“This is, surely, a very sad and regrettable state for the Christian Church to be in, that like the world she should exhibit these constant changes of fashion.” (D. Martin Lloyd-Jones)
I was watching a video of the opening of a local church’s new state-of-the-art building, and it has everything you could imagine. It has the majestic store front with bright colors and beautiful décor, the modern foyer with help desks and a coffee bar, amenities for kids that parents could only dream of, and the most incredible sanctuary with all the bells and whistles a worship leader would die for. Most churches could only dream of having such a facility.
I couldn’t help but think, however, that it was like walking into an Apple Store. This church provides the complete user experience. It offers anything a consumer could ever want in a business they would desire to patron and, based on the promo, the masses rushed to get in like the mobs of Black Friday. I couldn’t help but think if this is this what “church” has become. That now it’s just another product to sell.
We are constantly bombarded with competing products, world views, religions, and much more, which is what we typically prefer, and churches aren’t unaffected. It seems that churches compete with one another, like Apple and Google, to see who can offer the most to an utterly shopaholic American populous. American culture has become a bit capricious, and this is representative even in some Christians, whom choose their home church, at times, for all the wrong reasons and, at best, live with kaleidoscopic loyalties.
This issue of loyalty cannot be overstated. Loyalty is a virtue that has been lost in America and in the Church. Americans are quick to jump ship if their expectations and “needs” aren’t being met (as are some Christians who face unexpected and unwelcome adversity), and that disloyalty is typically celebrated in our culture, a culture obsessed with self. As Americans we have been trained for decades to go wherever fits us, is most convenient for us, and invest in whatever suites us and our needs. As a result, Church is no longer a place to serve God and His people, but a place to be served. Sadly, contemporary churches don’t see this as an issue to combat but as something to embrace.
This position is not something that has only affected what churches offer, like amenities, programs, and “relevant” worship/presentation, but it has also trickled up to our preaching. Many preachers, if you would call them that, have diluted the Gospel and traded its scandal for something more comfortable. Much of what we see today is topical preaching/teaching that centers around how to make our lives better and on how we can better ourselves. It’s motivational speaking with a dab of Bible, and it’s just enough Bible to make people believe it’s Christian.
Contrariwise, the message of the Gospel, since its inception, has always been scandalous. Paul said the “word of the cross” is “folly” to the unbeliever (1 Cor. 1:18); He said it is a stumbling block to Jews and folly to the Gentiles (1 Cor. 1:23), and the New Testament, and Church history, shows us that. From Jesus through the Apostles the Jewish leaders despised the preaching of the Gospel, and throughout all of Church history the preaching of the Gospel has cost Christians everything, even their own lives. Going back to the early Church, it wasn’t the music, social justice programs, or even the miracles the Apostles were doing that the Jewish leaders had problems with. No, it wasn’t any of those things. It was the preaching of the Gospel. The Jewish leaders demanded the Apostles to stop preaching or teaching in the Name of Jesus (Acts 4:16-18; 6:8-7:58).
Unfortunately, for many pastors this scandalous Gospel, which Paul calls the “power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18), isn’t really consumer friendly material. The goal for many churches in the United States, and in the world, is the accumulation of the masses. In short, they are numbers driven. Like a good corporation, these pastors lead their congregations to produce results, and the Gospel – the Word of God – just isn’t sufficient to achieve the type of market growth many “pastors” are looking for. In fact, it might actually hurt growth, well, at least from the crowds (John 6:60-66). As a result, they destigmatize the offense of the cross and do whatever possible to castrate the God of the Bible into a mouthwatering sugar daddy that slips tastefully into their congregation’s mouth. These pastors, like the leaders of Jesus’ day, have turned the house of God into a den of robbers (Matt. 21:12-13) suitable only for the blind, deaf, and dumb, and that is what they produce. Steven J. Lawson in Famine in the Land: A Passionate call for Expository Preaching says it like this:
“Sad to say, pressure to produce bottom-line results has led many ministries to sacrifice the centrality of biblical preaching on the altar of man-centered pragmatism. A new way of ‘doing’ church is emerging. In this radical paradigm shift, exposition is being replaced with entertainment, preaching with performances, doctrine with drama, and theology with theatrics. The pulpit, once the focal point of the church, is not being overshadowed by a variety of church-growth techniques, everything from trendy worship styles to glitzy presentations and vaudeville-like pageantries. In seeking to capture the upper hand in church growth, a new wave of pastors is reinventing church and repackaging the gospel into a product to be sold to ‘consumers.’”
