The church of North America continues to struggle. Much is being written and being said about the church and her mission. Great confusion remains. Emergent, missional, relevant, contemporary, discipleship-focused, informal, young—all are words used to describe the various Evangelical versions of what the church is to be. Some focus on making their worship services informal, relevant, and relational. Others focus on serving the community. Some focus on small group ministry. And still others emphasize ministry to specific ages. Similarly, many Lutheran congregations have followed suit in one way or another, often relying on the Evangelical world and their rational as the impetus for change.
I’ve been tracking these varying emphases for some time, often providing my own critique from a Lutheran theological perspective. However, what I have discovered, (actually stumbled upon at the start) is the growing number of Evangelical voices calling the church out. As of late, I have been noting a number of them on this blog. Their overarching observation is that something is wrong.
As well-intentioned as these movements might be, many are saying something is missing. What is it? Sadly, they’re saying it’s the Gospel. And they’re also saying a correction needs to take place. (See my last two posts on The Explicit Gospel, among others).
The reason I track these Evangelical voices is that it seems many Lutheran pastors and congregations are more prone to embrace a new ministry emphasis based upon the endorsement of a foreign theology and practice rather than their own. Ironic, is that Lutheran theology and practice has long held that the beating heart of the church is the justification of the ungodly through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In other words, the proclamation of the Gospel has historically been our foundation. So the concern is this, if Evangelicals have lost the Gospel will Lutherans who follow their lead also lose it?
But don’t get me wrong. I think we can certainly learn from our Christian cousins. And I readily admit they have some thoughtful things to say. I just think Lutherans need to be more discerning about what we so willingly embrace and use as foundations for our ministry, particularly when there is a great degree of uncertainty about those foundations.
In fact, if there is the desire to embrace what our Evangelical cousins are saying, why not heed those corrective voices calling the Evangelical church to task for their loss of the Gospel?
One such voice is mega church Pastor J. D. Greear. He has some very thoughtful reflections (and more than a few indictments) for the church to consider in his 2011 book titled, Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary.
The 39 year old Greear has a Ph. D. of Philosophy that concentrated in Christian and Muslim theology. He is the Lead Pastor at Summit (Baptist) Church of Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina which worships over 6,000 people a weekend. His book recounts the burdened experience he had with the various emphases and practices of evangelicalism, where he came to feel that “enough was never enough.” Serving the Lord in one way was never enough because more could always be done. More could be given. The church constantly put pressure on him to be a “good” Christian. He had to give more if he was to gain God’s favor and be a true disciple. At one point he notes: “I even packed up my entire life into an oversized duffel bag and went to live in a third-world fundamentalist Muslim country for two years.”
He aims to offer a compelling resolution to this law based and guilt ridden malady: I want you to see how the gospel, and it alone, can make you genuinely passionate for God, free you from captivity to sin, and move you outward to joyful sacrifice on behalf of others… I believe evangelicalism, as a whole, desperately needs a recovery of the gospel as the center of Christianity. Even in conservative denominations like my own (the Southern Baptist Convention), the gospel has been eclipsed by any number of secondary stimuli for growth. (Chapter 1, Kindle Edition).
The Gospel needs to be recovered! And he is very clear on what the Gospel is and is not, at times sounding rather Lutheran, even repeatedly invoking Martin Luther. It’s an interesting read. Though I don’t agree with everything he says, on the whole I found it to be another fascinating voice of reform. For now, I’ll provide some quotes from chapter one (of my Kindle Edition) with more from the rest of the book to come:
The gospel is the announcement that God has reconciled us to Himself by sending His Son Jesus to die as a substitute for our sins, and that all who repent and believe have eternal life in Him. I want you to see the gospel not only as the means by which you get into heaven, but as the driving force behind every single moment of your life.
The gospel, and the gospel alone, has the power to produce love for God in the heart. Paul calls the gospel “God’s power for salvation” (Rom. 1:16). There are only two things that Paul ever refers to as “the power of God.” One is the gospel; the other is Christ Himself. As the story of the gospel is proclaimed, the Spirit Himself makes the heart come alive to see the glory and beauty of God revealed in it. Just as Jesus’ command to the lame man to “get up and walk” had in itself the power to obey the command, so the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection has in itself the power to make dead hearts new. As the gospel is believed, through the power of the spirit, our selfish, hardened hearts burst alive with righteous and godly passions.
Only in the gospel, you see, is the power to obey the first commandment. Only in the truths of the gospel can a heart turned in on itself burst alive in love for God. For many evangelicals the gospel has functioned solely as the entry rite into Christianity; it is the prayer we pray to begin our relationship with Jesus; the diving board off of which we jump into the pool of Christianity. After we get into the pool, we get into the real stuff of Christianity: mastering good principles for our marriage; learning rules and regulations of how to behave; and figuring out if Kirk Cameron will be left behind.
We have substituted all kinds of cosmetic changes for true heart change. We encourage people to pursue new and better spiritual gifts. We tell them to recover ancient devotional techniques. We try to beef them up on a particular doctrinal system, as if more correct facts will do the trick in itself. We tell them to show audacious, mountain-moving faith in prayer. We tell them to get radically committed to the Great Commission. These things all have their place, but all we are doing is piling superficial changes onto a heart that doesn’t really love God. None of those things can produce love for God. Only the gospel can.
As always, I invite your collegial and constructive comments as we seek to dialogue about what it means to be a 21st century Lutheran who “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).