THE SPIRIT OF THE EVANGELIZING
CHURCH NOW LEFT THE WESTERN
Is the Gospel All About Jesus Solving Our Problems and Giving us 'More Fulfillment'?
ARTICLE QUOTE: '...When people find that Jesus did not really "solve their problems" they walk away from Him. The problem is that the gospel had been turned into yet another modern therapy which leads to a more "fulfilled existence" in the here and now - but that is not the gospel and that is not Christianity!'
We start with two quotes from A.W. Tozer:
"My observations have led me to the belief that many, perhaps most, of the activities engaged in by the average church do not contribute in any way to the accomplishing of the true work of Christ on earth."
"The church has lost her testimony. She has no longer anything to say ......"
When we look at today's evangelizing Church in places like Africa, China, Nepal, Indonesia and Malaysia we see a vigorous movement which is utterly passionate for the truth of the gospel. We see a spiritual organism which seems to expect – and frequently receive - miracles and wonders, yes even in this early 21st century. There seems little doubt to many of us that although – as ever – false teachers with deceiving 'wonders' are still to be found, many genuinely astonishing things are taking place when the gospel goes afresh into new places. As one missionary remarked, 'The Spirit of Pentecost is abroad when the gospel is preached today in the eastern world.' But I believe that we tend to find something quite different in what we might loosely term 'the western hemisphere' (meaning Britain, USA, Canada and western Europe). This comparison is the topic of this article.
During the last few years my wife and I have personally experienced two very different Christian congregations here in the UK and I believe that these two experiences indicate two very different models of Christian worship in the West. Both models insist that they are only interested in communicating the message of the gospel of Jesus to a society which badly needs the truth, but – somehow – something seems to go sadly awry when these groups organize themselves to take the gospel out to others. These are the two most common models of worship that one seems to find:
1. Small struggling church congregations which refuse to change or alter anything which they practise; often this means no new hymns, no new campaigns, a refusal for the leaders to consider that they might be simply using an outdated approach. These congregations are not always liberal but are sometimes evangelical, yet they are frequently just as much 'stuck in a rut' as more liberal places. Quite often (though not always) these places are determined to keep an elderly worship hall or chapel going even when it is costing the congregation a lot of money to do so; this means no money for local evangelistic endeavour. Sometimes the leaders of these congregations will say things like, 'We must keep our chapel open as a local witness.' But the truth is, the chapel is no longer a witness of any sort, but is seen in the local community as this rather dingy old hall in which this rather elderly secret society occasionally hold meetings which seem pretty much irrelevant to them! I know from personal experience that there are many hundreds of such places, and all too many of them refuse to change or move forward.
2. Huge evangelical churches which seem to feel that the sheer numbers which they attract prove that they have God's favour! Many of these places have very 'dodgy' teaching at times, yet many others seem to be quite legitimately evangelical. My wife and I have certainly experienced such a place of worship, but we honestly came to feel that this congregation kidded itself in seeing itself as a leading light in local Christian evangelism. Although the 'prosperity gospel' was certainly (and correctly) rejected by this huge congregation's leaders, it remains the case that money just seemed to be too important to them. Money, success, image, growth strategies and prestige within the city seemed to be all-important factors to them. Yet despite priding itself on being 'evangelical' I gradually learned that many of its people were just not evangelical; they led comfortable, financially affluent lives and Jesus received a lot of 'lip service' but little preparedness or willingness to sacrifice for the gospel. Of course, many fine people attended, but somehow something went wrong thereafter. Despite some excellent preaching, many of this church's several hundred members were not increasingly walking with Christ, but seemed increasingly concerned to improve their prosperity and foreign holiday experiences. Why? How can this be? This congregation took up huge offerings on a Sunday, the sort of offerings which could support third world congregations for a year or two, yet I would venture to suggest that faith often seemed to be conspicuous by its absence.
So what is the answer to this enigma? We see financially struggling congregations in the eastern world which are powerful in faith, even while we witness financially affluent congregations in the West which seem amazingly lacking in faith or indeed wisdom at times. What is the answer to this?
I believe that we may have erred in assuming that God would continue to empower His Church's evangelism in an age and place where the name of Christ is no longer a new revelation! Think about it: the disciples were told to take the gospel message to the whole world, to a world with no knowledge of Jesus Christ. Today much of the eastern world still has little or no knowledge of Jesus Christ and we see evangelistic efforts mostly blessed in this region; is this coincidental?
