By Tom M. Roberts
Have you ever talked to the older preachers among us and heard them describe the meetings of years gone by? It is not unusual to hear them relate instances of baptisms by the score. I have heard of ten, twenty, even forty baptisms during a single gospel effort. Today, if a gospel meeting results in one or two baptisms, it is unusual and highly uplifting. But more often than not, we have to be satisfied with the thought that “though there were no visible results, the local church was edified.” This lack of baptisms has caused some to question the validity of gospel meetings in our age. Seldom are meetings planned around those who are not Christians but usually, today, we plan lessons that deal with social issues, motivation or the like. Also, instead of meetings that last over a “protracted” period of time or even ten days, or two Sundays, we have reduced most meetings to one week (Sunday-Friday) or, shorter yet, a two or three-day meeting over a single weekend. And, sad to say, many times we have to depend on visitors from other congregations (mostly the preachers), since local members do not attend.
I certainly do not want to be counted among those who feel that the time of gospel meetings is gone, nor do I wish to be viewed as cynical about the use of various types of efforts (long or short, to aliens or saints, or addressing any needed subject). However, I am realistic enough to know that we are not “stirring the waters” of the baptistry as in years gone by. There may be isolated instances of churches that are baptizing a large number of people, but it is safe to say that this is not the usual case. I feel a personal sadness in that I can tell a difference between the results of efforts when I first started preaching and now. I can tell a difference in the manner of attendance by local members. Many just don’t bother to attend at all. I can tell a difference just by looking at the meeting house and remembering times when chairs had to be put in the aisles to accommodate the crowds. I can tell a difference in the vigor (or lack of it) of singing that once accompanied gospel meetings of which I have personal memories. What was once the type of singing that “raised the roof,” now has become a mere whisper by comparison.
Though it might be said that memories are faulty and that we tend to bask in the “good old days,” I do not think that it is erroneous to say that, by comparison, our efforts are not reaching out to the lost as in times past nor are our assemblies as fervent in worship. Generalizing can be a faulty way of reaching conclusions, but I truly feel that we need to look objectively at what is, in truth, a situation less favorable than the past and certainly less favorable than that of the New Testament age. Simply put, why aren’t we baptizing more people than we are? Unless we assess what is wrong and take steps to remedy the situations, we tend to go off into radical directions such as the Boston/Crossroads heresy or opt for a “quick-fix” by mocking some denominational scheme to draw the crowds. I am a firm believer that God’s way works! We don’t need to invent new doctrines or change the Lord’s church to preach the gospel, reach the lost and edify the saints. What we do need is to learn what we are doing wrong and set about effecting the change. What is wrong? Is it the times in which we live or are we doing something wrong?
The Times, They Are A Changing
It is not a “cop out” to realize that we live in a different age with different values than even a generation ago. When churches had large crowds in attendance “back then,” they did not have to compete with the pernicious influence of television. Today, a new phrase has entered our language because it describes what many have become: “couch potatoes.” In actual terms, this means that both men and women have adopted a lifestyle so sedentary that it has affected our health, social customs, buying habits and, yes, attendance at worship services. People stay home and watch TV rather than assemble with the saints! Further, a generation ago (at least before World War II), most families did not have both husbands and wives working at full-time jobs. We must realize that not only has the home suffered because Mother is always busy with her career and nobody is minding the children, but Mother is tired when she comes home and is not eager to go out again to attend a gospel meeting. She is ready to take off her shoes and rest, not get into the car and go again. Remember that the backbone of many churches in the past has been the dedicated wives and mothers who were the driving forces behind faithful attendance. Today, many of these are just too tired to bother.
Additionally, we must recognize that technology, education, sports and businesses have so complicated our lives that we are no longer an agrarian, pastoral society that, once the crops are “laid by,” has long hours to be filled with optional activities. We are living a complicated existence. Such things vie for our attention and, though we may have lost our priorities, something must be given up. With many, religion is the first thing to go.
To the untaught, religion does not have much to offer anyway. In the eyes of many, religion is judged by the Jim and Tammy Bakkers, the Oral Roberts, the Jimmy Swaggerts of the world. Those of us who live moral and dedicated lives are often tarred by the same brush by a cynical public who needs little excuse to cut religion out of their lives. Their minimal need for God can be satisfied by an occasional drop-in at any denomination. Who needs this business of attending three services a week and every night of a gospel meeting when, even among us, men such as Charles Holt say that organized religion is just so much “pay and obey.”
Yes, the times have changed and we must realize that this does affect our ability to reach the lost. But we must also realize that the Roman Empire had its peculiar problems that opposed faithfulness to God, and so does every age. We must not let these problems cause us to cease our efforts or become so discouraged that we lose faith in the gospel as the “power of God unto salvation” in every age. Though one age will allow a freer course to the gospel than others, every age needs the gospel. We must remember that God has chosen man as his earthen vessel to sow the seed and we must not be found wanting in our own age. What others did in past generations was done in the context of their own opportunities and hurdles. We must do the same in our age. But there are other considerations.
Where Is Guilt When You Need It?
