Back to the gospel is the only way forward
My latest column at Christian Week:
This summer I read Iain Murray’s two-volume biography of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, a Welsh preacher who lived from 1899-1981. It caused me to reflect on the condition of the church in North America and our response.
When Lloyd-Jones pastored, churches then were in decline, and traditional approaches to ministry were considered outmoded. Churches responded with three different approaches that seem familiar.
1. Doing church better
Some tried to “popularize the church and make it appeal to people,” offering “special inducements and attractions.” Lloyd-Jones once listened patiently as church members in London suggested “more music, livelier music, special musical numbers, shorter sermons, sermons not so deep, more variety in the services, etc.” in order to increase attendance. Churches adopted “the methods of big business and advertising” in an attempt to stem the tide.
But even then, doing church better did not lead to greater overall attendance. Lloyd-Jones said, “Our attempts are hopeless failures…The world today is laughing at the church, laughing at her attempts to be nice and to make people feel at home.”
Many today are also concluding that doing church better is not the answer. “You can build the perfect church – and they still won’t come,” observes one recent author.
2. Adapting theology
Others argued that theology had to change. They believed that the old doctrines were too narrow, that human knowledge had progressed, and that preaching should focus less on conversion and more on following the example of Jesus and on political issues. The message of Christianity had to be recast for new times.
Some today argue that theology needs to change. I understand the desire to rethink what we believe. We should never mindlessly accept dogma. But I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with theological innovation. In changing the message, it’s easy to lose it.
“The more the Church has accommodated her message to suit the palate of the people,” said Lloyd-Jones, “the greater has been the decline in attendance at places of worship.”
3. Renewed focus on the Gospel
“The Church has never tried so hard to deal with the situation as she has tried in this century,” said Lloyd-Jones. “We have never had so many organizations, we have never worked so hard, but we are not touching the situation.”
“The trouble with us, I am afraid, is that we have not sufficiently diagnosed the situation,” he said. “We are still confident in our methods. It seems to me that there is no hope until we shall have so realized the nature of the problem that we are driven to our knees, to wait upon God.”
People found it hard to believe that Lloyd-Jones focused on preaching the Gospel and emphasizing the need for the Holy Spirit to empower the church. Many thought that this approach was hopelessly outdated. Yet the results of his ministry were profound, and its effects still continue to today.
As a pastor, I’ve dabbled in each of these approaches. The church growth movement has given us some valuable insights. I’m convinced, though, that people aren’t staying away from the church because of the quality of the music or the inadequacy of the parking. The issues run deeper.
I’ve also built relationships with some who are rethinking theology. Rethinking our beliefs can be helpful, but I’ve sometimes cringed as I’ve heard careless statements and witnessed uncertainty and a willingness to put almost everything on the table for discussion. Scripture does not give us much room to dabble with its message.
I’m beginning to see more people take the approach that Lloyd-Jones advocated, even – especially – among younger people. Influential pastors like Tim Keller are emphasizing Gospel-centered ministry. Blogs, books, and groups like The Gospel Coalition are being formed around a renewed focus on the Gospel.
“We need to come back to what Jeremiah called ‘the ancient Paths,'” one pastor wrote to me recently. “I have discovered that what we really need is to get back to the Gospel and make that central to all that we do.” The way forward to effective ministry in a new day, it turns out, looks an awful lot like the path back to the Gospel.