No thinking person likes it when a salesman beats around the bush before explaining the reason he’s talking with him. Who likes to get those dinner-time calls asking for someone by name, as if it were an old friend, that turn out to be telemarketers? Beating around the bush, bait and switch, hawking one’s wares, have always been seen as distasteful measures. But sometimes I wonder if that isn’t what happens in many of our evangelistic churches. I grew up in one of those “fastest-growing Sunday schools” in the 50s and 60s. The pragmatic methodologies were well known for building a large church. Then, in 1995, when I read and reviewed Rick Warren’s larger book, The Purpose-Driven Church,1 I responded, “what’s new here? This is the same old philosophy with newer (and I think much more harmful) methods.”
Pragmatism always breeds slowly creeping humanism into churches which eventually acts as the anodyne to compromise. I remember how, as a teenager in that large church, it angered me to hear the evangelicals criticizing the fundamentalists for their “nickels and noses” methods of building big churches. But it’s been an interesting phenomenon fifty years later to see the evangelicals, who now have the bigger churches, defending the very things they once criticized. In fact, they have gone so far beyond what the fundamentalists used to do in methodology that it pales in comparison.
Paul was plain in saying, “For we are not as many, which corrupt [lit. “hawk”] the word of God: but as of sincerity, but as of God, in the sight of God speak we in Christ” (2 Cor. 2:17). “But we have renounced the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully [lit. “adulterating”]; but by manifestation of the truth, commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 4:2). To the Thessalonian church he wrote, “For neither at any time used we flattering words, as ye know, nor a cloak [lit. “pretext”] of covetousness; God is witness” (1 Thes. 2:5). Millard Erickson, writing about the dangers of our own postmodern culture concluded, “We should therefore expect to find that we cannot simply make Christianity completely compatible with postmodernism, or completely postmodernize Christianity, without thereby distorting the Christian message to some extent.”2
I’m trying not to write just another article on methodology. I am trying to make a specific point that I have noticed by watching these changing methodologies: that perhaps we use these because we really don’t trust the effectiveness of our own faith. I don’t know anyone who has criticized new methodologies who would say that all human help or persuasion is wrong. But it seems to me that for various reasons we simply do not trust that the gospel by itself, or the local church by itself, or the Word of God by itself, would be sufficient to win anyone to Christ in our culture. So we try to draw them in and keep them by methods that actually do more to hide our faith than to propagate our faith.
It may be that we don’t really like Christianity much in its unvarnished form. Churches have always gone about dressing up the faith with sights and sounds more pleasing to the natural man. Perhaps we don’t trust that the gospel itself has enough power to draw people to Christ. And worse, perhaps we secretly need affirmation from lost people that our faith is OK. There is a reason John had to warn, “Marvel not, my brethren, if the world hate you” (1 Jn. 3:13). I have never seen such a day in which the church doesn’t like church and the brethren do not like brethren. Today’s average believer goes out of his way NOT to appear as a believer, and the average church goes out of its way NOT to appear to be a church! And (supposedly) all of this is done for the unbeliever’s benefit. It’s a good thing we have learned so much about effective evangelism since the apostles’ day! Today’s preachers make national talk shows famous, the apostles only made prisons famous.
We do not draw people to our churches with our faith
By camouflaging the Christian faith from the world (and from ourselves), we actually draw people by some means other than our faith. By so doing we may actually be presenting a path of non-belief to people of the world.
1) We design our services for people who don’t believe our faith. Why do we do this? I don’t expect the grocery store to try to appear as a car dealership because I like cars. I don’t want the fast-food place to remove its sign and let me guess which kind of fast-food I would be getting if I went inside. How do we know that people are coming to us with any gospel interest when we have hidden the gospel from them in order to get them in?
Myron Houghton, in updating Ernest Pickering’s book on Biblical Separation wrote, “Traditional Bible-believing fundamentalists believe that what a church ought to be and how it should function must not be determined by unchurched people or by the prevailing culture. The separatists who struggle for a pure church will not mix the ideas of unbelievers with the teachings of the New Testament.”3
2) We hide our purpose from people who are looking for our faith. We should ask ourselves how we would feel if we found ourselves drawn in to some venture under false pretense. How many of us have accepted a free night in a condo, or a free gift of some sort, only to find out we had to sit through a high-pressure sales pitch? Do you remember that feeling? Saying “no” was difficult because you had already accepted something for nothing. Property may be sold that way but can faith be attained that way? Testimonies of powerful conversions (Bunyan, Newton, and Spurgeon would suffice) more often show an extended period of wrestling with sin and grace until the time of acceptance.
