I return briefly to the predominate theme that I often pursued on this blog, and I will allow to go dormant again.
I listen, when time allows, to sermons from different churches, different pastors. Many are quite edifying and Christ exalting. Others, I sadly find less so. I come away with some overarching observations, some quite disturbing, based not so much on any one individual sermon, but more on an overarching methodology that gives birth to some common themes.
I recently listened to a substantial portion of a sermon by Perry Noble wherein he stated repeatedly that “God is trying…” and that “God tries….” In the context of this particular sermon, this rhetoric was used to describe God’s ‘attempts’ to get peoples attention, specifically Herod’s in the case of the aforementioned sermon, so as to draw them to Himself. I appreciate and applaud the evangelical zeal found in the sermon (even though the pastor did not correctly interpret the text and read his own ideas into it), but I have extreme reservations over a pastor, or anyone for that matter, saying ‘God tries’ .
My reservations are not a case of putting too fine a point on peripheral or merely illustrative rhetoric. When we talk about our Redeemer, about God almighty, we need to be careful and accurate about the words we use out of reverence to a Holy God. We need to thoughtfully weigh our words and thoughts about God in light of Biblical revelation, especially when one is an under-shepherd charged, along with the elders in the church, with guarding and feeding the flock, the body of Christ.
What then is the problem with saying “God tries?” To try infers potential of failure. To say that God tries is to infer potential of failure in God almighty, that His will may be thwarted. If such were true, then His will could be stunted and I can have no absolute confidence in that God. That truncated God, a God who tries, (and apparently failed in Herod’s case in the context of the sermon) is not the sovereign God of Biblical revelation.
Again, I make specific reference to a particular sermon, but I have heard this same rhetoric, this – I hope unintended – reference to a limited God, on other occasions and by various individuals. Where does this conceit come from, this idea that God is somehow limited by our choices? It goes back to a humanistic theology, a strain of Christianity that permeates much of the landscape of American ecclesiology. Beyond the errant inferred limitations placed on God, I find sometimes a subtle redefinition of the Gospel. Before I continue, I want to make something perfectly clear. I am not calling into question motivations or authenticity of faith of any particular personality. I am not going to bash any particular individual. However, I will not shy away from bringing the hammer down on what I strongly believe is theologically dangerous methodology.
What of this subtle distortion of the Gospel I mentioned? It is a distortion that comes on the heels of a confusion between felt needs and true spiritual need. It is a blurring of two aspects, the simple proclamation of the faith delivered by the apostles, repent and believe in Christ for the forgiveness of sin and the perceived benefits of salvation which is the meeting of the felt need for significance, the felt need for purpose, the felt need for happiness. I could go on, but I think the point is clear that there are many felt needs we all would want to write in on the sign-up sheet for salvation. The danger in pandering to felt needs is this: our felt needs are not necessarily reflective of our true need before a holy and righteous God. We may, based upon certain evangelical exhortations, approach God and request transformation so that our felt needs for self-esteem, security, and significance are met, for example, but quite miss the real need for forgiveness of sin. So many evangelical calls offer forgiveness along with the thinly veiled and inferred promise that God will fix all your problems and meet all the felt needs of an unregenerate heart, but often what is missing is a clearly defined call to repentance.
What also I find at times offered is a devalued grace, a devalued Gospel. A friend told me of an evangelical outreach to which he was invited to participate. This outreach was aimed at sharing the Gospel with disadvantaged kids. It involved taking these kids hunting and then sharing the Gospel with them afterwords. I appreciate and applaud the hearts desire to share the Gospel. However, one of the things these kids were told was that Christianity was the easiest club in the world to join. Further, I have heard on numerous occasions that I need to try Jesus because He is the best deal going . I have heard Christ offered as a sixty day challenge. The lost, the unregenerate, are apparently invited to try this Gospel thing out, kick the tires and take it around the block a few times. If it doesn’t work for you, you can drop it off where you found it. The Gospel has been reduced to a product that is marketed to consumers. I have read time and time again people in ministry, church planters and pastors, affirm that the church has the best product in the world, but we just are not marketing it as effectively as Disney markets their product. Quite frankly and without regard to the good intent of those who engage it, that methodology, that reduction of the Gospel to a product to be marketed, to a pill freely dispensed, makes me want to vomit. What is missing from these bold, creative evangelical marketing ploys and vision casting is a robust theology of the Cross. The cost of the Cross is rarely given it’s due. Showing clips from The Passion of the Christ or Braveheart from huge screens suspended over an enthralled audience is not a replacement for faithfully proclaiming the Gospel of repent and believe. What kind of Gospel are people being drawn to when the church feels it needs to compete with Hollywood to make the Cross attractive? The Cross is not, nor has ever been, a pill easy to swallow. But you know what, God in His mercy and grace, and in spite of well-intentioned, but often confused methodologies, will draw the lost, the unregenerate to Himself and redeem them by His blood that all glory, all honor, and all praise be to Him. Christ will build His church.
