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Church Marketing

(18 posts)

Liberalism Redux

Tuesday··2008·08·26 · 2 Comments
As a tender youth growing up in an evangelical Lutheran denomination, I watched the mainline Lutheran churches in their slide away from Biblical Christianity. This was not a new development. Indeed, my denomination’s birth was two years before my own, when the Lutheran Free Church merged with the liberal American Lutheran Church. Belief in the inerrancy of Scripture had been jettisoned. They were liberal, I was told. I’m sure I never understood the full meaning of that at the time. At first, I only saw the consequential effects: the ordination of women as pastors, to name a big one. Eventually, I came to recognize the absence of the Gospel among them. Later still, I saw that they did actually have some remnants of the gospel, but it was a gospel that no one needed. Of what use is the promise of salvation when no one is going to hell anyway? When people are sinners because of what they do (and then, only if it is sufficiently evil), who needs redemption? This was the tail-end of the original liberal church movement, a movement that still lives but is dying a lingering death as it passionately embraces apostasy. I have just begun reading David Wells’ book The Courage to Be Protestant. He writes of a new liberal movement: The evangelical movement is now dividing into three rather distinct constituencies. Actually, it is dividing into many, many subconstituencies as well because this rather amazing empire of belief is fragmenting across the board. So my map with only three major constituencies portrays the land as it looks from afar, not up close. The important point here, though, is that two of these constituencies are new, and like large icebergs, they are separating from the others. They are, as I see it, transitional movements. They are the stepping stones away from the classical orthodoxy of the earlier evangelicals and, however unwittingly, toward a more liberalized Christianity. In due course the children of these evangelicals will become full-blown liberals, I suspect, just like those against whom the evangelical grandparents originally protested. —David Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth Lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World (Eerdmans, 2008), 2.

What does the customer want?

David Wells on the consumerism of the church marketers: If we are going to market the church and its gospel, where are we going to start? We start, of course, with our customer. What does the customer want? . . . One of the ways of making the experience of going to church more pleasant is to offer choice. . . . Having a wide array of choices is, after all, the way the world is going. It once was that a person who wanted to listen to music went to a public performance and there listened to the whole selection being played by the orchestra or band. Then came records, which made it possible, though not convenient, to select one of the songs and not listen to the others. However, it required some effort and dexterity. Then came CDs in which the selection of the songs was much easier. Finally, in came iPods, where the unwanted songs do not even appear and do not have to be selected “out.” Why can’t we have something like this in the church? That is what I, the consumer, really want. I want to be able to select what I hear and choose what I do in church. Why should worship not be customized, consumers and pastors alike are asking? This, in fact, is exactly what a number of churches are now facilitating. They are aiming to please. Instead of offering the set two-, three-, four-, or five-course meal for everyone, they are letting people choose which aspects of worship they want. Customers can choose between different themes in worship, or different activities, or different styles in different parts of the building. It is much more like a buffet than a set meal. That way people can choose which aspect of worship suits them best on that particular day. If all they want to do is pray, then let them pray in a room in the building. If they want to watch a video, let them watch a video. —David Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth Lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World (Eerdmans, 2008), 28–30. This kind of “church” has no appeal to me. I don’t want to be entertained. I don’t want to hear jokes (I can think frivolously enough on my own, thank you). I don’t want noise, and I don’t want a show. I want music that is reverent in tone and rich in theology. More, I want God’s Word preached. I want all of it—not just the happy parts; not just the exciting parts; not just the encouraging parts; not just the promises. I want the sad parts; the terrifying parts; the convicting parts; the heart-breaking parts. I want the whole counsel of God brought to bear on my mind and life. Why is that? Is it because I’m so intelligent, wise, righteous, or mature? Is it because I’m in some way better than those who flock to these houses of merchandise? Not likely. It can only be because of who I am as a new creature in Christ. These are the things that one who is in Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit desires, and loves. Because I have been born from above, I have an appetite for heavenly things, and anything less leaves me hungry. I can’t help concluding that the vast majority of those who fill the seeker-sensitive consumer-oriented “churches” are simply unregenerate. How else could they stand it?

