Mankind operates on a philosophical pendulum. Over time, cultures tend to gradually grow set in their ways. The inevitable result is that a group of free-thinkers will break off upon realizing that the majority has gotten stuck in the rut of their traditions. These people will then start a "movement" to remedy the situation. And though these reformations in thought are almost always a positive thing, the resulting movement is generally an overcorrection
. Thus, the pendulum swings and the paradigm shifts.
The Church is full of human beings, and is therefore not exempt from these movements and overcorrections. Let me start by saying this: I am of the opinion that over the course of Church history, the vast majority of pendulum swings and reformations have moved the Church in the right direction and aligned it more closely with its divine groom, the Christ. However, it would be extremely helpful and edifying for all like-minded believers to take a step back and look closely at our tendency toward the extremes. The paradigm shift of our day in this new millennium is quite interesting and that will be our focus moving forward.
The shift we are seeing within the American Christian Church today is multifaceted. We have seen dramatic growth in the non-denominational "community" church concept. We have seen major increases in "contemporary" or popular praise music within worship services and a decrease in the focus on classical hymns and psalms. We have seen many churches distance themselves from traditionally held doctrines or Confessions of Faith and adopt oversimplified mantras and faith statements. We have seen a booming increase in the use of multimedia and technology in worship services and church operations as a whole. We have seen the demise of small congregation churches and the rise of the mega church. All of these changes help to paint the picture of the changing landscape within the church that we are seeing in today's western world.
Are these changes good or bad? Well, neither...they are just changes. They can be good or bad in certain situations and contexts. I firmly believe they have been born from hearts seeking the face of the Lord and thirsting for righteousness. They have come about largely because of the technological revolution and culture that we live in. Christians, like everyone else, want to use technology effectively to accomplish their goals. However, I believe the driving force behind this shift in the church is a rebellion against the staunch traditions of the churches of our fathers.
Many Christians have seen the rut that our denominations seem to be stuck in and view this as a hindrance to loving and knowing Jesus — and in a way, they are absolutely correct. So the resulting action has been to break free from organized denominations, implement popular music that would never be allowed in certain worship services, abandon strict and detailed Confessions of Faith and "rules", bring in multimedia to show how helpful it can actually be, and finally to push an "open arms acceptance" attitude in an attempt to contrast this with the traditional church. None of these changes are innately negative, wrong or unbiblical. My concern is simply that the pendulum is following the tendency to swing too far and that the results of this can be damaging. With these things in mind, let us discuss three of the problems with our evangelism and witness that have arisen from these changes.
1. Neglecting the work of our faithful forefathers
Have you ever heard the saying, "Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater"? Well, this is the danger of abandoning denominational structure and the churches of our fathers. As a theologically reformed thinker and strong believer in sovereign grace and total depravity, I find myself at odds and even enmity with much of what John Wesley taught and preached. However, should I write all of his teachings and good works off as unbiblical because he wasn't a Calvinist? By no means! John Wesley was used by God to advance the Kingdom in a way that few other men who have ever walked this earth have been able to. I should learn from his example in all that he did right and also from where he erred.
Is the London Baptist Confession of Faith or the Westminster Confession of Faith perfect? No. They are attempts by fallible and finite men to understand and explain an infallible and infinite God. These men recognized the importance of taking the Holy Scriptures as a whole and interpreting them within the context of that whole. We should not be so quick to neglect and write off the work of our predecessors in the faith. Do the Southern Baptists have it all figured out? How about the Methodists? The Primitive Baptists? Perhaps the Presbyterians? Alas, they all fall short of the glory of God as we ourselves do. This has led to many divisions and outright breaks from established denominations. People are seeking a back-to-basics, Jesus-focused Church to build up. What is the problem with that? When a church distances itself from all denominations and organizations, it often drafts its own statement of faith. This usually leads to rudimentary, incomplete, and even inaccurate belief statements. It is all well and good to make the claim that your church will focus solely on loving Jesus — but how do you plan to love that which you do study and understand? The Holy Scriptures are the only infallible and inerrant Word of God. But let us take care that we do not forsake the Bible based teachings of our forefathers and brothers in Christ. Emulate their wisdom and learn from their mistakes so that one day we might leave an even stronger church for our children to continue to build on.
Hear, O sons, a father's instruction, and be attentive, that you may gain insight, for I give you good precepts; do not forsake my teaching. — Proverbs 4:1-2 (ESV)
2. Robbing the Gospel of its power
We all have a tendency to believe that we can do things better than the next guy. Everyone has visions of grandeur and ideas of how to improve upon the current state of affairs. I graduated from pharmacy school and went to work for my father who owned three pharmacies and had been practicing and growing those businesses for 30 years. Of course, at the know-it-all age of 24, I had ideas of revamping the family business. I just knew
that I could improve the business; and, in a way, I did. I brought some new and fresh concepts and a youthful vigor to parts of the business. I definitely have been a contributor. But I have slowly learned that my father's business is powerful because of the foundations he built it upon — it is much bigger than me. I have seen that the best thing that I can do is continue along the path he has laid before me. Flashy and radical changes or "improvements" do nothing but rock the steady foundations and rob or empty the spirit of the business of its power that has made it so successful.
