For more than thirty years, I’ve been reading our state denominational newspaper. While I don’t read every word, I usually spend 15 minutes or so taking in whatever interests me.
As I read that Baptist newspaper this week, I noticed something that strikes me as typical of how contemporary evangelicals see the Gospel and indicative of the problems we are experiencing.
For the vast majority of the times that I’ve read the front page of that paper, there’s been a featured story on some kind of evangelism event or method that either has been successful or should be successful if a church takes the risk and makes the effort. Having evangelism methodology on the front page is as predictable as aliens making the headlines in the Weekly World News.
What is featured?
Skateboard evangelism. Evangelism with illusions. Evangelism with cameras. Evangelism by gymnastics. Evangelism by music. Evangelism by feeding the poor. Church evangelism. Coffee shop evangelism. Small group evangelism. Crusade evangelism. Evangelism films. Evangelism by sports. Evangelism by preaching. Evangelism on the beach. Evangelism in traditional churches. Evangelism in non-traditional churches. Purpose driven evangelism. Puppet evangelism. Teen evangelism. Drama evangelism.
And so on. And on.
None of this particular bothers me, because I believe churches should be missional, wisely pragmatic, take risks, serve people, get outside the walls and care about the community. I’ve been encouraged many times by seeing what someone else was doing and realizing it was illuminating of how God wanted me to serve him in some way. Don’t throw me into the category of a pragmatic nay-sayer, because even with many, many questions about how methodology relates to the work of the Holy Spirit, I am spending my life serving, working and doing, not doing nothing and trusting the doctrine of election to do the work.
What does interest me is this: I’ve never seen- not in three decades of reading that newspaper- a significant front page examination of the question “What is the Gospel?” (I could be wrong, but the impression is one I’d wager is based on a consistent reality.)
Careful. I’m not saying that the Gospel isn’t ever mentioned. It is. I’m not saying that the Gospel isn’t at the heart of these evangelism events and methods. It is, though in varying measures.
I said I have never seen, in the pages of that particular publication, a significant examination of the question “What is the Gospel?”
I believe the reason for that absence of discussion about the Gospel is a kind of over-confidence about our understanding of the message of the Gospel and a kind of minimizing of the relationship between the content of the Gospel and how we do evangelism.
The over-confidence has come as evangelistic methods have crowded out the message that is communicated. My tradition of evangelicalism has a tendency to believe that God doesn’t particularly care about the content of evangelistic methods as long as they are well-motivated. The result, in my circles, tends toward an increasing ignorance of the essentials of the Gospel, and a kind of pride in that ignorance.
I’ve learned to not be surprised at the vapid content of many contemporary evangelistic talks, messages and content. I’m convinced that many professing believers don’t know the Gospel and really aren’t interested in knowing much about it, especially as compared to “life principles”. They believe a person can “accept Christ” or “get saved” with any kind of sincere nod towards a generic belief in “God.” (I’m quite convinced many people sitting under Gospel preaching and teaching won’t listen or take in what is said, because it seems like “boring doctrine.)
Many believe that the preacher can explain what needs to be known about the Gospel, or follow-up Bible studies will teach it, or it will show up in the right kind of worship songs. In my experience, none of those are dependably true.
The minimizing of the relationship between the Gospel message and evangelistic methodology is a result of the separation of theology and method that took place as early as the Second Great Awakening, but certainly arrived in the Southern Baptist Convention with the flowering of denominational programming in the post-war era.
The character of God, the work of the Holy Spirit, the sinfulness and depravity of human beings, the need to trust Christ and his work on the cross, the nature of faith; all of these are significant parts of the Gospel message that have major implications in evangelistic methods. The methods that have proliferated in my tradition- and that have been repeatedly featured in our state Baptist paper- show a growing, and disturbing minimizing of the gospel as content AND the gospel as the controlling reality in methodology.
We are seeing a growing number of younger evangelical leaders reassessing evangelism based on Biblical teaching, and particularly in view of what the Gospel itself is about. This is resulting in a long-overdue recognition of the problems that result from “decisionistic” methods and the masses of unconverted persons that take away some kind of assurance from these experiences.
There is nothing more important for the health of the church today than pastors, churches, leaders, young people and even children coming to a fresh understanding and appreciation of the Gospel. Until what we do is vitally and deeply rooted in what we believe and confess, evangelicalism- especially in my tradition- will increasingly become a movement of shallow pragmatists producing disciples without serious depth, love for God or commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Will I ever see our denominational leadership take the Gospel itself as important as methods from registering decisions? Frankly, I doubt it will happen in my lifetime, but I am hopeful that leaders of another generation will be unafraid of putting the Gospel in its proper place.