The Courage to Be Protestant

These are just a few reviews of the book I am currently reading, The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth Lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World by David Wells. Albert Mohler: On the Other Hand, Protestant CourageTim Challies: The Courage to Be ProtestantNathan Pitchford: Book Review: The Courage to Be ProtestantRoger Overton: Interview with David Wells on The Courage to Be Protestant Part I, Part II I’ve been posting some excerpts this week, and I’ve been amazed at the difficulty of choosing highlights. It seems as if each paragraph is fairly bursting with potent insights into today’s church and culture. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that is so immediately—if you’ll forgive the cliché—relevant.

The Wrong Result of Church Marketing

David Wells lists four mistakes made by the church marketers: they have achieved the “wrong result,” made the “wrong calculation” and “wrong analogy,” and targeted the “wrong customer.” Of the “wrong result,” he writes, George Barna was one of the primary architects of this new approach to “doing” church. He was in on the ground floor three decades ago. As the church’s most assiduous poller, he undoubtedly expected by this time to be the bearer of good news once his marketing strategies were widely adopted, as they have been. It has not turned out that way. It has fallen to him to be the most important chronicler of his own failure. —David Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth Lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World (Eerdmans, 2008), 47. Wells describes how Barna is now “leaving behind this long trail of failure as if it had never happened, . . . [striking] out in a new direction with the same old panache, bravado, and undented self-assurance.” Now, according to his book Revolution (2005), it doesn’t matter that the church as an institution has failed, because, Wells says, “serious spiritual revolutionaries can simply cut themselves loose from every local church. Just walk away! And find biblical Christianity elsewhere.” What is resulting from Barna’s approach is barely recognizable as Christianity today. And that is what makes the desire of some of the leading American marketing pastors to export their experiment to the rest of the world almost incomprehensible. It certainly is an expression of unbounded chutzpah. —Ibid. Biblical Christianity without the local church? It seems that their Bible is missing parts—like the New Testament.

The Wrong Calculation of Church Marketing

The second mistake of the church marketers, according to David Wells, was making the “wrong calculation.” They have calculated that “unless [the church] makes deep, serious cultural adaptations, it will go out of business, especially with the younger generations.” The market-driven church brings up legitimate concerns about the stagnation of evangelicalism. However, this stagnation is taking place primarily in the West, in the United States and Europe. In other parts of the world—Africa, Latin America, and Asia—Christianity is growing. The face of Christianity is changing . . . It is no longer predominantly northern, European, and Anglo-saxon. It is the face of the underdeveloped world. It is predominantly from the Southern Hemisphere, young, quite uneducated, poor, and very traditional. The question Westerners need to ponder is why, despite our best efforts at cultural accommodation in America, God seems to be taking his work elsewhere. Is there a lesson lurking somewhere in this story? —David Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth Lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World (Eerdmans, 2008), 48. The motive driving evangelical pastors today, says Wells, is fear: the fear of being obsolete and irrelevant to this postmodern culture. This, of course, was the fear that haunted the older generation of Protestant liberals . . . They were overwhelmed by the need to be relevant to the culture. . . . It was the purveyors of the Enlightenment . . . with whom they sought an intellectual truce, a working compromise. From this capitulation—for that is what it was—was born a synthesis in which elements from Christian faith and elements from the humanistic world were drawn together into a single package that was Christian in name and humanistic in much of its substance. The downfall and wreckage of the mainline denominations in North America in the second half of the twentieth century, as well as their counterparts in Europe, bear eloquent testimony to the impossibility of accommodating Christ to culture in this way. This lesson, however, is entirely lost on most evangelicals today. The reason is partly that they are treading a different path and so the do not see the parallels. Theirs is not the accommodation to high culture as was the liberals’. . . . The parallels between these older liberals and today’s evangelicals is not in the culture to which they are accommodating but in the process of accommodation. Behind each is the same mindset. The difference is only in what is being accommodated. . . . Evangelical Christianity is as endangered by its postmodern dance partner as the earlier liberals were by their Enlightenment partner. —Ibid., 49. Compromise is a dangerous game. The church that has attempted to gain the whole world through compromise is losing its soul. And what if, after all that risk, the game is lost? Wells concludes that, because of the church marketers fear going out of business with the younger generations, What it has not considered carefully enough is that it might well be putting itself out of business with God. And the further irony is that the younger generations who are less impressed by whiz-bang technology, who often see through what is slick and glitzy, and who have been on the receiving end of enough marketing to nauseate them, are as likely to walk away from these oh-so-relevant churches as to walk into them. —Ibid., 50.

