I should have known I was in for a rough morning when the first song of the service was U2’s “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” By the third song that was completely unsuitable for congregational singing, I was heading out the door for some coffee. But the music leader stopped me in my tracks when he said he wanted to take us through three chapters of Romans in three minutes. He took us through the law in Romans 1 and 2, and then introduced the Gospel from Romans 3. It was wonderful, a breath of fresh air sorely needed.
Then it was back to songs that were really bad poetry, songs about how I was supposed to feel about God, not about who God knows himself to be. I went and found that coffee.
Back in my seat, the pastor took off down the road of the Beatitudes. Not new material by any means, but covered with great enthusiasm. There was foot-stomping and hand-clapping and calls for audience participation (“Help me here! Are you with me? Are you smelling what I’m cooking?”) that mostly fell flat, for this was the early service, and not everyone got coffee like I did. I wasn’t quite sure about the preacher’s exegesis of the text, but he didn’t go too far afield. And he had it all packaged neatly in a PowerPoint presentation.
At the conclusion of his message, the pastor called up a visiting missionary and, with a call of us to stretch out our hands toward her, led us in a prayer for the woman who ministers in Ireland. Then we were dismissed as those arriving for the next service began making their way into the sanctuary.
A pretty typical evangelical Sunday service, at least typical of the services I have been a part of for four decades now. Yet this last Sunday I really felt like I was missing something. There was plenty there about what God would do for me and what I could do for God. But where were the songs about God’s majesty? Where was the focus on Jesus and his redemptive act on the cross? Aside from the three minute sprint through Romans, the Gospel was nowhere to be found.
There was a lot about us, what God would do for us, and what we need to do in order to be Jesus’ disciples in the sermon. There was a lot about us pursuing God’s passion, whatever that means, in the songs. And of course, there was the tribute to U2.
I thought about the Catholic mass and how different it is from the typical evangelical service. The Anglican and Lutheran services I have been to also have the something that is missing from evangelical services. What is this element that Catholics and Anglicans and Lutherans have, but evangelicals don’t?
Surprisingly, it’s the one thing that supposedly defines evangelicalism.
In too many evangelical services the Gospel has gone missing. It is not found in the songs or the message. It is not part of the evangelical form of passing the peace. (“Take a moment to greet someone around you! Get to know someone new!”) It is not found in Scripture reading, for most evangelical services eschew formal Scripture reading because (and I’m being very serious here) it doesn’t “test well.” So the Gospel—the one thing that makes evangelicals evangelicals—is no where to be found in many evangelical services.
Why is this? Why have the people of the good news become ashamed of the good news?
I’m sure there are many explanations, but I want to offer one that frankly frightens me. I believe we no longer include the Gospel in our services because we no longer believe it. We no longer are a people who say, “We have all sinned and come short of the glory of God, but thanks be to God in Jesus Christ, salvation, free and open to all, is available to all.” We are now a people who proclaim, “I am becoming all that I have been designed to be. I have a purpose and a destiny.”
The focus of the service Lutherans and Anglicans and Catholics is the cross of Jesus. The focus of the service for evangelicals is me and you. It has become the church of the Golden Calf, and we are fashioning God into the image we want. Need a more cuddly God? No problem. We’ll sing songs that tell of God making everything right. Want a more spiritual experience? Let’s sing of pursuing his presence. Then we can all grab a microfiber cloth and give that calf and good shine. We wouldn’t want it looking bad for any “seekers” who are visiting. The horrible, vengeful, angry God who demands the law be kept or punishment will be meted out, the God who says the wages of sin is death, the God who is an all-consuming fire is not welcome in our evangelical services. We want the nice, clean-shaven God who minds his manners in front of company and always comes with a new toy like a father returning from a business trip. The one who says “come and die with me” is just not good for business.
Yes, I am an evangelical, and most likely will remain in this camp. While I find much that compels me in the Catholic expression of faith, there are too many fundamental things I cannot agree with to ever consider joining. And as much as I have enjoyed the few Anglican services I’ve attended, I don’t think that is a fit for me either. Lutheran … now, that is a place I think I could be comfortable while not becoming too comfortable. But for now, my home is with evangelicals who no longer believe the Gospel, or at least don’t believe it to be all that important. It will be my challenge to focus on the cross in spite of the songs and emotional rah-rah cheerleading sermons. To find Jesus hiding in prayers where we are encouraged to do silly things like stretch out our hands toward someone (an act that is found no where in Scripture). And to hear the Gospel, even if it is in a U2 song.
Homework assignment: If you were to really, truly believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ to be the greatest Good News of all, how would your life be different than it is now?
Bonus question: How would evangelical services look if the church really believed the Gospel?