by Adam Dorsey
An article from 2001 in Canada’s Christian Week Online cited a study by Stats Can, now ten years old, which revealed an alarming reality that many North American pastors and church members have come to know first-hand: church attendance has dropped off sharply, with no end in sight. “[C]hurches in Canada are rapidly losing their appeal for millions of Canadians seemingly uninterested in organized religion.” Janet Somerville, then general secretary of the ecumenical Canadian Council of Churches, explained, “Secularism and agnosticism (are) so normative to mainstream Canada today. Most [Canadians] need something big to experience Christianity” (emphasis mine).¹
Something big? Is she serious? Christianity’s problem is not that we do not have “something big” to offer the world. The problem seems to be that we have lost interest in and affection for the “something big” that we have. The “something big” that Christianity needs now is the same “something big” that Isaiah saw, high and lifted up, seated on the throne, the train of whose robe filled the temple. He’s the same “something big” that Peter, James, and John caught a glimpse of on that mountain. He’s the same “something big” King Nebuchadnezzar spotted in the fiery furnace. The same glory that hurled Saul to the ground on the Damascus Road. What the Church needs today is what it has needed in all of its eras; the glory of the crucified, resurrected Christ—recovered. The preaching of the gospel of Christ, from the Word of Christ, in the life-giving power of the Spirit of Christ. Can it get any bigger?
Youth ministers and drummers…parting the Red Sea?
The same article quoted a leader in the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada (PAOC), who said the PAOC has responded by “placing a heavy emphasis on junior high, youth and young adult groups, with many of its 1,100 churches dedicating two or more staff to the needs of these groups. That emphasis on youth, the receptiveness to Pentecostalism from new Canadians and the Pentecostal style of worship has helped the PAOC deal with the trend facing many other denominations and actually see significant growth.”
No mere man can save the world, or the church. As Isaiah labored to convey to those in his era, pride-racked humans will always prefer to rely on self-sufficiency and ingenuity for success, rather than persevering trust in the promises and power of God: “In that day you looked to the weapons of the House of the Forest…But you did not look to Him who did it, or see Him who planned it long ago” (Isaiah 22:8b, 11b; ESV). It seems the very thing that built the church in the first place—the gospel—is the last thing some church leaders turn to for recovery and growth. Christianity’s “something big” is not an emphasis on youth, young adults, old adults, car washes, field trips, or worship styles. Our Redeemer is not a program, a pastor, or a concession to the secular culture in which we live. Our “something big” is a Man, born of a Virgin in a stable in Bethlehem; a King who was without a place to lay His head, whose kingdom is not of this world, and who lived a perfect life, died on the cross for the sin of the world, was resurrected unto glory, and is now seated at the right hand of the Majesty on High. And is coming back…
And, how do you think the senior adults feel in all those churches who are directing much of their resources at young people? The gospel is not just for young people (I have served at two churches as a youth pastor). Neither is it just for the poor and marginalized, as is also popular today. Instead of marginalizing some in order to cater to others, why not equip our senior adults to discover and use their gifts for ministry, for God’s glory, like Paul said (1 Cor 12)? Why not raise them up to mentor these youngsters in sound doctrine—both men: “entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also (2 Tim 2:2), and women: “Older women likewise…are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled” (Titus 2:3-5; emphasis mine)? Hard work? The right thing always is. Messy? Ministry usually is. But just as Tom Schreiner aptly points out, “God’s church grows in God’s way, by God’s Word, using God’s methods.”
The very distinctiveness of the gospel is at stake. Secular social programs are age-, ethnicity-, and socioeconomic-specific. But the gospel is not. Jonah had to learn this. So did Peter. And so do we. The gospel is the real “One nation, under God.” The gospel is “Every tribe, tongue, and nation…or bust.” The gospel is the Philistine and Benjaminite, cowboy and day trader, Josiah and Methuselah—shoulder to shoulder, inside the veil (Gal 3:28-29; Heb 6:19, 10:19-22).
The gospel is a complete package: philosophically consistent, redemptively sufficient, cosmic in scope, and spectacular in power. No mere man, program, or secular social organization can match it. None of them is Jesus. None of them has our “something big.”
Our unsaved family members are watching.
Something big? Applied to our culture, this statement is par for the course. We can unhesitatingly agree that our western culture indeed demands “something big”—in every area of life. Our SUVs are big, our T.V. screens are big, our Big Macs are, well, big. But applied to the gospel, a call to produce “something big” is astounding, if not blasphemous. Since when did the gospel need to be made big? How does one “super-size” “God became flesh and dwelt among men”? And when supposed church leaders are so unimpressed by the gospel, the watching culture picks up on it—and takes note. The community section of one local newspaper in St. John’s, Newfoundland, advertised an upcoming concert performance by a young gospel recording artist. The headline for the performance read, “Gospel, with gusto.” The impression of the contemporary church by the culture is that the gospel is not enough to keep people “interested”—it needs “gusto.” If the gospel were a 512 megabyte MP3 player that could be one-upped by an 80 Gig device in six months, this perception of the church would be understandable, and even preferable. But the gospel is not a product or service that can be upgraded. The gospel is “one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5), whose work is perfect, once-for-all, and finished (Heb 10:10, 12, 14).
