5 Reasons We Don’t Disciple (Part 4)
The fifth and final reason we don’t disciple has been bubbling underneath everything I’ve written so far: our churches are too often ashamed of the gospel and therefore assume the gospel.
Not long ago, I was invited to speak at a church near London. Numbers had been dropping, so the church was going to significant lengths to attract young people. They’d added another service at a more convenient time, they were getting in guest speakers from all over the country, they were spending money on marketing, and they had paid a worship band to come from 100 miles away.
I got chatting to a delightful congregation member about the reasons for their flagging, elderly attendance. “This may be a sensitive question,” I said, “but how’s the preaching of the gospel going?” His response came with a knowing and faintly embarrassed smile. “Well,” he said, “we have to give people what they want.”
It brought to mind the words of Martin Lloyd-Jones: “If we cannot preach the church full [with the gospel], let them stay empty.” Why? Because a church that is made full by methodology, marketing, or music is not a church that is full of disciples.
It’s true that these things may bring short-term, numerical increase. But, as Mark Dever writes: “The growth that we find talked of and urged and prayed for in the New Testament isn’t simply numerical growth. If your church is more crowded with people now than it was a few years ago, does that mean that yours is a healthy church? Not necessarily” (Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, 201-202).
“Growth” without the regular, faithful teaching of the gospel is growth without depth. Ocean-wide and puddle-deep. If we want depth as well as breadth, there’s no substitute for gospel-saturated preaching and conversation.
One final point. There is a danger that even self-proclaimed “gospel-hearted” or “gospel-centered” churches keep the gospel so close to the heart, so close to the center, that it is actually hidden.
We may name-check Jesus, mention “the gospel,” and quote God’s Word. But we may never get as far as actually reminding each other who Jesus is, what he has done, and what that means for us. Fatally, we may assume the gospel instead of actually proclaiming it.
I hope it’s just me, but I’ve seen this again and again in churches which identify themselves as Bible-believing and evangelical. On a recent vacation in Wales, I had the privilege of joining a small group of believers huddled in a large and ornate congregational church. The welcome was warm and almost apologetic: “We don’t seem to get many young people these days, I’m afraid.” The pastor spoke from 1 Timothy 3 about the deceitfulness of wealth. What was said was faithful. But, oh, what was left unsaid.
D. A. Carson, writing in Basics for Believers, makes this sage observation:
In a fair bit of Western evangelicalism, there is a worrying tendency to focus on the periphery. [My] colleague…Dr. Paul Hiebert…springs from Mennonite stock and analyzes his heritage in a fashion that he himself would acknowledge is something of a simplistic caricature, but a useful one nonetheless. One generation of Mennonites believed the gospel and held as well that there were certain social, economic, and political entailments. The next generation assumed the gospel, but identified with the entailments. The following generation denied the gospel: the “entailments” became everything. Assuming this sort of scheme for evangelicalism, one suspects that large swaths of the movement are lodged in the second step, with some drifting toward the third.
This is not a subtle plea for … a gospel without social ramifications. We wisely reread the accounts of the Evangelical Awakening in England and the Great Awakening in America and the extraordinary ministries of Howell Harris, George Whitefield, the Wesley brothers, and others. We rightly remind ourselves how under God their converts led the fights to abolish slavery, reform the penal code, begin trade unions, transform prisons, and free children from serving in the mines. All of society was transformed because soundly converted men and women saw that life must be lived under God and in a manner pleasing to him.
But virtually without exception these men and women put the gospel first. They reveled in it, preached it, cherished Bible reading and exposition that was Christ-centered and gospel centered, and from that base moved out into the broader social agendas. In short, they put the gospel first, not least in their own aspirations. Not to see this priority means we are not more than a generation away from denying the gospel. (26-28, my emphasis)
If Carson’s observation is true, we not only have a responsibility to our current congregation, but also to future congregations.
In the 19th century, preacher Charles Spurgeon identified a similar issue:
I believe that those sermons which are fullest of Christ are the most likely to be blessed to the conversion of the hearers. Let your sermons be full of Christ, from beginning to end crammed full of the gospel. As for myself, brethren, I cannot preach anything else but Christ and His cross, for I know nothing else, and long ago, like the apostle Paul, I determined not to know anything else save Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
People have often asked me, “What is the secret of your success?” I always answer that I have no other secret but this, that I have preached the gospel,—not about the gospel, but the gospel… (The Soul Winner, 35, my emphasis)
Brothers and sisters, in our discipling of others—whether from the pulpit, or in everyday conversation—are we merely assuming the gospel? Do we speak about the gospel without actually explaining what it is? Are we, functionally at least, ashamed of it?
The deep, wide discipleship we long for in our churches will only come when we stop assuming the gospel, and actually proclaim it.