of Christ.
…”What would Jesus do?” is the main question, not “What has Jesus done?”…The gospel is not what Christ did for me, outside of me, in history, but the impression that he makes on me, the nobility that he stirs up within me… If we are good people who have lost our way but with the proper instructions and motivation can become a better person, (then) we need only a life coach, not a redeemer… (But) Jesus as life coach, therapist, buddy, significant other, founder of Western civilization, political messiah, example of radical love, and countless other images can distract us from the stumbling block and foolishness of “Christ and him crucified.”
Both sermons I heard on Sunday were very clear on what I need to do in order to be a better and happier person, but alarmingly silent on what Jesus Christ has to do with it. I was told about expectations that God has for my behavior, but nothing about how the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit indwelling me supplies me with what I need in order to begin growing into these kinds of behavior.
My behavior arises out of my nature; it’s that fruit and tree equation that Jesus talked about in the Sermon on the Mount –
By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. (Matthew 7:16-20)
But when you talk about the fruit without the root, the Gospel is missing. And even if it is assumed, it’s on the path to being confused and getting lost. And that’s an alarming development for churches in “our” family that were born in a “back-to-the-Gospel” Movement. DBS+