If someone asked if your church preached the gospel last Sunday, I’m sure you would respond with a resounding “Yes!” Ask anyone if their church preaches the word and they’ll answer “of course” without any hesitation. Then again, who wouldn’t? Who would readily admit that their church doesn’t actually preach the word faithfully and proclaim the gospel of Christ crucified? And, thankfully, since Christ promised that his church would prevail, we know that many churches are indeed being faithful to the Great Commission.
However, there are three types of churches where this is tragically not the case, despite what their members may say. First, you have those that deny gospel. These would be cults and liberal “churches” that deny fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith held since the inception of the church. Then you have those that redefine the gospel, such as prosperity, “signs and wonders”, and social gospel churches. But there is a third type of church where the good news of Jesus Christ isn’t being preached: those that assume the gospel.
Characteristics of a Gospel-Assuming Church
Gospel-assuming churches claim to believe the gospel, but hardly ever preach, teach, or talk about it. The good news isn’t denied or redefined; it’s simply taken for granted. In other words, the gospel might be listed briefly in a statement of faith, or even proclaimed as congregants sing the latest worship hit, but it isn’t considered a daily necessity for the Christian life. Instead of proclaiming Christ from all the Scriptures (Luke 24:27, 44-49), the church moves on to more “relevant”, “practical”, or “deeper” things. Instead of biblical, God-glorifying sermons, you get motivational talks and therapeutic “conversations” that could be held in any mosque or synagogue, or on Oprah without anyone raising an eyebrow. These churches offer a palatable, inoffensive, and powerless message that is nothing more than an informative and inspiring TED Talk.
This assumption is dangerously subtle, since the congregation will inevitably assume that the true gospel is being proclaimed every week. After all, their church isn’t explicitly denying or redefining the gospel, right? Now, this doesn’t mean that what is being preached isn’t in some sense true, good, or even helpful, but that’s exactly the problem. Because the gospel is assumed, the biblical imperatives (“do this”) aren’t based on the gospel indicatives (“Christ did this”), which is a recipe for doubt, failure, condemnation, and burnout. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard Christians in gospel-assuming churches say how powerful and inspiring a message was, only to listen to the same message myself and be left waiting for the name of Jesus to even be mentioned, let alone the redemption he accomplished or the hope we have because of his resurrection.
Churches that assume the gospel always end up making one or more alternatives central to their preaching. Ray Ortlund provides us with a rather extensive and accurate list of substitutes for the gospel that get preached every Sunday:
An introspective absorption with recovery from past emotional traumas, for example. Or a passionate devotion to the pro-life cause. Or a confident manipulation of modern managerial techniques. Or a drive toward church growth and “success.” Or a deep concern for the institution of the family. Or a fascination with the more unusual gifts of the Spirit. Or a clever appeal to consumerism by offering a sort of cost-free Christianity Lite. Or a sympathetic, empathetic, thickly-honeyed cultivation of interpersonal relationships. Or a determination to take America back to its Christian roots through political power. Or a warm affirmation of self-esteem. The evangelical movement, stripped of the gospel, might fix upon any or several of such concerns to define itself and derive energy for its mission. In other words, evangelicals could marginalize or even lose the gospel and still potter on their way, perhaps even oblivious to their loss.
Ortlund goes on to remind us that, although some of these alternatives are important, “not one of them is the gospel or deserves to push the gospel itself to the periphery of our message, our agenda and our affections.” In fact, this sort of preaching can actually increase sin in your church.
The point of all this is to help us be aware of the subtle yet pervasive danger of churches that assume the gospel. There may be a Bible on the podium, in the speaker’s hand, or projected on a screen, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the person up front is faithfully preaching the word of Christ. The pastor may even quote the Bible or mention the name “Jesus”, but that doesn’t guarantee that they’re actually proclaiming the good news of what God has done in Christ. Your friends might even tell you how inspired and challenged they felt at their church on Sunday, but so does anyone who has listened to a motivational speaker. And just because a church has a great marketing strategy, multiple campuses, live-streamed services, and overflow rooms (things which aren’t necessarily wrong), doesn’t mean that it’s a healthy, gospel-centered church.
If the glorious mysteries of Christ’s incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension and second coming aren’t central; if the doctrines of grace, union with Christ, propitiation, justification, sanctification, and adoption aren’t taught; if sin, wrath, faith, and repentance are ignored; if Christ alone is not proclaimed as the greatest treasure beyond anything this world can offer, then our churches are no different than any other false religion or therapeutic self-help group.
Keep the Good News Central
Before assuming that your church faithfully preaches the gospel week after week, I encourage you to ask some diagnostic questions:
Is the good news of salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone central to the corporate worship of your church? Or is your corporate worship man-centered, filled with entertainment, and centered on unusual spiritual gifts/experiences?
Could sermons at your church still be preached if Christ had not died on the cross and been raised from the dead? In other words, does your church preach a contemporary therapeutic gospel?
Are the central points of these messages primarily about who God is, who we are in light of his revelation, and what he has done in Christ and his Spirit? Or could they pass as good teaching in a mosque, a synagogue, a Kingdom Hall, or at a TED Talk event?
The only true source of hope and everlasting joy in this world for the lost, as well as followers of Christ, is the glorious news of what our triune God has done for us and our salvation for his glory. To merely assume this truth is to fail to carry out the very commission the church has been given by her Lord.
Mitch Bedzyk serves as a teacher and worship leader at Elmira Christian Center. He received his Master of Theological Studies from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and works in IT for the NY Office of Mental Health. He and his wife, Sarah, have two sons, Oliver and Micah, and are foster parents. In his spare time he enjoys reading, coffee, guitar, following the Bundesliga and MLS, and playing fantasy soccer. You can follow him @mitchbedzyk