I often take the spiritual pulse of my congregation and Christian colleagues and friends to help me gain a sense of the spiritual warfare being waged against believers in America. I add to that extensive reading on the sociological movements and philosophical perspectives in American culture and their impact on the Church of Jesus Christ. Trends emerge from these studies and conversations that occasionally encourage me but most often disappoint me. Fundamentally, American Christians are held in the cultural grips of post-modernism, with its openness to spiritual 'things' but its resistance and distrust of anything that smacks of institutionalism. So the openness we see sometimes quickly closes when Jesus is brought into a conversation, since He is seen as part and parcel of the institution called 'church.' Post-moderns are profoundly disappointed in how the institutions around them have let them down and ripped them off: Government, Schools, Parents, and the Church. They have seen and continue to watch played out in front of them how these institutions fail in their self-absorbed greed and lust for power and their patent abandonment of the responsibilities under their charge. Every day they see another husband abandon his wife and children, they see another church leader fall in scandal, they read of a teacher shamelessly abuse their position of trust to feed their own personal lusts and desires. Children growing up in America see decadence all around them; those telling them how to walk the path are compromising and abusing their God-entrusted roles of authority.
The response to post-modernism and the disillusionment of generations of Americans is where the crux of the spiritual battle lies. In reality there are many responses, but most fall into two primary categories…two approaches. The first approach is to relate, understand, affirm and accept those who distrust authority and who want to disengage from institutional structures in society. This approach means that we 'become Jesus' to the hurting and struggling…to those who feel like outcasts from our current society and culture. This approach dictates that we must embrace their struggle and so submit our lives to them in love that we might be the hands and feet of Jesus to them. Some Christian educators, pastors and other leaders see this missional approach as essential to reaching people today with the gospel. The focus is on relationships. Connection. Involvement. To be a friend of sinners (but don't ever call them that!). There is much good in this approach, and in many ways it faithfully walks out clear biblical teaching. It properly captures the essence of incarnational ministry in that there is a broad and dynamic interaction with people in the day-to-day struggles they face. There is a healthy tearing down of pretenses and the false religiousness that can molder in institutionalized Christian faith. All this can be good for believers in their witness and for the unbelieving who interact with them.
There is a serious problem, however. And it is a problem that has been growing slowly and steadily within the Body of Christ as it maneuvers itself and remakes itself to try to reach the post-modern generations in our day. The roots of this problem go as far back as the Renaissance and the age of Rationalism but the issues can truly be stated to have been with us from the days of the Apostles. The Church in its history has had vibrant social ministry as the gospel transformed the hearts of people so that love marked their lives. In the generations since the Apostles the Church has powerfully transformed entire cultures and nations as its ministries have brought untold good to people around the world. We continue to see the wonderful fruit of social ministry as doctors, engineers, horticulturalists, and specialists of all stripes join with missionaries and Christian ministers in the proclamation and advancement of the gospel. All of these good things in the past 2000 years are to be celebrated down to our own day. So what is the problem?
It seems in every generation of believers the activity of social ministry begins to slowly but inexorably drift from the moorings of Scripture and the activity of evangelism to take on a life of its own. This drift is a problem because in Scripture evangelism is the heartbeat, the command of God, to preach the good news of the gospel. The gospel is the message of the cross and the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. And it is preached to sinners, who came to know they were sinful and needed to repent and believe. Consider a few Scriptures from both Testaments:
'Say to them: 'As I live,' says the Lord GOD, 'I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why should you die, O house of Israel?'' (Ezekiel 33:11).
'Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, 'This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem' (Luke 24:47).
'Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand…' Matthew 3:2
The Apostle Paul informs us of the mission that Jesus gave him for the Gentiles: 'To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, release from sin's slavery, and an inheritance among those who are sanctified and purified by faith in me' (Acts 26:18).
The problem the Church has had is that it wants to drift away from this central message by replacing it with actions of social ministry. So the doctrines in Scripture which inform us about what our message should be and the priorities involved in our outreach to people become confused and distorted and the gospel almost always becomes diluted.
