Polling For Moral Authority

by Rick Shrader

Yet, within the Church as well as outside it, this perverted notion persists.  Truth is conceived on a quantitative basis—no doubt under the influence of statistical reasoning and public opinion polls.  It is being assumed that the more people there are with different opinions to contribute, the greater ‘truth’ will emerge from the mixing of these opinions in the melting-pot.  Truth is regarded as a kind of pudding, or brew, which you concoct from human opinions.  But truth is more like a rock than a pudding—a rock which you lay bare by scraping away the soil.  And the soil is largely compounded of human prejudice and passion.  — Harry Blamires, 19631

Over the last few months Christians in this country have had an uneasy feeling about the way governmental leaders have explained their morals and convictions by popular opinion polls.  Because a Christian has a Bible which he believes to be inspired of God and to be an unchanging standard of truth and morality, he recognizes false “truths” which are fabricated by popularity.  It is essential to the Christian message that truth be seen as coming from a transcendent God and not something that is created by the majority of people.

Soren Kierkegaard once said, “The thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die.”2 If we were told up front that this statement came from Kierkegaard, we would immediately label it as existential and we would, of course, be right.  Now consider the following statement, “Our task is to grasp and articulate God’s vision for our future and to facilitate the change necessary to create that future.”3 Though this statement is very close to Kierkegaard’s  existential statement, we embrace it because it comes from George Barna and has been proven by polling to be the key to success in ministry. In such ways, what was once considered unworthy of the Christian ministry has become its mantra.  And the justification for the change is the power of public opinion.  As one observer of modern culture has said, “What is at stake here in the debate over postmodernism’s vocabulary is ultimately our vision of the truth and moral order.”4

Can anyone doubt that we have come to a day when Christian ministries are designed and guided by what the audience wants, and often in direct contradiction to our own knowledge of right and wrong?  I have no bone to pick with Rick Warren’s ministry, but in reading his book I can’t help but notice this very thing.  At one point he insists, “Faithfulness is often defined in terms of attendance rather than service.”6 And yet when he is deep into the reasons for his successful ministry he says, “After surveying who we were reaching, we made the strategic decision to stop singing hymns in our seeker services.  Within a year of deciding what would be ‘our sound’, Saddleback exploded with growth.”7 And true to our postmodern way of thinking, the only thing that will be seen as wrong about this is that I have criticized it!

The culprit in this waning standard of truth is two-fold.  First, we are selfish creatures who, since Eve and Cain, have found a way to make God’s Word fit our own wants and desires (insert “vision,” “success,” “growth” etc.).  Second, our wants and desires find their fulfillment in the approval of our fellow creatures.  The approval of the crowd simply feeds the ego which in turn seeks for more approval.  In this way truth is “constructed” by popular opinion.  The dangers, however, are these:  what is truth today may not be truth tomorrow if the crowd’s desire has changed; morality is replaced by “values” which are seen as belonging only to a specific group; and the most base displays of sinfulness become the norm, according to biblical warning (Rom 1:22-28).

The defenses for this method of structuring philosophy are numerous:  none of us can follow the ideal completely and so it is judgmental to hold someone to part of it; the quantity of good accomplished by such structuring far outweighs the lack of quality used in obtaining it; and who, after all, can really be sure of what the Absolute Standard says?  Isn’t that all a matter of subjective interpretation anyway?

My concerns in approaching such a topic are these:  1) If repentance is necessary for true salvation, what are we saying about that when we ask the sinner what he would like in order for him to come to God?  Though I am not a Calvinist and am not recommending the old Puritan “seeking” period for the sinner, I do believe that a sinner has to completely give up his own desire, pride and self-worth in order to accept God’s help.  I fear we have created a way for sinners to have their religious cake and eat it too, by placing their interest first in themselves and secondly in Christianity.

2) I fear that we are adding to the consumer mentality which already has engulfed our culture.  Bruce Shelley wrote, “The Christian message and lifestyle, which in an earlier day could be more directly imposed, now must be ‘marketed.’ It must be ‘sold’ to a clientele that is no longer constrained to ‘buy’ . . . . Most churches and parachurch ministries are dominated by the logic of marketing agencies.”8 One of George Barna’s books is titled, A Step-By-Step Guide to Church Marketing.

3) We are in danger of quickly taking the direction of our churches out of the hands of our elder saints and placing it squarely on the young.  We are committing Rehoboam’s error.  In a polling mentality, the squeaking door will get the oil while the well-oiled door will patiently endure.  That doesn’t mean it is right.  It’s just the way it is.

John Wesley once said,  “I love Calvin a little, Luther more; the Moravians, Mr. Law and Mr. Whitfield far more than either . . . But I love truth more than all.”9 Perhaps we should hear Solomon’s words to Rehoboam, “Buy the truth and sell it not.”

1. Harry Blamires, The Christian Mind (Ann Arbor:  Servant Books, 1963) 113.
2. Quoted by Ravi Zacharias, Can Man Live Without God? (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1994) 205.
3. George Barna, The Second Coming of the Church (Nashville: Word Publishing, 1998) 98.
4. Roger Lundin, “The Pragmatics of Postmodernity”, a chapter in Christian Apologetics in a Postmodern World (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 1995) 34.
5. Gene Veith, Jr. Postmodern Times (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1994) 50.
6. Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995) 104.
7. Ibid, 284.
8. Bruce & Marshall Shelley, The Consumer Church (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 1992) 20.
9. Quoted by J.S. Baxter, Christian Holiness (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 1977) 174.