Murmuring underneath everything we’ve seen so far is a fifth and final reason why our discipleship of others is failing so badly.
5. Our churches are ashamed of the gospel.
Not so long ago, I was invited to speak at a church just outside London. Numbers had been dropping, so the church was going to significant lengths to attract young people. They’d added another service at a more convenient time on a Saturday evening, they were getting in guest speakers from all over the country, they were spending money on marketing, and they had paid a worship band to come from 100 miles away.
I got chatting to a delightful congregation member about the reasons for their flagging, elderly attendance. “This may be a sensitive question,” I said, “but how’s the preaching of the gospel going?” His response came with a knowing and slightly embarrassed smile. “Well, we have to give people what they want.”
It brought to mind the retort of Martin Lloyd-Jones: “If we cannot preach the church full [ie by preaching the gospel], let them stay empty.” Why? Because a church that is made full by music, marketing or methodology is not a church that is full of disciples.
It’s true that music, marketing and methodology may bring short-term, numerical increase. But, as Mark Dever writes in his book Nine Marks of a Healthy Church:
…the growth that we find talked of and urged and prayed for in the New Testament isn’t simply numerical growth. If your church is more crowded with people now than it was a few years ago, does that mean that yours is a healthy church? Not necessarily. (201-2)
“Growth” without the regular, faithful teaching of the gospel is growth without depth. Ocean-wide and puddle-deep. If we want depth as well as width, there’s no substitute for preaching and one-to-one discipleship, with the gospel as its focus.
One final point. There is a kind of preaching and teaching that gives the impression of being confident in the gospel without actually being so.
It name-checks Jesus, mentions “the gospel”, and quotes God’s word. But it never gets as far as actually reminding us who Jesus is, what he has done, and what it means for us. Fatally, it assumes the gospel instead of actually proclaiming it. I hope it’s just me, but I’ve seen this again and again in our evangelical churches.
Last Sunday, on holiday in Wales, I had the privilege of joining a small group of believers huddled in a large and ornate congregational church. The welcome was warm and almost apologetic: “We don’t seem to get many young people these days, I’m afraid.” The pastor spoke from 1 Timothy 3 about the deceitfulness of wealth. What was said was faithful.
But, oh, what was left unsaid.
D. A. Carson, writing in Basics for Believers, makes this sage observation:
In a fair bit of Western evangelicalism, there is a worrying tendency to focus on the periphery. [My] colleague … Dr. Paul Hiebert … springs from Mennonite stock and analyzes his heritage in a fashion that he himself would acknowledge is something of a simplistic caricature, but a useful one nonetheless. One generation of Mennonites believed the gospel and held as well that there were certain social, economic, and political entailments. The next generation assumed the gospel, but identified with the entailments. The following generation denied the gospel: the “entailments” became everything. Assuming this sort of scheme for evangelicalism, one suspects that large swaths of the movement are lodged in the second step, with some drifting toward the third.
This is not a subtle plea for … a gospel without social ramifications. We wisely reread the accounts of the Evangelical Awakening in England and the Great Awakening in America and the extraordinary ministries of Howell Harris, George Whitefield, the Wesley brothers, and others. We rightly remind ourselves how under God their converts led the fights to abolish slavery, reform the penal code, begin trade unions, transform prisons, and free children from serving in the mines. All of society was transformed because soundly converted men and women saw that life must be lived under God and in a manner pleasing to him. But virtually without exception these men and women put the gospel first. They reveled in it, preached it, cherished Bible reading and exposition that was Christ-centered and gospel centered, and from that base moved out into the broader social agendas. In short, they put the gospel first, not least in their own aspirations. Not to see this priority means we are not more than a generation away from denying the gospel. (26-28, my emphasis)
Brothers and sisters, in our discipling of others – whether it be from the pulpit, or in our everyday conversations – are we assuming the gospel? Are we, functionally at least, ashamed of it?
The deep, wide discipleship we long for in our churches will only come when we stop assuming the gospel, and actually proclaim it.