I am astounded in many ways by why it is so difficult for us as a church to simply follow the directions. Why is that so hard? I'm talking about how the church comports itself and how it marshals its efforts in order to have the kind of impact that God intends it to have in the world. It is not even clear to me anymore that the church – speaking in generalizations now, and there are always exceptions –even knows what it is all about, what it is meant to do.
I wrote our letter to our Stand to Reason people for December about reflections on the nature of the church, our task in the world, and what Stand to Reason has done this year to help other Christians to fulfill that obligation. I start out with a simple reflection that at Christmas time there are these wonderful hymns. If we look at them, they are absolutely stunning if we pay attention to the words, and we can’t help but worship when we speak the words that are expressed in these hymns. They are so much about God and His purpose, and spoken in such sublime language. There is no “I” and “we” in those hymns. The focus is all on God. Then after Christmas we go back to singing about ourselves, our experience, and how lucky God is to love us, because now we feel wonderful. I think, Is this what the church thinks it is about? Does the church think this is about them? Do we think that God is about us? I certainly get that feeling from the songs.
A couple of weeks ago, I was teaching a group on the issue of decision making and the will of God – a good group of people, by the way. I enjoyed my time with them, but part of what we do in that teaching is go through the passages that are pressed into service as prooftexts for a faulty view, and I actually get people to read the passages. Remember, never read a Bible verse. And if somebody quotes a Bible verse to you to prove a point, it really is valuable for us to go back and look at the verse to find out if it makes the point.
We were looking at Romans 8. The passage talks about being led by the Spirit and frankly, we have a 20th century definition of that term and we read it back into the text in a way that Paul never intended. How do I know that? Because I have read the text. He uses the phrase twice, once in Romans 8 and the other in Galatians 5, and he means the same thing in both cases, and he does not mean getting nudges or indications by the Spirit as to what we should do next. That is not what Paul means. He means something different.
So, I am going through the passage and I read the paragraph to give the context and flow of thought. I asked the question, "What does Paul mean by the phrase 'led by the Spirit?'” That’s the question, isn’t it? It is a Biblical term. What does the Biblical writer mean by the term? Not what does 20th Century Christianity mean by it? We get that wrong all the time.
I asked a question about Paul's meaning of the phrase, and almost in unison, these good people did, I think, what they have grown accustomed to doing in small groups. I asked them about the passage and immediately they lifted their eyes from the passage and begin to ponder. Then I began getting responses. “Well, I think it means this.” “I think it means that.” “I think it means the other thing.’ That wasn’t my question, of course. I am not interested in what anybody thinks about what the phrase “led by the Spirit” means. I want to know what Paul meant, and we cannot figure out what Paul meant by lifting our eyes and pondering and reflecting on the term. We have to lower our eyes back to the text and look at the sentences of the text to figure out inductively what it is that Paul was talking about in that passage.
Why is it so hard for us to keep our eyes on the text? It’s not that difficult. Just read it. It isn’t that tricky. It is not in cipher. And there is so much there that is practical for us.
I talked this morning with my brother Dave, who lives in Florida, about his church. It is a seeker-centered church. Most churches that try to be seeker sensitive end up being seeker centered. The church becomes for the seeker rather than Christians. My brother has tried to get them to look at what God has already said we should be doing by simply going back to the text. His analysis is very simple. This church is meant to fulfill the Great Commission. What is that? The Great Commission is not simply evangelism. Read it yourself – Matthew 28:19 & 20. “All authority has been given me on heaven and earth”, Jesus says, “Go therefore and make Christians.” Oops, it doesn’t say that. It says, “Go therefore and make disciples.”
Many seeker-sensitive churches use the church for evangelism rather than making disciples. They all get together for a service and they preach the Gospel. No wonder the Christians are dropping by the wayside. They are not getting taught. There is nothing more complicated or deep out of the Scriptures in the Saturday evening service than that which a non-regenerate person can understand. That is shallow. That’s not milk, that’s not even skim milk. That's water. Nothing wrong with water when you are evangelizing, but evangelization is not the Great Commission and it doesn’t happen in the church.
