On March 8, 1740, a young Presbyterian minister named Gilbert Tennent preached a message that would become one of the most memorable of the First Great Awakening. The sermon became known as the “Nottingham Sermon” because of the location of its delivery–Nottingham, Pennsylvania. Historians of revival remember it because of the direct nature of its title and the controversy it created. Tennent called it “The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry.” Utilizing Mark 6:34: “they were like sheep with out a shepherd,” the 37-year-old preacher/church planter championed the growing movement of God in the face of Presbyterian leaders who opposed it. The rift that developed in his tradition led to two groups, the Old Sides who opposed the revival, and the New Sides who praised it.
Tennent compared pastors who opposed the awakening to the Pharisees who opposed Jesus. He observed the lack of bold, gospel preaching. He noticed their obsession with money: they “like Judas, had their eyes upon the bag.” The official Presbyterian body, the Synod of Philadelphia, frowned on his tirade, expelling his New Brunswick Presbytery the following year. However, history records favorably the impact of Tennent and his leadership. From 1745-1758, New Side ministers and their churches grew from 22 to 72, while Old Sides declined from 25 to 22. And lest one think Gilbert was merely a hot-headed opportunist who relished controversy and division, in 1758 he led a reunion of the two groups in a step of gracious leadership. His motive was not to divide without reason, but to unite around the gospel.
Tennent had come to America as a 15 year old from Ireland with his family. He planted a church in 1726 at age 23 in New Jersey. He received great wisdom and encouragement from an older leader in the awakening, Dutch Reformed pastor Theodore Frelinghuysen. George Whitefield spent much time with Tennent, observing the following about Gilbert’s preaching:
I never before heard such a searching sermon. He convinced me more and more that we can preach the Gospel of Christ no further than we have experienced the power of it in our own hearts. Being deeply convicted of sin, by God’s Holy Spirit, at his first conversion, he has learned experimentally to dissect the heart of a natural man. Hypocrites must either soon be converted or enraged at his preaching. He is a son of thunder, and does not fear the faces of men.
Tennent called for radical change, including encouraging believers in churches given to gospel-less Christianity, to leave those churches to seek another. Today, sadly, in some contexts we could use a similar message. In some denominations the gospel has been lost. Some no longer affirm the authority of Scripture and the exclusivity of salvation in Jesus, and I like Tennent would encourage believers in such churches to look elsewhere. In others, some are more harmed than helped by a gospel driven by consumerism and the American dream over the call to take up one’s cross and die.
In my own tradition, the Southern Baptist Convention, we have made a concerted effort to stand on the Scriptures and for the gospel. I would not commend Tennent’s message to my fellow SBCers. But there is another message I believe must be preached which would warn us of another, very grave enemy to the gospel.
I call it The Danger of Superficial Christianity.
We have enjoyed such a blessed heritage and have fought some vital battles, such as the battle for the inerrancy of Scripture. But in the middle of this we have become increasingly institutional, and we have confused the success of our approaches with the essence of the Christian faith. An unintended consequence has been to adopt superficial approaches of ministry that in the long run do much harm to effective ministry in the name of Jesus. Examples:
–Discipleship–we have adopted the assembly line approach: get enough people into enough classes with enough curriculum and, with enough time, disciples are created. I do not oppose classes. I teach them every week! But even in my academic setting I do not by any means think life change happens simply through my uber-cool lectures. No, the time I spend taking students with me on trips, at the coffeeshop, at my local church, and in small group gatherings outside class are just as vital. Superficial Christianity values the lowest bar and the minimum, so we measure success not by life change in the community and in homes, but in the number of people who fill our classes.
When we instead value life-on-life mentoring, time together (or better, as Bonhoeffer put it, Life Together) more than classes, we may see a discipleship movement born. But that is not a superficial approach, and will require a refocusing of time and energy for many.
–Evangelism–no one in the history of the Church has taught more individual believers the tools to share Christ personally than Southern Baptists over the last generation. Yet our effectiveness has declined. More than one leader in evangelism has said, “If we can just get our people trained, they will share Christ.” Epic fail.
Information does not equal transformation. Never has. Evangelism is caught more than taught. Classes can help. Tools matter. But the way to instill an evangelistic passion starts with more than a superficial method that too often teaches to share as little of the gospel as possible. Why not teach as much of the gospel as we can? Why not help believers see not only the impact of the gospel on the lost, but on their lives daily as well? The early church was consumed with the gospel. Look at Acts 4:23-31. The first time the church was threatened and told not to speak about Jesus, they simply prayed the gospel, and then shared the gospel. They were a gospel-consumed people. They were not superficial, and they did not seek to do the minimum. In their prayer in fact they never asked God to make things easier, but they did ask for boldness. Boldness to “survive” in a pagan culture? Boldness to speak the gospel! The New Testament Church focused on giving all, not on a minimum standard or the path of least resistance.
Let us spend more time living the gospel and sharing it in our communities, and then our classes may be more effective. We have not abandoned the gospel, but we have in effect done what you do with a task on your computer screen that you need but that is not vital-we have minimized it. So the gospel is there, but you have to dig around to find it. It should rather be the background of the screen of our lives and the screen saver, and the banner over every file, informing all we do and are, not one component easily minimized to the bottom of the screen of our ministries.
I could give others. Student ministry–hire a youth guy so parents (and sometimes, the pastor) can take a break. Superficial. Or, student ministry that does not challenge students to think and to grow, but entertains.
Maybe the reason we argue so much over worship style stems from our superficial understanding of what worship is in the first place. Perhaps that is why too often in our time we find brothers disagreeing not over substantive matters (that in fact does happen), but over nuances, over secondary matters that should not divide us, but should instead drive us to focus deeper on things that matter.
Let’s face it; it is much easier to be superficial. Do not teach children to think biblically–just turn Christianity into behavior modification and give your children a good-person vs bad-person list to guide their life. Turn Christianity into a checklist. The Pharisees were great at that. Do not do the hard work of sermon study, exegesis, and prayer–just download sermons and play some golf. Don’t spend hours a week agonizing in prayer for your people-just search the web for the latest magic bullet to help your church grow. Many churches have been so superficial so long they cannot tell the difference anyway. Don’t focus on the great areas of lostness in our nation, the cities we would rather avoid, and do not talk too much about those who have never heard in the world, just deal with a much more simpler equation that is easy to measure–like percentages of giving. Avoid deep issues like the masses dying in poverty and the neighbors around us who will not be reached without our becoming deeply involved in their lives.
On the other hand, we could begin teaching our churches, our children, anyone who will listen for that matter, the greatness of the gospel. We can teach the riches of theology (youth learn trig in high school, they can handle theology in church). Pastors can see themselves less as self-help guides fit for infomercials and more as resident theologians who equip people to live and think biblically. We can teach the basics of what to think, but we can also teach people HOW to think for themselves. We can go deep, get more personal, and exchange a Ford Motor Company assembly line approach to communicating truth for a social networking model–much more personal, much more connected, much more focused. See the book Socialnomics to get what I mean. Or better, read the Gospels and see how Jesus used social networks of His day to teach His twelve (note: He was WITH them). In the process we may become worse at creating church attenders in a superficial form of Christianity, and better at creating Christ followers who long to go deep in their journey of faith.
Again, I am not saying every church or pastor is like this. Nor would I imply that anyone simply chose to become superficial. But it has become the default for ministry for too many. I would argue that one of the great challenges before us is to realize how we have gradually slipped into a superficial Christianity, and if we would see a movement of God like in Tennent’s day, it may well start with going deep.