I believe this has excellent applications to the Church. New pastors and new believers are always on fire for Christ. They have been shown the error of their own ways, called to a higher purpose, and are now ready to change the world. At this crucial point we all have a proclivity toward looking for things that we can change
. We see faults and problems within the church and we think we can spice it up, change it up, and really ignite the Church. The problem is, if we
are igniting the church, we are doing something terribly wrong. If you asked any of the Apostles who it was that was rocking the world 2000 years ago, I would venture a guess that none of them would say, "me." Yes, Peter spoke and 3,000 souls were subsequently added to number of disciples at Pentecost. Yes, Paul put pen to paper (or parchment or scrolls or whatever it was they wrote on!) and his letters have helped shape the Christian faith. But was it really them? Absolutely not, for it was Christ working through them.
God isn't calling you because he needs your skill set and your new ideas to revitalize His church. He is calling you because he loves you and he desires to have a personal relationship with you. But, he also demands obedience and submission. He is your master — He doesn't need
anything from you. He has shown that he will use the gifts of his disciples to accomplish his purpose, but those gifts will never and can never overshadow the ultimate power of the cross! If Paul didn't need words of eloquent wisdom to accomplish the great commission, then we certainly shouldn't need
or rely on rock bands, laser shows, magnificent video productions, amazing signs and feats, or anything else to share the Gospel of Christ and Him crucified. Be simple, be content, be still, and know that He is God and the power is all His.
For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. — I Corinthians 1:17
3. Emotionally manipulating the masses
Perhaps the most disturbing and dangerous aspect of the changes in the church is that many of them naturally lend themselves to emotionally-charged evangelism. Is emotion involved in evangelism and our relationship with Christ? Absolutely! Anyone who has fallen prostrate on the floor trembling in the presence of our Lord or in awe of His Word has felt that truth. Be that as it may, emotion-driven testimonies, songs, and stories followed by pleas for people to "accept" Christ into their hearts immediately and be counted as souls saved isn't really biblical.
Most everything about the modern church movement that we have outlined previously is designed to play on people's emotions. Multimedia is often brought into the worship service to play goosebump-raising, tear-jerking videos that, while they may mention God and quote scripture, largely place the focus on the human condition and emotions. Much of the contemporary Christian music of our day, while wholesome and clean, is little more than popular music with some key religious buzz words thrown into the chorus. The tempo, harmony, tone and lyrics are used to play on your heart strings and elicit an emotional response, just like most secular pop songs. Rarely will you hear popular Christian music that is in line with a lament of King David or is as powerful as the music in your old hymnal. The growth of massive "mega-churches" is undeniably due in large part to the charisma of the pastor. Charisma from the pulpit is great and absolutely can be used by God. Conversely, if the man is preaching a watered down message full of pretty words, emotional pleas, and "Jesus love and peace" yet empty of fundamental Scriptural teachings and the Law of God...Is not that the very definition of emptying the cross of its power? The cross is useless without the Law. Emotion should and will be the result of the Holy Spirit's work within your heart. The outpouring of this emotion and resulting love for Jesus and His people will inevitably affect other people. However, we must take care not to put the wagon before the horse. Emotion cannot cause saving faith — saving faith invariably begets emotion. The Word of God has plenty of power to convict and convert without our emotional spin or presentation of it. We are to be nothing more than good stewards of and vessels for the Word. Biblical accuracy is far more important than showmanship. Emotions will come, we do not have to force them on the masses.
Speaking on worship services, a friend of mine made this statement, "I want to intellectually stimulated, not emotionally manipulated." I believe that should be our desire and goal as we spread the Gospel of our Lord. Playing on people's emotions is extremely effective for evangelism...IF your idea of evangelism is getting someone to raise their hand, walk down the aisle, and tearfully "invite" Jesus into their heart WITHOUT suffering
true conviction. It is extremely effective in getting people to call themselves "Christians," but it is extremely ineffective in making true disciples! Preach the Word, preach the Word, preach the Word. Anything more is folly. We do not have to manipulate the hearts of people, for the Word of God searches the heart.
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? I the LORD search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds. — Jeremiah17:9-10 (ESV)
Overall, the evolution of the church is necessary. Paul said, "I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some." We must adapt to the times and to the world around us without being conformed to its ways. I do not hate multimedia in the church, I am inspired by many of their uses. I do not hate contemporary Christian music, my Pandora account is full of them. I do not hate mega-churches or their pastors, I watch Youtube videos of their sermons and services constantly. I do not hate non-denominational churches, I attended one regularly while in college. All of these can be good
things for the church, as long as the focus remains on the one true and holy God. It is my hope that as we continue to change and reform as a Church, we strive not to overcorrect so that we can avoid the pitfalls of paradigm shifts and the pendulum tendency.