I know what you might be thinking, “things change,” or, “methods change but the message doesn’t.” Nothing, however, can be further from the truth. I understand there are cultural shifts and things of that nature. For example, we don’t show up to church in breeches and stockings nor should we, I get it, but there’s a fine line between being relatable and reneging our solemn duty to preach, and replacing our solemn duties with gimmicks, as if the church service was a platform for the court jester. Those types of stunts are not only sacrilege, but damning to all of that church’s adherents.
Jesus was sent to preach (Luke 4:43) and came to “bear witness to the truth” (John 18:37), the Apostles were commanded, by Jesus, to preach (Acts 10:42), Paul made it his ambition to preach (Rom. 15:20) and Christ sent him to preach (1 Cor. 1:17), Paul, in his last days, charged Timothy, his spiritual son, to preach (2 Tim. 4:1-2), and salvation comes through the preaching of the Gospel (Rom. 10:14-17).Yet, despite all this, and despite the blood that has been shed throughout the centuries for the Name of Christ and His Gospel, we have traded the pulpit for coffee tables!
There are pastors in today’s Church who take the stage nonchalantly, as if the lives of the people within the sound of their voice did not depend on the preaching of the Gospel, and, with an incredible amount of gall, stand on their platforms in reprehensible representation, without any fear or trembling, of the holy God they claim to know and love. How can anyone possibly speak for, or claim to know, a God whose word they despise and, subsequently, replace for “vaudeville-like pageantries”?
Furthermore, for any who attend such churches, shouldn’t the faithful preaching of God’s Word be the primary deciding factor for those seeking a church for themselves or their family instead of whether or not the youth room has an Xbox or the church band is pleasant to the ear? I am not saying that having a talented worship team, and things of that sort, isn’t important, and I’m not saying that it’s necessarily wrong. What I am saying is that it isn’t all-important, and yet, as previously stated, many times people pick and choose churches based on their daycare options or worship atmosphere (non-essentials) instead of their faithfulness to God and His Word (essential).
I’m not a pastor, though I have served in pastoral positions in the past, and I have never led my own church either. However, even in serving at my present church there is the temptation to trade faith in God for the systems of men. When times become tough, and our natural inclinations toward results do not meet our own demands, we begin to doubt and ask ourselves how we can fix whatever is wrong. At that point, doing things out of our own power and through men’s wisdom becomes a real temptation, and it’s a temptation that comes with satanic subtlety.
What it comes down to, frankly, is unbelief. Leaders have turned their church into a circus because they do not believe the Gospel is sufficient to save the sinner, they do not believe the Gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Rom. 1:16),” and they don’t believe God is faithful to His Word. Sadly, in these pastor’s quest for post-modern relevancy and “success”, they have consigned themselves, and their churches, to apostasy.
The question for us all, not only church leaders, but for every professing Christian is whether we truly believe God’s Word is what it claims itself to be. For example, when the LORD says, “Is not my word like fire, declares the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces? (Jer. 23:29),” do we really believe that? Do we believe that saving the lost, and its subsequent church growth, isn’t dependent on what we do but, like Jesus knew, was dependent on God alone (John 6:44, 65)? If God’s Word was sufficient to make the entire Universe and if the Word made flesh was sufficient to pay for the sins of men and bring peace with God, then isn’t the preaching of that same Word sufficient alone to save the sinner and produce a healthy and vibrant church? The Word of God itself teaches God’s faithfulness to His Word (Jer. 1: 12) and in keeping His promises (Num. 23:19). Why, then, do we not trust Him to work in the hearts of men by that same Word, as He promised?
In John 6 we see an interesting dilemma that exemplifies where church leaders often find themselves in today. In these passages, Jesus, who dealt with the same temptations we do (Heb. 4:15), had to decide whether He would cater to the crowds and keep giving them the things that kept them around or if He would be faithful to what God had called Him to do, namely, faithfully preaching the Gospel, the Word of God. Likewise, church leaders will have to ask themselves if they will faithfully preach the Gospel and risk their cash flow, buildings, programs, and more, or if they will devote themselves to all the other stuff that keeps the business running.
When the people, the crowds, who were “following” Jesus around for the miracles and food He provided heard the Word and realized it was too difficult, they scattered. The dispersion was so great that Jesus turned to the disciples and asked if they would leave Him too (John 6:67). Peter responded, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” Today Jesus asks church leaders, and Christians from all over the globe, the same question. Would we have the same response?
“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”