I just spent ten minutes reading something I’ve read/heard hundreds of times before: an established, traditional church, experiencing some signs of aging, goes through a process diagnosing its problems, developing/selling a plan for the future and asking the congregation to work with the leadership to bring the church through a period of decline into a future of growth and prosperity.
In those plans are predictable words: Plans. Consultants. Marketing. Children. New Staff. New facilities. New families. Communication. Outreach. Programs. Growth.
We know what normally happens:
With new staff, a good plan, better facilities, more marketing, we will prosper. We need to work harder and do more. We need programs and outreaches and visibility. It’s always worked. It will work again.
Spencer identifies a problem with this approach:
Many of you know what you won’t hear in this recitation of plans and programs. You won’t hear anything about the Gospel. At all.
The Gospel? We’ve got that down. We preach it. (Don’t we?) We teach it. (Of course we teach it. We baptized 15 last year.) If we don’t have the Gospel right, what are we doing anyway?
Now there’s a question.
Tom Ascol, Director of Founder’s Ministries, has repeatedly said that the challenge facing Southern Baptists and other evangelicals is the Gospel itself. Not numbers or how to grow bigger churches, but the Gospel.
The Gospel is rarely heard in many churches. Whole movements have moved past the Gospel into “felt needs” and “what people want to hear.” Pastor-theologians are rare; perhaps officially qualifying as an endangered species. Any survey or question and answer on the gospel in the midst of our Sunday morning congregations will yield results not much different than what one might hear in France or secular Europe. Oh there will be a LOT more God talk and religious chatter, but the Gospel? The core? The heart? You will be surprised. You ought to be broken.
This is where I’ve appreciated a lot of Tim Keller’s stuff. Keller says:
We never “get beyond the gospel” in our Christian life to something more “advanced.” The gospel is not the first “step” in a “stairway” of truths, rather, it is more like the “hub” in a “wheel” of truth. The gospel is not just the A-B-C’s of Christianity, but it is the A to Z of Christianity. The gospel is not just the minimum required doctrine necessary to enter the kingdom, but the way we make all progress in the kingdom.
We are not justified by the gospel and then sanctified by obedience but the gospel is the way we grow (Gal. 3:1-3) and are renewed (Col 1:6). It is the solution to each problem, the key to each closed door, the power through every barrier (Rom 1:16-17).
It is very common in the church to think as follows: “The gospel is for non-Christians. One needs it to be saved. But once saved, you grow through hard work and obedience.” But Colossians 1:6 shows that this is a mistake. Both confession and “hard work” that is not arising from and “in line” with the gospel will not sanctify you—it will strangle you. All our problems come from a failure to apply the gospel. Thus when Paul left the Ephesians he committed them “to the word of his grace, which can build you up” (Acts 20:32).
The main problem, then, in the Christian life I that we have not thought out the deep implication of the gospel, we have not “used” the gospel in and on all parts of our life. Richard Lovelace says that most people’s problems are just a failure to be oriented to the gospel—a failure to grasp and believe it through and through. Luther says (on Gal. 2:14), “The truth of the Gospel is the principle article of all Christian doctrine… Most necessary is it that we know this article well, teach it to others, and beat it into their heads continually.” The gospel is not easily comprehended. Paul says that the gospel only does its renewing work in us as we understand it in all its truth. All of us, to some degree live around the truth of the gospel but do not “get” it. So the key to continual and deeper spiritual renewal and revival is the continual re-discovery of the gospel. A stage of renewal is always the discovery of a new implication or application of the gospel—seeing more of its truth. This is true for either an individual or a church.