Generic Church: The New Formalism (part 2)

by Rick Shrader

Note:  The first half of this article is in the January 2003 issue of Aletheia.  Although I give space to expand the introduction, the main points are a continuation of the first three points which appear in the first issue.

I have proposed that the description “contemporary church” in the sense of “new,” “fresh” or “cutting edge” would be a misnomer.  The churches who use this style are no longer new, but are rather generic.  They all look the same, do the same and even say the same things as every other “contemporary” church.  Whatever “new” was, has now become common and tedious. Rather than being unique in form or doctrine, they have become like the old Mother Hubbard dresses:  covering everything and touching nothing!

Contemporary churches, therefore, have also become a new formalism.  This is what is expected if a church is to be accepted as viable or effective.  We are already seeing that the trappings of the generic churches (the same stage, music, lights, sounds, casualness, storytelling, etc) are the images used by every other generic church.  And just as in the cathedrals of old, the images will quickly turn to icons, and the icons will eventually become idols.  The brazen serpent will inevitably become Nehushtan.

We have been working on this mindset for a while.  This is what Neil Postman, in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves To Death, called the “Sesame Street” mentality.1 What began in 1969 to be teaching disguised as entertainment, quickly became entertainment disguised as teaching with the attitude, “entertain me and I’ll learn.”  Of course, the deal was made, but the promise was never kept.

When we spend the life-time of a child in church teaching him to expect entertainment and reward in order to become spiritual, we should not be surprised when, as an adult, he expects the same thing.  We preach against the world’s method of “dumbing down” the maturity process but continue to use it slavishly in our churches.  Sadly our youth departments, rather than preparing for adulthood, raise the “entertain me and I’ll learn” mentality to a fever pitch.  Again, the bargain is struck, but the promise is seldom kept—a fact that even our Bible colleges are having to admit.

In a 2002 book, compiled by well-known men from Reformed circles, R.C. Sproul wrote,

It is interesting to me that we have a crisis in the church in our day.  We’ve seen a revolution in worship which, in many ways, is being driven by an attempt to be winsome to the people in our age.  As our society becomes more and more secular, there is an attempt to rethink church, to remove all of the artifacts of “churchiness”: get rid of pulpits, get rid of pews, turn the church building into what looks like a concert hall, and turn worship into an outreach ministry that comes across as exciting, interesting, and “entertaining.”  It’s almost like we’re saying to our congregations today, “Let me entertain you.”  The number one hymn today may be, “There’s no business like show business.”2

Many would see the contemporary church as a revival. I don’t believe so.  My spirit is grieved by the tenor of the services and my reading of the Scripture contradicts what I see and feel there.  The reasons I have been listing are my conclusions, but they are resonating with many who also feel spiritually empty with the contemporary church movement.

It is popular, not theological

I do not think that even contemporary churches admit that they ignore their own doctrine, except some circles of Charismatics who openly admit so.3 I do think, however, that in order to have a popular, growing church many have put the application of their own theological beliefs in the background and have placed the popular things, even when contradictory to their doctrine, in the foreground or on the platform.

I read, for example, that the New Testament believers met on Sunday to worship because it is the day of our Lord’s resurrection (Acts 20:7, 1 Cor 16:2).  Why do some offer Saturday night as an alternative to Sunday worship?  (not in addition to, as Wednesday night) I read that women are not to have authority over men in the worship service (1 Cor 14:34, 1 Tim 2:12).  Why do we often find women leading men in our churches?  My theology tells me that I am not to be led around by so-called visions and revelations, but by the Word of God (1 Cor 13:8; Jude 3).  Why do I always hear of God having shown or told someone (in a miraculous way!) something that now becomes directive for the church?  (twice now I have been in a contemporary service led by a follower of Jack Hayford who literally told of directing his ministry by visions from God). We could add to this list the neglect of things like church membership; church discipline; gospel invitations; and more.

Paul told Timothy, Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee (1 Tim 4:16).  Departing from our doctrine and its application is not a way to save those that hear us.  Paul was constantly admonishing his readers to pay attention to “order” (Col 2:5; Tit 1:5; 1Cor 14:40) as well as to “doctrine” (Rom 16:17; Tit 1:9).

Being careful to follow our doctrine in both faith and practice is not a detriment to the gospel but a blessing.  Charles Ryrie wrote, “All doctrine is practical, and all practice must be based on sound doctrine.  Doctrine that is not practical is not healthy doctrine, and practice that is not doctrinal is not rightly based.”4 Spurgeon wrote, “At the back of doctrinal falsehood comes a natural decline of spiritual life, evidenced by a taste for questionable amusements, and a weariness of devotional meetings.”5 I think that the present day disdain for doctrinal specifics, and the quest for entertainment, is not a help, but a detriment to the gospel.

