Submitted to the Journal of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in February 2001. I do not know whether it was published. A slightly modified version was published in a book in honour of Sam Kamaleson
Helping internalize the truth of the gospel
in an age uninterested in truth
One of the most surprising discoveries I made when working a few years back on a commentary on Acts was that in the early church the first evangelists were both miracle workers and apologists. I had known that Stephen and Paul exhibited this combination. But I had not realized that Peter’s speeches in Acts clearly show that he too was a solid apologist. I think the church today is suffering from much ill health because it has not been able to effectively combine these two emphases in its program.
Today most people come to Christ through the attraction of his ability to meet their felt needs. This may be done through experiencing God’s miraculous power to answer prayer or through the seeker sensitive emphasis that is growing in popularity. There are biblical precedents for these approaches. They are undoubtedly appropriate means of arresting the attention of people, especially in an age when people aren’t very interested in truth.
I think, however, that we have got so enamoured by the popularity of the felt needs message that we are neglecting the other aspects of the gospel, like God’s sovereignty, his hatred of sin, the necessity and centrality of the cross, and the call to holiness and ethical purity. I think most Evangelical preachers believe in these things and even mention them in their preaching. However the emphasis on power and felt needs is so great that when people think of Christianity, they think primarily about what Christ has done to meet their felt needs, like the need for healing, for financial security or for peace. This is evident when I ask recent converts what it was that made them become Christians. They usually mention some need that God met which made them want to believe in him.
About 70% of the members of our church are converts from Buddhism. Almost all of them were brought to church by other Christians when they had a personal need. They came for prayer for that need (We pray for needs presented by those at the service during the pastoral prayer time on Sundays). After their initial introduction to our church many kept coming and, usually after about a year, they were baptized as Christians. One Sunday, during the service, I asked the congregation what the greatest need or problem of humans was. I got a wide range of answers mostly having to do with the need for shelter, food, clothing, health and a secure future. I kept telling the people that they are missing the most important need. Finally a lady, who was a convert from Buddhism, mentioned the need for forgiveness of sin and for a relationship with God. When I said that this was the answer I was looking for everybody seemed to nod in agreement. But this was not what they first thought about when asked what the main problem was for which the gospel was the answer.
I think we have tried very hard to present the “whole counsel of God” to seekers coming to our church. My wife leads an evangelistic Bible study with Buddhists where she follows an approach similar to what is now known as the “chronological method.” She begins with the Old Testament revelation of God and his dealings with humans, and goes to the New Testament only after that. After all this, if our people responded to my question as they did, how much more serious would this problem be in churches where the almost exclusive focus in preaching and worship is upon God’s power and his ability to meet felt needs!
I think that the result of this is an unhealthy church. In many Asian nations, where there has been a significant turning to God by non-Christians, we are seeing that the church exhibits some of the same problems of the society at large, such as lying and prejudice. In Asia most people view the gods in somewhat of a magical way: they do favors to those who follow the prescribed rituals. They do not generally demand ethical purity. When they become Christians it is very easy for them to transpose this idea to their understanding of the supreme God. I believe that this has happened today. Many view Christianity primarily as a means to prosperity and health for those who follow prescribed rituals like tithing, prayer and fasting.
How can we ensure that the Christian worldview and ethic becomes a part of the life and thought converts to Christ in this era? I like to mention three features which, I believe, are vital for this. Firstly, while we need to continue winning the attention of people through felt needs, we must also follow the New Testament practice of conscientiously presenting the key facts of the gospel. Even though people may at first seem uninterested in truth, and thus in the truths of the gospel, the gospel has been revealed to us in truth categories, and we are told that the truth is what sets people free (John 8:32). We can therefore be confident that the truth of the gospel is indeed powerful in mediating God’s saving grace to people. Because people may not at first be interested in many gospel truths we would need to work hard at presenting this material relevantly and interestingly.
The second feature has been borne out by our experience both in our church and in Youth for Christ/Sri Lanka where over 90% of the youth we reach are from Buddhist, Hindu or Roman Catholic backgrounds. Those whose lives really show the growth of Christian understanding and character are usually those who belong to a small group where the Word is studied and applied to their personal lives through discussion. Here they are forced to grapple with the implications for daily life of their being Christians. In Sri Lanka most Buddhists daily recite their resolve not to lie, and there is a lot of preaching on the high ethic of Buddhism, but lying is very much a part of the day-to-day life of most people in our nation. In such an environment the preaching of the Word on Sunday needs to be accompanied by some activity which will help the people to internalize what they have heard. A Word centered small group could meet this need.
Most Christian small groups today are personal-need and prayer centered. People come and talk about their needs, share testimonies of answers to prayer, but there isn’t sufficient earnest grappling with the Word and its implications for daily life. We need to bring back to the church Bible studies that seek to faithfully interpret the Word and also to vigorously apply it to specific situations in the lives of the participants. This way people will be sanctified by the truth—the truth being the Word of God (John 17:17).
The third feature that will help us is what I would call truth-based and truth-oriented worship. There has been a refreshing rediscovery of the value of worship in the evangelical movement recently. This will be an important means of attracting people to the gospel today both in the east with its natural spiritual orientation and in the west with the postmodern interest in spirituality and the experiential side of life. The church could exploit this and use worship as an important means of communicating theological truth. It is well known that the hymnbook was the basic theological textbook in the early Methodist movement. Music is the language of the heart, and good theological truth put to music can help in the process of the truth travelling from the mind to the heart. I believe using theology as the springboard for worship is a noble thing. It is often said today that theology must result in doxology. Those truths we believe in must be reflected in our praise, our self-examination, our confession, our intercession, our instruction and our acts of dedication.
Today I think worship “songs” are often chosen more because of their popularity than because of their meaning. We must work hard at making our worship not only a scriptural exercise but also a time when the community comprehensively expresses the whole counsel of God. An awareness of this would cause us to introduce topics that we are weak on into our praise.
In my language (Sinhala) there are very few new songs and hymns that describe the meaning of the atonement. Buddhists find this doctrine very difficult to understand. Therefore we should be singing more songs not less on the meaning of the death of Christ. The chorus, “Is there anything too hard for the Lord?” is very common among Sinhala-speaking Christians. Generally this truth is applied to things like the need for healing or for solutions to problems like unemployment and economic hardship. This is valid, but it applies to other needs too. Recently at a prayer vigil at our church I used this chorus several times in combination with “Let the beauty of Jesus be seen in me.” The idea that I sought to communicate was that Christlikeness is a possibility because nothing is too hard for the Lord. A familiar theme (God’s power) was made to apply to a neglected theme (holiness).
The point I am trying to make is that the church has to be proactive in trying to ensure that those whom God is bringing our way are comprehensively and effectively presented the “whole counsel of God.” In our preoccupation with what people are attracted to we can easily neglect important aspects of God’s truth. This then would be another occasion when marketing constraints cause us to miss God’s best for us.
Ajith Fernando has been National Director of Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka for the past twenty-five years. Among his recent books are The Supremacy of Christ (Crossway), The NIV Application Commentary: Acts (Zondervan), and Sharing the Truth in Love: How to Relate to People of Other Faiths (Discovery House).