Unfortunately there is in religious circles a cult of the intelligentsia which, in my opinion, is merely beatnikism turned wrong side out. As the beatnik, in spite of his loud protestations of individualism, is in reality one of the most slavish of conformists, so the young intellectual in the pulpit shakes in his carefully polished Oxfords lest he be guilty of saying something trite or common. The people look to him to lead them into green pastures but instead he leads them to a sandy desert. A. W. Tozer
Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote in a note, ‘‘Went to church today, and was not greatly depressed.’’ I am grateful I do not feel that way in my own church but I think I often feel that way after reading the popular literature about church. Jesus asked of the religious leaders of his day, ‘‘You can discern the face of the sky; but can you not discern the signs of the times?’’ I think the Lord’s point was that they were able to determine how to succeed in religious endeavors that affected and profited them, but they had no clue or concern about how they fit in with God’s purpose in His over-all plan. Expediency was the word of the day.
There are at least two ways these days we seem to be discerning the face of the sky. First, in our present American generation, the new thought meteorology is consensus polling. With it we determine the right and wrong of almost any issue of our day. Recently, for example, we have learned that traditional family values are right because 76% of people polled prefer them to non-traditional values. There may be a Hell because 60% of people polled said so. Children cared for by their mother rather than a daycare center are better off because 63% of people polled say so. Seeker sensitive churches have a 67% better chance of numerical growth than others. Interestingly, we should not have churches over 1000 because only 7% of people polled like them! The Los Angeles Times was very sagacious when it described a megachurch that grew from a marketing study and titled the article, ‘‘Customer Poll Shapes a Church.’’
Second, we are good at forming our philosophy direction by the limits of our exposure. The Brady Bill may have passed because we now find that in the major media presentations, 75 supporters were shown compared to only 24 opponents. We are greatly persuaded by what we hear or read the most. Leaders easily become crusaders for the causes and opinions to which they expose themselves most often. We can become mimics of another man’s definition of success having never faced the issues with our own thoughts. By listening and reading selectively we may actually isolate ourselves into our own generation and lose sight of our place in history.
How does this affect the church? The same way it always has but with the added intensity of the computer age. I grew up in large churches where thousands of people attended. In the 60’s and 70’s they were criticized regularly for being pragmatic and opportunistic, of tricking people into coming to church. In the 80’s and 90’s, these same critics now have churches of their own with thousands in attendance but they, of course, are ‘‘progressive’’ and people of ‘‘vision.’’ Their every strategy was carefully plotted and grafted on a spread sheet according to the latest statistics. And now, today’s leaders are anxious to follow in order to obtain the same result. After all, they say, it is only a matter of methodology. I have agonized over the question, ‘‘is this current methodology an ability to discern the face of the sky while ignoring the signs of the times?’’ It seems to me that success is still measured in the same old way–visible results not philosophical stewardship! Thomas Carlyle once said, ‘‘He who has no vision of eternity has no hold on time.’’ I think that is what Jesus meant in differentiating between the face of the sky and the signs of the time.
There have been those who were truly the pioneers in their generation. Not that they were right in what they did or believed but at least they were original thinkers. Socrates’ hemlock; Luther’s ninety-five theses; Hitler’s Mein Kampf; Lincoln’s Gettysburg address; C.I. Scofield’s Bible; Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority; all were ideas of passion by men who believed a principle. Most successful people, however, are simply good prognosticators. They can read the face of the sky and the attitude of the polls and be three steps ahead of the rest. Business men like Sears, Penney and Walton were such men who profited greatly by seeing where people were going and giving them what they really wanted. There are many such leaders in church movements today who are hailed as successes. A.W. Tozar wrote, ‘‘Pleasing the crowd is a time-proved way to get on in church circles. Instead of leading his people where they ought to go, the minister skillfully leads them where he knows they want to go. In this way he gives the appearance of being a bold leader of men, but avoids offending anyone, and thus assures ecclesiastical preferment when the big church or the high office is open.’’
I don’t think every successful minister is simply climbing the ecclesiastical ladder. I think many, if not most, are sincere in their pursuit of success for the gospel’s sake. But sincerity is such a refluent thing! We must be careful to be honest ambassadors representing a King from another culture. Shouldn’t we be most concerned with what God will one day say to us rather than what people said to us last Sunday? Robert Browning said, ‘‘Better have failed in the high aim, as I, than vulgarly in the low aim succeed as, God be thanked, I do not.’’
How can we discern the signs of the times? I certainly do not want to be found as Peter when the Lord said, ‘‘Thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.’’ First, I think we need to ask people to identify with the truth, not with image. The rich young ruler (a failed experiment in any evangelism class today) could not accept the truth of Christ’s person even though he wanted to be a part of the group. Jesus did not allow him to become comfortable without true conversion. Second, we must give people what they need, not merely what they want. The lame man at the temple in Acts 3, wanted a few creature comforts from the Apostles. Simon the sorcerer in Acts 8 wanted a little profit along with the Holy Spirit. In both cases Peter gave them what they really needed. Third, we need to be on the convicting edge more than the cutting edge. On Mars Hill, in Acts 17, Paul passed on his chance to build a progressive ministry in Athens by bringing up the subject of the resurrection when he knew well that he would be run out of town for it. But what good was success without conviction?
My intention has not been of a critical nature. I have no rocks to throw at anyone. I do have a burden about the low road many of our churches seem to have taken. My desire is to hold the cross of Christ high in the midst of this crooked and perverse generation. I agree with Henry Ward Beecher when he said, ‘‘The strength and the happiness of a man consists in finding the way in which God is going, and going that way too.’’ I’m sure many I have described believe they are going God’s way. I have here disagreed. But, then, that’s why anyone can use the mail service.