It is eclectic, not separatistic

Even the mention of separation as a biblical doctrine and principle immediately raises eyebrows and causes antipathy.  Jerry Solomon, of Dallas Bible Church writes, “Should we become separatists? No, the answer to the challenge of entertainment is not to become secluded in ‘holy huddles’ of legalism and cultural isolation.”6 Notwithstanding the innuendoes and caricatures of a biblical doctrine, Solomon and many others today either do not understand this doctrine or are not of the same heart as the Church of Jesus Christ throughout history.  Charles Ryrie has written, “Separation from the world, or nonconformity, is being unfashionable, and this is a necessary characteristic of the dedicated life.”7 J.I. Packer says, “we have become licentious and self-indulgent, unable to see that the summons to separation and cross-bearing has anything to say to us at all.”8 Spurgeon wrote, “Fellowship with known and vital error is participation in sin.”9 Even Athanasius replied, “The whole world is against you? Then I am against the whole world!”10

Someone who accepts everything cannot claim to be tolerant.  His conscience is not able to be bothered.  Only one who disagrees can be tolerant of that with which he disagrees.  What the world has never been able to understand is that believers are necessarily tolerant of living on this globe where we have no choice, but only tolerant to a certain limit of dwelling in the presence of sin where we do have a choice.  And when we decide to separate ourselves from such situations, we are being neither hateful nor harmful, but rather a) obedient to God’s command, b) protective of our hearts and minds and those of our family and people and c) taking the high road of non-violence rather than remaining and trying to pull tares from wheat, which is impossible in the age of grace.

It is interesting that contemporary Christians who disdain separation from the world will defend their methodologies by crying, “I don’t have to show you chapter and verse for doing it,” and yet when confronted with their worldliness will cry, “show me a chapter and verse that prohibits it.”  The real problem here is with the heart.

In the sixteenth century, Jean Baptiste Massillon wrote a rebuke to the ministers of his day:

That taste which leads us to seek the world is already but a secret desire to imitate it; we are already disposed to live like the world when we cannot refrain from it; it is conformity of inclinations which generally forms intimacies; and people do not connect themselves with the world, but because they have the same taste with the world.1

It is social, not prophetic

In the older days we might have been able to say that we are acting more like postmillennialists than premillennialists.  Our minds are more on the social improvement of this world than on the imminent return of Christ.  James said, Be patient; stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh (Jas 5:8).  Peter said, But the end of all things is at hand: be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer (1 Pet 4:7).  John said, And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure (1 John 3:3).

It is not that a premillennialist is unconcerned about his neighbor’s needs, or that he refuses to help him.  But he will not allow his neighbor to assume that the gospel is first for the physical and only then for the spiritual.  Saving faith is first for the soul, whether the body finds comfort in this life or not.  There are more social programs for the body going on in some churches today than spiritual food for the soul.  Even our government seeks to reward the churches for what it sees as its primary task—taking care of the physical needs of a community.

J. Gresham Machen (a Presbyterian!) in 1923 connected the social gospel with the ineffectiveness of Liberalism:

Christianity will combat Bolshevism; but if it is accepted in order to combat Bolshevism, it is not Christianity; Christianity will produce a unified nation; but if it is accepted in order to produce a unified nation, it is not Christianity.  Christianity will produce a healthy community; but if it is accepted in order to produce a healthy community, it is not Christianity.  Our Lord said, ‘Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.’ But if you seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness in order that all those things may be added unto you, you will miss both those things and the Kingdom of God as well.12

If Machen is right, we may be building more walls than bridges to the gospel by luring people into our churches with social incentives.

And so . . . .

Is it all criticism and no constructive alternative?  It is both.  Let me invite you to read my February ‘02 article “A Case For The Traditional Church.”  But let me also make three closing comments:

1) Even if we had no alternative, it doesn’t make these criticisms wrong!  Only politicians discard criticisms for lack of alternatives.  2) It is the contemporary that has left the traditional, not vice versa.  The burden of proof is on them to show that the new is better, a proposition for which I see little proof.  3) Death is better than compromise and worldliness.  That is the spirit of the church through the centuries.  Faithfulness doesn’t need an alternative.

1. Neil  Postman, Amusing Ourselves To Death (New York: Penguin Books, 1985) 142.
2. R.C. Sproul, “The Teaching Preacher,” in Feed My Sheep (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 2002) 143.
3. John Wimber, founder of the Vineyard Movement sees theology and doctrine as a hindrance to piety.  See Power Evangelism (New York: Harper/Collins, 1992) pp. 191-193.
4. Charles Ryrie, Balancing The Christian Life (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994) 69.
5. Quoted in, This Day In Baptist History, Thompson & Cummins, eds (Greenville: BJU, 1993) 447.
6. Jerry Solomon, Arts, Entertainment, & Christian Values (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2000) 141.
7. Charles Ryrie, Balancing The Christian Life, 83.
8. J.I. Packer, Truth & Power (Wheaton: Harold Shaw, 1996) 145.
9. Quoted by Ernest Pickering, Biblical Separation (Schaumburg: RBP, 1979) 84.
10. Quoted by Ernest Pickering, The Tragedy of Compromise (Greenville: BJU, 1994. vii.
11. Jean Baptiste Massillon, “On The Spirit of the Ministry,” Orations From Homer To McKinley, vol 4, Mayo Hazeltine, ed. (New York: Collier, 1902) 1712.
12. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977) 157.