The Wrong Analogy of Church Marketing

The third mistake of the market-driven church is to have made the wrong analogy. David Wells writes, “The analogy du jour is between the way proficient marketers like Pepsi do their business and how the church should do its business.” Wells notes two main parallels in this analogy. First, they have observed that Christ came into the world of men as a man, entered the culture, and spoke the language of the culture. “His teaching was contextualized. Our church life, our message, should be, too.” Our context today, at least in the West, is principally one of commerce and consumption. To speak in the language of consumption, to use its speech and ways, is to speak contextually. It is to speak the language everyone understands. It is to enter the culture and mindset of twenty-first century Westerners. It is to meet them on their own terms, incarnationally, just as Jesus met the people of his own day. That is the logic. —David Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth Lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World (Eerdmans, 2008), 50. Second, the marketers have drawn a parallel between marketing and evangelism. Great effort is put into researching the market. The target audience is identified, and the product is customized to meet its demands. The parallels with evangelism are not of course exact, but a great many evangelical churches have signed off on this analogy. . . . Now, churches are likely to be led by former CEOs, advertising executives, corporate managers, few of whom have, or want, a theological education. The skills that made them successful n the business world make them successful in the church world. That, at least, is what is assumed. The gospel is a product, evangelism is about selling it, and church (pastoral) staff is there to make it happen. . . . In both forms of marketing—in the world and in the church—the result is an exchange of goods. In the one, a new sound system, a new BMW, or the latest and most alluring perfume. In the other, eternal life. So, what is wrong with this? What is wrong if it clearly works? After all, some churches that have marketed themselves and their product, the gospel, have grown rather astoundingly, though those that have failed rarely get noticed. Can we argue with success? —Ibid., 51. Wells says, yes, we can and we should, because the reason it has “worked” is that, in order to make the product attractive to the consumer, it has been stripped of truths that are fundamental and essential, but unattractive to potential buyers. Success can be had along marketing lines, but truth is not an intrinsic part of that success. There is the formula. Does that not raise a red flag? Is the gospel not about truth? The Christian message is not about anything else than the “truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:5), the “truth [as it] is in Jesus” (Eph. 4:21). Gospel truth, biblically speaking, is not a formula, not simply a relationship, not just about spirituality. It is about the triune God acting in this world redemptively, in the course of time, in the fabric of history, and bringing all of this to its climax in Christ. . . . That is where this gospel really parts company from the way in which products and services are marketed in our modernized world. These products and services are no more than products and services. They are simply there for our use. The gospel is not. The gospel calls us not to use it but to submit to the God of the universe through his Son. A methodology for success that circumvents issues of truth is one that will rapidly emancipate itself from biblical Christianity . . . —Ibid., 52. The result is a church with a gospel stripped of saving truth. This is necessarily so, because the gospel as a product has been defined by the felt needs of the consumer, rather than the actual needs identified by an omniscient God—and the two perspectives could not be more different. We suppress the truth about God, holding it down in “unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18). We are not subject to his moral law and in our fallenness are incapable of being obedient to it (Rom 8:7), so how likely is it, outside the intervention of God, through the Holy Spirit, that we will identify our needs as those arising from our rebellion against God? No, the product we will seek naturally will not be the gospel. It will be a therapy of some kind, a technique for life, perhaps a way of connecting more deeply with our own spiritual selves on our own terms, terms that require no repentance and no redemption. It will not be the gospel. The gospel cannot be a product that the church sells because there are no consumers for it. When we find consumers, we will find that what they are interested in buying, on their own terms, is not the gospel. —Ibid., 52–53. The Great Commission is not analogous to the marketing and sale of any product. “It is the benefits of believing that can be marketed, not the truth from which the benefits derive.” As a product, that truth has no takers. It is only desirable to those whom it has already set free.

