A study by Johnson, Hoge, and Luidens looked at the decline of mainline denominations. Their specific research on the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) led to the conclusion that “the primary reason for the decline was the laity’s lack of conviction that Jesus alone was the means of salvation.” The Antioch Effect: 8 Characteristics of Highly Effective Churches, Ken Hemphill,1994, p.151.
This tragic result of the loss of focus on the person and work of Jesus Christ is a warning to every church. If we don’t keep the main thing the main thing, we can end up losing it all together. In our case, if we don’t keep the main Person the main Person, we can end up losing Him altogether. This is why the ministry of Paul and Barnabas in Acts 14:1-7 is so refreshing. They model for us core values that guide our church and ministry. Let’s observe those important values.
The ministry must remain centered upon the gospel, v. 7. Everywhere they went “they continued to preach the good news.” The substance of their message never changed; it was always the person and work of Jesus Christ. Recently at a Moody Pastors Conference Alistair Begg asked this probing question,“Pastors, are you preaching the gospel.” He said there are churches where you could go Sunday after Sunday and never hear messages focused on Christ and His work. Now, by the gospel we do not mean “only” the plan of salvation. We mean the whole scope of Christ’s work from justification to sanctification to glorification. All of this is the gospel that believers must be rooted and grounded in. It really is all about Him.
The gospel is effective to save people, v. 1. “Paul and Barnabas . . . spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed.” It is this conviction that liberal denominations like the PCUSA have lost. The gospel did not need window dressing or entertainment to make it effective. The apostles did not play “bait and switch,” using secular means to get people’s attention and then slip the gospel in at the end. They believed the gospel was the “power of God unto salvation” and God would bless it.
The gospel should make us bold, not timid, v. 3. When opposition was stirred up by “the Jews who refused to believe, . . . Paul and Barnabas [continued] speaking boldly for the Lord.” Eventually they were run out of town because of death threats. It is easy in our day of relativism and pluralism to grow timid in our witness for Christ. In addition, so many Americans are living compromised lives that the gospel is more offensive to them than ever. But the more opposition grew, the bolder Paul and Barnabas became. Now is not the time to be uncertain or waffling in sharing Christ. In such a confused age, a convinced presentation of the truth is what people need.
The gospel will always create division, v. 4. “The people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, others with the apostles.” Note that is was religious people that caused the division. It is often the superficially religious who hate the gospel the most. A pastor once told me if I was true to the Word of God I would have people both coming to and leaving from my church. Those leaving would be offended by the truth; those coming would be rejoicing in it. I have found that prediction to be true. Now, we must not be offensive ourselves in how we share Christ. That is wrong. But we must not alter or omit portions of the message for fear people will leave. That subtly begins to make us people-pleasers, not Christ-pleasers. Remember, to stay focused “we must obey God rather than people.”