Water is Wet

For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.
~ Habakkuk 2:14

Thoughts on Gospel conservation

Maybe you’ve seen the recently published article, “4 Reflections after Listening to 18 Hours of Sermons in America’s Biggest Churches,” by Colton Corter. I’ve seen it shared numerous times on different platforms with various comments affixed to it.

Corter wanted to find out what the preaching was like in America’s biggest churches. He listened to four sermons from each of nine churches that could be described as evangelical mega-churches. He listened to 36 sermons that averaged about 30 minutes per sermon, and that’s where the “18 hours of sermons” came from. The body of the article enumerates his four reflections, but he noted his most important observation as the following: “in 36 sermons, the good news of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection was unclear 36 times.” Based on what he heard from these churches, he concluded the Gospel was absent, not being preached.

The article is worth reading and considering. I can’t envision anyone being shocked, surprised, scandalized, or stumped by what Corter found. Given the premise, finding the clear Gospel in popular churches in America today is about like finding full shelves of hand sanitizer and toilet paper at Walmart at the end of March 2020. It’s like jumping into 36 different pools, rivers, lakes, and oceans to emerge and announce, “Water is wet.”

An Experiment in a Different Direction

I’m not being critical of the article. I think we need to read it and consider it. The problem I foresee is with the reader and not the writer. Large, popular mega-churches are by far the minority of churches in the United States and, therefore, represent a minority of church-goers as well. As far as I have understood the data, most regular church-goers in America go to what are considered small churches. Those same small church-goers are probably naturally suspicious of mega-churches. They don’t expect to find orthodoxy at such places. They would have been surprised if Corter reported hearing the Gospel clearly preached in the sermons he listened to.

Most of us go to small churches and the danger for us is dismissing Corter’s findings and reflections as only a problem out there somewhere, with those people, and not a problem at home, with us. I was immediately struck by the article because I have been conducting a similar experiment, though running it in a different direction.

Over the last 2-3 years, I have been deliberately listening to sermons, reading articles, and paying attention to social media posts coming from small, conservative Baptist churches in the U. S. I’ve listened to sermons from regular services, special services, conferences, etc. and I’ve read articles in print and online. I’ve considered older as well as newer material. I have also read a few books. I haven’t kept an exact tally, but I do know I’ve listened to well more than 18 hours of sermons and spent many more than 18 hours reading.

I confess I have not been conducting a scientific experiment with rigorous parameters and controls, and such. My observations are admittedly anecdotal, but still concerning. On the positive side, my findings are not like Corter’s 36-for-36 lack of Gospel preaching, but I have found a discernible lack of Gospel preaching and Gospel focus. Even in articles and sermons with “Gospel” in the title, the Gospel was either unclear or unmentioned. I have listened to sermons with Romans 1:16 as a text where the Gospel was not preached. I’m not saying I didn’t find the Gospel at all, but that it was noticeably missing in places across the whole sample.

A Few Reasons Why the Gospel May be Missing

I can’t say why the Gospel is absent in all cases. It could be a number of reasons. I do want to give a few reasons from my own experience and observations. The following list is in no particular order.

  1. Gospel Confusion
    Preachers are sometimes not clear on just what the Gospel is. That may seem impossible, but I have heard preachers give different answers to the simple question: What is the Gospel? I’m not talking about mere differences of terms or formulation, but vastly different answers about the content of the Gospel. Sometimes the Gospel is confused with church traditions, doctrinal statements, or even a preacher’s personal convictions. A good place to start is Paul’s statement of the Gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, or Romans 1:1-6, or the Apostolic preaching in Acts, and especially Paul’s sermon in the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia where he preached justification by faith to unbelieving Jews (Acts 13:38-39). The Gospel is the good news of the life, death, resurrection, and return of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, for the salvation of sinners who believe in him and trust him fully for righteousness apart from any and all works of the law to gaining eternal life and to the eternal glory of God, the Father. For the Gospel to be preached, this message must be stated clearly, and people should be called without qualification to repent of their sins and charged to trust in Jesus Christ.
  2. Losing Focus
    Preachers are sometimes not clear on what priority the Gospel should have. I have actually listened to preachers debating whether the Gospel should be preached in church. I’m plum stymied as to how that could even be a disagreeable topic. How can there be any debate about that? But, there is. Paul writing to churches clearly stated his priority for preaching the Gospel, both in his first ministry and his continuing ministry among them (Romans 1:15; 1 Corinthians 1:23; 2:2; Galatians 6:14; Ephesians 3:8; Colossians 1:28). Paul even spoke of the priority of his calling in terms preaching the Gospel rather than baptizing (1 Corinthians 1:17). When we don’t maintain the deliberate priority of preaching the Gospel, we lose our focus and eventually our grip on the Gospel.
  3. Lack of Exposition
    When preachers are in the habit of parachuting into random passages to extract a word or phrase to preach their pet topics with apparent biblical support, the Gospel moves to the background, is tacked on as an afterthought, or is completely missed. All Scripture is about Christ (Luke 24:27) and when expounded properly, every part of the Bible contributes to the story of Christ’s redemption of sinners. Commitment to proper exposition will ensure the Gospel is clearly and regularly preached.
  4. Loading the Gospel
    Preachers sometimes undermine the Gospel in sermons through guilt-driven, legal preaching. Sometimes justification by faith and salvation by grace are stated as doctrinal truths, but the sermon focuses practically on a message of do this, don’t do that, try harder, do more, etc. The net effect of such preaching loads the Gospel with legal requirements and confuses the hearers about what the Gospel actually is and what it actually requires. Not only should we affirm the Gospel clearly in our doctrinal standards, we must also preach the Gospel clearly from the pulpit. We must clearly distinguish between the grounds of our justification by grace through faith and the fruits of salvation worked in us.

Conclusion

There are a lot of problems out there, but we need to start looking at the problems in here. Just start asking around what the marks of a true church are, and you will find some answers that don’t begin with the Gospel. How could the Gospel not be the first item on the list? The Gospel is not the only point of doctrine in the Bible. It is not the only concern for a church. However, Paul said the Gospel was of first importance (1 Corinthians 15:3). It’s where we begin and is central to all we do as a church. Conservative churches like to think of themselves as conservative, but what are we conserving? No matter how many things a church may boast of having, if it doesn’t have the Gospel right, it is not a church of Jesus Christ.

About Jeff Short