When I was in seminary, the “Church Growth Movement” was just getting its sea legs. So, of course, it was all the rage in the hallowed halls of academia—if not amongst the profs, most assuredly amongst their charges. Filled with uninformed enthusiasm my peers tended to gobble up every fad and fancy that came down the pike: “Preach to felt needs;” “Aim at attracting seekers;” “Recast sermons into positive messages people can actually use.”
It was almost as if we’d caught the spirit of the age like a virus. It seemed that a plague of terminal trendiness would sweep paleo-church-planting-fogies like me into the dustbin of irrelevance.
The result is that almost a generation later the difficult vocation of what Eugene Peterson has vividly dubbed “a long obedience in the same direction” is almost entirely missing from our lives, our preaching, and our churches. Biblical illiteracy is pandemic. The ordinary means of grace have been left by the wayside in favor of the new-and-improved.
Even in Evangelical and Reformed congregations, the Gospel has been squeezed into the mold of this world with amazing alacrity. According to David Wells in his must-read manifesto, No Place for Truth, “Even the mildest assertion of Christian truth today sounds like a thunderclap because the well-polished civility of our religious talk has kept us from hearing much of this kind of thing.”
Indeed, the well-polished civility of our religious talk has all but eliminated true religion from our talk–to say nothing of our lives. Thus, recovery seems to have replaced repentance; dysfunction seems to have replaced sin; drama seems to have replaced dogma; positive thinking seems to have replaced passionate preaching; subjective experience seems to have replaced propositional truth; a practical regimen seems to have replaced a providential redemption; psychotherapy seems to have replaced discipleship; encounter groups seem to have replaced evangelistic teams; the don’t-worry-be-happy jingle seems to have replaced the prepare-to-meet-thy-God refrain; the Twelve Steps seem to have replaced the One Way.
Today it seems that it is far better to be witty than to be weighty. We want soft-sell. We want relevance. We want acceptance. We want an up-beat, low-key, clever, motivational, friendly, informal, hipster, and abbreviated faith. No doctrine, no dogma, no Bible-thumping; no heavy commitments; no strings attached. No muss; no fuss. We want the same salvation as in the Old Time Religion–but with half the hassle and a third less guilt.
In our haste to present the Gospel in this kind of fresh, innovative, and user-friendly fashion, we have come dangerously close to denying its essentials altogether. We have made it so accessible that it is no longer Biblical. When Karl Barth published his liberal manifesto Romerbrief in 1918, it was said that he had “exploded a bomb on the playground of theologians.” But the havoc wreaked by the current spate of evangelical compromise may well prove to be far more devastating. As Ben Patterson has observed:, “Of late, evangelicals have out-liberaled the liberals, with self-help books, positive-thinking preaching, and success gospels.”
So, what are we to do in the face of all this? Well, very simply, we must “preach the word in season and out” (2 Tim. 4:2). We must “reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2). And in order to do that, we will have to “be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong and let all that we do be done in love” (1 Cor. 16:13-14). After all, as Thomas Chalmers said so long ago, “Gospel preaching always requires great courage, both to execute and to tolerate, for it must ever needs be a running toward a lion’s roar.”
So, here is my counsel to every young preacher: preach the Word; preach the whole counsel of God; preach it boldly; preach it faithfully; preach it line upon line; preach it in and out of season. Just preach it.