The Gospel, Who Needs It?
“Preaching the gospel in this town is like plowing pavement.” As these words escaped the mouth of my pastor they struck me as both poetic and profound. This phrase of frustration was uttered shortly after the turn of the century in a community that is reputed to be “conservative”. (Nearly 60% of the electorate are said to have voted GOP at the top of the ticket in 2004. The clergyman shared this sentiment with me as my mentor and as a man involved in preparing me for my life ahead (I was a seminary student at the time).
What was the specific challenge faced by this PCA preacher? I asked him. He responded that the residents of this particular county had good lives, by worldly standards: high levels of employment, healthy salaries, good sturdy houses, two cars in the garage, a growing retirement nest egg, and friendly reputations with neighbors. Generally speaking, they did not see their need for the Good News of grace. They might have attended Sunday morning church services, but they did not show up with an appetite for worship. In the pastor’s estimation, they showed up merely out of habit or tradition, or they showed up to “put on appearances” with friends, or they showed up to network with their business associates. In other words, the pew-sitters were members of a “Sunday Morning Social Club”, more than they were loyal followers of Christ. By the way, this pastor left the community within a few short years of making the “plowing pavement” comment. He moved to the Bible Belt to undershepherd a flock there.
The Gospel, Who Cares?
“Preaching the gospel in this town is like plowing pavement.” As amazing as it seems, these words escaped the mouth of another pastor about ten years later. They were unsolicited, and came in the context of preparing to record an episode of The Faith Debate radio program which I have hosted for many years. I was taken aback by the use of the exact same poetic and profound phrase that was used so many years earlier. This time the phrase of frustration was again uttered within the very same community, but following a decade of turned calendar pages the area had quickly and noticeably transformed into being “purple” in its voting habits. (Barely 50% of the electorate are said to have voted GOP at the top of the ticket in 2012. This frustrated church planter said that he had successfully started churches in other cities and expected similar results when called to a new challenge. The results were decidedly not similar.
What was different for him this time, as compared to his earlier successes? I asked him. He responded that, in his view, the residents of this particular county had no interest in going to church. In other towns, when he invited people to visit his new church, they actually paid a visit – not every time, but many times (even if only as a one-time show of support). It seemed to him that any vague concern about “spiritual matters” by his new neighbors were swallowed up by an environment dominated by youth soccer games, downtown restaurant experiences, shopping aplenty, and “driving down the road” for work. It appeared that they had no time or need for a “Sunday Morning Social Club”, as they belonged to so many other “clubs” Monday through Saturday. By the way, this pastor left the community within a few short years of making the “plowing pavement” comment. (In fact, he left orthodoxy completely and drifted into theology akin to that of the Black Hebrew Israelites, but that is a topic for a separate article).
The Gospel, Get Away From Me!
“Preaching the gospel in this town is like plowing pavement.” Twenty years after hearing the phrase for the first time, and ten years after hearing it a second time, I heard this same phrase for a third time. In this case, it was my own voice that I heard. I said it to a friend who had just had his church blow up and disband after seemingly having achieved stability following more than fifteen years as a church plant. I used the “plowing pavement” phrase as a way of commiserating with him. I, too, had experienced some very tough situations where positive gains with a congregation had disintegrated in mere moments.
What had led to my friend needing to permanently close his church (and to my challenges as a pastor, as well)? Were the difficulties related to the “blue wave” that had overtaken the county? (Less than 44% of the electorate are said to have voted GOP at the top of the ticket in 2020.) Frederick County, Maryland is a bedroom community for both Baltimore and Washington DC. However, it also stands as a metropolitan area all its own, being the second largest city in the state of Maryland. So, it long had an identity as “not Baltimore” and “not DC”. However, the county to the south lies adjacent to the Washington DC beltway. Being so close to an abundance of high-paying government related jobs has made housing in Montgomery County rather steeply priced, leading many families to migrate north to Frederick County. The more resident transplants who made the move, the more “blue” Frederick County became. (Only 19% of the Montgomery County electorate are said to have voted GOP at the top of the ticket in 2020).
Why does this matter? I asked my pastor friend. By the end of the ensuing conversation it seemed clear to me that our hometown had “progressed” from being inoculated against recognizing its need for Jesus, to being ambivalent about Jesus, to suddenly holding animus toward Jesus. (Here’s an example of the local battle over social issues, particularly as it affects government run schools).
What’s This Mean for Me?
The spiritual war is real. No political environment (whether “conservative” or liberal”) is immune from daggers thrown by the enemy. The tactics of the devil might take different forms, but the Christian mission remains the same, and this mission is tough sledding no matter where one lives. In fact, one might say the sledding is like “plowing pavement”, in fact.
Do you live in “MAGA Country?” How many of your neighbors believe the greatest solution to society’s problems are voting Republican, rather than bowing the knee to YHWH? If you are church planting (or leading an established congregation) in a place like this, you will have to guard against personal discouragement.
Do you live in a “swing state”? How many of your neighbors believe the greatest solutions to society’s problems are education spending and social programs, rather than repentance and sanctification? If you are church planting (or leading an established congregation) in a place like this, you will have to guard against personal discouragement.
Do you live in a region that is “given over to the spirit of the age”? How many of your neighbors believe the greatest solutions to society’s problems are individual autonomy (in personal life) and dependence on secular government (in public life), rather than humble obedience to our Maker (in all of life)? If you are church planting (or leading an established congregation) in a place like this, you will have to guard against personal discouragement.
Take courage. Despite the wailings of the world, everyone around you has a deep-seated need of hearing the true gospel and has an interest in the Truth deep down. Even if they are initially filled with animosity toward the message of hope, there just might be hope for them yet. God is bigger than lazy RINO’s, bigger than functional atheists, bigger than the demonically possessed, and bigger than any of our personal efforts and accomplishments. In the end, God wins. He has already won. Hence, no matter where you are ministering – take courage by trusting the Lamb of God.