There Is Obligation

David Wells writes of five realities that are lost when we lose sight of the holiness of God, or as Wells puts it, the “outside God”: There Is a Law, There Is Sin, There Is a Cross, There Is Conquest, and finally, There Is Obligation. God’s holiness calls us to a life of holiness. Yet, Wells writes, according to Barna, “even among [those who claim to be] born-again, fewer than half have any idea what holiness means.” When asked to describe what holiness is, only 7 percent of Americans rooted this in the character of God. Although 72 percent said they had made a commitment to Christ, and 71 percent said their faith was “very important” to them, and 60 percent said they were “deeply spiritual,” only 16 percent said their faith was the highest priority in their lives. Barna’s conclusion was that most American like the security of being able to call themselves “Christian,” but most also resist the biblical responsibilities that go along with that claim. For the great majority, he says, being identified as a Christian is more about image than substance. It is a cultural thing. It is all about creating a pleasing self-image. . . . where this state of affairs is most scandalous is in the churches that imagine themselves on the cutting edge of advancing Christian faith. What many of them are producing are so-called followers of Christ who are in it for their own spiritual comfort but are at sea when it comes to understanding the significance of God’s holiness for their Christian lives. And the reason for that, quite simply, is that many churches, obsessed with their own success, have made Christianity light and easy so that they can market it successfully. What are the consequences, then, of losing sight of the holiness of God, this aspect of the outside God? And, just as important, what are the consequences of seeing the holiness of God? Our situation is not that different from what pertained in much of Israel’s history. The Old Testament people of God were religious, but often their religion made little difference. This, apparently, is what we have in the [professing] born-again sector in America today. The ancient Israelites’ religion was not an impediment to idol worship or to a whole assortment of pagan practices. They had the written law and temple worship. They had the prophets. They had all they needed to please God, but so often they would not listen. They would not reckon with his holy will. They became careless, living as if he were not there . . . The problem was that, again and again, with monotonous repetition, they lost sight of the holiness of God. And they paid the painful consequences for this, again and again. Is this really so different from what we have now in the West? We have Bibles enough for every household in America a couple of times over. We have churches galore . . . All too often we don’t have what the Old Testament people didn’t have. A due and weighty sense of the greatness and holiness of God, a sense that will reach into our lives, wrench them around, lift our vision, fill our hearts, make us courageous for what is right, and over time leave its beautiful residue of Christlike character. . . . So what do we need to do? Quite simply, we need to find the outside God. —David Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth Lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World (Eerdmans, 2008), 131–133.

The Holy Spirit (4)

Friday··2008·11·14 · 1 Comments
How are we to respond to the Holy Spirit? According to Packer, how we respond to the Word he has given, the extent to which we believe and apply it, is the measure of our response to the Spirit. Do we honor the Holy Spirit by recognizing and relying on his work? Or do we slight him by ignoring it, and thereby dishonor not merely the Spirit but the Lord who sent him? In our faith: Do we acknowledge the authority of the Bible, the prophetic Old Testament and the apostolic New Testament which he inspired? Do we read and hear it with the reverence and receptiveness that are due to the Word of God? If not, we dishonor the Holy Spirit. In our life: Do we apply the authority of the Bible and live by the Bible, whatever anyone may say against it, recognizing that God’s Word cannot but be true, and that what God has said he certainly means, and he will stand behind it? If not, we dishonor the Holy Spirit, who gave us that Bible. In our witness: Do we remember that the Holy Spirit alone, by his witness, can authenticate our witness, and look to him to do so, and trust him to do so, and show the reality of our trust, as Paul did, by eschewing the gimmicks of human cleverness? If not, we dishonor the Holy Spirit. Can we doubt that the present barrenness of the church’s life is God’s judgment on us for the way in which we have dishonored the Holy Spirit? And, in that case, what hope have we of its removal till we learn it our thinking and our praying and our practice to honor the Holy Spirit? “He shall testify . . .” ”He that hath an ear let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.” —J. I. Packer, Knowing God (InterVarsity Press, 1993), 71–72.

