We call ourselves an evangelical church. No, you won’t find that word on our notice-board, but we’ve always been happy to identify ourselves in that way. But I’m beginning to have our doubts. Are we wise to use that label for ourselves? I’m not sure. Oh, it’s not that we’ve changed in our commitment to the evangel – the gospel. But I’m afraid the meaning of the word “evangelical” has changed. A church may call itself evangelical, but that’s no guarantee of what you’ll find if you visit.
When I was a child growing up in a Christian family, I knew what the term “evangelical church” meant. Let me list out three things that you would have expected to find in any “evangelical church” forty or fifty years ago.
A church that believed the Bible
An evangelical church was a church where people believed that the whole Bible was inspired by God and that it was true from first page to last. If you went into an evangelical church for any Sunday service, you expected that a preacher would stand at the front, and that he would preach a sermon based on a Bible verse or passage. Most sermons would be between thirty minutes and an hour long. And while the sermon might be laced with humour, it would be marked by seriousness. People who listened to sermons in evangelical churches knew they were listening to a vitally important message.
People who attended evangelical churches took their own Bible with them to church – and they expected to use it. They would follow the sermon carefully, looking up the passages that the preacher read or quoted. Many evangelical Christians chose to carry a wide-margin Bible, or a Bible with interleaved blank pages so that they could write notes in the Bible as they listened.
Many evangelical churches would have a large Bible text displayed outside. Children in evangelical churches were expected to memorise Bible verses and were given Bibles as prizes. In Sunday-schools run by evangelical churches, children competed at “sword drill” – the challenge to find a particular Bible reference as quickly as possible. I learned very early in life that all true Christianity must be based on the Bible alone. Evangelical churches were Bible-churches.
A church that emphasised the gospel
Firstly, they talked a great deal about why we need to be saved. Almost every sermon would be a reminder that we are sinners, that we are guilty before God, that we have depraved hearts and that we deserve God’s wrath. As a very young child I learned that that I needed forgiveness for my sins, and I needed a changed heart. That’s what it meant to be saved. And unless I was saved, I would go to hell for ever. One way or another, I heard that truth in almost every sermon.
But I also heard about the only one who can save – Jesus Christ. Every preacher preached about him – who he is, what he did, and what he could do for me. Evangelical preachers preached constantly about the fact that Jesus Christ is God’s Son and yet a true man. They preached week after week about his life on earth, his miracles, his teaching – but above all they preached about his death on the cross, and his resurrection. If you had asked me, even as a child of six or seven, what was the most important truth of the Christian faith, I would have said without hesitation, “Jesus died for sinners; he was punished in their place”. I had heard that truth hundreds of times, not just from my parents, but from every preacher I heard.
So evangelical churches preached, firstly, that we are sinners. They preached, secondly, that Christ had died to save sinners. And they preached, thirdly, that to be saved, you had to be converted, born again. And being converted meant trusting yourself in a definite way to Jesus Christ. We knew that we would never get to heaven unless we turned from our sins and turned to Christ. And we knew it was urgent. Preachers preached often about the fact that Jesus is coming again, and that once he comes, it’s too late for those who are not saved.
This were the gospel truths that marked evangelical churches. And it wasn’t just from the sermons we learned them. The hymns we sang were full of the same truths. We sang about the dreadfulness of sin:
Just and holy is Thy name,
I am all unrighteousness;
Vile and full of sin I am,
Thou art full of truth and grace.
We learned that our only hope is in Christ’s death:
There is a green hill far away
Outside a city wall,
Where the dear Lord was crucified,
Who died to save us all.
There was no other good enough
To pay the price of sin;
He only could unlock the gate
Of heaven and let us in.
And we were urged to come to Christ alone for salvation:
Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me
And that Thou bidst me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come.
The sermons, the hymns, even the prayers were full of these truths. When prayer was offered in the services, there was always a note of confession. However long these Christians had been believers, they confessed their own sinfulness and pleaded for grace. When they turned to praise, the great thing for which they praised God was he had sent Christ to die for sinners. And whatever else they asked God to do, they pleaded with him to convert and save sinners.
The word evangelical comes from the Greek word for gospel – euaggelion. Evangelical churches were gospel churches – churches which centred on the gospel: on the need to be saved, and the way to be saved.
A church that called for holiness
Evangelical churches urged people to be saved. And then, when people were saved, they called them to a distinctive lifestyle. Evangelical christians knew that they were expected to live holy lives, different from the unsaved people around them. They must be prepared to dress differently, to abstain from “worldly” entertainments, to use their money and time sacrificially. They must look forward to Christ’s coming every day and prepare themselves for it. They must serve him by witnessing to others. They must have a daily “Quiet Time” – a time for private prayer and Bible-study. They must set the whole of Sunday aside as special, and use it to worship and serve God. They must be concerned for the work of mission throughout the world, and be prepared to leave everything to serve him overseas if he should call them.