Guilt has been almost expunged from modern society. We are told by psychiatrists, psychologists, sociologists, etc. that guilt is bad and that we must learn to rid ourselves of it by detaching it from anything we do. The modern amoral climate says, “I am okay, you are okay, we all are okay” whether homosexual, pornographer, adulterer, liar or cheat. From the White House to the insane asylum, people are told to do what they want to do “so long as they do not harm anyone else.” We hear of “victimless crimes” (prostitution, sodomy with consenting adults, etc.) and crime without punishment (criminals just need rehabilitation). Try preaching repentance to people who have been conditioned to feeling no guilt! In fact, one national writer stated that anyone who preached the possibility of hell was actually mentally ill. Are we failing to proclaim guilt to a society that desperately needs to understand it? Who is going to walk down the aisle to be baptized or admit to sin in his life if he does not believe himself to be guilty?
Peter and the apostles on Pentecost stated, “You by the hands of lawless men did crucify and slay” (Acts 2:23), and “this Jesus whom ye crucified” (2:36). Like the prophets of old who preached that sin “separated from God” (Isa. 59:2), New Testament preachers laid guilt on sinners and taught them to repent (Acts 2:38). Jesus himself had taught, “Nay, except ye repent, ye shall all in like manner perish” (Lk. 13:3).
Are we failing to preach plainly enough about sin? Are we as fearless as John the Baptist or have we become too polite to proclaim the message? Has the truth been divided into the “positive” and “negative,” with only positive motivational messages designed to make us feel good about ourselves becoming the theme of our meetings? Understanding and accepting guilt for sin, brethren, is necessary to the conversion process. We must not fall for the ruse that our job is to make people feel good and be happy, regardless of adultery, child neglect, doctrinal error, etc.
One of the reasons why we are not “stirring the waters of baptism” more, I believe, is that we are not confronting people with their sins and making them understand that they are lost without repentance. This means that we must be willing to pay the price of stirring animosity by the impenitent. But those who are of “good and honest heart” (Lk. 8:15) will make the desired response. Listen, my preaching brother, are you preaching so as to convict those in sin and turn them to the Lord? This distinctiveness and fearlessness of the gopel message must not be replaced by the Peale message of positive mental happiness. True preaching may make some uncomfortable until they repent and are saved. But the Peale message, while making us all feel happy, will save no one.
Is Sin Really Sinful?
Another factor that keeps many from obeying the gospel in our age is that sin has been white-washed. It is now the common idea that anyone can sin with impunity. And, after all, sin is lots of fun. Did not Moses understand that sin could be pleasurable (Heb. 11:25)? Why would anyone give up a practice that is pleasurable and acceptable to society? Las Vegas spells out in neon letters that gambling is exciting, nudity and prostitution are titillating (and legal in Nevada), and that sin can be practiced either in broad daylight or around the clock without criticism by anyone. Even the local cheerleaders have costumes that leave nothing to the imagination and some elders’ daughters lead the parade. Beer drinking is defended at business meetings and many members imbibe and defy the preacher to preach against it. Doctrinally, we have been told that the grace of God will cover any deviation from the truth and that we are not to be alarmed when brethren practice “another gospel.” Immorality is not sinful any longer. Doctrinal impurity is not sinful anymore. Divorce is acceptable in nearly every case, for any cause. Why should anyone get excited about sin? The world has wrapped it in a glittering case of respectability and too many of us love to have it so.
But we must see sin as God does, to really understand its nature and evil. “God is light and in him is no darkness at all” (1 Jn. 1:5). Sin caused Jesus to be crucified in order that God could righteously pardon the sinner (Rom. 3:21-26). We must preach about sin so clearly that all men can see the sinfulness of it and turn in abhorrence and repugnance from it. Only then will we start to baptize the lost and regain the fallen Christians. As someone has said, “It is not our job to ease the afflicted, but to afflict those at ease.” Hasn’t this always been the task of God’s workmen?
What I am saying, then, is that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the gospel, the church, or any part of the Divine order. We do not need to do reconstructive surgery on God’s revealed plan. What we do need, however, is to reassess what we are doing with what God has given us. Realizing that we do live in changing times, we must accept that the gospel will not be as effective in one era as it has been in others, and will be again. We must not become so discouraged by the lack of results that we seek to change God’s will. But, with renewed vigor, let us preach the old Jerusalem gospel as plainly as it ever has been. Paul knew what he said when he cautioned Timothy to preach “in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2). It may be that our time is one that is “out of season” when people don’t want to hear it, but we must preach it regardless. The only hope we have to turn our age around is to “preach the word” and not spare. Other “gospels” may seem to be more effective for a while, but there is only one true gospel. It is this that we must preach and not be ashamed of (Rom. 1:16) and with effort, prayer, and God’s good grace, we may yet see the day when people are walking the aisle, stirring the waters of baptism and turning to God. I long to see the day when the aisles have chairs in them, when singing is loud and fervent, when the word grows and multiplies. May God grant that we live long enough to see it in our times.
Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 7, pp. 200-201, 212
April 5, 1990