The Poison of Pragmatism

In the early years following my conversion, Ashamed of the Gospel is among the first handful of good Christian books I read. Sadly, I picked it from the bargain bin at one of the local “Christian” book stores. That was 1993, and since then, an updated version, including new chapters, was published in 2010. My wife and I received free copies at Together for the Gospel in 2010, and again at Reformation Montana 2014 (I gave away the extra copies). Not until today did I crack open this new edition. The following excerpt is from the 2010 Preface. John MacArthur writes of the ineffectiveness (for good) of the seeker-sensitive movement in post-Soviet Russia, and the damage left behind. I’ve included a footnote (thanks, Crossway, for eschewing endnotes) that is especially relevant. When the Iron Curtain fell, however, “missionaries” from the West flooded the former Soviet Union, not so much with gospel-based resources and Bible-study tools, but with highly questionable evangelistic strategies—and with the same poisonous philosophy of church growth that had made Western evangelicalism so superficial and worldly. Russian church leaders were appalled that so many tawdry trends came into their culture from the West under the pretense of evangelism. I was offended, too—and embarrassed. I remember watching glitzy American televangelists with comically big hair peddling their health-and-wealth message and other false gospels on Russian television during my earliest trips to Moscow.2 They probably had little effect on healthy Russian churches, but they injected a seriously false gospel into the public perception, totally confusing millions. Soviet people had been indoctrinated with atheism and shielded from the truth of Scripture. They therefore had no means of distinguishing truth from falsehood in religion. So much false Christianity on television no doubt inoculated multitudes against the real gospel. I also remember seeing a parade of “student missionaries” from America putting on a variety show in a public square in Kiev, using every circus trick from jugglers to clowns and every wordless type of entertainment from mimes to interpretive dance, all claiming to communicate “the gospel”—or something spiritual-sounding—across the language barrier. I frankly could not be certain what the actual message was supposed to be. I have a fairly good grasp of the gospel as Scripture presents it, and that was not the message being pantomimed in Independence Square. Again, I was embarrassed for the church in the West. Back in America, these performances were being reported as serious evangelistic work. Judging from the numbers of supposed converts claimed, we might have expected churches in the Iron-Curtain countries to be doubling and quadrupling on a monthly basis. Russian and Ukrainian churches were indeed growing, but the evangelistic buskers and street artists from the West had nothing to do with that. Those churches grew because Russian Christians, now free to proclaim the gospel openly, preached repentance from sin and faith in Christ to their neighbors. The response was remarkable. I sat in many Russian worship services for hours at a time, hearing convert after convert publicly repent— renouncing former sins and declaring faith in Christ to the gathered church, always in standing-room-only crowds. It was the polar opposite of what American church growth gurus insisted was absolutely necessary. But it was just like watching the book of Acts unfold in real life. As a matter of fact, most of the Westerners who rushed to the former Soviet Union when Communism collapsed missed the real signs of church growth in those years because they completely ignored the churches that were already there. They started parachurch organizations, opted for pure media ministry, sponsored Punch-and-Judy shows in the public square, or tried to start new churches modeled on Western worldly styles. Most of the visible results of that sort of “evangelistic” and church-planting activity proved to be blessedly short-lived. What did last was by no means all good. Americans injected into that culture a style of worldly evangelicalism that is now gaining traction and causing confusion within the Russian-speaking churches. Those churches that had weathered decades of government harassment and public ridicule now have to contend with something much subtler but a thousand times worse: trendy methods from American evangelicals—gimmicks and novelties that diminish practically everything truly important in favor of things that appeal to people’s baser instincts. By far the most subtle and dangerous Western influences came in through church growth experts, missiologists, and professional pollsters. Unlike the televangelists and street performers, these academicians and marketers managed to gain a platform within Russian-speaking churches. They were trusted because they were writers, career missionaries, seminary professors with credentials, and pastors with huge churches. They brought loads of books and ideas, virtually all of them advocating a highly pragmatic approach to ministry that was foreign in every sense to a church that had lived under Communist persecution for the better part of a century. One struggles to imagine anything more grossly inappropriate than the fad-chasing pragmatism that was deliberately injected into Russian and eastern European churches by Westerners tinkering with theories about contextualization. But the influx of shallow evangelicalism into Russia in the early 90s was barely the tip of the iceberg. Thanks to various means of instant, inexpensive mass communications, the stultifying influence of dysfunctional American religion soon inundated the entire world. The Internet in particular suddenly opened the floodgates so that it became impossible to contain and control such nonsense. Within just a few years, evangelical gimmickry became the most visible and influential expression of Western “spirituality” worldwide. The poison of religious pragmatism is now an enormous global problem. 2 I’ve often marveled at how much American evangelicals talk about the importance of “contextualization” compared to how little care they take when real cross-cultural communication is necessary. Head scarves (babushkas) and modest clothing were emblems of submission for Christian women in the persecuted church (as was the case in Corinthian culture—cf. 1 Cor. 11:5–6). Blitzing post-Communist Russia with Western pop culture and televangelist hairdos was probably the most culturally insensitive thing Western Christians could have done to their poor and oppressed brethren just emerging from behind the Iron Curtain. —John MacArthur, Ashamed of the Gospel (Crossway, 2010), 16–18.

