Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.
When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”
-Acts 2:36-37 (NIV)
When I was probably 14 or 15, I was in a church van on the way to some youth event or the other. We went to pass another van, and when we did we noticed that they were from another Church of Christ. We knew this because the name of the church was painted on the side of their van. Our church name, however, was not on the side of ours. We waved, but there was no way for them to know who we were or why we were waving.
That is until someone had a brilliant idea. They wrote a Bible verse on a piece of paper and held it up to the window. Just a reference, that’s all. And if you’re from Churches of Christ, you know exactly which verse.
For the rest of you, it was Acts 2:38 — “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
That’s our verse because it answers the question “what shall we do” with the very thing that we’ve always kind of felt made us different from other groups. While other Christian groups practiced baptism without repentance (infant baptism), or have converts say the sinner’s prayer without baptism, we’ve always connected repentance, baptism, the name of Christ, the forgiveness of sins, salvation, and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
In fact, when I was growing up every preacher among us had a go-to sermon based on “What Shall We Do?” or “What Must I Do to Be Saved?” (from Acts 16:30). The answer to that question, of course, tended to focus on the supplying of information that the preacher assumed his audience didn’t know — that they needed to be baptized to be certain of their salvation. It was assumed that all a person needed to come to Christ in baptism was this knowledge that we possessed.
It worked for us, too, at least to some degree. But that approach was based on a worldview that exalted knowledge, logic, and rational argument. In the early and mid-nineteenth century, when Churches of Christ became a recognizable group, this was the dominant understanding of how the world worked. The Bible was largely seen as a collection of propositions, syllogisms, and arguments that would convince the minds of rational people. Those rational people would all agree, Christian unity would be restored, a golden age would ensue, and Christ just might come again.
All people needed was the right information.
We don’t live in that world anymore. As I’ve said previously, we live in a changing world. We’ve looked at two important factors in our world that push against the kingdom of God and make it difficult for the church to be heard: distrust of biblical authority and a widespread failure of institutional loyalty. But perhaps even bigger than either of those is this: information is easily available to anyone. Information has been made available to the masses in a way unprecedented in human history. That’s a good thing. But it also means that the church is no longer the sole or even the most respected authority on spiritual matters. The religious and spiritual wisdom of the ages is now accessible to literally everyone on earth.
This is problematic if the church still thinks that the main problem human beings are dealing with is a lack of knowledge about Scripture. If we think we can simply supply the knowledge our audiences lack and they will respond with changed lives, we may be in for some disappointment.
Two things happen when knowledge is readily available to anyone. On the one hand, folks know and understand theological dispute now. They can research questions sitting in their pajamas that used to be the province of seminary students and academics.
The other thing that happens is that knowledge tends to be devalued. The more folks have it, the less it matters. When a firehose is hitting you in the face, the last thing you need is a glass of water. And yet, in many cases, the church is offering waterlogged people just another drink.
It might be helpful to point out that Peter’s response in Acts 2 is a heart response. It isn’t that his hearers were just one piece of information away from knowing everything they needed to know. It was that they had been cut to the heart. They had, in other words, been convicted by the news that they were complicit in the rejection of the One through whom God was doing his work of saving the world. It wasn’t new information that drove them to Jesus. They weren’t rationally convinced that baptism was a good idea. They came to the water because their hearts were laid open and they were left shaking, convinced of their own sin and helplessness and that somehow this risen Jesus might offer them hope.
For many decades the American church existed in an atmosphere of general acceptance in regards to the basic premise of the gospel. The world in which we lived and moved more or less believed in the idea that we needed God to save us, and that in Jesus he has done so. There were differences of opinion as to how that happened, or what it means for us, or what we should do about it. But those were matters of discussion and debate, rational dialogue, the exchange of information between believers who already accepted at heart level the premise that Jesus had died for our sins, that God had raised him, and that our hope was in him.
But that isn’t the world we live in today. There’s much more diversity of opinion. Many, perhaps most, don’t necessarily believe there’s anything fundamentally wrong with the world that we can’t fix on our own. And more information won’t convince those today who don’t believe. When we come to unbelievers today trying to convince them that they are caught up in the fallen nature of this world and need God to rescue them through Jesus, it’s one more glass of water. And their experience doesn’t necessarily reinforce our message.
Because experience rules when information is devalued. That’s the only way to tell what’s true from what isn’t: experience. Rightly or wrongly, and often wrongly, people look to their experience to evaluate truth.
So our proclamation of the gospel today must be experiential and not just informational. We need to tell people not just to sit and listen, but to come and see. Come and see the gospel that we’re preaching lived out in our community. Come see us love each other, accept each other, honor each other above ourselves. Come see us forgive when we’re sinned against, and ask for forgiveness when we’re wrong. Come see us work together to address the problems of our community and our world. Come see us worship joyfully and thankfully. Come see us offer our lives to the One who offered his to us. They need to be welcomed into our lives so that they can experience first-hand the presence of Jesus among us.
That’s an intimidating responsibility, I know. And yet we’ve always called the church the body of Christ. This just requires that we live that out practically and consistently.
This is one way that the church can come back to life: by creating communities in which the gospel can be experienced first-hand. Only then, perhaps, will they come to accept as true the gospel we proclaim.