Last week I wrote about how I think the light gets in.
Long mystified by how the Word, the Sacraments and the Fellowship of the Church are life-giving for some people while just burdensome and stultifying to others, last week in my blog I explored the way that the “Providences” – all of those inward and outward crosses that we are called upon to bear as human beings – instead of being problems that our spiritual lives have got to solve, could in fact be the very experiences that empower our effective engagement with the Word, our useful reception of the Sacraments and our meaningful participation in the life of the Church. It’s the Providences of God that tear the roofs off of our lives and leave us exposed in our hurts and hopes, desperate for grace. It’s been both my experience as a Christian and my observation as a pastor for more than 40 years that the Word, the Sacraments and the Church are most often effective “means of grace” for people who have a deep personal felt-need for grace. As Jesus put it, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick” (Mark 2:17).
Jared Wilson, an author who speaks to me, and for me, just as often and as powerfully as anyone out there these days does, writes about this in his 2011 book Gospel Wakefulness (Crossway).
He wrote this book in response to the question of one of his good friends in ministry who wondered after planning another “shock and awe” worship experience designed to “impact” the feelings of those in attendance. Jared’s friend wanted to know – “How do we who are followers of Christ not become numb to our relationship with Christ and the routine of church?” Ever-increasing showmanship is the expected answer, the “Disney-ification” of worship – making every Sunday morning a bigger and better show than the week before, and always bigger and better than the show that the church down the street is putting on. But Jared asked if it isn’t “the weekly efforts of so many churches to top themselves in razzle-dazzle for the cause of Christ that itself numbs people”? He wondered if it isn’t “like the cycle of drug addiction… always chasing the first high, and never quite reaching it” (16). The big question for Jared is: What is it that makes the Gospel of Jesus Christ “eternally interesting”? To answer this question he wrote about two people he knows.
In the well-appointed study of a professor of history in a prestigious university in the American South sits a brick-sized piece of the Berlin Wall. It sits on the floor, because he uses it as a doorstop. He is not ignorant of the piece’s historical significance; as a historian he is deeply informed of the struggle and the repression attached to the wall, to the shame it symbolized and the division both literal and cultural it created….
In a small, dingy apartment in Midwest America lives and elderly immigrant woman who sells newspapers and fresh cut flowers during the day and cleans an office building in the evenings. On an iron shelf in her bedroom sits a small lidless glass jar, and in that wall is a piece of the Berlin Wall the size of a marble. She has often held that piece of rock in her withered hand and wept. Her husband did not live to see the wall come down. Her cousin was one of the estimated five thousand people who tried to escape from the communist Eastern Bloc into West Berlin….one of the estimated one hundred to two hundred people killed by border guards in the attempt….
When the professor hears the epic Brandenburg Gate speech in which President Ronald Reagan famously commanded, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” he admits it as a watershed moment in history, as iconic a sound bite from the annals of historical rhetoric as any. When the woman hears, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” she is stirred, always. When the professor speaks of the fall of the Berlin Wall as an earth-shattering event, he really does mean to communicate the radical nature of the event; he really does understand this. But the woman knows that the fall of the Berlin Wall was an earth shattering event deep in her bones. (19-20)
“This is Gospel Wakefulness” Jared Wilson says, knowing the Gospel not just dispassionately in our heads, but “deep in our bones.” “Gospel Wakefulness means treasuring Christ more greatly and savoring His power more sweetly” (24), and “this experience happens,” Jared argues, “at the intersection of profound brokenness and the proclaimed Gospel” (32). It’s what happens when the Gospel is heard less as a theory and more as a love letter; when Jesus Christ is seen less as a theological abstraction and more as the friend who shows up to help when we’re in real trouble.
“We find Christ at the end of ourselves” Jared writes (41), and what he means by this is that it’s only when we are out of all the other options that are out there that Jesus Christ becomes our absolute treasure (39). This is the genius of the recovery movement with its 12 steps. Just as the addict has to finally admit that she is powerless over her addiction, and that her life has become completely unmanageable as the first step toward her sobriety, so we spiritually have to be systematically stripped of all of our lesser securities and satisfactions before we will know the true security and satisfaction that Jesus Christ brings. “The joy of Gospel Wakefulness requires a depth of felt brokenness in which the phrase ‘poor in spirit’ makes much more than just intellectual sense” to us (42). And so Jared explains–
Those who possess saving faith in Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins and the hope of heaven when they die can and do grow numb to any number of religious and spiritual experiences, no matter how well orchestrated, sincerely produced and [thoroughly entertaining they may be]. But those – saved and unsaved – who find themselves utterly captivated by the Gospel can hardly be entertained by anything else. (18)
If this is true, then it changes the conversation, and rather dramatically so. It’s becomes less a matter of churches thinking that they have to constantly be jumping through the hoops of creative brainstorming in the hopes that they can come up with the next big thing that will make their worship “attractive” to the outsider, stirring them from their spiritual torpor to faithful and enthusiastic participation, and it becomes more a matter of churches working on the effective communication of this “captivating Gospel” to people in the particular settings and varying stations of their lives.
Jared warns that “what you win people with is what you win people to” (16), and then he quotes Sky Jethani who wonders if “ministries that focus on manufacturing spiritual experiences, despite their laudable intentions, may actually be retarding the spiritual growth of people by making them experience-dependent” (17). The crucial conversation is about the Gospel that heals people’s brokenness and not the gimmicks that get people’s attention.
If we are regularly and excitedly engaging people in the good news of the finished saving work of the dying, rising, exalted, sovereign Jesus Christ who is the death-proof, fail-proof King of kings before all things and in all things and holding all things together as he sustains the world by the mere word of his power, the ones whose hearts are opened by the Spirit to be won to Christ will be irrevocably changed. Numbness will be the exception, rather than the norm. (17)
But to be captivated by this Gospel, this Gospel has got to be communicated to people by people who speak and act in ways that clearly say that it is all important to those who are doing the communicating. In other words, a captivating Gospel is best communicated by people who have been captivated by it themselves – people who know the truth and power of the Gospel “deep in their bones” – people who would be best described as “Gospel Awakened.” I don’t believe that the future of the church is going to depend on the next big thing, but rather on the old, old story told by those who have loved it long, and know it best. DBS +