This video was pointed out to me by a friend. Pay particular attention to 3:00 to 3:40.
I saw a sign in someones yard today that declared: “Elect Jesus As Your Lord!” Now, I do not in any way shape or form infer anything ill about the character of the person who displayed this sign in their yard. I know nothing about the family that lives in the house that sits behind this sign, nor do I infer that nothing ‘good’ ever comes from such faddish displays of faith.
However, does not this sign, albeit without intention, portray a Jesus that seems a bit weak and needy? Is He awaiting a majority vote before He acts? Is the mighty Lion of Judah, is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords restrained by some political process? Is He not the absolute Lord of salvation, of the created order; is He not a mighty Redeemer? He elected me that all glory should go to Him; I do not elect Him that any glory should go to me.
I think of a sermon I listened to a number of months ago at a moderately sized community church wherein the well-intentioned pastor, after having two members of the church ride their large, loud motorcycles through the poorly ventilated church to park them in front of the stage to make some point, perfumed by carbon monoxide, about God’s timing, declared that Jesus is a ‘gentleman’ who would never force His will on anyone. Is that a biblical understanding of the sovereignty and power of Jesus?
I saw a tee shirt for sale at a large book retailer a few weeks ago. The front of the shirt was a ripoff of the Staples Easy Button. “Jesus” replaced the “Easy” on the button. Wasn’t easy for Jesus.
- Matthew 7:22-23 (ESV)
On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
What does it mean to be known by the Messiah? How is one known by Jesus that one may not one day be faced with the unmitigated horror of being told by the Messiah, after operating under the false assumption that one had a relationship with Him, to depart from His presence into the outer darkness?
Somewhat tangential to the aforementioned question, does the 21st century American church, with admirable intentions, sometimes inadvertently present Him as a means to an end, as a freely dispensed drug that gives eternal life to those who take it? Does the church sometimes redefine itself to make Jesus and the His church more marketable, more attractive, to an increasingly competitive and post-Christian market? As an unforeseen side-effect of well-intentioned methodologies, do some manifestations of the contemporary America church sometimes seem more obsessed with the bride than the Bridegroom as they engage their bold, creative, and innovative evangelical visions, marketing schemes and strategies?
Too, why and when did those who have not repented and believed in Christ, who have not been presented with the Good News, become redefined as the ‘unchurched’ demographic? Returning to the opening query, what does it really mean to have a ‘relationship with Jesus?’ Has this phrase became just another evangelical cliché? Do we not all, ‘churched’ or not, have a relationship with Him of one sort or another? When did the often-heard invitation for the ‘unchurched’ to have a ‘relationship with Jesus’ replace the biblical call to ‘repent and believe’ in Christ?’
We are called by Christ in the New Testament to examine ourselves. What fruit are we bearing in our lives as we follow Christ? From the mouth comes the over-flow of the heart. What do we think about and what do we talk about most often and most excitedly? What, or Who, are we obsessed with? Hobbies? Sports? Work? The worries of the increasingly difficult economics of making ends meet? Or are we, over time, growing in our love for the Bridegroom? Is He valued and exalted above all, even our families? Or are we noisy gongs and clashing cymbals? We must ask ourselves, do we love the gift more than the Giver? How will our love for Christ manifest itself? Maybe how we answer these last few questions relates to the opening question.
- 1 Corinthians 13 (ESV)
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
- 2 Peter 1:3-11 (ESV)
His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Found this post over at Ben Witherington’s blog. Following are a few quick thoughts on the post:
“It has been said that too many Americans have been innoculated with a slight case of Christianity that is preventing them from getting the real thing. Perhaps this has something to do with how much of God people really want. Here is a quote from Wilbur Rees to make you think:
- “I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please – not enough to
explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of
warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine. I don’t want enough of him to make
me love a foreigner or pick beets with a migrant worker. I want ecstasy,
not transformation; I want the warmth of a womb, not a new birth. I want
a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack. I’d like to buy $3 worth of God,
I especially like the line ‘I want the warmth of the womb, not a new birth’. This, I am afraid, is exactly what people want out of their worship and church experiences. Not something that demands them to pick up a cross, make major sacrifices and follow Jesus. Rather, they want something that makes them comfortable with who they already are and how they already are. They want acceptance as they are, not repentance so they can be who they ought to be. Think on these things.”
