Generic Church: The New Formalism (part 1)

by Rick Shrader

Note:  I have been intending to write the following article for a few months.  It will probably take two issues to finish.  It describes my disagreement with the contemporary church movement and what I believe to be unbiblical trends among our conservative churches.  I have no antipathy toward individual people or churches.  I do have a great love for the local church and a deep desire for its purity and its priorities.

Solomon said, Meddle not with them that are given to change: For their calamity shall rise suddenly (Proverbs 24:21-22).  It is my opinion that we are seeing a blind allegiance to change for change’s sake, not because the Scriptures ask that of us, but because the world does. That kind of change is the most rigid formalism of all and in the end becomes the most useless.  Chesterton said the same when he wrote, “The modern young man will never change his environment; for he will always change his mind.”1 When the church is constantly asking the world what it wants, the world will never ask the church what it needs.  This is true whether it involves the incidentals or the fundamentals.  Constant change, even in the incidentals, sends the message to a postmodern culture that nothing is important enough to be believed absolutely and permanently.

Our fundamental and evangelical churches have played with this fire long enough to think they cannot be burned.  We have sold our soul to a pragmatic approach to church growth for the past fifty years.  Now, when someone appeals to what our “fathers” in the ministry used to do, they have their own “historical” examples of the same pragmatism.

Today, however, the methodology isn’t even unique (at least our “forefathers” were more original thinkers).  Everyone is different together!  Every church is on the cutting edge, every church has a part of the vision, every church does the same innovative things!  But when all have changed, who is different?  When everyone is on the cutting edge, who is not?  The fact is, for all their “innovativeness,” all the “contemporary” churches are alike!  And they are the same regardless of creed or doctrine.  The instruments, the stage, the volume, the screens, the dramas, et al.  It is all generic.  You will find the same thing in almost any contemporary service you choose.  In my city, you will find it in the Unity church as well as the Evangelical church, and even in the contemporary Catholic church.

Now if the change were for the better, we might be glad for them all.  But if the change is inferior, then all will be inferior.  If God cannot bless opposite doctrine, why are all of these contemporary-style churches experiencing the same results?  It is because the results have little to do with God’s blessing but everything to do with a common methodology—a methodology demanded by the world if we are to be blessed by their presence in our services.  But then once we have acquiesced to the demands for their presence, we must continue to acquiesce if we are to be blessed with such success.

It is my contention that the new formalism is not better in form or methodology, but is inferior in almost every way to what our independent Baptist churches knew and practiced for many years before the current pragmatism.  The very reason why lost people are more comfortable in the new formalism is an obvious reason why it is inferior.  They love the confession before the conversion; the worship before the wonder; the participation before the partaking.  We have forgotten that we are there to worship the immutable God, not to please His whimsical creatures.

Our normal Baptist churches are not without their problems.  Many in our congregations have lost their zeal and warmth.  Many have fallen prey to the thinking that we come together to worship, rather than being worshipers who come together.  Hence, they bring nothing in their heart or head to offer to God.  They are bored with the whole arrangement.  They have lost their love for the brethren (the church!) and begin to fall away in spirit as well as body.  But this is an individual heart problem, not a problem with the church.  And it cannot be solved by the world’s alternative, nor by the contemporary alternative.

In the new generic churches you will find modern characteristics that are assumed to be better than the normal church service.  With a little reflection one will realize they are not.

It is juvenile, not mature

Whereas the normal church service has been led by elder believers, the new formalism is led by novices.  Sadly, their parents and elders seem to be held hostage by the threat of desertion if they do not get their way, which usually means control.  Why should we be surprised?  Our homes, our schools, and our nation are being held hostage by the same threat.  And all of those institutions are dutifully handing over the reins.

It is often retorted, “The youth are the future of the church!”  But that is an obvious misnomer as well as a formula for disaster—not to mention just plain unbiblical!  Rather, it is the belief, maturity and direction of the elders that is the future of the church.  And it is the biblical duty of young people to respect and obey this direction.  Paul plainly gave instruction for leadership:  Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially they who labor in word and doctrine (1 Timothy 5:17).  Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil (1 Timothy 3:6).

I have received letters and emails from all across the country of older saints who feel their church has gone through a hostile takeover!  Many older saints have shown amazing resiliency in putting up with this immaturity (even to the point of walking away and leaving their life’s investment to these who are now occupying the facilities).  The younger saints are not hesitant to seize that for which they did not pay.

