What is the Gospel

 29 Sept 2013
Time is passing us by all too quickly!  Our responsibility towards how we handle the gospel is vital
I want to challenge you this morning.  I don’t think what I believe God wants me to share is going to make me popular, but that is not important.
What is important is that all of us think carefully about what we are doing with the gospel that God has entrusted to us.
Why am I asking you this?       Because I believe we are living in an era where the future of the gospel in the UK rests in our hands!
In ‘TheTimes’ on Thursday Sept 12th was an article by the author of ‘The God Delusion’, Professor Richard Dawkins.
The article was headed ‘Atheists are winning the war with faith’. Let me read you an extract....
The questions we need to ask ourselves, ‘If faith (and Christianity in particular) is being left behind, what are you and what am I doing, or going to do, about it?’
In one sense Dawkins is absolutely right. The western church that once pioneered and championed the missionary cause has now become the territory that foreign missionaries have started to come to, in order to further the cause of the gospel.
Why would they do this? Because church attendance is falling rapidly and the influence of church standards is in overall decline both in Europe and North America.
Let me give you some statistics to validate this statement
·       http://www.whychurch.org.uk/trends.php   ‘Decline in attendance (added: within the UK church) forecasts a 55% fall from the 1980 level by 2020 (actual fall 41.4% by 2010).   The Church in general struggles to attract people to services.’
·       http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/17-leadership/323-report-examines-the-state-of-mainline-protestant-churches    ‘Regarding the six mainline protestant churches in the USA since the 1950s, have fallen on hard times, declining from more than 80,000 churches to about 72,000 today.’
·       http://www.christianpost.com/news/church-of-england-congregations-continue-to-decline-67678/ ‘The latest statistics from the Church of England show a two percent drop in attendance between 2009 and 2010. Average Sunday attendance fell from 944,400 in 2009 to 923,700 in 2010, continuing the long-term downward trend.
·       Roxburgh, 2011, Joining God in the neighbourhood, p16 comments, ‘People have dropped out of church........Christians are giving up on the church they have known. They feel adrift having come to the conclusion that it’s impossible to find a place to practice the Christian life, except in a small house or simple churches that gather informally across the city. We have entered the unthinkable world where we need a different kind of church’
·       Counteracting this trend, there are unqualified reports of increases in attendance among new black, and immigrant churches from practicing Christians coming to the UK. Likewise HTB London , and associated churches have been seen to flourish as a result of  the success of the Alpha course. Statistics gathered by http://www.brierleyconsultancy.com/images/csintro.pdf show for example that between 2005-2010, attendance in FIEC churches rose by 39,000(15%), NFI churches rose by 30,000 (20%), Smaller New Churches rose by 38,000(17%), and Fresh Expressions rose by 61,000(210%)
It is not all bad news. But there is enough bad news there to show we have absolutely no room for complacency! What is clear is that something has to happen if we are to arrest this decline.
Even looking honestly at our own setting I estimate there has been a drop in membership in LWCC of about 40% since times of maximum attendance.
I think what disturbs me most is the dearth of young people in our church today, and the distribution of our ages becoming increasingly elderly, raising the question, ‘where is the generation to take over the mantle of leadership in the future?’
What needs to change? The questions we need to address are,
·      Are we handling God’s gospel in the right way?
·      How did God intend us to carry his wonderful free gift of salvation?
·      What was his assigned mission to us as his disciples?
Jesus’ parting words on this earth are found in Matt 28:19.containing verbs,  Go, make disciple, baptize and teach.... and I’ll be with you.
He did not say, restrict yourself to a weekly meeting, sing a few songs, talk about me a bit, have a cup of tea, then disappear for another six days until the next Sunday!
No, he said ‘ Go and do something!
Neither did he say, ‘come to church’, rather ‘come to him’......Matt 11:30 Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest...
Nor did he say, appoint a man to preach and care for the people, so that he can work out some good activities and programmes to keep everyone happy, whilst we sit back and listen!
We are not part of a church just to receive a spiritual fix, a feel-good factor. Church is not just to bless me! Church was never intended by God to be a luxury cruise ship. He intended it more to be a warship, where battle plans are enacted, the enemy engaged, and the shipwrecked are thrown a lifeline. If you are after an easy time, then church should not be the place to find it, if it is performing as God intended.
His commission to ‘Go’ was intended for every one of us, and although he said into all the world, remember the world starts with the very people you rub shoulders with, your neighbours, your friends, your work colleagues, those you chat to in the gym, or whilst at the local shop.
However, recognize that God does not expect us to walk around with a sandwich board around our shoulders, or our bible permanently tucked beneath our arm. Such extreme ‘religiosity’ would be an absolute ‘turn off’ to most people.