I find myself thinking quite a bit about the phenomena of nominalism in the church recently, and it is quite a sad and sobering subject; I must confess that I have, over the years, been quite guilty of engaging nominalism in varying degrees. It is also heartbreaking to ponder and observe the ease of entering the on-ramp to the broad gate. Mr. Witherington’s thoughts on being inoculated with a slight case of Christianity resonates with thoughts of mine from a previous post on evangelical methods:
“It as if Jesus is a prescription being dispensed a sick world. It is as if I have a fatal, systemic infection and am given a wonder drug, an antibiotic, and I am being told that all I have to do is take this drug and I will be healed. I may not develop an all encompassing love for this drug; I may love not being sick more than I love the drug. I may become more enamored with and focused on the one who gave me this drug than the drug itself.”
Perhaps the often errant evangelical methods and human-centricity of much of contemporary American Christianity contributes to the volume of traffic on the easy path that terminates with a wide gate. It is an ancient and tragically well-traveled road, though. We have been warned.
- Matthew 7:13 (ESV)
“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.”
- Matthew 7:22-23 (ESV)
On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
- Mark 4:1-20 (ESV)
Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
Forever secure in His loving grip, I persist.
A number of posts ago, I indicated that I would, at some point in the future, post some thoughts on altar calls in specific, on contemporary evangelical methodology in general. Now is a good time as any to begin.
I find it interesting how relatively late in church history that it became, for the most part, the de facto contemporary evangelical methodology. Here, a little knowledge of church history illuminates. As far as I have been able to determine, and I am not a scholar, seminarian, or student of church history, the altar call methodology was not widely instituted until the early and mid eighteen-hundreds. Charles Finney, with his ‘new measures’ is most directly responsible for contemporary evangelical methodology. It is somehow ironic that his legacy and influence reverberates ever so strongly and much of the laity has never heard of him.
I think an abbreviated history of Finney and his new measures is perhaps in order. Finney, a lawyer who came to faith on October 10th in the 1821 after years of unbelief, became a Presbyterian minister. Part of the process of becoming ordained involved professing adherence to the Westminster Confession of Faith. He later admitted that he was almost totally ignorant of what the document taught. [Charles Finney, The Memoirs of Charles Finney: The Complete Restored Text (Grand Rapids: Academie, 1989), 53-54]
Finney also rejects Calvinism, perhaps as a response to what may be called an errant strain of Calvinism called hyper-Calvinism that he had been exposed to and perhaps by which, ironically, he was led to a profession of faith in Christ. It, too, must be understood that the great revivals, the Great Awakening, had been through preachers and theologians such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, staunchly Calvinists in their understanding of grace. Finney also entertained ideas errant and dangerous. Essentially, from what I gather, he denied the scope of the Fall and taught what seems to be a justification by works. He appears to constantly downplay God’s sovereign role in salvation. His theology turns the eyes of the heart from God to a focus on a seemingly ‘not-so-fallen’ humanity. Finney essentially denied the atoning work of Christ on the cross. Therein we find egregious harm and error, the seeds of which seem to be in full bloom in this age and time. While evangelicals would reject Finney’s errant theology if they were aware of it, they heartily embrace his evangelical methodology.
What Finney popularized in his aforementioned ‘new measures’ was the precursor and close cousin to the altar call, the ‘anxious bench’ and ‘mourner’s bench’. What Finney taught was that revival could be ‘worked up’ through psychological and emotional inducements. Revival did not need to be altogether prayed down as much as worked up.
Going back to altar calls, which are just one expression of an overarching methodology of psychological and emotional manipulation, those who have been in conservative evangelical churches, be they mega or small, be they Baptist or charismatic, be they traditional or contemporary, have often been exposed to calls to come forward to the altar. Many have responded to altar calls, sometimes more than once. Some have come to a redeeming faith in Christ through altar calls. Often, those who give altar calls present the Gospel message completely and without compromise.