But there is a fine line between patience and permission.  The elders in our churches must not fear their God-given authority, even if the threat of desertion is followed through by one’s own children or others.  When it comes to eternal things, (baptismal) water must be thicker than blood.  Is this not what our Lord said would be the case in the latter days?  I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother . . . . And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household (Matthew 10:35-36).

It is profane, not reverent

Profane means to be unworthy of the sacred place.  It describes that which is out of place where the holy and reverent are called for.  Language can be profane as well as action and deportment.  The Bible admonishes us to let our moderation be known unto all men [for] the Lord is at hand (Philippians 4:5).  We are not to be a profane person, as Esau (Hebrews 12:16) but rather we are to make straight paths for your feet. . . . Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord: looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God (Hebrews 12:13-15).

As the world has become more profane in their dress, their language, their casualness, their arrogance, it is not fitting before an unchangeable God to don what is unworthy of our worship services.  G. Campbell Morgan wrote, “There has been much quenching of the Holy Spirit by service that does not wait but rushes, and by the burning of false fires upon the altars of God.  The attempt to carry on the work of the kingdom of God by worldly means, the perpetual desecration of holy things by alliance with things that are unholy, the pressing of Mammon into the service of God, have meant the quenching of the Spirit;  for God will never allow the Fire of the Holy Spirit to be mingled with strange fires upon His altars.”2

Christians ought to prefer quietness over loudness, deportment over casualness, an attitude that asks the head to bow and the hands to fold rather than the proud and unyielding posture of so many today.  “Breeziness and singiness are no compensation for lack of depth and dignity.”3 Being in a contemporary church’s “worship” service is like Vance Havner’s description:  “They say the words and sing the songs, but they are like fountains in public squares where water gushes out of lips that never taste it.”4

Ezekiel mourned the priests of his day who have profaned mine holy things: they have put no difference between the holy and profane, neither have they shown difference between the unclean and clean (Ezekiel 22:26).  But when Ezekiel prophesied of the Lord’s return and the building of the millennial temple, he recorded, And they shall teach my people the difference between the holy and profane, and cause them to discern between the unclean and the clean (Ezekiel 44:23).  The writer of Hebrews, anticipating these coming things, admonished, Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: for our God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:28-29).

It is worldly, not heavenly

In the contemporary services in which I have attended, I almost have to chuckle at the invitation to stand and begin “our worship time.”  What follows is more like a rock concert than a church service.  One would have to spend the entire week before, immersing himself in the world’s noise, music and bodily actions in order to feel comfortable in such an atmosphere.  And I fear that is why the average lost person feels very comfortable there.

But the church has never measured herself by applause or approval of the world.  Today we have become acute technicians, measuring up to the world’s standards, winning ourselves to them, but not winning them to a different life.  The apostle wrote, Seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God.  Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth (Colossians 3:1-2).  Many believers have prepared themselves to live in the world, but are, I am afraid, totally unprepared to enter heaven.  The glory of God will be a total surprise to them.  Paul’s desire was to attain unto the resurrection from the dead, not to attain unto the fellowship with the dead.  It is a good thing that one day our sanctification will match our justification, and not the other way around, or we would be hopeless.

Our churches ought to be places where we escape the world’s clatter and enjoy the blessed quietness and fellowship of heaven.  We come to church to let our guard down, not have to defend ourselves from the world.  It seems the contemporary church minister spends more time defending David’s naked dancing than preaching against the world’s sins.  As Havner wrote, “He mistakes the stretching of his conscience for the broadening of his mind.  He renounces what he calls the ‘Pharisaism’ and ‘puritanism’ of earlier days with a good word for dancing, smoking, and even cocktails now and then.  Instead of passing up Vanity Fair, he spends his vacations there.”5

The generic contemporary church is busy trying to prove that the world’s culture is neutral.  We read it in almost every publication.  It would be a comfort to them to think that lost man’s actions come from an amoral basis.  Then we would be free to use any of it that we like.  But this is like hitting one’s head against the wall, it feels so good when you quit!  Culture, as T.S. Eliot once wrote, is the incarnation of a man’s religion.6 It is the “world” man has created in his lost condition.  The church must confront it, not cater to it!

To be continued in the next issue.

1. G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Wheaton: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1994) 115.
2. G. Campbell Morgan, Understanding The Holy Spirit (AMG, 1995) 166.
3. J.S. Baxter, Christian Holiness (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977) 24.
4. Vance Havner, Why Not Just Be Christian (Westwood, NJ:  Revell, 1964) 38.
5. Vance Havner, Ibid, 21.
6. T.S. Eliot, Christianity and Culture (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1949) 101.