The very large church which we attended had an active program of evangelising students, but it was discovered that even the unlikeliest of these had already heard about Jesus and had at least a rough working knowledge of the claims of the gospel, its just that they were completely indifferent to it and had never personally applied any of it to themselves. Its the same right across all of our western societies: all our people know about Jesus and the claims of the gospel, its simply that they are largely indifferent to it! Can we assume that God will continue to powerfully grant the dynamism which accompanied the original publishing of the gospel (to a world which was ignorant of Jesus and needed to hear that message) to a modern society which has shown itself to be completely indifferent to the message? Are we failing in our biblical understanding somewhere here? If – in the 21st century - we all know the gospel but don't act, isn't that the same as rejecting God? Can we really "take Jesus to....." those who already know all about Jesus but are completely indifferent to Him? Should it be any surprise when we find that the Holy Spirit is no longer actively involved in much of our evangelistic endeavour?
Many believe that the answer to this is to employ tactics based entirely on human reasoning; You know the sort of thing, the 'church growth strategies' : have loud worship songs and 'twangy' electric guitars to attract young people. Use a message which tells people how their common life problems can be solved by Jesus: - but this is tantamount to saying, 'Oh, we know that all that theology stuff about Jesus is boring, but wouldn't you like to solve the problems in your marriage? Jesus can help!' 'Wouldn't you like to make your children more respectful? Jesus can help!' - or (worst of all!), 'Wouldn't you like to have more money and enjoy better health? Jesus can help!' In this way we turn Christian teaching into just another part of our modern self-concerned therapeutic culture!
I was recently told how a leading lady tele-evangelist started her evangelistic pitch on one of her recent television programs. Her evangelistic pitch started with, "Are you feeling tired and lonely? Are you feeling depressed? Are you feeling frustrated with life?" All of a sudden we seem to be saying that the only value in God is how He can make us more happy, or how He can make us feel better about ourselves! The apostles of the New Testament would not even have recognised the language! The whole concept of a God Who is angry with sin and Who demands respect from His creation is completely lost. The very first evangelists were more honest and more direct: they would say, 'You need to repent right now because whether you realise it or not you are in rebellion against God and He will certainly punish you for it: save yourselves from the power of sin, and understand that salvation only comes through the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet you must count the cost - it's not an easy road, you will have persecutions and increased difficulties - yet its the true path to eternal life. But the first act is repentance and humility before God!' Today we don't use that message. Why? Because we all know that people will not respond to it here in the wealthy west. Therefore we introduce a bit of human psychology. Using such flawed tactics, membership of a congregation might grow by a hundred in 2-3 years, but one day it is suddenly realised that most such people are not even converted. Worldliness remains a desirable thing for such people because they have never understood the Christian concept of separation from this society in order to better serve Christ. True Christianity always taught newly converted people to serve as 'ambassadors for Christ' within society, whilst maintaining a certain separation, but modern evangelicalism seems to have encouraged a new evangelistic culture in which the newly converted jump right back into the very midst of society! Faith is not the powerful life-changing thing which it should be but is reduced to an almost mystical/existential concept. In too many such cases, lives are not really dramatically changed and when people find that Jesus did not really "solve their problems" they walk away from Him. The problem is that the gospel had been turned into yet another modern therapy which leads to a more "fulfilled existence" in the here and now - but that is not the gospel and that is not Christianity!
I asked an Indian missionary about this dilemma. His answer was very interesting and revealing. It is his own point of view, but I feel that we ignore his wise words at our own peril:
'You in the West have already experienced your age of Pentecost, now its our turn. God has given the great gifts to us, but maybe withdrawn them from you. You in Britain have turned your back on God in your secular land, but your people have heard the message. Its not that bad in America; most people still go to church, but they too are turning away from God in their thousands. God will reject those who have known Him but then cast Him aside; everything in the Bible tells me this. I believe that the spirit and soul of the evangelizing church has left you.'
I think this is an intriguing point of view. Of course, I am not claiming that some people in the West are not still coming to Christ, they most certainly are, but the Church itself no longer seems to be empowered and dynamic in its missionary activities in our own lands. Many may disagree with this, but whenever somebody shows me a “dynamic church” which is “bringing hundreds to Christ,” I look closely and see a reliance on 'growth strategies', I see a reliance on twangy guitars to captivate young people, I see the perverted 'Word-faith' message, I see a reliance on finance and on certain charismatic and 'loud' preachers. But I mostly do not see a total submission to Christ and His gospel, I do not see utter humility before God. All the great and successful missions of the past have not needed money, an expensive 'set', a 'double tithing pledge' or 'big name' personalities from the pop music world in order to get people interested. They have not needed to be in 'the most luxurious church in town', they have not needed the leading preacher to be a 'tele-evangelist', all they have needed was the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit, and that Spirit did not too often descend on the wealthy and powerful who had trust and assurance in what their money and power and personalities could accomplish. No!! That Holy Spirit of God descended on the poor and meek and humble who knew only too well that they were as nothing in the sight of God and badly needed His mercy! Such utter humility and trust in God is harder in a wealthy society! Look at the original Pentecost. Look at the great Welsh Revival of 1904. Poor people. People in need. There was no human organisation behind it – just God's divine mercy, and His willingness to save the 'contrite in spirit.'
