Attendance at congregational board meetings is falling off. It is becoming more and more difficult to find volunteers to serve as congregational officers and Sunday school teachers. Stewardship wanes despite all the really neat programs and pledge drives that have been tried. Evangelism “cold calls” don’t seem to be turning up many potential new members. Congregational life seems to be in a slump, despite the fact that the same precious gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is being purely preached in the word and rightly administered in the sacraments.
Then you receive information about a dynamic new program that promises to be vibrant, sure-fire, and a guaranteed success. It comes professionally printed in bold colors and attractive handouts. You think that it might be used effectively, especially if the program promises results no matter what doctrinal belief system your church may hold. One size fits all. It purports to be purely practical so that you can pour in whatever doctrine you like along the way. Under the circumstances, you may feel that you are ready to try anything if it will just coax a few members out of the starting blocks, if it will just stir up a modicum of enthusiasm to get things “on fire for the Lord.”
At that moment, however, what are you in danger of doing to the gospel? Are you not in effect thinking that the gospel needs a little boost because it doesn’t seem to be accomplishing very much at the moment? Are you not trying to add something to the gospel to make it look more desirable to those whom you hope will receive it with greater joy and heartfelt response?
What you are being tempted to do is doll up the gospel into a painted lady. Its true beauty will be obscured and people will end up loving your new creation not for what the gospel is of itself but for what you have made of it. “Darling! I just love what you’ve done with the gospel! It looks simply marvelous and so appealing! How could droves of people not flock to your pews every Sunday?”
When the gospel does not seem to be working, the problem is not with the gospel. It is not because you have failed to make the gospel look sufficiently sweet, desirable, or appealing with things that attract the attention of the human nature. The problem is with the preaching that leads to repentance.
Perhaps too often we have heard a law preached that threatens instead of the law that kills. Such law will never be appealing for increasing membership, but it is the only thing that prepares one for the gospel. Programs often miss that. The law that would kill the old Adam doesn’t sell as well as a law that merely threatens the old Adam or laments the slip of society into moral degradation.
The law isn't to be domesticated like a house cat. When the Gospel doesn't seem to be working, one doesn't call upon the Law to motivate people, to challenge them, or to manipulate guilt in a way analogous to "Here, kitty, kitty!" The letter kills before the Spirit gives life (which is not to say that the "letter" or law is bad and the Spirit is good. BOTH are necessary: Law and Gospel.)
Many methods want to offer an attractive, friendly, winsome gospel -- and if it is not sufficiently desirable they would dress it up to look appealing to the world. This is roughly equivalent to painting over the natural beauty of a young girl with a whore’s make-up kit. When “experts” are promoting programs that promise the latest sociological designs, market testing, snappy multimedia presentations, and “irrefutable” statistical analyses, they are painting a grace, mercy, peace, and love apart from repentance.
The grass is always greener on the other side: the magazine model or movie starlet may often seem more attractive than what one knows in daily life. The danger comes when people start pursuing their fantasies as if true happiness might be found somewhere along the way. Ever on the rebound, they imagine that the next love will be the real thing, but instead they get one disappointment after another until they become so disillusioned that they are incapable of recognizing or returning to true love.
Luther wrote: “The mad mob, however, is not so much interested in how things can be improved, but only that things be changed. Then, if things are worse, they will want something still different. Thus they get bumblebees instead of flies and in the end they get hornets instead of bumblebees.” (AE 46:112).
Many pastors and congregations are today flitting from program to program when they think the gospel isn’t working, wandering farther and farther from what has marked the church founded on Christ through the pure preaching of the word and the right use of the sacraments. There is no shortage of leadership consultants waiting to coax the offering money out of their treasuries with sure-fire methods that look so alluring. They forsake the proper distinction between law and gospel in hopes of promoting something more effective, which results in stirring up lust instead of faith.
When the gospel doesn’t seem to be working, do not consider what kinds of hymns, worship, or social programs might make the gospel more appealing to the flesh. Rather, consider what is appalling to the flesh. Only where the letter has killed can the Spirit give life—not in lock-step conjunction with our self-approved methods, but when and where He wills.