Meds, therapy, and a mental health facility—these were the solutions I was offered.
One counselor suggested that my condition wouldn't change for the rest of my life and that I'd always need medication. As desperate as I was, I just didn't buy it. There had to be some other answer to my problem. After trying several Christian therapists, each of whom employed a different approach, no one could alter the patterned behaviors I was stuck in. After all, obsessive Bible study and street evangelism aren't your run-of-the-mill symptoms.
"God, I'm doing everything they say to do. I'm reading my Bible four or five hours a day. I'm sharing my faith with everybody I meet. I'm at church every time the doors are open. But I still don't feel like I'm growing spiritually. I'm stalled, and I can't explain why. You say the truth will set me free. I'm anything but free!"
I needed God to start all over with me, and He did. Although I was already a Christian, my belief system was poisoned with religiosity. Back then, if I were honest and vulnerable, my sales pitch would have been, "Would you like to become a Christian and be miserable like me?"
But today I'd wish my Christian experience on everyone. I've learned some radical, Scriptural truths that were right there in the Bible, that I never knew existed. That's why I wrote The Naked Gospel – to share with others the liberating truths that absolutely revolutionized my life.
I'm not the only one to hit rock bottom. Apparently, many Christians experience an initial excitement upon accepting Christ but later become disappointed, disillusioned, or even depressed. Some of America's church leaders have been trying to figure out why this epidemic exists and what can be done about it. In 2004, Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, developed the REVEAL survey to understand and measure the heart—the emotions and attitudes—of the people who attend Willow Creek. Since then, over four hundred churches of a cross section of sizes, denominations, and regions of the country have used the survey to ask their members questions similar to the ones below.
How would you answer the questions on the REVEAL survey? Let's find out! For each question below, answer with a number between 1 (lowest level) and 10 (highest level).
How would you rate your level of enthusiasm for church?
How would you rate your overall level of fulfillment in life?
How would you rate your level of satisfaction with your spiritual growth?
How would you rate your level of involvement in church-related activities?
The Willow Creek researchers thought they might find a strong relationship between time spent on church activities and spiritual growth and fulfillment. They presumed that anyone who donated their time to church must be actively growing and fulfilled. That makes sense, right?
The Naked Gospel: The Truth You May Never Hear (or Teach!) in Church
Wrong. The survey revealed that it wasn't the more active Christians who were growing and fulfilled.
The survey also unveiled a large number—approximately 25 percent of the attendees surveyed at Willow Creek—who admitted they were "stagnant" or "dissatisfied." And other churches are finding this to be true among their attendees as well.
So what's going wrong in churches today? If we spend more time in church, shouldn't we expect to grow spiritually and find fulfillment? Aren't we told that if we drink the living water that Jesus gives, we'll never thirst again? If this is true, then what's happening with so many Christians today? What's missing?
Many of our North American churches seem to have everything—culturally relevant outreach, attractive facilities, and a broad range of programs to match any and every lifestyle. Add to this the experience of dynamic speakers, professional-quality music, and inviting small groups. How could those who are most active in these churches be stagnant and dissatisfied?
Let me be the first to say that there's nothing wrong with top-quality facilities, creative programs, and a genuine sense of community. But the fundamental question is, "What message are we sharing in our community and within our walls through our programs?" I believe it's our substance—not our structure—which is leaving so many stagnant and dissatisfied. A church may have polished programs, well-trained staff, and dynamic speakers. But content is what people walk away with.
Aren't churches already delivering large quantities of content? Yes, but in some cases, it's not the quality spiritual food you can really sink your teeth into. It's not the kind that challenges you to dig deeper and deeper into God's Word until everything falls into place. It's also not the kind that makes you ecstatic just to wake up every day and live.
To illustrate this point, let's pause for a short quiz. Below are ten faith-related concepts that aren't regularly discussed in depth in churches today. Some church leaders may assume their congregations already have them figured out. Others might think these concepts aren't entertaining enough to hold people's attention. Still others may avoid them out of concern that they're just too controversial. But we cannot ignore how our congregation feels about these issues, because a person's view on each of these concepts directly affects their relationship with God, spiritual growth, and level of fulfillment in life.
So, for each of the following ten concepts, decide whether you think your core members would respond with "True" or "False."
Christians should ask God to forgive and cleanse them when they sin.
Christians struggle with sin because of their old self within.
We should wait on God even before making everyday decisions.
When we sin against God, we're out of fellowship until we repent.
Old Testament law is written on Christians' hearts so we want to obey it.
The Bible tells us that Christians can obtain many rewards in heaven.
Christians will give an account for their sins at the great white throne.
Christians should tithe at least 10 percent of their income to the church.
God gets angry with us when we repeatedly sin against him.
God looks at us as though we're righteous, even though we're really not.
Why the quiz? Well, remember the survey you took at the beginning of this chapter? It was designed to assess the reader's feelings about church, enthusiasm for life, and satisfaction with his/her spiritual growth. Inevitably, our thinking leads to feelings—so the only effective way to move toward growth and fulfillment when we're feeling dissatisfied or inexplicably stagnant is to dig deeply into God's Word to find real answers that change our thinking.
The biblical answer to each of the quiz statements is false. Yes, false.
The quiz was purposely designed to indicate and articulate some misconceptions your listeners may have, and you may not even know it. It can occur when they misinterpret spiritual content, or when they've heard sermons in their spiritual history that are just downright inaccurate. It also can happen when people, for whatever reason, begin to equate their relationship with God with some other relationship they have, such as with a parent or authority figure.
I lived through the consequences of my own misconceptions, and my recovery came through a decade of slowly learning to replace old thoughts with new ones. I don't know if there is more of a story to tell than my trial and error, suffering under error, and finally getting answers—always keeping in mind that truth is supposed to set me free.
The Naked Gospel: The Truth You May Never Hear (or Teach!) in Church
Suffice to say, I've misread the charts myself, and I have finally found safe harbor.
It may be true that more than a quarter of maturing Christians are dissatisfied with their spiritual lives, but (and I'm sure you'll agree, because God's Word confirms it) it's nearly impossible to be dissatisfied once you encounter truth in all its life-changing power. My prayer is that your congregation will reap the benefits of stripping away all of the convoluted ideas they've collected during their spiritual lives—from the truth laid bare, from the naked gospel.
Communicating this naked gospel shouldn't require a new and extrabiblical vocabulary. Just as a child knows the meaning of the "all gone" at the end of a good meal, God has simply and emphatically proclaimed to his children:
Your relationship to the law is now all gone.
Your old self is now all gone.
Your sins are now all gone.
All obstacles preventing closeness are now all gone.
It's amazing how simple and straightforward the naked gospel really is. In fact, most of my exposure to it has involved more unlearning than learning. Once we remove the clutter from a person's theological closet, the gospel can shine brightly again and becomes—as it should—a powerful, practical benefit to them on a moment-by-moment basis.
So are your listeners ready to peel away layers of religious misconception in order to discover an exhilarating reality? Is your church ready for the naked gospel?
Andrew Farley is lead teaching pastor of Ecclesia: Church Without Religion and author of The Naked Gospel: The Truth You May Never Hear in Church, which debuted as Zondervan's #1 bestseller on Amazon.com. For a limited time, you can get a FREE eBook of The Naked Gospel (authorization code "naked") and take The Naked Gospel Quiz at TheNakedGospel.com.