Here in Sydney, many of the Protestant churches towards the more conservative evangelical, with mixed degrees of Reformed teaching. When many Christians look for a church, they usually aim to find one that 1) is evangelical in the sense that it shares the Good News of Jesus Christ with non-believers, and seeks to grow the numbers of the church; and 2) has ‘solid’ biblical teaching, with the right theological boxes ticked. There may be additional criteria, but with the second attribute is grounded in the assumption that if people have the ‘right doctrine’ (however that is defined) then things like pastoral care and the like will ‘take care’ of itself. I’ve been in enough churches to see this in action. But within evangelical, Reformed churches there are a number of cracks both inside and outside the edifice that are causing some problems.
Pastoral care: the unloved brother
In many evangelical churches, pastoral care is the unloved brother who either never gets his way in. Church pastors generally lack the skills to do [good] pastoral care, and many don’t even want such skills. They’ll gleefully pour over hours of Greek, Hebrew, church fathers, articles by the Gospel Coalition, and everything else under the sun, except do pastoral care. They try to defend this by saying that they ‘just lack’ the gifts to do pastoral care – but I don’t know how that makes sense when, before Bible college, they had no skill whatsoever in classical languages or in interpreting the heavy-hitting theology of Karl Barth. The acquired those skills with sleepless night, grit and determination – and yet they think pastoral care is beneath them. And yet you go from church to church and the same leaders are providing identical justifications and almost none have leaders with pastoral hearts. Everyone wants to be a preacher with the presence of George Whitefield to bring about the next cataclysmic revival and get credit for “growing” the church.
The Church Growth Idol: Making Believers, Not Disciples
Part of the problem is the emphasis on evangelism, and especially church growth. Church growth has become an idol in the church, being so focussed on growing numbers and ‘making’ believers, yet neglecting to help people to become disciples and growing in Christ-likeness with empathy and a listening ear. Many pastors would have no idea how to sit with someone in moments of pain, grief, loss, temptation, sinful backsliding, shame, or anything. When they see a struggler, they may throw out some syllogisms, Bible verses, catch phrases, token prayers, and then hope that others in the congregation will just magically meet that person’s needs without them having to get their hands dirty. The advice given to strugglers sounds simplistic, cold, judgemental, and detached from day-to-day reality.
It’s a sad indictment, but the evangelical ethos of bringing people TO faith and emphasising ‘coming to the cross’ (i.e. salvation) is very much to blame in a lot of ways. Without emphasising the need for discipleship and walking in the victory of the cross and particularly of the resurrection (which gives people the power to overcome sin in victory, e.g. Colossians 3:1-5), people think being a Christian is merely about just being saved. That’s particularly true when they are first converted, and it’s an ongoing assumption that gets passed on. Of course people in such circumstances may ‘hope for heaven’ in the sense that once they die and get there, THEN sin will all just go away; yet it’s a perspective that assumes that there’s little hope or realisation that in the meantime we’re enabled and commanded to crucify our flesh and have new deeds and desires (e.g. Titus 2:11-14). It’s like a cancer patient with a hope of recovery refusing chaemotherapy because he would rather experience by dying and going to the pearly gates. The desire to see more numbers of people in the church is, by and large, motivating it but all that does is fill pews and make believers in the head and possibly the hands, but atheists in the heart.
I remember when I was converted in 1998, being a Christian was explained to me simply as trusting in Jesus and having the legal penalty from sin removed (and that was 100% correct). I was given books like ‘The Cross of Christ’ by John Stott and over and over and over again I went to conferences that re-inforced the themes of justification by penal substitutionary atonement, etc. But I was always SO hungry for more; I kept wondering ‘Is this it?’ For me it was like a golf club member being so excited that he is a member of the club, while forgetting that the whole point of being a club member is to actually play golf, and to be shown how to do that by a community of others. Yet my evangelical church circles seemed to neglect growth in the Christian life post-salvation, even though most of the New Testament actually discusses such things. And that wasn’t to say my church leaders didn’t teach such things – they attempted it, but there wasn’t much of an emphasis on it in church circles and many pastors were fatalistic about whether Christians could overcome sin, let alone find ultimate joy in Jesus.
For instance, where the New Testament says ‘But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people’ (Eph. 5:3), many would snigger or shrug their shoulders with a sense of resignation and say, “Well really, who can live up to that? No-one can be that holy, and after all I’m a fallen sinner and only human and God really understands that. I’ll wait for heaven to be perfected”. It is like Stockholm Syndrome, where a kidnap victim falls in love with his prison bars and his captor. And people really do think that because the Christian life, they assume, is all about getting INTO the kingdom, but not actually living like someone who belongs to it. After a while I just couldn’t do it because it wasn’t enough. (Hence why I eventually took to John Piper and Charles Spurgeon like a duck to water.) Many pastors and preachers have fallen into these traps, but it’s hard for them too because it’s how they were taught at Bible college, and how church was modelled to them by others.
Resistance to social witness
Because of the insatiable desire for ‘church growth’ by many evangelicals (who tend to measure ministry success by numbers), there is a tendency to downplay and even dismiss ministries that prophetically witness against the surrounding culture and denounce its sin. They argue that such a witness comes across as ‘shrill, unloving, and devoid of the Holy Spirit’, even though such a witness can actually revive the church, bring people to repentance, and bless the wider culture. I wrote yesterday concerning this, because sadly much in the evangelical world (similar to the seeker-sensitive and Emergent Church movements) fear of man is governing things. It explains why my testimony is not welcome in so many church circles here, because it speaks of the ways that God can radically transform people and cause them to follow Him at the cost of self. Many Christians – even church leaders – say that they’re walking that walk, but they’re only talking it, in actual fact; their words may speak it but their heart and actions deny it.
Where can evangelicalism go?
Reformed evangelical churches need to repent and get real with God. Are they there to make numbers and easy believers with cheap grace? Cheap grace tells people that Jesus died for them so much that once they believe in Him, they don’t need to do anything. Do nothing?!?!? Jesus told His disciples to carry their cross DAILY and deny themselves; if it cost Jesus all, even His own life, it should cost each one of His followers too. But are the churches teaching that? OR (as I suspect) they’re hiding the offensiveness of the gospel because they don’t want people to resist it? Do they think intellectual wrangling like Ravi Zacharias will win hearts more than the distinctive way that they live? Are they willing to be silent on evils and threats in our world because they don’t want people to ‘get offended’? When will the idol of church growth be demolished and put in its proper place, so that godliness and proper discipleship take its place? Evangelical churches have much work to do. There’s nothing wrong with evangelism and spreading the Good News to outsiders, but that’s not the be-all-and-end-all of Christian life; it wasn’t in the early church and it shouldn’t be now. As Brian Ferry once sang, there’s got to be more than this.