Rather he expects us to be living examples of his people, living lives 24/7 that are warm, friendly, wholesome, welcoming, full of integrity, helpful, kind........need I go on?    But, being ready at all times to give an account of the hope that is within us’
(1 Pet 3:15)
St Francis of Assisi is attributed to have said, ‘Preach the gospel at all times, and sometimes use words’
God never intended for us to pour all our effort into making church a more comfy and interesting place to dwell in. He has not given us a mandate to build the church. In fact, Jesus states in Matt16:18, that he will build his church
So if the church in the UK is to survive, along with the church in Basildon, we need to act more pro-actively.....it’s us that need to change.....as we change, so the church will change too.
How can this happen? .....By being living examples of the Gospel!  By being sufficiently influential in the lives of those around us that they want to understand what makes us behave and believe what we do.
That’s why it is so important to be welcoming of the stranger and even the weird. Does a person’s dress code, hair style, tattoos, language, culture or background matter to us?
·      There’s a guy in Rayleigh who most would avoid.  He clearly has a non-threatening mental disorder. He looks very much like a tramp, picking things up from the street, talking out load to himself, and frequently stopping and laughing raucously at seemingly nothing. Yet Alec has taken steps to befriend him, even to the point of taking him something to eat, to avoid him having to raid bins close to the fast food shops.  If you want to know more ask Alec.
·      This summer, Tim, Chrissie and I went to hear two eminent Christian authors, and leading academic theologians.
One shared her testimony. She and her future husband had both been hippies and drug addicts living a quite immoral lifestyle.
She confessed to having had affairs with both men and women, and living the sort of lifestyle that most Christians find even unacceptable to talk about. In fact she shared her bed with her gay male cousin and thought nothing of it.
To cut a long story short, their drug dealer got sent to prison, where he amazingly found Jesus, and on his release told all this group of druggies of the new life that he had discovered. As a result they all decided to go along to the local church and arrived during a prayer meeting just when they happened to be asking God for a ‘break through’ in seeing new life come into the church. God has an amazing sense of timing! and an even bigger sense of humour!
Their arrival caused a big stir and horrified quite a few of the Christians gathered, but the pastor had other ideas and made them welcome. He rebuked the bigoted attitude of those unwelcoming Christians reminding them to ‘not harm God’s lambs’.
Following up, this pastor made regular visits to their home, where all sorts of undesirable things were going on, and would sit with his Bible and share the good news of God’s salvation, and discuss any topics with them.
The interesting thing is, he never ever said they were wrong or judged them. He allowed God to prompt them to bring up the big questions like, ‘Is it right for us to sleep together’? He would simply reply, ‘Why don’t you ask God yourselves and find out what He thinks’. 
You can guess the outcome. One by one they became committed Christians and forsook that way of living, but it took time!
Even when seeking entry to Bible college, she was asked if she knew anyone she would like to share a room with. Not knowing any difference she suggested that she knew her cousin pretty well so maybe she could share with him! 
The bible college staff was not particularly impressed with her suggestion!
The fact remains we are all on a journey.
·      Some of us are in the Kingdom and trying to get ever closer to God.
·      Some don’t even realize what journey they are on or where they are heading, but God is nevertheless working in their lives even if they don’t realize it.
·      Some are deliberately moving away from God perhaps like Richard Dawkins.
·      Some haven’t yet crossed the line in that journey that puts them within the Kingdom of God but are moving in the right direction.
            We never know exactly where people are at unless we get alongside them and find out.
If you watch one of Alan Hirsch’s preaches recorded on Youtube, he poses this question,
At what stage did Jesus disciples actually become Christians?
·      Was it when he first called them?
·      Was it when they saw him performing miracles?
·      Was it when they saw him suffering on the cross?
·      Or was it when they were baptized in the Holy Spirit?
We can’t be sure, though I suspect it was probably after quite a long time, probably towards the end of their three year encounter with Jesus.
All of us are on a journey and if we have crossed that line, then our job is to do what Jesus commanded. To get alongside those in the world, to try and ascertain what God is up to in their lives, and to join with Him in the process of helping them to understand His salvation plan for their lives, not by preaching or judging, but by demonstrating a genuine, caring, living faith
Micah 6:8 He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
1 Cor 9:19-23
Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible........to those under the law, I became like one under the law, so as to win those under the law........v21 to those not having the law, I became like one not having the law, so as to win those not having the law........To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel that I might share in its blessings.
I hope I am beginning to give you some idea as to what I believe the gospel is about!  
I believe these are times of real opportunity!
God has called us to a task where the future of the gospel in the UK rests in the hands of His church!
If we don’t respond, God won’t be phased!  He will simply assign the task elsewhere!
When God calls, he always equips. Therefore we can all do it!

Brian Foster, 13/11/2013