In January and February I wrote a two-part article titled, “Generic Church: The New Formalism.” In it I listed a number of reasons why I am not an advocate of the “contemporary” or “progressive” church movement. I received as many positive responses to that article as I have ever received for an article. I am sure that there were an equal number of (and perhaps many more) negative responses among the readers, but I understand that often we decline giving those. I do not write to solicit either. I have made an honest attempt to understand the New Testament church as well as the contemporary church scene, and I do not believe that what is normally called “contemporary” or “progressive” is what I see in the New Testament.
It is typical of our day and age to see whatever or whoever objects as negative. Few ask why the new thing isn’t negative—the thing that is a departure from the norm. But that merely shows our bias to if not our conditioning from the age in which we live. It has become my conviction (whether to my detriment or otherwise) that the church of Jesus Christ, made up of millions of normal, biblical believers is purposely being made to feel failure and remorse for being what biblical Christians have always been, and ought to continue to be!
I also believe that what our biblical forefathers of a century ago saw coming is now upon us and that those who once said amen to their warnings are now embarrassed by their historical link to them. It is not just the terminology that has changed (from such “negative and divisive” terms as separation, fundamentalism, dispensationalism, compromise) but both the denotation and connotation of terms have been changed to suit the user and fit whatever he has already decided to do.
If this sounds more like what the postmodernists would do, you are right! Consider what a secular writer said:
“Postmodernism exercises such a fascination over the evangelical mind, I believe, because of the never-ending legacy of fundamentalism. In one sense evangelical scholars have moved away from Billy Sunday and in the direction of French poststructuralism: they cast their lot with those who question any truths rather than those who insist on the literal truth of God’s word.”1
Out of sheer embarrassment some will denounce their own heritage and walk with liberals. John Owen once wrote,
“Religion in a state of prosperity is like a colony that is long settled in a strange country. It is gradually assimilated in features, demeanor, and language to the native inhabitants, until at length every vestige of its distinctiveness has died away.”2
Why did I write the article? I am about to give a number of reasons. But if for no other reason, I wanted to give normal Christianity equal time. I wanted to defend those who are being told to give it up or become irrelevant. No such thing is necessary or true. And time will prove just the opposite.
I object to fear and intimidation being used toward the church
With all due respect, such quips as “grow or die” and “organisms always go through four-fold cycles” cannot be supported from Scripture. One may illustrate these to death from nature or man’s business dealings (and could also find contrary illustrations in those areas—Jesus willingly died so maybe churches ought to do the same), but the New Testament still is the instruction for the church. If any group of God’s people are living the way God wants and faithfully giving out the gospel, why should they think they are losers because of their numeric size?
When Barna writes, “If the Church of tomorrow is going to be healthy and growing, rather than confused and in retreat, we must question all assumptions,”3 the implications are clear. Who wants to be “confused” and “in retreat?” Brian McLaren says churches that are unprepared for the new age, “drift and descend relentlessly toward plodding, gerontocracy, nostalgia, irrelevance, arthritic inflexibility, senility, and death.”4 I think such philippics are at the least unfair if not unchristian.
I see an approval to take over churches that resist the change
I have never thought it was right for a pastor (or pastoral candidate) to tell a church one thing while working toward another. Some men will say whatever it takes to be accepted as pastor and then begin the transition once he is voted in. McLaren says that if traditional churches are surviving it is for one of two reasons:
“Either they are creating time warps where the past will be preserved so reactionary folk can flock there for a safe—temporary—old familiar haven, or they are among the learners at the top who are surfing change into the new world and transitioning old churches of yesterday into the new churches of the other side.”5
Or again, Barna advocates, “Congregations are currently our best organizational resource. As we develop the Church of the future, our best strategy will be to grow the new formations from the resources and assistance provided by these present hubs of strength.”6 In other words, older style churches are good resources for newer style churches. The only kind that will thrive any way are those who are being changed from within. It is a kind of “situational ethic” that justifies the stealth approach to changing the church.
One letter I received after I wrote the January article was from a lay person whose church was in this transition. She wrote,
“I guess the one thing I struggle with, do we stay and just put up with this nonsense, it does no good to complain, as we as well as others have done so. Many have left. It does no good to say anything to the board or the pastor, the attitude is, this is the way it is going to be, like it or lump it.”
What a sad situation for a church to be in. A few years ago our youth pastor showed me emails from a nationally organized youth pastors’ email list where youth pastors were told how to slowly change their youth departments without their pastor or church realizing what was happening.