For this reason, the gospel is in no need of an adjective. Popular distinctives such as the “Hip-Hop Gospel,” “Intellectual Gospel,” the “Science-Friendly Gospel,” and others, all aver that the gospel, left by itself, is lacking in significance and efficacy. Just like that Jehovah’s Witness knocking on your door, it is the hallmark of the evil one to attempt to strip Christ of his due glory, in order to fabricate a “hole” in his work, thereby requiring man to fill that hole with his own works.
The gospel is, in fact, the most glorious message of sovereign grace, unfathomable love, and holistic redemption. It is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16b). Church father Athanasius, in his behemoth On the Incarnation, rebuked the unbelief of Jews with an argument scarily appropriate for our contemporary condition:
The Jews are afflicted like some demented person who sees the earth lit up by the sun, but denies the sun that lights it up! What more is there for the Expected One to do when he comes? To call the heathen? But they are called already. To put an end to prophet and king and vision? But this too has already happened. To expose the God-denyingness of idols? It is already exposed and condemned. Or to destroy death? It is already destroyed. What is there left out or unfulfilled that the Jews should disbelieve so light-heartedly?²
Adapting his question to our topic, What is it that Christ has not accomplished for the success of his church? Just what is it that is missing from the gospel?
When pagan members of the culture spurn the power and sufficiency of the gospel, the church proceeds unharmed. When professing Christians and church leaders do so—either in theory or in practice—the church is weakened, the blood of Christ is trampled on, and pragmatism is seated on God’s throne.
Diet Christ: Tastes Great, Less Filling.
Non-believers know when they are being patronized. They can taste the water in today’s gospel. Conversely, they know and respect the real thing when they hear it. Make no mistake about it, anyone seriously searching for spiritual answers is craving for someone to just shoot straight with them—to give them the real Christ—full dose—in love—and then let them examine him, count the cost, and then make their decision. The biblical evidence to this point is mammoth: Peter at Pentecost (Acts 2), Philip in Samaria, and to the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:4-8, 26-35), Paul in Athens (Acts 17:22-34). After warning the Jews about going to hell, Paul and Barnabas even had them begging for more in Antioch (Acts 13:13-44)! The point is not that such a genuine gospel presentation guarantees conversion, rather that people cannot make a meaningful decision to follow Christ if they have never been formally introduced to him. Today, few do this as powerfully and biblically as preachers such as C.J. Mahaney, John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Mark Dever, and John MacArthur.
One of the Chinese members of our International Bible study back in Newfoundland is a fitting illustration of the “bigness” and attraction of the gospel. By her own admission, she is not a believer. When I asked her once about how she had come to our study, she said that her and her mother had traveled to Hong Kong for a visit when they came upon a woman on a street corner handing out Christian tracts. She said that the first thing that struck her about the whole situation was that the smile on this lady’s face was “so different than any other smile.” Based on the woman’s disposition, this student took the tract and read it. Shortly thereafter, she moved to St. John’s to attend Memorial University of Newfoundland, where she was told of an American missionary, Steve Grissom, who was starting a Bible study on campus. She soon became a regular attendee. Verse-by-verse through the Gospel of John didn’t scare her away. [Did I mention she is a non-believer?] She just kept saying that this woman’s face was so genuine and engaging that she “knew there had to be something to it.”
That’s the gospel. Can it get any bigger?
Bigger is better.
It is by the gospel that the church rises or falls. When the church scrambles to pander to the outcries and petty preferences of a world which is always demanding the newer and better, the message is sent to the surrounding culture that the church has nothing “bigger” to offer them than anyone else in the phone book. Perhaps this is why people have lost interest in the church—stripped of the gospel, there really is nothing “big” about it. Just a bunch of people in need of change.
And the proof is in the puddin’. The current state of the western church is indeed in decline. But not because it is in need of “something big”, but because its “something big” has gotten small. Even where the gospel is being preached, often therapeutic psychology dwells alongside “On Christ the solid rock I stand.” Neglected senior saints sit feet from multiple pastors devoted to courting and retaining “young people.” Dying seekers and neighbors remain complacent (and destined for hell) while faddish church leaders “build relationships” with them. You wouldn’t catch Peter holding back to save face. Paul was never (successfully) accused of diluting the pure gospel to please man (Gal 1:10). And John didn’t wax ambiguously about friendship with the world (1 Jn 2:15-17). They, like the other Apostles, knew what loving their lost neighbor really means—“something big”—the gospel.
If we preach it, they will come.
The reason the church is losing people is because her gospel has gotten small. Entertainment and a “soft on sin” gospel may bring people, but it will never change people. The church is in embarrassing decline likely because she has turned her attention and affections away from the glory of the crucified, resurrected Lamb of God, who bought her with His blood on the cross. And when we do give him a glance, we often walk away from the experience and go on living our lives as though we were barely impressed with what we just saw. The culture has picked up on this, and that’s why they are clamoring for “something big.” No wonder they are still looking for it. How did Calvary come to this?
You want something big? The glory of the cross; the glory of the gospel; the glory of Christ Jesus. “Jesus: Single-handedly saving the world since the Fall.” “Billions and billions served.” “Able to take away the sin of the world with a single sacrifice.” You get the idea.
The gospel. Nothing more, nothing less. That is something big.
If we preach it, they will come (Acts 2:41).
¹http://www.christianweek.org/stories/vol14/no18/story2.html; accessed 6/7/08.
²Athanasius, On the Incarnation (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996), 75.