The Need Not Felt

There is a great difference between preaching to felt needs and preaching to actual needs. As John MacArthur writes, “people’s deepest need is to confess and overcome their sin.” No one, by nature, feels that need. Paul also gives Timothy instructions about the tone of his preaching. He uses two words that carry negative connotations and one that is positive: reprove, rebuke, and exhort (2 Tim. 4:2). All valid ministry must have a balance of positive and negative. The preacher who fails to reprove and rebuke is not fulfilling his commission. I recently listened to a radio interview with a preacher well-known for his emphasis on positive thinking. This man had stated in print that he assiduously avoids any mention of sin in his preaching because he feels people are burdened with too much guilt anyway. The interviewer asked how he could justify such a policy. The pastor replied that he had made the decision early in his ministry to focus on meeting people’s needs, not attacking their sin. But people’s deepest need is to confess and overcome their sin. So preaching that fails to confront and correct sin through the Word of God does not meet people’s need. It may make them feel good, and they may respond enthusiastically to the preacher, but that is not the same as meet­ing real needs. Reproving, rebuking, and exhorting is the same as preaching the Word, for those are the very same ministries Scripture accomplishes: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for cor­rection, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). Notice the same balance of positive and negative admonition. Reproof and correction are negative; teaching and training are positive. Although the reproofs of God’s Word are essential and must never be neglected, the positive part of instruction is, for obvious reasons, where the majority of our energies ought to be invested. The word “exhort” is para­kaleō, a word that means “encourage.” The excellent preacher confronts sin and then encourages repentant sinners to behave righteously. He is to do this “with complete patience and teaching” (4:2). In 1 Thessalonians 2:11–12, Paul talks about how, “like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God.” This often requires great patience and much instruction. But the excellent minister cannot neglect these aspects of his calling. —John MacArthur, Ashamed of the Gospel (Crossway, 2010), 47–48.
It is a great irony that people who don’t want to be told what to believe and what to do want teachers at all. But they do, just as Scripture said they would. There are thousands of supposedly evangelical churches worldwide that cannot stomach sound doctrine. They would not tolerate for two weeks strong biblical teaching that refutes their doctrinal error, confronts their sin, convicts them, and calls them to obey the truth. They don’t want to hear healthy teaching. Why? Because people in the church want to own God without giving up sinful lifestyles, and they will not endure someone telling them what God’s Word says about it. What do they want to hear? “Having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions” [2 Timothy 4:3]. Ironically, they seek out teachers. In fact, they heap to themselves teachers—but not sound ones. They choose the teachers who tell them what they want to hear. They want what tickles their ears and feeds their lusts. They want what makes them feel good about themselves. Preachers who offend them, they reject. They accumulate a mass of teachers who feed their insatiable selfish appe­tites. And the preacher who brings the message they most need to hear is the one they least like to hear. —John MacArthur, Ashamed of the Gospel (Crossway, 2010), 49.