I read a lot of postmodernism in the anti-postmodernism talk
It seems that everyone is an expert on postmodernism these days, and yet a lot of the “new generation” language sounds like the old postmodern language. Henry Blackaby writes, “But only the Holy Spirit of God can reveal to you which truth of Scripture is a word from God in a particular circumstance. Even if the circumstance is similar to yours, only God can reveal His word for your circumstance.”7 Chuck Colson asserts that since you can find five fundamental beliefs in “Catholic, Presbyterian, Baptist, Brethren, Methodist, Episcopal” denominations, therefore “in short, every Christian is a fundamentalist.”8 McLaren writes,
“In the new church, if we read just our expectations and allow theology, like science and art, to continue in an unending exploration and eternal search for the truth, goodness, and beauty of God and his relation to our universe and all it contains—then theology will be wonderfully resurrected for us . . . . Old systematic theologies are fading. They are not surviving the transition time well.”9
My point is that we spent the 1990s defining postmodernism and we are spending the 2000s practicing it. Change has become the mantra for church growth philosophy but we put no limits on what may change. Words have become as flexible as Silly Putty; we bring them out when we need them, twist them into whatever shape we desire, and put them away when we’re tired of them.
I am concerned that we really are the frog in the kettle
It is because we have this postmodern ability to say whatever we need to be saying, and yet do whatever we want to be doing, that places us in a vulnerable, even dangerous, position. We still want to be called Fundamentalists but we no longer want the ridicule that goes with it. We reduce it to five or ten or twenty fundamental beliefs, but then (unlike our forefathers) nothing else seems to matter to us or even be important enough to have a strong opinion about. We use terminology such as culture, methods, convictions, conveniences, contextualization, even postmodernism itself to fit and describe us in the best of lights. No one is ever completely wrong and no one is ever completely right. There is now room for everyone under our bigger and better tent.
We like the thesis, we like the antithesis, we like the synthesis. The only thing that would be wrong is to have a definite opinion about any of them. We like the synthesis mostly because, as long as we can see enough people to the right of us to call them right-wing extremists, and as long as we can see enough people to the left of us to call them left-wing radicals, we actually feel comfortable. But we have forgotten that this is the philosophical basis for the destruction of the fundamentals.
We have picked up on C.S. Lewis’ (and others) observation that all beliefs have some element of truth in them and some are nearer THE truth than others. But that observation has now become the basis for a new ecumenicalism (which presents the same “common denominator” element of the old ecumenicalism) which asks us to “celebrate” even a lost man’s small element of truth while avoiding pointing out his large element of sinfulness and rebellion toward God. And of course, this is all done in the name of a loving evangelism. Vance Havner said, “Paul’s word about being all things to all men and our Lord’s eating with publicans and sinners have been worked overtime to justify unwise sociability.”12
I am concerned that this “synthesis” position is a shifting sand, a floating island without an anchor to the mainland. Are we not doing things that our fundamentalist fathers warned us about? Are we not participating in some questionable things and participating with some people that our fundamental fathers would not have? But would we ever dream of cutting the umbilical cord with our fundamental fathers and just admitting we are not what they used to be? Heavens no! How would we fill our churches and schools? How would we keep the support from those avenues coming in? How would we “build churches?” How would we “win the world?”
My concern is that these things win people to ourselves, not necessarily to God. Time will certainly tell, but when time has passed and a generation has grown and gone, opportunity will be history. But in the mean time, the frog in the kettle is happy with the warm water.
And So . . .
The danger in writing the articles I have written is that perception becomes reality to a postmodern generation. Therefore, these things are perceived as the irritating negative elements. But I am appealing to those who want to be different than the homogenous mass of fundamentalists and evangelicals today. Cut across the grain! It is my opinion that you will find yourself squarely in the company of generations of past believers who have loved God more than the world. You will end up doing more for the world than anyone else.Notes: 1. Alan Wolfe, “The Opening of the Evangelical Mind,” The Atlantic Monthly, October, 2000, p. 73. 2. Quoted by William Wilberforce, Real Christianity (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1997) 99.] 3. George Barna, The Second Coming of the Church (Nashville: Word, 1998) 28. 4. Brian McLaren, The Church on the Other Side (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000) 103. 5. McLaren, 15. 6. Barna, 176. 7. Henry Blackaby & Claude King, Experiencing God (Nashville: Broadman, 1998) 139. 8. Charles Colson, The Body (Dallas: Word, 1990) 180. 9. McLaren, 66-67. 10. Francis Schaeffer, True Spirituality (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1971) 145. 11. William Kelly, The Minor Prophets (London: Hammond Trust, nd) 453. 12. Vance Havner, Threescore and Ten (Old Tappan: Revell, 1973) 107-108.