3) We motivate people with things contrary to our faith. Most contemporary methodology is geared toward entertaining the lost soul with things it already likes. How will the Holy Spirit then bring conviction? This is where the worldling merely signs on for the ride. “This isn’t so bad,” he figures, “this is the way I’ve always thought Christianity should be.” Any conviction of sin has to come in spite of that, not because of it. Somewhere the preacher or teacher is going to have to spring the surprise on the victim that these things aren’t the way Christianity really is. “We knew you wouldn’t understand the real nature of our faith, so we dressed it up a bit.” But the real problem comes when no differentiation is made between the world and the faith and it is left to suppose that this is the real faith.
4) We remove the labels (“brands”) that identify our faith. I have always thought we would regret the day we began dropping our denominational names as well as when we began remodeling our sanctuaries into performance halls. I doubt that the average church visitor these days has any idea what kind of church he is in. What is a “Worship Center” or a “Family Life Center” or a “Gathering”? Is there any difference in their services due to what they believe? Does the preaching reflect any doctrinal distinctions among them?
Isn’t it most likely, that in almost any kind of “Christian” church, a visitor would find a thirty minute emotional concert, followed by a felt-needs message that could come from almost any motivational speaker? After years of visiting visitors that come to our church, this has been the most common testimony of what they have seen in churches they have attended. The invitation plea (if indeed one is given at all) probably has little to do with what the church actually believes. A lost person wouldn’t know the difference between a cult and a true gospel church. All truly helpful signs have been covered or removed.
We do not retain people in our churches with our faith.
Not only do we hide our faith from visitors coming in the doors, we also camouflage our faith from our own members so they won’t get bored and leave.
1) We continue to motivate people with things other than faith. It has been said many times, you win them to what you win them with. Even when we have offered them the bait, we still find it hard to make the switch. If they were really converted, would they leave if we dropped the carnal motivations and went back to relying solely on the faith for motivation? Was divine regeneration not enough to also sanctify? Will the Word and Spirit not be enough to draw the new born child of God to further growth? Evidently we don’t think so! Whole industries have been built on using everything except the faith to retain new converts. Dick Keyes, in a book called Chameleon Christianity, said, “What works in marketing may actually destroy the church and turn it into a lifestyle enclave.”4 How true that has been in our churches. The lifestyle enclave of the average youth department is proof enough!
2) We continue to reward people for activity rather than faith. We develop a Sesame Street mentality from childhood. “Entertain me and I’ll learn.” “Reward me and I’ll do the work.” In 1985, Neil Postman wrote, Amusing Ourselves to Death in which he coined the phrase “Sesame Street” generation as applied to education. “If we are to blame Sesame Street for anything,” he writes, “it is for the pretense that it is an ally of the classroom.”5 Fun ceased to be a by-product and became an end in itself and this has affected nearly every aspect of our growing years. The corollary is, of course, “Take away the fun and I’m out of here.” In our lifetime, this wave of “Entertain me and I’ll learn” has rolled through the church from the nursery to the Junior Church to the Awana circle to the youth department to the church auditorium. Does anyone find the exercise of his own faith to be fun? Would church attenders remain if we took away the secular motivations next week?
3) We continue to seek growth in numbers rather than in faith. The major standard of church growth continues to be the size of the audience. Again, my own memory goes back to my naïve teenage years when our large church had wild-West shootouts in the parking lot, famous athletes giving sports demonstrations on the platform, and Santa Clauses handing out candy on the buses. Have we grown out of such an entertainment mode? Just click on the website of any mega church and watch the videos. Or watch the so-called Christian concerts held around the country by various Christian “artists” and you will see the same pragmatic mentality. Can a mega church stop this and still maintain its numeric stature? Would we even have a mega church movement at all if all we had to offer was the gospel? If most of the people would actually leave when these things ceased in our churches, how do we know if faith is real or contrived?
And So . . . .
We might ask ourselves, what is required of the average church member (or attender) in order to remain in his/her church? I would venture to say almost nothing! It would take the most egregious sin for anyone to be removed from a church today. Rather, the tables have been so completely turned about that today the average attender requires certain things of the church which it had better offer or they will remove themselves from the church! We have so motivated people with worldly things that faith alone has little or nothing to do with why they attend a church or why they remain in a church.
Methodologies that motivate are not bad in themselves. But they become harmful when they replace the motivation that can only come from the Word of God and the Holy Spirit. Christianity is a conviction of our own sinfulness and a reception of the righteousness of Christ. If those things were allowed to happen in a human heart, no other motivation would be needed.