21st Century Challenges: Getting the Gospel Out

Not long ago I was asked to speak to a group of postgraduate students in Cambridge, England, on the subject of ‘Challenges facing the 21st Century Church’. Some of these men were training for the ministry, others were elders and deacons in their church, all of us wanted to get a better perspective on how the church should minister to the world of our day.

There was no theological or pastoral rocket science in the thoughts I shared with the men that evening, but it did prove to be a catalyst to some lively and useful discussion. It also led to the suggestion that I might write them down at some point to make them available to a wider Christian audience. So, for what they’re worth, here they are!

Obstacles or Opportunities?

The very idea of ‘challenges’ has something of a double edge to it – one that is not without its relevance to how it affects the church and the way it responds to whatever may be perceived as a challenge. Our instinctive reaction is to see a challenge as something negative and even threatening. That explains why many Christians immediately point to the social, moral and spiritual decay that surround us in our day as the very epitome of the challenge the church is facing. That broad brush-stroke synopsis is, of course, brought into sharper focus when the rise of the newly-emboldened atheism and the widespread decline of the Christian church in the West are added to the mix. All of these ingredients tend to be seen as life-threatening for the well-being of the church.

When it comes to the numerical strength of the church and the seismic shift away from historic Christianity in Western cultures, the statistics speak for themselves. The church, at least in the sense of its being a national institution, is indeed in terminal decline. And those who identify themselves as being of no religious persuasion, or even as ‘atheist’, are clearly on the up. But the question needs to be asked as to whether or not this is something that should alarm us?

Institutional Christianity has no more been a friend to the gospel through church history than those who have been its mortal enemies. Likewise, the ‘outing’ of this apparent rash of new atheists in recent times is only bringing into public view the huge number of practical atheists who have been there for centuries, but were too polite of afraid to declare themselves.

Indeed, if we stop and ask the question, ‘What other period in church history most resembles what we are witnessing in the 21st Century?’ the answer comes back, ‘The 1st Century AD!’ The very century which witnessed the most astonishing spread of the gospel and some of the most exciting chapters in Christian history – all despite the apparent weakness of the church and the seemingly impossible ‘challenges’ of that time.

So, as we start to look at the ‘challenges’ the church is facing in our day, we would do well to see them as opportunities and not obstacles for the church to grow and the world to be won for Christ. The first has to do with getting the gospel out of the church and into the world so that it’s being heard by those for whom it is intended.

Getting the Gospel to Where it Needs to Go

Given the scope of worldwide missionary enterprise we see today we might question whether this really is a challenge or not. Surely this is one sphere in which the church is doing a pretty good job? To which the answer is both’ yes’ and ‘no’.

‘Yes’, in the sense that it is both encouraging and exciting to see the energy being poured into the task of bringing the gospel to every nation. But ‘no’ in the sense that too often the church and her members are failing to reach their own communities. And when we think of ‘reaching’ in terms of ‘engaging them with the gospel’, then it certainly does expose a major weakness in our own back yard.

What, then, does it mean for us to engage others with the gospel? Well, in the first place it means ‘going’ with the gospel to those who need to hear it. That is the underlying assumption of the Great Commission. Despite the tendency to misread it in our English translations, the word ‘go’ is not the imperative in what Jesus says (Mt 28-19-20); it is actually a present participle. (The imperative in the clause is to ‘make disciples’.) On other words, the church is always to be in ‘going’ mode. Or, to put it another way, the Great Commission is not, ‘Come and hear’, but rather, ‘Go and tell!’ That note needs to be sounded quite simply because too often the church preaches the gospel to itself and not to those who are lost.

On their Turf, not Ours

A striking feature of New Testament church growth was the fact that it came about as the apostles and early Christians consciously sought to bring the gospel to the unbelieving world on its own turf. They habitually headed for the synagogue and temple precincts as their first port of call since the Jews already had a significant awareness of the gospel through the Hebrew Bible. But when they began to reach out to the Gentile world, it was to locations like the market place, the Areopagus and the Hall of Tyrannus in Ephesus for which they made a beeline.

And as they went to their unconverted neighbours in this way, it was in a real sense to engage them with the Christian message. They did so by showing not merely that they themselves had a clear grasp of the gospel, but by showing they also understood the prevailing cultures of their day. They presented the gospel as men and women who provided an interface between the world of God’s word and the world in which they lived.

In that context they were also persuasive in the way they presented the gospel. Paul ‘s approach of ‘reasoning from the Scriptures’ in order to ‘persuade’ his listeners was the customary approach in gospel presentation (Ac 17.2-4). And his knowledge of Athenian thought and culture in the latter half of that chapter illustrates his ability to exegete the world of his contemporaries with as much skill as the gospel he was proclaiming.

This continues to be a major challenge for the church in our time as well: to show the gospel is not some religious cliche from a bygone era; but God’s enduring answer to our deepest need as a race.

The Art of Making Disciples

There is, however, one more crucial strand in seeing how the early church reached into the first century world with the gospel so effectively. They were not content to merely ‘win converts’, they were in the business of ‘making disciples’ – and this entirely in keeping with where the main thrust of the Great Commission lies.  Not only did they preach a gospel that was both reasoned and reasonable, they also instructed and pastored those who believed to ensure they were increasingly grounded in their newfound faith and equipped to live it out, defend it and proclaim it to others. A key component of this was to make sure every new Christian found a place in the church family. That’s why Paul and his missionary colleagues made a habit of not only appointing elders and establishing churches wherever they went, but also revisiting these embryonic congregations to ensure they were progressing in the faith (Ac 14.21-23).

When churches turn in upon themselves and lose their Christ-imparted vision for the world and for its salvation, they become spiritually incestuous and will very quickly atrophy and die. The reason churches in the West are shrinking is not because lost souls in the West have stopped looking for answers to life’s big questions, but because we as Christians have lost the apostolic art of effectively engaging them with the gospel.

Mark Johnston

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