Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Between Two Worlds: How Evangelicals and Fundamentalists Keep Scripture from the World in Which We Live

British evangelical John Stott died in the last week. Several years ago, he wrote a book on preaching, Between Two Worlds. The "between two worlds" metaphor says that preaching bridges the gap between two worlds, the world of the biblical text, an ancient world, and the world of the contemporary hearer. In an older interview (1987) Albert Mohler did with Stott, a bit of interaction related to evangelicals' relationship to the second half of the above.

Mohler: Is it your opinion that most evangelicals are better exegetes of the text than they are of life?

Stott: Oh, I am sure of it. I am myself and always have been a better student of scripture than of the present reality. We love the Bible, read it and study it, and all of our preaching comes out of the Bible. Very often it does not land on the other side of that chasm, it is never earthed in reality.

I recognize that fundamentalists have often failed on preaching the text itself, coming short on what Scripture means. But today evangelicals and now fundamentalists both stop from bridging the gap from the meaning of the text to the application in this world. Why?

People in general have an interest in knowing what the Bible means, keeping their experience with the Bible to something mainly intellectual. Paul talks about this in 1 Corinthians a lot, the issue of knowledge. People do want to know what God said, at least to be the knowers, the ones who know it. When we begin to delve into the actual doing of what it says is where the problem most often lies. People are happy to replace doing with only hearing and particularly what the text means. They have convinced themselves that reaching that end in the exercise has accomplished the goal. They have indoctrinated themselves with the notion that understanding the text has reached the culmination of God's will.

The Bible itself says that knowing what the text means isn't enough. But modern preachers know that contemporary culture doesn't want the application. They want some of it, the parts that they think make their lives better---especially their relationships and their finances---but they are not even close to as interested in what God wants. In order to maintain significance and size, the modern preacher, really often the Stott and Mohler type of preacher, will leave out the hard application, which happens to abandon major parts of the Bible. And these applications are being lost to Christianity as a whole, including in fundamentalism, the seeming last vestige of the hard application of Scripture.

What applications am I talking about, of which evangelicalism and much fundamentalism remains in relative silence?

The first one is simple. Go and preach the gospel to every person. This is also seen in the example of Jesus, because this is what He did in His three year ministry. He preached to everyone everywhere He went. Evangelicals and many fundamentalists don't do this. Their churches don't even expect it. They excuse themselves from it. How can anyone preach the gospels and the epistles and miss this?

New methods have been introduced by evangelicals and fundamentalists to replace this simple task. I say simple because it is simple to understand. Doing it isn't easy, because people don't like it. The most obvious method is the "invitation philosophy." The church creates an event that unsaved people will find palatable, and the people invite people to it. Often every Sunday is made into one of these events. If the people do some "inviting," they are excused from their obligation to evangelize. So churches are full of disobedient people, and that isn't mentioned in application, because these churches don't want to lose people.

The people didn't like it in Jesus' day either. Jesus' said it wouldn't be easy. Today it has become acceptable not to evangelize everyone. You can be a good Christian and not be involved in that.

I'm happy for any kind of true evangelism that occurs, including open air evangelism or street preaching. But even open air evangelism is not getting the gospel to everyone, just to those who happen to be there when the activity is taking place. It still doesn't get the Scriptural responsibility fulfilled.

Part of church growth methodology is not going all the way with the application in evangelism. If the people know that the church "requires" evangelism, that is, expects obedience to the Bible, they'll find a church that will not "require" it. And as a result, our nation and the world is not being evangelized. We're evangelizing up in Sacramento right now, in addition to the Bay Area, and according to the people we are visiting, no one has ever come to them to preach the gospel. I ask this a lot, and that is the answer I get in every instance. I've lived in an urban area with many evangelical churches for about 25 years. I have never had anyone ever start to evangelize me or visit my home to evangelize me. There are unevangelized communities all over America with evangelical and fundamentalist churches, even mega-churches, in them. When I drive by a large neighborhood on my way someplace, I am to the place where I assume no one has preached there.

How could anyone who is a faithful preacher of Scripture miss this? If you are preaching verse-by-verse, through whole books, or even through the whole New Testament, how could you miss what Jesus and the apostles did, and what He commanded? I guarantee you that these men are not missing it. They just don't make this application, because it would be too unpopular and it would shrink their churches.

Large evangelical and now fundamentalist churches keep their significance and their popularity by means of methods that do not require their people to obey the Bible. Disobedience has become the norm. It's not just application to evangelism, but the doctrine and practice of separation, that neither Mohler or Stott practiced, and many more. The chasm between the two worlds, the world of the ancient text, and the contemporary hearer, has not been bridged.

It is ironic for sure. Stott can write a book on bridging the gap between world of text and world of hearer without actually bridging the gap. He didn't even bridge the gap between the world of his own book and the world of its hearers. Much of the impact that he could have especially came because he could remain in coalitions of disobedient, professing Christians. Evangelicals and many fundamentalists have become better experts at making disobedience to Scripture more acceptable.


Steve Rogers said...

Bro. Kent,

Tremendous insight. Every Christian and pastor should read this article. As a pastor, I can attest to it's truth. Praise God for more of an emphasis on exposition among IFBs, but the real need is for expository preaching, that applies the truth and propositionally challenges the hearer to live it. Jesus certainly practiced this in his preaching. The preachers must refocus on giving the truth of the text to the HEARER, but we all need to obey the truth and be DOERS!

Kent Brandenburg said...

Thanks Bro. Steve,

It's actually a major admission by a pastor that this is right, merely that you agree. Not that your church is not doing this, because I would believe that it is. But we all at least need to consider whether we are bridging the gap between knowing the meaning of the text and then obeying it. Thanks again.

Larry said...

Out of curiosity, Kent, do you believe that Paul's comment in Romans 15:19 that he had "fully preached the gospel" in the regions meant that he had visited every house and spoken to every person? How do you understand that?

Kent Brandenburg said...

Hi Larry,

I think from the language that we could conclude that Paul gave everyone in every town between those two places an opportunity at least to hear. It aligns itself with what Jesus said to do and did. I don't think the language allows fully to be "the whole gospel," but in every single place between those two places. It didn't say "every person" in that exact place but it fits with everyone hearing or having the opportunity to hear. I was also thinking of Philip after he preached to the Eunuch, "preached in all the cities, till he came to Caesarea" (Acts 8:40).