As we have seen thus far in our review of Michael Spencer’s provocative article The Coming Evangelical Collapse, evangelicalism in America has suffered from growing theological ignorance, cultural accommodation, and ecclesiastical confusion.
While the culture wars continue-unabated by a frail church-they do so in the face of an increasingly secular culture, indicating that time and attrition are currently on the side of those who press humanistic schemes and atheistic worldviews. Politics are proving futile in holding even the most traditional moral boundaries; freedom of conscience is increasingly denied to those who oppose these changes, and our entire economic system is in flux, moving away from the free market and toward greater government control.
These conditions have left many Christians afraid, confused, uncertain, or simply withdrawn and awaiting rapturous evacuation. However, there is never a time for complacency or apathy in God’s victorious kingdom! Christians understand (or at least they should) that God is absolutely sovereign in the affairs of this world and that he causes all things to work together for good to those who love him (see Romans 8:28). We also know that God’s kingdom will come forth and no one or no thing in heaven or on earth can stay his hand (see Daniel 4:35). His perfect will shall be done. And, as a pastor friend of mine recently said in response to these darkening days, “The light shines brightest when it is the darkest.” Perhaps this is just what the church in America needs.
So, what must the church do in the face of its withered condition and these changing times? Michael Spencer acknowledges, “A small band will work hard to rescue the movement from its demise through theological renewal.” He further declares that this “small band” of reformation-minded Christians “is an attractive, innovative, and tireless community with outstanding media, publishing, and leadership development” but doesn’t believe they will ultimately succeed in their reformation efforts, although he concedes that their efforts “may result in benefits for many churches and the beginnings of new churches.”
I can attest to the fact that there are indeed a small (but growing) number of ministries and people concerned about the state of the church that are working for renewal. As one who has been committed to the cause of reformation and renewal since the inception of this ministry, I count myself among them and I am more encouraged than ever as I encounter people who share the same God-given burden. I don’t know whether or not we will succeed, either, but I do know that to try is the faithful thing to do. Such times call for boldness and honest self-examination and the results of our efforts are entirely in the hands of him who causes all things to work together.
If reformation is called for and given the multitude of issues plaguing the American church, where must this reformation begin? What must we do to remedy the situation within the church, the culture, or the nation to the glory of God?
First, we must establish the correct priorities and I would submit that our first priority cannot be the rescue of the nation or the culture but instead the church of Jesus Christ, because this is the only instrument of redemption available for the either of the former. This is not to suggest that we abandon those activities aimed at redeeming society and culture. However, those activities will never succeed without a renewed and faithful church that properly and fully engages the mission of Christ. As an example, William Wilberforce’s eighteenth-century struggle to abolish slavery would not have succeeded without the spiritual movements led by Wesley, Whitefield, Newton, and the like.
So, where do we begin? The apocalyptic George Orwell once wrote, “Sometimes the first duty of intelligent men is the restatement of the obvious.” While not presuming myself to be one of those intelligent men, I do think there is a need to restate the obvious when it comes to renewing the church. And nothing is more obvious than the fact that we no longer understand the gospel!
Today, when evangelicals speak of the gospel, they almost always mean, simply, the “personal plan of salvation.” This is generally understood as an activity in which we present people with some facts about Jesus, ask them to agree with these facts, and if they do, instruct them to invite him into their lives, or pray the sinners prayer, and so on. Once they have done this, we tell them “You are saved!” We tell them to get baptized and join a Bible-believing church. The gospel in this sense is reduced to an ideological set of facts whose implications are only personal-when, in fact, the gospel is an incarnational reality, touching all of creation that can be seen and experienced. And most Christians, for the last 50 years, have been taught and believed that the proclamation of this simple set of facts is the sum and total of their mission on earth.
I submit to you that this paradigm represents a vastly reduced understanding of the gospel, and that this reductionism has radically altered the church’s understanding of its mission and purpose. And in so doing, this as much-if not more than-anything else has caused the church to drift off course. The church in America needs to be reevangelized with the true gospel: the “gospel of the kingdom.” Divorcing the “good news” from the kingdom is analogous to proclaiming the liberation of Europe before the allied invasion of Normandy. Such a proclamation might make one feel better but it wouldn’t represent a change in your reality-you would still be living under the occupation of the enemy.
In the coming weeks, we will explore the Scripture and test these statements. We will compare the reductionist gospel described above with the gospel of the kingdom that Jesus and the apostles preached. And we will explore how, practically speaking, this gospel of the kingdom is to be manifested in and through the body of Christ.