The Thesis or Antithesis? (part 1)
by Rick Shrader
The difference between the conservative and contemporary churches are becoming more evident. A recent pamphlet titled, “Is Your Church Going Purpose Driven?”1 lists 24 visible “signs” that begin to happen when a ministry is in the process of moving from traditional to contemporary. Many people I know who have experienced this kind of change readily identify with the things on such lists and warnings like this are becoming more and more common. These differences, or changes, are also making it increasingly difficult to participate in familiar avenues of ministry.
What is a conservative/traditional person to do when people, churches and institutions he is associated with are going contemporary? Often this is an individual’s case when one watches his own church make these changes. You cannot enjoy the services that have become mundane and annoying; you cannot send your young people to camps, retreats or even college because they become indoctrinated in something you feel is worldly and wrong; you do not want to monetarily support programs that promote this type of ministry or force you to participate in a way which is contrary to your own convictions; and you cannot just “pay and pray” without objection which has always been the ecumenical movement’s bottom line.
From the contemporary point of view these things are said to be a matter of preference and not conviction, so they are frustrated by a conservative person’s objection to the changes. A one-way street is fine if you happen to be going that way and it is always frustrating if someone is going the other way. But the man who needs to go the other way has no other options than to frustrate people or find another street. However, many of us were also becoming uncomfortable when the street was two-way because the separation factor was too thin and our conservative lane was being pushed farther and farther over to make room for the growing contemporary lane going the other way. For most of us it has become a better option to find another street altogether. And, of course, most contemporaries are relieved when the irritation is gone. As this is true of many pastors it is also true of many church attenders. The feeling that their church was glad to see them go is disheartening and discouraging.
Before you begin feeling sorry for the conservative/traditional ones who have had to find another avenue, don’t! This dilemma also opens new doors and solves many old problems. First of all, Scripture and a man’s conscience cannot walk different paths. The sun always shines brighter and the air always seems fresher when these two are in agreement. Second, though oak trees may come down in a minute, planting a new one gives hope and satisfaction for the future. Thirdly, God can choose to cleanse His church(es) in whatever way His sees fit. Baptists and other independents are no strangers to separation, having always understood the nature of leaven. But lastly, there is no joy like worshiping in Spirit and truth! When you cannot sing the songs, or participate in the applause, or wave your hands and sway back and forth, or say amen to what you hear, you cannot do the most basic Christian act, and that is to worship in Spirit and in truth! Regardless of how it came about, by staying or leaving, the restoration of Godly, reverent and satisfying worship makes all sacrifices to get there or remain there worth it!
Whereas many are (rightly) listing or pointing out the contemporary intrusion into our churches, I have decided to list some things that mark a conservative/traditional church. I am not saying that there are not things that both conservative and contemporary churches would share, but these are the areas which many of us have decided are too important to give up and they more often describe conservative than contemporary churches.
Commentaries and Theologies
If we are to make teaching the saints Scripture the primary responsibility of the church, then studying the text itself and forming theological conclusions must be priority. It has become a common joke that you cannot find neither commentaries nor theologies in the local Christian book store, and if you do they will be a token display. Paul wrote to 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). Albert Mohler observed,
Perhaps many of us could testify of going to a church service where something was said or even printed in the bulletin to the effect that ‘first we are going to have some praise and then we are going to get to preaching,’ or ‘first, we are going to have a time of worship and then we are going to turn to preaching.’ What do we think preaching is but the central act of Christian worship?2
Some years ago, Daniel Akin, writing in the National Liberty Journal, was critical of Willow Creek’s ministry in this area. He wrote, “Culture rather than scripture will be discovered as the force fueling the engine, and it is at this point that church leaders and the flocks that they tend must beware.” I appreciate those words but wonder if that hasn’t become a self-fulfilling prophecy at Liberty University. In an interview last year, David Brooks, a columnist with the New York Times, in an interview with Rick Warren, described Warren’s Purpose Driven Life as, “a lightening of religion, certainly a walking-away from the old Jonathan Edwards trembling before an angry God. It’s certainly more happy, more upbeat, more optimistic.”4
We might evaluate how we’re doing in this area of Biblical and doctrinal instruction by counting the hours we spend actually in the Text and its related books, as opposed to the hours we spend preparing materials, creating environments and doing technical preparations. