From Cameron Cole, Youth Minister at Cathedral Church of the Advent Birmingham AL from the Rooted Blog.
Two of my couple friends have moved to new cities in the last few months and tried out new churches with disappointing results. One couple attended a church with a conservative bent where the pastor spent the sermon railing against liberal churches and their position on sexuality. The other couple sampled a mainline Protestant church, where the pastor’s message was that we are the “salt and light” just by being ourselves.
The obvious problem at both churches: There was no Gospel in the message.
A nice lady gave me a series of CDs from her church that included her pastor’s five-week explication of Song of Solomon. He did a great job teaching on the meaning of each verse in context and ended with a passionate exhortation for everyone to commit more effort to improving his or her marriage.
It was a well-intentioned sentiment, but the sermons contained one problem: there was no Gospel in the message.
In most seasons, stories such as these disappoint me, but, given my life circumstances over the last quarter, they enrage me. I am literally left feeling ill.
Welcome to the Gutter
The story of my life in the last few months is almost hard to believe. In November, my precious three-year-old son died. He simply passed away in his sleep with no explanation. It was the heartbreak of my life.
About a month later, I found out that a dear friend of mine has a very serious prognosis of lung cancer. He has three children under the age of four - one who was born about two weeks after the diagnosis. It is a terrifying situation for his wife and him.
In the last two months I have watched a friend destroy his life and the lives of many other people due to his problems with addiction and mental illness. He possesses no capability of “getting it together,” and functions like a tornado of destruction for family and friends. The tornado has crescendoed in the last weeks.
Finally, this month, a beloved former student of mine took his own life. He was one of my favorite kids of all times - a sensitive, caring young man that lost his life in a moment of despair. I offered the eulogy at his funeral in the most difficult hour of my ministry.
I find myself walking through perpetual fire and anguish, although the faithful Lord continues to give me hope, strength, and peace.
What You Say When You Don’t Preach the Gospel
We can all be guilty of not preaching the Gospel. Sometimes, we neglect to mention our sin explicitly and our need for grace in a Bible study lesson. Perhaps, we preach nothing but Law- sweat and effort- with no promise of God’s help and redemption. And as sad as it is, some churches just simply don’t mention it at all. It’s words of wisdom, life lessons, inspiring stories, moral directives, and maybe a light mention of a loving God.
When we do not preach the Gospel, this is what we say: Everything is fine.
We say that our problem with sin is not that severe; we can fix our problems with a little effort. We say that death is not a real thing; we can kick that can down the road. We say that the world is generally fine; it’s not in need of radical rescue. We say that our need for God’s redeeming love and power is not that great.
Well, I have an offer for anyone who thinks “everything is fine,” given what I have witnessed in the last three months. I have a free plane ticket for you to tell my friends or me that everything is fine. Look my student’s parents in the eye and tell them that death is not real. Sit down with my addict friend and tell him just to try a little harder. Tell the wife of my friend with cancer that the things in the world are generally good.
Now obviously I am speaking in metaphor and with hyperbole. I speak with such strong language because it’s offensive to suggest that no great problem exists in the world and in our lives. When Christian leaders neglect to explicitly preach the Gospel, it’s implicitly saying, “Let’s just smile and be nice and try to be good people.” It’s an insult to people who are suffering, failing, and dying.
Take it to the Cross
My point in all of this is to say that all of us in ministry- as volunteers or paid pastors- have a duty to sufferers to take the message every week back to the Gospel, back to the message of the Cross. The Cross gives an accurate appraisal of the utter depth of the pain and brokenness in life, and it offers real hope.
The Cross says that human powerlessness over sin is so great that God would have to die a brutal death to rescue mankind. The Cross says that the world is so broken and dark that it would crucify a perfect, meek, loving man. The Cross says that God’s love is so powerful that it can redeem the impossible. The Cross says that there is hope and life even in the saddest, darkest, vilest of circumstances.
As one living in the gutter, I want to plead with you: Remember that behind the veneer of nice clothing, well-kept hair, and apparent smiles on Sunday morning, Wednesday nights, and gatherings in-between lie dozens and dozens of broken hearts, desperate spirits, and doubting souls.
Do what my mentor, Frank Limehouse, taught me to do every single time: Take it back to the Cross.