What many altar calls and variants thereof do, however, is often introduce non-biblical language, non-biblical conditions, and non-biblical calls to salvation. What some altar calls do, also, is offer an easy grace, a salvation seemingly without cost, without an inferred need for repentance. What altar calls may sometimes do is give those who respond a false sense of security because they were actually never presented with the Gospel and therefor never actually came into a redeeming relationship with Christ. Also, many studies and statistics have shown that only a very small percentage, mostly in the single digits, of those who respond to altar calls during crusades and revivals actually remain actively involved in the faith for more than a year. They simply seem to drop out of sight and fall back into their ‘pre-decision’ lifestyles. We must remember that the biblical call to evangelize, the Great Commission, is to make disciples, not just converts, real or otherwise.
Following are a few examples of misleading evangelical methods. Many calls to the altar proclaim that Jesus has a wonderful plan for your life if one would just respond to the call, raise your hand, or say a prayer. Well, Jesus may not have a wonderful plan for your life as many would count wonderful. Such is never promised in the canon of Scripture. His plan for you may be quite difficult and not without cost. The Messiah’s calls to discipleship were not easy calls. What would the martyr Steven say about Christ offering you ‘your best life now?’ Would such an inducement work in the Sudan? Would such and inducement work in China? We are not called to press an ‘easy button’ for redemption. Sadly, I have actually seen, on more than one occasion and at more than one location Jesus being referred to as the ‘easy button’ to salvation.
I have heard other calls to salvation go thusly: “If you cannot remember the moment you were saved, now is the time to ‘nail it down.’” Such is not a biblical call to salvation. The only times that I recall the New Testament calling one’s salvation into question is the lack of observable growth, of spiritual fruit, over the long term in ones life. What is introduced in the context of the call to ‘nail it down’ is a false, unbiblical condition for salvation. To emotionally manipulate someone into making a decision based on doubts about the veracity of or inability to recall an earlier decision bought about by emotional manipulation is both ironic and unbiblical. If you have repented of sin and trust in the grace and redeeming work of Christ alone for salvation, you have it ‘nailed down’ and will persist in His grip whether or not you remember the point in time you first came to trust in Christ.
I have heard other calls to salvation infer that if one does not respond to this particular call, you may never get another chance to ‘decide’ for Christ, that this particular ‘move of God’ must be acted upon now for you may never get another opportunity. What is inferred in this manipulative scheme is that there is a time stamp on the grace of God. If you do not come forward now or raise your hand or say a prayer, you may never be wooed by the Holy Spirit again. At best, this is unbiblical. The call to grace and redemption through Christ only expires when one departs this tent of flesh.
I could go on with more examples of unbiblical and emotionally manipulative methods that I have personally witnessed, but my point is clear. Too, I am absolutely not inferring any ill will is intended by those who use such methods. I am not intending to cast doubt on their love and commitment to Christ. The use of such methods is more born out of perhaps ignorance and perhaps out of a denominational tradition. Without regard to intent, what is happening, though, is that the Gospel is all too often presented in an often unbiblical way, much like the hard pitch of a used car salesman. Do people sometimes come to redemption, to a saving knowledge of Christ through such methods? Sometimes, perhaps more than one would expect, this methodology produces fruit. God can and does sometimes use the one drop of truth in an ocean of error. Sometimes one may run around holding a metal rod during a thunder storm and not get struck by lightening. Does this mean that doing such is a good idea?
More recently, perhaps in the last couple of decades, we have seen the nature of the church being inverted and redefined in some quarters of western Christendom. Rather than going out into the world to make disciples, Christ’s call to the Great Commission and the nature and constituency of the church had been turned upside down. Now, congregates are now often being instructed to bring the world into a recalibrated church so that a charismatic (not using the word in the theological and Pentecostal sense, but referring to a commanding personality) pastor can present what is hopefully a faithful call to the Gospel. Bring in your ‘unchurched’ friends and family and we’ll get them saved is the inferred contract. (Note with absolute confidence that I am definitely not saying that is wrong to invite the unsaved to church.) Inducements are introduced to the church to make it more attractive to the ‘unchurched.’ Topical and often entertaining sermons that cater to one’s felt needs replaces sound expository preaching. Give away everything from IPods to motorcycles during the service to draw people through the doors. There is actually a church that gave away an Orange County Choppers custom motorcycle to induce people to come to church. The question is this: Is the clarion call of the word of God, faithfully proclaimed, not enough? Did the apostle Paul deem it necessary to give away camels and tents to bait people to the Gospel? The apostles fished with nets.
