by Phil Johnson
This past week I've been thinking a lot about my first visit to Kiev, with John MacArthur, more than 20 years ago. I remember those days clearly. It was late September and early October 1991, exactly 50 years after the Nazis slaughtered 33,771 Jews at a Kiev ravine called Babi Yar—and less than two months after the collapse of the Soviet Union. People were hungry—starved—for the gospel.
Since then I have been to some 35 countries on five continents, and I've never seen any culture more eager to listen to the gospel than Ukraine (and the rest of the former Soviet Union) in 1991. The churches I visited were all crowded. A steady stream of recent converts gave their testimonies in every service I attended. Each new believer was brought to the front of the church and encouraged to “repent.” And they did—confessing their sins with heartfelt remorse, and verbally professing their newfound faith in Christ with overflowing joy and enthusiasm. It was amazing and uplifting and deeply convicting to someone like me, who had become somewhat sluggish spiritually with the comforts and refinements (and superficiality) of Western evangelicalism.
Anyway, one of my most vivid memories of Kiev in 1991 was a day we were walking across a public square in downtown Kiev with a bundle of Russian gospel tracts and Scripture booklets. Ukrainian people crowded around us, clamoring to get one. I was caught quite off guard by the suddenness and enthusiasm of people's response. The moment was unforgettable.
But we weren't the only Western Christians in the square that day. There was a group of “gospel clowns” and mimes from some American church, and we inadvertently interrupted their performance, because even the people who had been watching them suddenly ran over to get gospel literature from us as we approached the center of the square. One of the mimes glared at me. And then, breaking character, he said something to me in English. He wanted us to move on so that they could get on with the task of pantomiming the gospel.
To this day it amazes and appalls me that anyone confronted with the openness of Eastern Europeans in the wake of the Soviet collapse would think wordless “performance art” is a better medium for declaring the gospel than straightforward preaching, simple one-on-one witnessing, and plain-language gospel literature. It's like anti-contextualization—culturally insensitive, incomprehensible to the target culture, and tainted with the scent of spiritual jingoism—but I'm certain those mimes believed their method was the very epitome of innovative “relevance.”
And it occurs to me: That reflects precisely how multitudes of American evangelicals still think. They are more enthralled with their clever methodologies and ingenious “contextualizations” than they are with the gospel itself. Honestly, they seem at times to love their own flamboyance far more than they care about lost souls.
A lot of what's called ministry these days is mere spectacle. Authentic apostolic-style gospel ministry is nothing like performance art.
When evangelical megachurches gave up the pulpit for a stage; traded psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs for AC/DC tracks; hired vaudevillians instead of pastors; and turned away their ears from the truth to follow fables, they chose a path of apostasy.
The only way back starts with repentance.