By God’s grace I have enjoyed decades of involvement with the church on four different continents. It has been a means of grace for me, because I gradually gained a deeper understanding of why some church movements are in decline and are dying, and others are vibrant and full of life. I have had first-hand experience with the whole spectrum. For example, we lived as a family in Scotland in the context of the moribund Church of Scotland, observing how they managed to find a new way year after year to hasten their descent and decline. We have also lived in India where new churches were preaching the gospel, discipling believers and planting new churches as a natural expression of their life in Christ. Each year, they seemed to find new ways to reach people for Christ and to bring the gospel with fresh power to their context and setting. I could give many examples of churches all along the spectrum. The United Methodist church here in the USA has been in decline for decades and yet cannot seem to pull out of the death spiral. I have lost count of the number of self-inflicted wounds I observed the church give herself. Yet, right in the USA, in the same towns and cities where the United Methodist churches are dying, the ACNA (Anglican Church of North America) is thriving, having planted nearly 1,000 churches just since 2009. This is just one example. Many more come to mind. However, the deeper questions are: Why is this? Are there any common factors which contribute to vibrancy in a church, or common factors which seem to contribute to decline? The answer is, YES! This blog will focus on just one of my observations: Gospel Clarity vs. “The Fog.”
When you walk into a vibrant church, you can immediately sense the difference. At every point, you meet gospel clarity. The church exudes confidence in the unique work of Jesus Christ. They understand the power and authority of God’s Word. They feel the lostness of the world and the urgency to bring the good news to everyone. At every point, you observe gospel clarity. When the pastor preaches, you know exactly what he or she is exhorting you to do or to be. When you chat with people during the fellowship time, they are telling you about things they have read in Scripture, or what they learned in their small group that week. The clarity is palatable. It is infectious. You can actually sense the presence of Christ in your midst.
In contrast, when you walk into the churches in decline you are immediately brought into “the Fog.” What is the fog? It is the inability to be clear about anything. There is no clarity about who Jesus Christ is and what He has done. There is no clarity about the Scriptures as the authoritative Word of God. There is no clarity about the urgency to reach the lost. When you listen to a sermon, you go away shaking your head, saying, “what exactly did he or she actually say?” It almost seems like sermons or church pronouncements are carefully crafted to say as little as possible, or to be as vague as possible, so that the fewest number of people will be offended. In the “fog,” Jesus Christ is just one of many noble teachers in the world. In the “fog,” the Bible is filled with contradictions and outdated commands. In the “fog,” the pastor has learned through years of experience to spend 20 to 30 minutes talking, and say absolutely nothing of consequence about anything. In the fog, the talk in the hallways and fellowship halls is about the latest sports teams, or the weather, or problems in the school system, etc. In other words, the “chat” is no different from anything you would hear at the local Starbucks, or in the break room at work.
When I was a young pastor, I will never forgot my shock when I arrived at my first “district meeting.” I was a new graduate of a strong evangelical seminary in another part of the country. I was deeply committed to the teachings of John Wesley, but I had not really been exposed to any fellow United Methodist pastors. I arrived at my first District meeting expecting for my superintendent to share strategies for how to reach people with the gospel. I expected to find a strong commitment to Scripture and to the necessity to reach the lost. I expected to find support and encouragement for my new ministry assignment. Instead, I was ushered into “the fog.” After a year of this, I woke up one morning and realized that I was inadvertently being “discipled” into a whole new way of thinking and living. I was being taught to be vague. I was being taught to “embrace the fog.” In a thousand small ways, I was being taught to not be clear on who Jesus Christ is. There were subtle comments and jokes made in the hallways which were sending the message that those who really believed and trusted in the Bible were not really as smart or clever as my fellow “enlightened” pastors were. I was being taught to complain about my salary, or the condition of the parsonage or endless other trivial matters.
At the depth of this crisis the Lord brought a vibrant Methodist pastor into my life named Terry Tekyl. I am sure that Terry doesn’t even remember meeting me. But, at the low point, my district was sponsoring a weekend retreat for continuing education credits entitled, “Lord, teach us how to play.” Yes, “Play.” It was focused on the need for pastors to learn to play and not be so serious about the work to which we were called. The problem is, I had never experienced anyone being serious about the work to begin with. I was so dismayed, I asked my District Superintendent if I could get my continuing education credits at another event. When he agreed, I began to look around and found, to my amazement, that the very weekend that our “retreat” was planned, a United Methodist pastor from Texas named Terry Tekyl was holding a retreat nearby on the theme, “Lord, teach us how to pray.” Yes, a retreat on prayer. That retreat changed my whole life in many ways. First, I met my first United Methodist pastor who had beaten back the fog. Terry was vibrant, alive with the gospel, filled with the Spirit, and eager to roll up his sleeves and reach a lost world. Second, I learned then and there that I could get out of the fog as well. That weekend I stepped out of the fog and I have never looked back. Our church grew by leaps and bounds. By the grace of God, I have, over the last thirty years, helped dozens of other pastors to get out of the fog as well. The only hope for any church, at any time in history and in any part of the world, to become vibrant is to escape from “the fog” and move to “gospel clarity.” My prayer for this holy season is that we would experience a major gospel revival that would blow away the fog and bring in the fresh winds of the Holy Spirit and gospel clarity.