Okay. Are there any Scriptures which might suggest that God will not continually send a Spirit-empowered gospel proclamation to a society which already knows the substance of that message but which is almost completely indifferent to it?
Actually there are a few. Let us consider one or two:
'”But whatever city you enter, and they do not receive you, go out into its streets and say, “The very dust of your city which clings to us we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near you.' But I say to you that it will be more tolerable in that Day for Sodom than for that city.”' (Luke 10:10-12).
Whatever might apply to a city would surely also apply to a whole society which has rejected God. Yes, individuals may still respond as God calls within a society, yet God can still withold many blessings from His Church's evangelistic activities within any society which God deems to have received sufficient witness but which has elected to reject that witness. The most serious thing which God could withdraw from His Church would be Spirit-empowerment. This Scripture also makes it plain that such a God-rejecting society can expect judgment! Now let us look at a widely ignored verse in Matthew 7:
'Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces.' (Matthew 7:6).
This verse is interesting because it makes it clear that there is a time not to communicate the gospel, but to keep silent! When the message is being aggressively thrown back in our face our Lord releases us from any feeling that we need to continue to communicate the gospel. But this also shows that God may decide to withold the message of the gospel from any society for any period of time; it is within God's sovereignty and jurisdiction. If God did decide to withold His blessing we would, presumably, still be able to tell others about Jesus, but we would find that the Holy Spirit Himself would be absent from our evangelistic activities. Is this not what we now find?
There are many other Scriptures which warn of the responsibility of having knowledge but not acting. It is one thing to sin or to reject God out of total ignorance, but a far more serious matter to have knowledge of God but to reject Him. Our western societies know all about the name of Christ and the message of the gospel but have made the decision to put that aside and travel down the road of secularism. This must surely bring eventual judgment!
Think about this! How many times do we warn a stubborn and rebellious child of the consequences of their behaviour before we realize that our warnings are simply being ignored or thrown back in our faces, and that child will now simply need to learn some things the hard way and to bear the responsibility for his/her actions? Why do we expect God to behave differently? Sure He is ever-merciful, but sometimes we show most love to people by allowing them to reap a little of what they sow!
So (while we cannot assume it) it could well be that the age of dynamic and Spirit-empowered evangelism has now ceased in the western world and we just have to live with a situation in which our societies are increasingly rejecting God and God is 'shaking off the dust of His feet' against them. Certainly any thought of Revival now seems most unlikely in a society which feels it no longer needs God but has placed its full trust in mammon. I am not advocating Defeatism here but I feel that we must acknowledge current realities. The Lord continues to do a powerful work of evangelism, but mainly in countries where the message of the gospel is still fresh and new. Here in the West our task has become more one of encouraging those who are already commited to our Lord and we need to stick to this task (while rejoicing with any who join us in the Body of Christ).
So we must proceed in the light of current realties. In turning away from God and turning to liberalism and secularism our modern western democracies are certainly showing a rejection of God and a rejection of the Name of Jesus (which Name once filled churches). As a society, our God may now well consider that they have received the message of the gospel to quite a great depth. I suggest that we should not be surprised that many of our evangelistic activities now seem to need gimmicks, gadgets and gismos in order to really take off. I heard this very revealing comment from a man who was involved in a recent British 'evangelistic celebration' to commemorate 100 years since the 1904 Welsh Revival. During this "celebration" it was hoped that the Spirit would powerfully move and guide many to Christ:
'Everything was in place, the colourful lights, the evangelistic sermon, the singers and with a friendly atmosphere pervading the large hall; yet, despite our greatest efforts, at the end of the evening it was obvious to me that the thing - the person - which we needed the most – The Holy Spirit – had witheld His blessing. Had we overplanned? Had we worried too much about money and expenses? Had we been wrong to sell tickets? Did a few of us seem to think that we could humanly engineer an outpouring of the Spirit??'
I think that this very honest and genuine quote tells us a whole lot about what we are doing wrong all on its own!
Robin A. Brace
© This article is Copyright Robin A. Brace 2004. Article edited and altered 2006 - all rights reserved. If you want it on your own website please do the honourable thing and come to us for permission first. It is forbidden to excerpt this article without our permission. Thank you.
COUNTERCULT AND APOLOGETICS