The Greek word for church is ekclesia. Ek for "out." Clesia portion is from caleo, which is "called." The church is the "called-out ones." We are called out of the world to be separate. So when the church service is the place non-believers come to get the Gospel where do the believers get discipled? In the small groups – not so. There are small groups in that church. But what is happening in the small groups? The same thing as the services. You cannot disciple people unless you have disciplers, and frankly, they cannot be expected to know anything if they’ve never been taught. And what is the nature of the Gospel that is going out in the service to the mass gathering? Well, it’s no Gospel at all. It is the seeker Gospel. It’s the Gospel without the bad news. It is the good news with no bad news. People are coming to have purpose in their lives, but they are not coming to get saved from sin. Lack of purpose isn’t the problem; sin is the problem. It turns out that not even the Gospel is being preached.
I've talked with a number of churches who have gone through "Forty Days of Purpose." The problem is that there is no Gospel in those forty days of purpose. It's used as a technique to get to non-believers to the church but they hear a message of good news without any bad news.
The Great Commission requires evangelism as a logical priority, but that just gets you to the place where you start to fulfill it. You do evangelism for the purpose of building disciples in the church. And in fact, you see that practiced in the early church. Acts 2 – all those people get saved, then what happens? They were devoting themselves to the Apostles' preaching and to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Acts 8, the Apostles dealing with the problem of the Hellenistic widows who were not being fed said we are not going to feed them. It is not our job to wait tables. We can’t take time away from – and he doesn’t say evangelism – he says we cannot take time away from teaching the word. So they appoint stewards in the church to take care of them.
The church is the place where the Christians are discipled so they can go out and do the works of ministry and go into the marketplace and have an impact for Christ. That’s what Jesus taught, that’s what He modeled. That’s what the early disciples taught, that’s what they modeled. The message in the marketplace was not a message of purpose; it was a message of sin and salvation. Bad news, good news. They turned the world upside down with that message.
Here is the solution to the church's problem. We have to abandon the seeker model and we have to adopt the Biblical model. Ooh, that sounds so arrogant. You are saying what they are doing is not Biblical? Yes! This is not rocket science. Find me anywhere in the Scriptures where the church gathers as Christians for the purpose of watering down the Gospel message and getting people to come into their church congregation. The church gathered for training and edification of believers, then they went out with the message of sin and salvation so people could get right with God before they could even begin to think about whatever purpose God had for their lives. First things first. That is the consistent model in every single time in the book of Acts where the Gospel is preached.
In all 14 times the Gospel is preached where we have detail of what they said, there is not a single occasion where anyone was invited to have a relationship with God. There is not a single occasion where anyone is told that if they become Christians their life will get better, they will have more purpose, and everything will fall together. There is not a single occasion where the Apostles said that God loves them. The word love appears nowhere in the book of Acts. Now, is the love of God manifest there? Sure. But it is not the central message. It isn’t what leads to salvation. It is not what the Gospel is all about. The love of God is manifest in the efforts that He took to rescue a fallen human race. That’s the measure of His love. But the message is about fallen human beings, about sin and righteousness and judgment, and that Jesus came to restore man to their Savior against whom they have persistently rebelled. That’s the message that saves.
Wonder why your church may not be prospering? Maybe because you haven’t followed the directions. Fulfill the Great Commission. Go and make disciples. Sure, you have to evangelize to do that. Go and evangelize, then bring them into the church and train them to be disciples that can go out and do evangelizing better. Fulfill the Great Commission. Don’t change your church service into a seeker service so everyone can come in and feel comfortable. Frankly, non-Christians shouldn't feel comfortable in a church because they aren't right with God yet; and if they are, it's probably because we’ve changed the message.