In our day the post-modern influence culturally has combined forces with those believers who want to rid the world of poverty and eliminate social injustice from the planet. To read their writings it is clear that the gospel has become dislodged once again and the social, political, and cultural needs of people have become the focus. There are powerful forces at work, powerful delusions brought by the enemy to transform our methods and ministry (our preaching) so that the cross is emptied of its power. As I mentioned earlier, post modernism rejects what it perceives as institutional; the biblical and traditional model of preaching the message then (and in some cases the message itself) has been replaced with a message of social-relating; a ministry to felt-needs and not a ministry to the heart; a ministry of social transformation without the need of true repentance and a change of heart. This movement is disastrous in our day, because it means the rejection of doctrine for practices of outreach that do good, but are devoid of the true life-transforming message of the gospel. In terms of post-modernism, some simply have thrown the baby out with the bathwater.
I am especially disturbed at an insidious subtlety (which is really not so subtle) that I have observed. Some believe that we need to embrace the corrupt practices and lifestyles of those who have been disenfranchised by society, and that means supporting them in their struggles brought on by their lifestyles of sin. What troubles me most is that those 'ministering' in this way state that this was Jesus' method of reaching people. That as a friend of sinners he embraced their sinful ways. Jesus never did such a thing, and always told individuals that they had to 'sin no more.' Even while preaching to the poor sins were confronted…it was the poor who went out to hear John the Baptist and then Jesus in His ministry and were told to repent because the kingdom of heaven was at hand. How dreadfully adrift we are in our day from the practices and preaching of the Apostles. It is no wonder our churches are filled with people who don't know that they needed to repent of their sins (if they even grasp what those sins are). It is no surprise, then, that those who have never been called to repentance begin to ask the Church to make their sins normative behavior, and ask the preacher to not preach out against their lifesytles.
In our efforts to reach the post-modern generation we have replaced doctrine with social relating. We have replaced the voice of Scripture, which is God's voice, with the empty voice of human reason and human autonomy. We have declared that God's institution of truth in Scripture is suspect and should be avoided because we in our own wisdom think it is better to remove the offense of the cross and its demands upon us. How often have I heard it said…'but that might offend people and then they won't believe.' But they cannot believe unless they repent.
It is time for the Church to wake up and realize that God is true and His Word is true. We cannot bring release to the post-modern mind by rejecting the very truth that will free them. We cannot bring freedom when we distort God's method of reaching the lost (and yes I said 'lost'…they really are lost.) Scripture is God's voice speaking to us about the method and the methodology. You see the ultimate issue is once again, biblical authority! The drift away from biblical preaching to a social gospel message is ultimately a rejection of God's authority…a rejection of His voice in Scripture. I am well aware of the good intentions; I am well aware of the enormous problems socially, politically, and sociologically for people in this deeply sinful and corrupt world. But we do not replace the gospel with a false gospel in the hope that salvation will come by social ministry. The gospel must always be preeminent because without biblical preaching no one can be saved. We can feed the poor but still be eternally lost. 'If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing' (1 Corinthians 13:3). Love is, first of all, truthful. We 'speak the truth in love.' God tells us the truth because He loves us. The gospel is a message first….a message of the good news of God's offer of forgiveness and His grace to us as undeserving sinners. I must never replace that message with a works-righteousness message, no matter how good my intentions may be. We preach the message first.
So what is the second approach? It is the biblical method of proclaiming the gospel and seeing God transform lives as sins are repented of and deep changes are made in the hearts of people. With the fearless preaching of the gospel comes loving acts and social ministry. Indeed, James informs that faith without works is dead; we see the reality of our faith in the good we do in providing for the tangible needs of those in the body of Christ. We cannot have love if we see a brother in need and do nothing for him. True religion is to take care of the widows and orphans. Jesus preached the message of grace and forgiveness and healed and cast out demons and fed people as signs of His ministry and to point people to the fact that only God can save us. It is God who opens the eyes of the blind physically, but who calls us all to a first priority, to have our spiritual eyes opened by truth. Jesus came to preach the message and to send out His Apostles to do the same. He empowered them by His Spirit with signs and wonders to convince people that the message was indeed from God. The biblical purpose of the gospel is that souls would be redeemed and that in the community of faith God's kingdom would be seen in the transformed lives of the repentant. An outflow of that are the good deeds that God has prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10).
So in conclusion, we must return to biblical authority. We cannot change the message to appease the post-modern mind. We can do social ministry, but it must never pull us from the faithful proclamation of the message of the cross. Life for all humans on the planet is short, we must tell them the message and show them the message with deeds of love. Remember the words of Jesus, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God' (Matthew 4:4).