When we consider the predicament that the evangelical church of the twenty-first century faces in America, the first thing we need to understand is the very designation “evangelical church” is itself a redundancy. If a church is not evangelical, it is not an authentic church. The redundancy is similar to the language that we hear by which people are described as “born-again Christians.” If a person is born again of the Spirit of God, that person is, to be sure, a Christian. If a person is not regenerated by the Holy Spirit, he may profess to be a Christian, but he is not an authentic Christian. There are many groups that claim to be churches that long ago repudiated the evangel, that is, the gospel. Without the gospel, a gathering of people, though they claim otherwise, cannot be an authentic church.
In the sixteenth century, the term evangelical came into prominence as a description of the Protestant church. In many cases, the terms evangelical and Protestant were used interchangeably. Today, that synonymous use of the adjectives no longer functions with any accuracy. Historic Protestants have forgotten what they were protesting in the sixteenth century. The central protest of the Reformation church was the protest against the eclipse of the gospel that had taken place in the medieval church.
When we turn our attention to the first century, to the churches about which we learn from the biblical record, we know that all of the churches addressed in the New Testament, including the churches in Ephesus, Corinth, Thessalonica, and the seven churches of Revelation, were evangelical churches. They all embraced the biblical gospel. Yet at the same time, these churches were different in their strengths, in their weaknesses, and in their compositions. An evangelical church is not necessarily a monolithic community. There may be unity among evangelical churches but not necessarily uniformity. The distinctions of the seven churches of Revelation are set forth clearly in that book. They manifest different greatnesses and frailties, but they all faced perils. Each confronted the dangers that assaulted the church in the first century. They faced hazards of varying proportions, but there was a common threat to the health of the New Testament church from many sides. Those dangers manifested in the first century are repeated in every age of the church. They certainly loom large at our time in the early years of the twenty-first century.
Among what I see as the three most critical perils the church faces today are, first of all, the loss of biblical truth. When the truth of the gospel is compromised or negotiated, the church ceases to be evangelical. We live in a time of crisis with respect to truth, where many churches see doctrine merely as something that divides. Therefore, they stress relationships over truth. That is a false distinction, as a commitment to truth is a commitment that should manifest itself in vital, living relationships. Relationships can never be a substitute for embracing the truth of God. So the either/or fallacy of doctrine or relationship cannot be maintained under careful biblical scrutiny.
A second widespread peril to the church today is the loss of any sense of discipline. When the church fails to discipline its members for gross and heinous sins, particularly sins of a public nature, that community becomes infected with the immorality of the secular culture. This occurs when the church so desperately wants to be accepted by the pagan culture that it adopts the very morality of the pagan community and imitates it, baptizing it with religious language.
The third crucial peril facing the church today is the loss of faithful worship. There are different styles of worship that can be pleasing to God. However, all worship that is pleasing to God is worship grounded in Spirit and in truth. We can have lively worship, manifesting great interest and excitement, with doctrine and truth eliminated. On the other hand, we can have what some call a dead orthodoxy, where the creedal truths of the historic Christian faith remain central to the worship of the church, but the worship itself does not flow from the heart and lacks spiritual vitality.
Another element that threatens the evangelical church is the ongoing erosion of evangelical faith by the impact of liberal theology. Liberal theology saw its heyday in the nineteenth century and raised its head again with the neo-liberalism that captured the mainline churches of the twentieth century. Yet it is by no means dead. Perhaps the place where liberalism is manifesting itself most dangerously is within the walls of churches that have historically been strongly evangelical. David F. Wells describes the crisis of the twenty-first century church as “vacuous worship.” A vacuous worship is one that is empty of content. It is satisfied with platitudes, pop psychology, and entertainment. Such worship is devoid of the Word of God and of the authentic sacrifice of praise.
Dr. James Montgomery Boice, before his death, lamented his concern that the church was being enticed “to do the Lord’s work in the world’s way.” We try to transfer principles of success drawn from Madison Avenue and from other secular institutions and imitate them in the life of the church. Such a process is deadly.
In every generation, including our own, the same perils to the spiritual strength that Jesus rebuked in the seven churches of Revelation threaten us anew. These include such things as a lack of love, a lack of truth, a compromising spirit with the world, a lukewarm devotion, and a double-minded conviction, to name but a few. There were rebukes and encouragements given to these churches by our Lord that every church in every age must take seriously, examining ourselves to make sure that we are not manifesting the same departures from biblical truths that these churches were. We must be vigilant and diligent if we are to maintain a godly witness in our day.