Maria Dixon (MDiv., PhD) is an Associate Professor of Communication at the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX. In a recent post at patheos.com, Dixon writes about a recent experience she had where she led a group of students to London for a rich educational opportunity that included discussion about faith, theology, and historical Christianity. Unfortunately, when she led them (three times) into church services – at prominent and historic houses of worship – the services all but killed the fledgling interest these students had begun to express in matters of Christian faith. Dixon writes:
I realized that our churches are not dying because our God is dead. Our churches are dying because we have become crypt keepers. We preach messages of dead doctrines while extolling traditions that can not be made relevant to our current context. We keep liturgies. We keep rituals. We keep archives. Yet we produce no new growth. We preserve the church—just like a grave preserves the memory of the dead. We willfully place God and the Gospel back in the tomb with our inability to live in the light of God’s love or testify to God’s grace. Those of us who are ‘progressive’ are perhaps the most skilled crypt keepers, because we have deluded ourselves that all of our causes and all of our marching, is what saves the world. We have become ashamed of the Gospel that propels us out of our seats into the street. Instead, we act like WE were motivated to engage in this work on our own.
It seems to me that the “near left” – those who are progressive on social issues but possess a genuine evangelical faith in Jesus Christ (which I know feels like an irreconcilable difference to many on the right) – are waking up to the reality that “being ashamed of the Gospel” is not serving the world. Rather, it is doing irreparable harm to the Bride of Christ.
Without rehashing the entire “Word vs. Deed” debate over which form of Gospel presentation is most faithful (hint: they both are, but both must be present), this article by Dixon says a lot.
Dixon speaks a word of honest lament that the “word” of the Gospel seems to her students to have almost no point of present-day connection and relevance. They get excited about stories told of days gone by when men like William Wilberforce acted on Gospel impulses and led his English countrymen to turn away from the slave industry. Eyes light up when you connect Wilberforce with his friend John Newton – theologian, author, pastor, and hymn writer (“Amazing Grace”).
Dixon mourns the reality that the pulpits she takes her students to are anemic. The preachers seem shamed by a Gospel of substitutionary atonement. Dixon notes that “not one daggone word was said about the saving power of Jesus Christ” during her three visits to “church.”
Which, of course, demands we ask the question – were these religious services actually “church” at all?
Article 29 of the Belgic confession of faith teaches about the “marks of the church” (emphasis mine):
The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head. By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church – and no one ought to be separated from it.
No wonder Nixon felt the deadness of “ashamed of the Gospel” services. She writes:
Let’s face the hard facts–had I walked in to any of those churches needing to hear about the love of a God that sent is only begotten son for me even before I knew I would need to be saved—I would have walked out disappointed at the least—and in despair at the very worst.
For those of us who preach the Word, this serves to remind us of the importance of our task. Indeed, as the late John Stott taught, we are “between two worlds” in the pulpit, serving as an ambassador for God. And, the God of the Bible is most certainly not boring! I hold dear the admonition of my Young Life mentor, Robert Morris (who was repeating the words of Young Life’s founder) “its a sin to bore a kid with the Gospel!”
People won’t be bored and the Gospel won’t be boring when presented faithfully because, as Paul confirms, the Gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:17). Of that I am certain and unashamed.