Quitting and Finding Church
Pro Ecclesia: For the Church
I am in the middle of reading two books simultaneously, one at my office today and the other I will resume at home tonight. My day book is Julia Duin’s Quitting Church: Why the Faithful Are Fleeing and What to Do About It. It is a quick, breezy read, though its subject matter is disconcerting. My night book is actually two volumes that somehow passed me by several years ago. Now I am trying to catch up. This is Iain Murray’s twelve-hundred page biography of Martyn Lloyd-Jones. It is a slow read. But if it is slow, perhaps cluttered with too many details, it is nevertheless also deeply satisfying. And this is so not simply because it has conjured up many warm memories of sitting under this extraordinary ministry. I would often walk back to my digs in central London feeling as if I had been renewed enough from that one sermon to last for a lifetime. That aside, this biography is satisfying because here one glimpses a spiritual reality which, flawed as it no doubt was, is something for which people today are yearning and often not finding.
Quitting Church. Duin’s book is a diary of her travels around the evangelical world in which she has recorded the struggles so many recounted to her of trying to live Christianly in the modern world: singles in a highly sexualized culture; people who are perpetual strangers in their own churches; the inability to find answers to life’s most distressing issues such as loneliness, a sense of being connected to nothing; deep dismay over “churchianity,” the superficial Christian subculture that has grown up in the last thirty years; and a faith that is easily consumed but has lost its depth and ability to speak into today’s pains and perplexities. The result is that by the droves, though not everyone and not everywhere, the born-again are dropping out of church because, she says, it has become “too banal, boring, or painful.”
No doubt, some of this is due to the (immature) expectations people bring with them as consumers into church — but haven’t we often pitched Christian faith to them in exactly these terms? As consumers, though, they have not had their every need met and so they leave or continue circulating from one church to another. But I also wonder if many of those who have left, or are circulating, don’t also have a point sometimes. There are too many churches that have created an environment, or a set of expectations, in which God rests inconsequentially on those who come. The result is, as I argued in God in the Wasteland, that now “his truth is too distant, his grace is too ordinary, his judgment is too benign, his gospel is too easy, and his Christ is too common” (p. 30).
Finding Church. In the 1940s and 50s, when Lloyd-Jones was emerging as the preeminent preacher in England, life was not easy either. At the beginning of this period the War was still in full swing. Bombs fell every night on London. Westminster Chapel itself was damaged. On one occasion, bombs fell on an adjoining property while he was praying — but he went on without skipping a beat! There was rationing, travel was difficult and hazardous, ordinary citizens were being killed, and evangelicals were a despised minority. Liberalism was at its peak but evangelicals had none of their own literature or much organization. However, these circumstances, quite as difficult as anything we encounter today in America, did not hinder this profound ministry from coming into glorious bloom.
For six years during the 1960s, I attended Westminster Chapel twice a week. I only went to hear the preaching because I was a part of another church. But it was in those six years that I was deeply transformed. The preaching was magnificent, the prayers lifted one into the heavens, the mind was fed, the imagination was fired, and the will was moved. Yet all of this taken together is not the full answer as to what happened to me during this time. When I went there, I came face to face with God in all of His greatness. I encountered — or, rather, was encountered by — not just an idea, not just a sermon, but by God Himself, in and through that worship with its focus in the sermon.
It is tempting now to think back on this and ask what Lloyd-Jones’ secret was. What was his technique? What programs can we borrow from his time and recreate for our own if we are looking for the same outcomes? Alas, we are barking up the wrong tree. God cannot be packaged. He is not a rabbit that can be pulled out of the magician’s hat on cue.
First Corinthians 1-4, Lloyd-Jones thought, is the most important section of Scripture on preaching. Preaching appears to be stupid, both in the message it delivers regarding Christ, but also in its act. Inconceivable as it may seem, preaching is the ordained means of the church’s blessing and nurture. God, Luther said, lives in the preacher’s mouth.
We who worship and we who preach really do need to humble ourselves before God and ask for a restoration in our country of the kind of preaching that He can really use. If God does not visit us afresh in this regard, I am afraid that our “churchianity” will continue unabated and there will be many who genuinely are asking for something better who will not be able to find it.
Dr. David F. Wells is distinguished research professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. He is author of The Courage to be Protestant.
Each month, the editors of Tabletalk select an influential pastor or scholar to address issues pertinent to the life and ministry of the church in Pro Ecclesia.