OK, so where do you think the biggest and most pressing mission field is found today? The Muslim world perhaps? Maybe North Korea? Or a place like secular Europe? Yes, those are all good choices. All are very gospel-poor regions where there is desperate need of solid gospel preaching and evangelism.
But I want to suggest that there may be an even more pressing mission field today. And it is not where you would expect. I dare to say that perhaps the greatest need today for mission and evangelisation is found in Western evangelical churches.
Yes, you heard me right. I believe there may be tens of thousands of so-called Bible-believing churches today throughout the West which are not so much gospel strongholds as mission fields. Indeed, there may be millions of people sitting in the pews in these churches who have never really been converted. That is because they never really heard the biblical gospel.
And that puts them in a very dangerous and risky place. You see, millions of people go to these churches assuming they are Christ’s when they may not be at all. They are good people. Moral people. They say the right things and they do the right things – at least according to outward appearance.
They pride themselves in not being like those on the outside: they don’t smoke, they don’t drink, they don’t swear – at least not too much. They certainly have not murdered anyone, or committed gross acts of adultery. They are pretty decent folks in other words.
But Jesus made it clear to the decent folks of his day – the Pharisees – that they were none of his. They had religion up to their ears. They did all the right things and spoke all the right words. They were as religious as you can get. Yet they were lost sinners heading to a lost eternity.
And Jesus made it quite clear that he actually wanted nothing to do with them. That is because he insisted that he came for those who are unwell, not for those who are well. The Pharisees thought they were well, and not in need of any spiritual medicine. But Jesus insisted that he came only for the sick:
“On hearing this, Jesus said to them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners’” (Mark 2:17). Or as he said in Luke 5:32: “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
Yet our churches are full of people who do not think they are sick, or are sinners. They put up their hands at meetings decades ago and ‘asked Jesus into their heart’ yet they never heard the real gospel, so they were never actually converted.
They sang ten choruses of “Just as I Am” at a revival meeting, but left just as they were. No real conversion took place, because they never came to grips with one fundamental truth: we are horrible sinners whose sin is a stench in the nostrils of a holy and pure God.
They thought that going to church, or being moral, or not doing certain things made them a Christian. They did not understand that being good is in fact often the greatest hindrance to becoming a Christian, because there is not one person who is good – not one (Romans 3:9-18).
The biblical gospel is actually fairly simple and straightforward: we are all deplorable sinners who are under the just wrath of God. We deserve eternal separation from a holy God, and our condition is irreparable. But Jesus suffered the punishment of God so that we might avoid it.
By coming to Christ in faith and repentance, we can find newness of life, and acceptance with God. But the bits about sin and repentance are so down-played in most evangelical churches today that we have plenty of folks who think they are right with God simply because they mentally acknowledge Jesus and live a fairly decent life.
They have been told to accept Jesus, or put their trust in Jesus, or come to Jesus, or ask him into their heart, etc. But most have not been told that they are monsters of iniquity as Paris Reidhead put it, and are enemies of God through and through. Repentance is seldom heard, nor is the cruciform life.
Yet the cross and repentance are at the heart of the gospel message everywhere in the New Testament. Repentance was everywhere proclaimed. For example:
Matt. 3:1-2 – John preached repentance
Mark 1:14-15 – Jesus preached repentance
Mark 6:12 – The disciples preached repentance
Acts 2:37-38 – Peter preached repentance
Acts 17:30 – Paul preached repentance
Yet today in most churches the word – and the biblical reality which lies behind it – is rarely heard. Evangelicals have rightly condemned sham ministers like Robert Schuller and his feel-good gospel of positive thinking and self-esteem. They rightly took him to task for refusing to mention the word “sin” and related truths.
As he said back in 1985: “I don’t think anything has been done in the name of Christ and under the banner of Christianity that has proven more destructive to human personality and, hence, counterproductive to the evangelism enterprise than the often crude, uncouth, and unchristian strategy of attempting to make people aware of their lost and sinful condition.”
Yet many evangelical churches today are effectively doing exactly the same thing as Schuller did. They are refusing to talk about sin and repentance, for fear that it might alienate people, and be seen as “too negative”. They stick to happy, up-lifting, and people-pleasing pep talks instead, covered in sweet, syrupy slush.
Indeed, as we speak, we have perhaps twenty thousand believers in Sydney right now at a big conference. They are flocking to hear guys tell them they can be a “better you”. They will hear positive, warm and vacuous messages about how they can succeed, prosper, and feel good about themselves.
But of course there are plenty of these sorts of churches, plenty of these sorts of preachers, and plenty of these sorts of conferences. No wonder they attract such large throngs: they are telling people exactly what they want to hear, and not of what they need to hear.
Instead of presenting a self-denying and cross-carrying message, they are offering a self-affirming and cross-avoiding spiel. It is all about self. It is all focused on me, me, me. It is as humanistic a gospel as you will find in any New Age festival.
And it is even more dangerous, because millions are lulled into thinking they are right with God when they are not. Thus our churches are ripe for evangelisation and missions, because there are so many Pharisees in the pews. Of course the wolves in the pulpits bear a great responsibility for all this as well.
And let’s be clear here: the people who hated Jesus the most and rejected his message with such vehemence were the religious folks, the Pharisees – those who claimed to be God’s people. If Jesus came back today I suspect that things would be little different.
The ones who would likely hate him the most and would tell him to get lost would be those sitting in our evangelical churches. Many there would find him to be offensive, narrow-minded, intolerant and unloving, just as the religious crowds did back then.
So where is the greatest mission field today? What should we be putting a good hunk of our time and attention into? I suggest that many of our Western churches would be a good place to begin. But don’t take my word for it. Let me conclude with some of the great saints who have gone before:
“Some people do not like to hear much of repentance; but I think it is so necessary that if I should die in the pulpit, I would desire to die preaching repentance, and if out of the pulpit I would desire to die practicing it.” Matthew Henry
“Knowledge without repentance will be but a torch to light men to hell.” Thomas Watson
“If the man does not live differently from what he did before, both at home and abroad, his repentance needs to be repented of, and his conversion is a fiction.” C.H. Spurgeon
“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ He willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Martin Luther
“It is impossible to follow Christ without repentance. How could it be otherwise? Jesus is the holy, sinless Son of God. He has never taken one step in any sinful direction. He has never had a single sinful thought. Anyone who is following him, therefore, must by definition turn his back to sin and set his face toward righteousness. Christians do sin, but when they do, they must confess their sin and turn from it, being restored to fellowship again. Anyone who thinks he or she can follow Christ without renouncing sin is at best badly confused. At the worst, this person is not a true Christian.” James Montgomery Boice
“The idea that God will pardon a rebel who has not given up his rebellion is contrary both to the Scriptures and to common sense.” A.W. Tozer
“The business of evangelism is not just to solve people’s problems; psychology does that, the cults do that, many things do that. The thing that separates the gospel from every other teaching is that it is primarily a proclamation of God and our relationship to God. Not our particular problems, but the same problem that has come to all of us, that we are condemned sinners before a holy God and a holy law. That is evangelism. It must, therefore, always put repentance first.” Martyn Lloyd-Jones