The World Hates You

If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you. —John 15:18–19 John Calvin and I wonder why so many pastors work so hard to make themselves attractive to the world. If the world hate you. After having armed the Apostles for the battle, Christ exhorts them likewise to patience; for the Gospel cannot be published without instantly driving the world to rage. Consequently, it will never be possible for godly teachers to avoid the hatred of the world. Christ gives them early information of this, that they may not be instances of what usually happens to raw recruits, who, from wont of experience, are valiant before they have seen their enemies, but who tremble as soon as the battle is commenced. And not only does Christ forewarn his disciples, that nothing may happen to them which is new and unexpected, but likewise confirms them by his example; for it is not reasonable that Christ should be hated by the world, and that we, who represent his person, should have the world on our side, which is always like itself. —John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries Volume XVIII (Baker Books, 2009), Commentary on the Gospel according to John, 2:123.

The Root Problem

The root problem of the seeker-sensitive, or user friendly, “church” is that they ignore the universal root problem. People’s felt needs are taken more seriously than the real but unfelt human deficiencies that are consistently highlighted in Scripture. Felt needs include issues like loneliness, fear of failure, feelings of inadequacy, codependency, a poor self-image, eating disorders, depres­sion, anger, resentment, and similar inward-focused inadequacies. The real problem—the root of all these other feelings—is human depravity, an issue that is carefully skirted (and sometimes in recent years overtly denied) in the teaching of the typical user-friendly church. —John MacArthur, Ashamed of the Gospel (Crossway, 2010), 61.

Not Very User Friendly

Tales from the user-friendly church: I never hear the term “user-friendly church” without thinking of Acts 5 and Ananias and Sapphira. What happened there flies in the face of almost all contemporary church growth theory. The Jerusalem church certainly wasn’t very user-friendly. In fact, it was exactly the opposite. Luke tells us this episode inspired “great fear . . . upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things” (v. 11). The church service that day was so disturbing that none of the unchurched people “dared to associate with them.” The thought of attending such a church struck terror in their hearts, even though “the people held them in high esteem” (v. 13). The church was definitely not a place for sinners to be comfortable—it was a frightening place! —John MacArthur, Ashamed of the Gospel (Crossway, 2010), 63.

It Must Be Good

Rick Warren and his kind have built their churches audiences on a pragmatic philosophy that says whatever draws the biggest crowd is a good and godly method. This pragmatism goes back farther than the modern megachurch movement. The role model for contemporary pastors is not the prophet or the shepherd—it is the corporate executive, the politician, or worst of all, the talk-show host. The contemporary church is preoccupied with audience ratings, popularity polls, corporate image, statistical growth, financial profit, opinion surveys, demographic charts, census figures, fashion trends, celebrity status, top-ten lists, and other pragmatic issues. Gone is the church’s passion for purity and truth. No one seems to care, as long as the response is enthusiastic. Tozer noticed that pragmatism had crept into the church of his day, too. He wrote, “I say without hesitation that a part, a very large part, of the activities carried on today in evangelical circles are not only influenced by pragmatism but almost completely controlled by it.” Tozer described the danger posed to the church by even so-called “consecrated” pragmatism: The pragmatic philosophy . . . asks no embarrassing questions about the wisdom of what we are doing or even about the morality of it. It accepts our chosen ends as right and good and casts about for efficient means and ways to get them accomplished. When it discovers some­thing that works it soon finds a text to justify it, “consecrates” it to the Lord and plunges ahead. Next a magazine article is written about it, then a book, and finally the inventor is granted an honorary degree. After that any question about the scripturalness of things or even the moral validity of them is completely swept away. You cannot argue with success. The method works; ergo, it must be good. —John MacArthur, Ashamed of the Gospel (Crossway, 2010), 92.

Predestined to Dullness and Futility

Good news for preachers who labor long over the text of Scripture, preparing long expositions in order that your listeners might understand the Word and be transformed thereby: you can stop. According to Fosdick, you’re going about it all wrong. There is an easier way. Preachers who pick out texts from the Bible and then proceed to give their historic settings, their logical meaning in the context, their place in the theology of the writer, with a few practical reflec­tions appended, are grossly misusing the Bible. . . . Could any procedure be more surely predestined to dullness and futil­ity? Who seriously supposes that, as a matter of fact, one in a hundred of the congregation cares, to start with, what Moses, Isaiah, Paul, or John meant in those special verses, or came to church deeply concerned about it? Nobody who talks to the public so assumes that the vital interests of the people are located in the meaning of words spoken two thousand years ago. . . . Let them not end but start with thinking of the auditors’ vital needs, and then let the whole sermon be organized around their constructive endeavor to meet those needs. —Harry Emerson Fosdick, cited in Ashamed of the Gospel (Crossway, 2010), 94. Memo to those readers who don’t know me or this blog: I’m presenting this sarcastically. For the record, Fosdick is wrong, wrong, wrong, and furthermore, wrong.

