Many Christians see the church world in black and white. You have liberals on one side–they are the bad guys who doubt the resurrection and don’t believe in the Bible. And on the other side you have the good guys who believe in the miracles, do not waver on the deity of Christ, and want lost people to be saved. We call these folks evangelicals or conservatives or Bible-believing Christians. Give them a checklist of doctrines and they will get almost everything right.
Liberalism is a problem, but squishy evangelicalism is the much bigger problem.
I do not write thinking that churches self-consciously in the tradition of Bushnell, Beecher, and Briggs will do an about face, or that those in the stream of process theology, liberation theology, or feminist theology will abandon ship. I may vehemently disagree with full-on liberalism, but I can respect that there is an ecclesiastical and intellectual tradition behind it.
The audience I have in mind are those Christians, pastors, and churches that continue to affirm the basic contours of evangelical faith. They’ve never read Fosdick or Tillich or Schleiermacher. They don’t read the Christian Century. They don’t know much about Deutero- or Trito-Isaiah and don’t really care to waste any more time with documentary hypotheses. They think Paul wrote Ephesians and John wrote John. They love Jesus and want other people to love Jesus. If you ask these Christians, pastors, or churches if hell is forever and people must be born again, they’ll say yes. If you ask them whether you can trust everything in the Bible, they wouldn’t dare say no. They have no problem with any of the historic creeds and confessions. The people and institutions I have in mind gladly affirm penal substitution, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and a real historical Fall. The folks I want to address are energetic about evangelism. They want to see churches planted and people come to Christ. They think small groups, accountability partners, and mission trips are excellent. And at least in private conversation they’ll tell you that homosexuality is not. These Christians, pastors, and churches are not liberal. They don’t seem like one of the bad guys.
The problem is they don’t seem like the good guys either.
Have you ever been talking to a pastor or someone from another church and it seems like you should be kindred spirits. The person you meet is obviously a warm-hearted, sincere Christian. They don’t have a problem with any of the doctrines you mention as precious to you and your church. They don’t affirm liberal positions on major theological questions. They nod vigorously when you talk about the Bible and prayer and church planting and the gospel. And yet, you can’t help but wonder if you are really on the same page. You try to check your heart and make sure it’s not pride or judgmentalism getting the best of you. That’s always possible. But no, the more you reflect on the conversation and think about your two churches (or two pastors or two ministries) you conclude there really is a difference.
And what is that difference?
That’s something I’ve thought a lot about over the past few months. I’m sure I don’t have all the answers, but here are ten things that distinguish between what I would call a vibrant, robust Bible-believing church and one that gets the statement of faith right but feels totally different.
1. The mission of the church has gotten sidetracked. Recently I stumbled upon the website for a church in my denomination. Judging from the information on the site I would say this church thinks of itself as evangelical, in the loose sense of the word. Their theology seems to be of the “mere Christianity” variety. But this is their stated missional aim: “[Our] Missions are designed to connect people and their resources with opportunities to respond to human need in the name of Jesus.” A church with this mission will be very different from one that aims to make disciples of all nations or exists to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples.
2. The church has become over-accommodating. I’m not thinking of all contextualization (of which there are some good kinds and some bad). I’m thinking of churches whose first instinct is to shape their methods (if not their message) to connect with a contemporary audience. And because of this dominant instinct, they avoid hard doctrines, cut themselves off from history and tradition, and lean toward pragmatism.
3. The gospel is assumed. While the right theology may be affirmed in theory, it rarely gets articulated. No one believes the wrong things, but they don’t believe much of anything. When pressed, they will quickly affirm the importance of Jesus’ death and resurrection, of penal substitution, of justification by faith alone, but their real passions are elsewhere. What really holds the church together is a shared conviction about creation care or homeschooling or soup kitchens or the local fire station.
4. There is no careful doctrinal delineation. Theology is not seen as the church’s outboard motor. It’s a nasty barnacle on the hull. You will quickly notice a difference in message and methods between the church whose operating principle is “doctrine divides” and the one that believes that doctrine leads to doxology.
5. The ministry of the word is diminished. While preaching may still be honored in theory, in many churches there is little confidence that paltry preaching is what ails the church and even less confidence that dynamic preaching is the proper prescription. No one wants to explicitly pooh-pooh preaching, teaching, or the ministry of the word, but when push comes to shove the real solutions are structural or stylistic. How often do those engaged in church revitalization begin by looking at the preaching of the word and the role the Bible plays in the practical outworking of the congregation’s ministry?
6. People are not called to repentance. It sounds so simple, and yet it is so easily forgotten. Pastors may call people to believe in Jesus or call people to serve the community, but unless they also call them repent of their sins the church’s ministry will lack real spiritual power. And this should not be done by merely encouraging people to be authentic about their brokenness. We must use strong biblical language in calling people to repent and calling them to Christ.
7. There is no example of carefully handling specific texts of Scripture. People will not trust the Bible as they should unless they see it regularly taught with detail and clarity. Churches may still espouse a high view of Scripture but without a diet of careful exposition they will not know how to study the Bible for themselves and will not be discerning when poor theology comes along.
8. There is no functioning ecclesiology. If you put two churches side by side with the same theology on paper, but one has a working ecclesiology and the other has a grab-bag of eclectic practices, you will see a startling difference. Careful shepherding, elder training, regenerate church membership, a functioning diaconate, purposeful congregational meetings–these are the things you may not know you’ve never had. But when you do, it’s a different kind of church.
9. There is an almost complete disregard for church discipline. If discipline is truly one of the three marks of the church, then many evangelical congregations are not true churches. All the best theology in the world won’t help your church or your denomination if you don’t guard against those who deny it. If we are to be faithful and eternally fruitful, we must warn against error, confront the spirit of the age, and discipline the impenitent.
10. The real problem is something other than sin and the real remedy is something other than a Savior. The best churches stay focused on the basics. And that means sin and salvation. Sadly, many churches–even if they affirm the right doctrine on paper–act and preach as if the biggest problem in the world is lack of education, or material poverty, or the declining morals in our country, or the threat of global warming. As a result we preach cultural improvement instead of Christ. We preach justice without Jesus. We lose sight that the biggest problem (though not the only problem) confronting the churchgoer every Sunday is that he is a sinner in need of a Savior.
If you read through this list and think you have everything down already, don’t be haughty. If we get all these right and are proud about it, we’ll rob ourselves and our churches of God’s blessing. But my prayer is that somewhere out there in the frozen tundra of the internet a pastor or a congregation or a church leader will read through these ten items and think, “You know, this may be what we’re missing.” The evangelical church needs depth where it is shallow, thoughtfulness where it is pragmatic, and conviction where it has become compromised. A casual adherence to a formal set of basic doctrines does not guarantee real unity and does not ensure genuine spiritual strength.