Evangelical churches, with all the silliness that goes on in the public sphere and that makes media headlines, historically has a profound tradition rooted and grounded in the Word of God. The centrality of the Gospel of Jesus was preeminent in conservative evangelical churches in the United States, and even Protestant Christianity on the whole in the past. If you’ve ever been to a Catholic church and a Protestant or evangelical church, the greatest difference isn’t the clothes of the worship service in a Catholic church and an evangelical church. The greatest difference is that in the Catholic church the Holy Eucharist (Communion) is the climax of the worship service and it’s focus whereas in the Protestant church (and evangelical which flows from it) the climax of the worship service is the Word of God proclaimed. The Catholic tradition adheres to a greater emphasis on doing things in order to be right with God while still (in their defense) adhering to being saved by grace, but it is a grace in addition to works. The result is that the works are central to the worship service as opposed to the Word of God. Evidence of this is that only a small portion of Scripture is found in the churches and they are in separated segments according to the day with brief passages in the daily missal.
Protestant and evangelical churches do not have a missal, but typically have Bibles for everyone who attends to use because the emphasis of the worship service is on hearing and reading the Word of God. Protestants typically view Communion as a means of grace, but that we are not saved by the works that we do but by the work that God has done in Jesus Christ – we are saved by grace through faith. The works that we do are evidence of the saving and the means of grace are ways in which the saving work is cemented in our hearts, minds, and lives all the more as the Spirit works through such means making God’s grace effectual, reminding the believer that the life he/she lives he/she lives in Christ and stirring the affections of the believer toward the One who has done the saving. Again, the stirring even is not a human endeavor, but a divine one.
Today, there is a great problem in evangelical Christianity which once, like Protestantism, held so firmly and closely to the Word of God. Evangelical Christianity is losing the centrality of Scripture in worship and the life of the church. The sermon which once held such a prominent position in evangelical churches has been minimized by preference from the it’s once lofty length from Puritan days and more literate days, to a meager 10-20min. The worship service itself which once would be a long gathering of believers on Sunday morning has turned into a brief passing and way of convenience into more preferable things in the life of the individual. Gone are the days of long, Gospel-centered preaching with congregants hungry for more. Present are the days of short preaching, sometimes Gospel-centered, and typically congregants who seem to have lost their appetite for the Word.
Evangelical Christians who once firmly proclaimed the Gospel, now, firmly proclaim what is not the Gospel more loudly than any hint of a proclamation of what the Gospel indeed is.
Why? It is because most evangelical Christians care far more for making known what the Gospel isn’t than the Gospel itself. It is a stark reality, that a community which has Gospel woven into it’s name, euangelion/evangelical, can with haste run from the Gospel with fiery passion to something else.
While some might argue otherwise, I’d like to raise an analogy that C.S. Lewis once raised, there is a difference in knowing about God and knowing God. I would say in the same way, there is a difference in preaching about the Bible and preaching the Bible. There is a difference in preaching about the Gospel and preaching the Gospel. There are ways of getting near Scripture and the Gospel, close, but there is no substitute for the thing itself.
The Word of God is leaving churches now, and not with a lament or weeping, but with joyful celebration as rampant individualism and interest of self replace what was once a culture rooted and grounded in Scripture. The decentralization of Scripture in the life of the church in evangelical Christianity has not been shunned, but embraced by most evangelical Christians. Yet, for all who have embraced this slow death of evangelicalism or evangelicalism that was once rooted in the Word of God and has now become rooted in self, there is this haunting presence, a desire, a looking about for something more. It should not be shocking that many evangelicals are fleeing for a more “authentic” experience in worship because the reality is that their experience in worship has been one of great lights and sounds and fleeting pleasure, but one without the Word of God as the central focus of their experience.
Some evangelicals have been conscious of this decline, but their concern has been in retaining numbers of people more than proclaiming the Word of God. Therefore, instead of attempting to put a stop to the problem, they have accelerated it and joined it’s cause. The trouble with many evangelical Christians is not that they have become concerned with something necessarily bad or evil, in fact, it could be demonstrably a good thing that they strive for, but the real problem is that they’ve made that good thing an ultimate thing. They’ve made their pet dream into the mission of God in the world. Instead of a message of grace for sinners in Jesus Christ, you have a message of the individual, by the individual, for the individual, and while pleasing to the ears, the heart is not nourished by the Word of God and faces a slow death… if indeed it ever was truly alive in the first place.
Christians rant and rave about a great many things, and the latest has been one of being Gospel-centered and recovering the Gospel in churches. While indeed, the Gospel is the most important thing, if there is no desire and hunger for the Word of God in churches, the Gospel becomes simply an excitable little pet that excited one for the moment, but then fades and dies in time. The Gospel of God is rooted in the Word of God, to separate the Gospel from the Word is to extract the heart from he body. It may continue to pump for a time, but eventually there won’t be anything to pump and the heart will stop. It is not because of a lack of power in the Gospel, that is absolutely not the case. It is because we are boasting and promoting ourselves with the Gospel movement more than we are humbly yielding to God. One of my favorite examples of a humble yielding to the Christ is in my office, on my wall. It’s the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grunewald. In it, at it’s center, is the cross with Jesus Christ nailed to it. Before it is a lamb with blood spilling out of it into a chalice. To one side are Jesus family, but it’s the other side that stirs my heart every time I look at it. The other side is John the Baptist, standing with his scraggly look and clothing, holding is his left hand the Scriptures and with his right he is pointing to Jesus on the cross. It is a humble reminder for me to never cease to point by way of Scripture to Jesus Christ, as the cross is central to not only the famous picture, but my life and the life of every Christian. It was once central in churches as was a Christ-centered reading of Scripture, but this has been sacrificed on the altar of individualism for the expedience of our own wants and desires.
At the intersection of faith and culture, we find ourselves as Christians with a choice, are we to take Scripture and the Gospel of Scripture with us into culture to transform it by God’s grace or are we to set Scripture on the periphery while we seek to be more like the culture whether by our words or methods or actions? Does this mean we are to be silent on abortion, homosexuality, oppression of the poor and marginalized in our country and the world? Absolutely not. However, I do think we would do well to ground our message in the Gospel of Jesus Christ from Scripture, and use every bit of our activity to not only proclaim the Gospel but to live for the Gospel in the world. I think it means we spend less time talking about things we don’t like and more time talking about what we are truly about as Christians, and also how we talk about the things we don’t like could change from being bitter, discontents, to being grace-filled and loving as we explain how the Gospel makes us care about these things as opposed to simply yelling about things and people. Some would reply, “Well, if we’re spending more time thinking and talking about the grace of God in the Gospel, what happens to justice in the world?” I’ll tell you what, true grace, grace rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, grace rooted in God, makes us just. It has to, or it isn’t really grace.
May what we do in the world flow from our love for the Gospel of God grounded in Scripture and may how we live in the world be informed by the grace of God in His Word. Amen.