Churches in Spain: A Smoking Flax He Will Not Quench
Though many of the churches in Spain often confuse or lose the gospel in their preaching, there is a small and growing network of churches who love gospel clarity and church health.
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As I sit at my desk, looking out over the city of Palma de Mallorca, I’m conscious of today’s date. It’s 33 years to the day since my wife and I first arrived in Spain as missionaries.
Thirty-three years doesn’t give me the right to pontificate on the spiritual health of evangelical churches in Spain, but they do give me a certain perspective. From that perspective, I venture to pass Spain’s relatively small community of evangelical churches through the filter of the 9Marks’ nine marks.
The percentage of evangelical Christians in Spain is around 0.5 percent (roughly five out of every one thousand people). Spanish culture, albeit increasingly secular, is permeated with a salvation-by-works theology―i.e. salvation by religion, rather than the gospel. All too few churches here are “gospel-centered.”
DESPITE WEAK PREACHING, A GROWING APPRECIATION FOR THE WORD
Most Christians in Spain are familiar only with the non-technical meaning of biblical theology: theology that’s biblical. The other, more technical kind has been largely unknown until recently. If you say something like “the whole Bible is about Jesus and the gospel,” most Christians in Spain will nod in assent, but entirely misunderstand what’s meant.
This unfamiliarity reveals itself in the preaching in Spanish churches. Judging by the preaching I’ve both heard and heard about during my time here, I’d say there’s an awful lot of unacceptable preaching going on.
At the same time, I’m encouraged. More and more churches are starting to understand the concept of expositional preaching and to practice it. I’m involved in something called The Preaching Workshop, an initiative inspired and supported by Langham Preaching. We’ve completed four years of preaching workshops at the national level and are now starting a further three years of training at the regional level. All this reflects a growing desire among pastors to preach and understand God’s Word better.
A SAD DECLINE IN EVANGELISM
Sadly, most evangelical churches aren’t seeing many Spaniards converted because most converts are people from other countries who happen to live in Spain. In part, this is because many churches are rather vague in their thinking about what makes a real Christian, and therefore rarely preach about or expect conversions.
Most of what passes as “evangelism” here has more to do with appealing to people’s felt needs than prayerfully communicating to lost people the good news about Jesus. Why is this? Possibly, it’s because many Christians aren’t very clear in their own thinking about the gospel—or because most Spaniards are Catholics or skeptics. Either way, there’s a natural, dismissive disposition toward the gospel. Sadly, many churches have virtually given up trying to evangelize, or if they haven’t, they’ve jumped on the bandwagon of the latest trend, usually at the expense of gospel clarity.
MEMBERSHIP & DISCIPLINE: OFTEN DISMISSED OR ABUSED
Generally speaking, church membership is handled as little more than a formality, with insufficient emphasis on the biblical concept of real commitment to a local church. A growing number of churches no longer believe in church membership at all, which leads to all sorts of practical problems: Who really belongs? Who can serve in different ministries? Who has the right to take part in church decisions? How do you deal with discipline issues?
In many cases, no church discipline is practiced. There’s a widespread attitude that excommunications is essentially judgmental and unloving. In the area of sexual behavior, for example, more and more evangelical churches treat unmarried couples that live together as acceptable, even normal. Unfortunately, though, there are also examples of the other unbiblical extreme: unloving, legalistic discipline.
Either way, Spain’s churches suffer from a lack of clear, biblical teaching on church discipline, and it has led to either licentiousness or to legalism.
RENEWED INTEREST IN DISCIPLESHIP & BIBLICAL LEADERSHIP
Gratefully, there does seem to be a renewed interest among Spanish pastors in the concept of discipleship. It’s much more common these days than it was twenty or thirty years ago to hear Christians talking about discipling relationships.
I’m sure we could debate the relative merits of different approaches to discipleship. But at least churches have begun to recover the biblical teaching that to be a Christian is to be an active disciple of Jesus. That’s far better than the past assumption that being a Christian means going to church on Sundays and not much else. Ideas like accountability relationships are slowly catching on, even if we don’t yet know how to say the phrase in Spanish!
One effect of this is more churches are moving toward leadership teams comprised of pastors and elders. Sadly, quite a few of the newer Protestant churches—most of whom teach the prosperity gospel—remain authoritarian because “the Lord’s anointed” is above receiving any kind of criticism.
Spain is a modern, sophisticated country that desperately needs the gospel, even if they don’t realize it. Most evangelical churches in Spain are relatively young and struggling to find their identity. But in the midst of trial, there’s a special work of God going on in Spain right now, a gospel-centered, healthy-church movement.
As of now, it’s not much more than “a little cloud like a man’s hand” (1 Kgs. 18:44), but it may yet be the herald of showers of blessing to come.