Why is it that many advisers to church planters (and sometimes the pastors, themselves) appear, as evidenced by their websites, to be more instructors on marketing and product placement than proclaimers of the Gospel? What has happened with the best of intentions is that more and more churches, modeled more on secular business and leadership practices than on biblical mandates are becoming more and more consumer driven. If a service conflicts with the Super Bowl, then the church will reschedule so that attendance does not decline. Increasing numbers of churches are opening up coffee shops in the church to draw in the crowds. Churches put up fountains that dispense chocolate and give massages to moms on Mothers Day to draw people into church. What ends up being engaged, again with the best of intentions, is a ‘bait and switch’ evangelical methodology that plays to our self-indulgence. Can such a church survive without creative and witty video introductions to topical sermons that constantly draw on popular culture references? Can it survive with a less than professional band? Can it present a message of hope and reconciliation with God through Christ without framing everything between a pastor’s personal and often humorous anecdotes? Does such a church depend too much on human creativity and effort and perhaps not enough on the power of His word? When all that is peripheral is stripped away, what is such a church left with? I remember running across this quote from another blog: “What you draw people with is what you draw them to.” How do I reconcile Christ’s call to die to self in the face of chocolate fountains and easy buttons in church?
Perhaps I am way off base, but much of contemporary evangelical and ecclesiastical methodology, in all its applaudable zeal, seems at times, unintentionally, to treat Jesus as a means to an end rather than an altogether and absolutely wonderful end in and of Himself. It as if Jesus is a prescription being dispensed a sick world. It is as if I have a fatal, systemic infection and am given a wonder drug, an antibiotic, and I am being told that all I have to do is take this drug and I will be healed. I may not develop an all encompassing love for this drug; I may love not being sick more than I love the drug. I may become more enamored with and focused on the one who gave me this drug than the drug itself.
I have stated, perhaps ad nausea, what I believe to be wrong with much of American evangelical methodology. What then do I propose is correct? I believe it is this: In the times the Gospel is preached in the New Testament where we have details of what is said, there is not one single example where anyone is told that the circumstances of their life will necessarily improve when they become disciples of Christ. What is recorded, though, is an absolute focus on and exaltation of Christ. We see the apostles going out into the world proving Christ from scripture. We see the condemnation of sin, the call to repentance, and proclamation of the absolute falleness of humanity. Solely proclaimed is faith in the atoning work of grace through Christ to restore rebellious humanity to the Savior. Such leads to a selfless life focused on Christ.
Again, as stated in a previous post, we must remember that Christ, incomprehensibly loved by the Father and Holy Spirit and sharing an incomprehensible unity within their Trinitarian relationship, condescended to take on human flesh and then looked down both barrels of Father God’s holy and incomprehensible and righteous fury over our sin; He faced Father God’s white-hot anger that should have been directed at His redeemed ones. He, the all mighty Creator of all, was beaten and scourged by the created. He was nailed to that horrific Roman torture and death machine, the cross, naked and shamed. He then gloriously defeated death by physically rising from the tomb. Why did He do this? He did it that we, His flock, may be, through His grace alone, clothed in His righteousness, that He may be glorified forever.
Chapter One: Into the Seeker Sensitive Wilderness
I have experienced, over the years and to varying degree, almost the whole gamut of American ecclesiology, of American church culture. I have attended a liberal, main-line Protestant church and have visited, on a few occasions, Baptist, Methodist, and Pentecostal churches. I have also spent much time in a seeker-sensitive mega-church. Within all these churches, one can find Christians being progressively conformed to the image of our Savior, Christ Jesus.
Also, within our unity as Christians, I find doctrinal disagreements, most of which are quite peripheral and hardly worthy of note. I sometimes find profound variation in doctrine, especially within the liberal currents of ecclesiology.
However, of all the aforementioned experiences, I have come to see that the seeker-sensitive church of the 21st century, while outwardly proclaiming orthodoxy and acting within the best of intentions, is a potentially dangerous and subtly heterodox perversion of biblical ecclesiology. While liberal churches often deny the basic doctrines of Christianity, they are, for the most part, forthright in their proclamations, and they are consistent with, and able to clearly articulate, their theology. Those who align themselves with liberal theology also comprise a very small percentage of overall church attendance, and, with no insult intended, have increasingly little influence over the affairs of culture. I also find an ironic commonality between the liberal branch of contemporary Christianity and the seeker-sensitive movement. Both are quite human-centric. Therein one finds egregious error. Read the rest of this entry