WAKE FOREST, N.C. (BP)–The two churches are very different.
One is a small, rural congregation of less than 100 active members. The people are largely blue-collar, working-class types. In the heart of tobacco country, many of them are farmers. They prefer old-fashioned preaching, the loud kind with lots of shouting and sweating. They like traditional gospel music, with men’s quartets, choir “specials” and mansions of glory on the other side. These folks are missions-minded, dutifully instructing the children through Royal Ambassadors and Girls in Action, holding a regular missions emphasis night and regularly taking on projects through the local association’s Woman’s Missionary Union and Brotherhood. The church has been more or less the same size for years, and the congregation is getting older and older.
The other church is a large, growing congregation in a bustling metropolitan area. The church regularly has more than 1,000 worshipers in attendance. The members are mostly white-collar, professional types. In the heart of the suburbs, many of them are college-educated. They prefer sophisticated preaching, the kind with lots of pop culture references and video clips for sermon illustrations. They like contemporary choruses, with praise teams, solos and experiencing God in the here and now. These folks are missions-minded, dutifully instructing their children through AWANA, holding regular outreach events and participating in both domestic and global mission trips. The church has grown significantly over the last decade, and the congregation is getting younger and younger.
As different as these two churches are, they have several things in common.
Both churches are part of the Southern Baptist Convention. Both tend to be theologically and politically conservative, preaching an inerrant Scripture and voting for Republican (and the occasional conservative Democratic) candidates. Both hold to traditional views of the family and adhere to old-fashioned moral values. And to their great shame, both have recently held worship services where the Gospel was not clearly proclaimed.
In the rural church, the occasion was a revival service in which the visiting preacher regaled the congregation with stories of people who met their death earlier than expected. He graphically depicted the sufferings of Christ, though his vivid allusions were from the gospel according to Mel instead of the Gospel according to Matthew. He spoke of the horrors of an eternity in hell and speculated about the joys of being reunited with deceased loved ones in heaven. At just the right time, when the people were at their emotional peak, he gave the invitation, encouraging them to step down the aisle and “come to Christ.” The problem was he never explained what it means to “come to Christ” or how one does such a thing. For weeks, people talked about how great that sermon was.
In the suburban church, the occasion was a Sunday morning service in which the pastor regaled the congregation with verses from modern Bible translations (sometimes paraphrases) and self-help books. He graphically depicted the sufferings of those whose lives are too cluttered and stressful, boldly proclaiming the gospel of a simplified life. He spoke of the horrors of depression, stress and strained relationships, while speculating about the joys of a relaxed life with less anxiety. At just the right time, when the people were convinced that their lives were too complicated, he gave the invitation, encouraging people to step down the aisle and simplify their lives. The problem was he never even mentioned the Gospel in this service. Even the songs, while ostensibly about Jesus, never presented the Gospel itself. After the service, several people commented about how much the sermon was “exactly what they needed to hear.”
In both of these services, in two different churches, I was quietly relieved when no one walked the aisle. It’s not that I didn’t want to see anyone converted — far from it. It’s just that those particular sermons were wholly devoid of the Gospel, so someone in the audience would not know how to be saved unless he had previously heard the Gospel and the Spirit was already drawing him to faith in Christ.
Southern Baptists fought a long and bitter battle over the direction of our convention. While much was at stake, at the heart of the battle was the very definition of the Gospel itself, what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. In these days when full-scale warfare has turned into regional skirmishes, we must be diligent so that we do not lose the Gospel in our ongoing battle for the Bible. The Gospel is not being religious, having your anxieties assuaged, avoiding hell or even acquiring heaven. The Gospel is not doing good things or even necessarily having a “personal relationship with Jesus” (which almost everyone claims to have these days). Though many of these things are admittedly desirable, none of them are the Gospel.
The Gospel, at its heart, is nothing more or less than what the Apostle Paul says of God in 2 Corinthians 5:21, that “He made the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (HCSB). This is the Gospel that we preach, and Southern Baptists have no greater obligation in these days than making this Gospel clear, so that whosoever will may have faith and believe.
Nathan Finn is associate archivist at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., and a Ph.D. student in church history.