Through the Mind

Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart, for you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God. For, “All flesh is like grass, And all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, And the flower falls off, But the word of the Lord endures forever.” And this is the word which was preached to you. —1 Peter 1:22–25 How are we to reach the lost in our modern day? The same way as always. Human nature has not changed, Jesus never changes (Hebrews 13:8), nor does his gospel (Jude 3). We are living in strange times in terms of how the church functions. We have been caught up with a fierce desire to find a way to relate to a culture that has been immunized to Christianity. We try to find new methods to reach the lost. The motivation is righteous, because we should have compassion for the lost. The danger comes when we ask the lost how they want to come into the kingdom of God, how they want to worship God, and how they want to hear God’s Word, and then tailor our method to their tastes and preferences. That is fatal. Sooner or later the church must come back to confidence in God’s way of doing God’s work, because the Bible does give us a blueprint for evangelism. It gives us a blueprint for reaching the lost and for generating spiritual growth among the people of God. The blueprint is not a matter of rocket science or Madison Avenue technology; it is a blueprint that God guarantees will not be fruitless. It is accomplished by the method of proclaiming the Word of God, which, as Peter says here, changes lives and purifies souls through the power of the Holy Spirit. God has established a church, a fellowship and communion of believers, to gather for mutual support, edification, and encouragement. The church is to be a group which, when assembled, experiences an extraordinary kind of love. The grace that comes through the preaching of the Word is confirmed by the sacraments that Christ has given to His church and strengthened by the discipline of prayer, both personal and corporate. Whatever we try to do to make the message attractive to a fallen world, we must never negotiate those fundamental, biblical methods of worship, preaching, evangelism, and spiritual growth. The constituent nature of human beings did not change with Generation X, nor did it change with the Baby Boomers. Television changes culture, and technology changes the way we do things, but the fundamental nature of our humanity remains the same as when God created Adam and Eve. The way to the heart is through the mind, so mindless Christianity never really produces purification of the soul. The purification of the soul comes through obeying the truth of the Word of God through the Spirit of God. There are no substitutes or shortcuts for that. There is no such thing as sanctification in three easy lessons. —R. C. Sproul, 1–2 Peter: Be All the More Diligent to Make Your Calling and Election Sure (Crossway, 2011), 51—52.

A Stumbling Block

For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,  And the cleverness of the clever I will set aside.” Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. —1 Corinthians 1:18—25 Paul to the “seeker-sensitive”: In recent years, many churches have based their entire ministry philosophy on the assumption that lots of unbelieving people are seeking God. These churches have refurbished their music, teaching, and public worship with the stated goal of being “seeker-sensitive.” In order to achieve that goal, church leaders rely on opinion surveys and an almost obsessive fixation with cultural trends in order to gauge the tastes and expectations of unbelievers. Then every feature of their corporate gatherings is carefully reworked, dumbed down, or purposely desanctified in order to make unbelievers feel comfortable. But people are not really seeking God if they are looking for a religious experience where the music, entertainment, and sermon topics are carefully vetted in order to appeal to popular preferences. That kind of “seeker” is just looking for a cloak of piety in a context where he or she will also get affirmation, self-gratification, and companionship with like-minded people. The gospel according to Paul points the opposite direction. Paul fully understood the felt needs and cultural expectations of his diverse audiences: “Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom” (1 Cor. 1:22). But the apostle’s response was the polar opposite of “seeker-sensitivity”: “We preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness” (v. 23). The Greeks who craved a philosophical discourse on wisdom heard a message Paul knew would sound to them like foolishness; and the Jews who demanded a sign instead got “a stumbling stone and rock of offense” (Rom. 9:33). But both groups heard exactly the same message from Paul. Here again, we see that he knew only one gospel: “I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). —John MacArthur, The Gospel according to Paul (Thomas Nelson, 2017), 38–39.


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