These were the standards that evangelical churches held up as normal for Christians. Did the members of evangelical churches live up to them? Not always. But I would like to think that when they failed, they confessed it as sin, and pleaded with God to help them to start afresh. They believed that the call to holiness was non-negotiable.
Yes, there were weaknesses
Were there any weaknesses in the evangelical churches of my childhood? Of course. Plenty. Though evangelical preachers believed the whole Bible, there were, perhaps, very few of them that preached through it in a systematic way. And many things in the Bible were often misunderstood or overlooked. I rarely heard sermons about God’s attributes, or about the doctrine of election, or about baptism. There was lots of talk about Christ’s return but it was mixed up with strange teachings about the “signs of the times” and the “rapture”. Most serious of all, though we were told that we must trust ourselves to Christ, many preachers suggested that all that meant was that we should pray a prayer “asking Jesus into your heart”.
We were called to live holy lives, but there was very little practical instruction about what that meant. What in practice does it mean to be a godly parent, or child, or neighbour, or citizen? We sang, “Take my silver and my gold” but were rarely shown from the Bible how to use our money for Christ. I don’t remember ever hearing sermons as a teenager about relationships with the opposite sex, courtship or marriage. Perhaps many evangelical churches were better at telling Christians the things they mustn’t do, than they things they should do.
But when we have listed all these weaknesses, I look back on those evangelical churches as true churches, churches that match the picture in the New Testament of what churches should be. Surely, every church should be a church where the Bible is believed absolutely, where the gospel is central, where holiness is sought and lived.
How many of the churches that call themselves “evangelical” today, still stand for the same things as the evangelical churches of my childhood? I don’t know. But in my experience it’s more and more rare to visit a church now which looks anything like those churches. A few weeks ago I sat as a visitor in an “evangelical” church. Five minutes passed, ten, twenty, thirty… and not one reference to the Bible… It was thirty-five minutes before the pastor asked someone to stand up and read a Bible passage printed out on a sheet.
The reader had no Bible in front of him nor did most of the congregation. After the reading there was a sermon. And it was based – very loosely -on the passage that had been read. It lasted fifteen minutes – take out the funnies and anecdotes, and it could have been reduced to four. What was the passage? Well, it was one of the most solemn passages in the gospels – the Lord Jesus’s description of the Day of Judgment: the day when the ungodly will be dismissed into “everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” and the righteous called into “the kingdom prepared from the foundation of the world”. But – the preacher assured us – we don’t need to take any of that seriously: this is a parable. What matters is the great principle taught in the passage. And what’s that? Care for people, and especially the needy. That way, you’ll know you’re one of Christ’s sheep.
No Bible, no gospel. And Christian holiness reduced to “be nice to everybody”.
The pastor prayed. But it wasn’t confession of our sinfulness. It wasn’t adoration: praising God for his greatness, his holiness, his grace, his plan of salvation. It wasn’t a plea for saving grace for ourselves or others. The preacher prayed that God would look after needy people of all sorts everywhere – that he would make this world a better place.
And the songs? Yes, we sang a long series of “worship songs”. Some of them were better than others. But few of them were songs for sinners – songs for people like me, who need forgiveness, who feel the coldness of our hearts, who long for the Holy Spirit to revive and restore us. They were confident songs, songs for people who already feel love, joy and peace, and “just want to praise the Lord”. Praise him for what? Praise him that he’s given us such nice feelings inside.
In the evangelical churches of my childhood, we sang worship songs like this:
Cleanse me from my sin, Lord,
Put thy power within, Lord,
Take me as I am, Lord, and make me all Thine own;
Keep me day by day, Lord
Underneath Thy sway, Lord,
Make my heart Thy palace, and Thy royal throne.
It seems we don’t need such songs today.
How typical was that church? Well, some of you are better placed to answer that than I am. Some of you have told me sadly about the no-Bible, no-gospel, no-holiness churches you’ve visited. You’ve told me about funeral services, baptismal services, wedding services, and just ordinary Sunday services where the Bible has been pushed to one side. You’ve told me about worship services where the singing has lasted for two hours and the preaching has lasted ten minutes. You’ve told me about the warm-up routines, the dancing, the clowning, the “words from the Lord”, the “worship band”. And how glad I’ve been when you’ve come back from such services and said to me, “well, our meetings aren’t always exciting, but we do hear the Bible preached, and we do love the message of salvation through Christ, and we are encouraged to be holy!” How blessed we are if we hold fast to those things!
When John wrote the book of Revelation, many churches were abandoning the Scriptures, the gospel, the way of holiness. But the Lord Jesus sent a message to the church in Philadelphia. “You have kept my word with patient endurance…” (Revelation 3:10). Would he say the same to us?
And then he gave them this command. “Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown…” (vs 11). Isn’t that his message for us too?
And finally he gave them this promise. “The one who overcomes, him I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (vss 12-13). Could there be any promise richer than that?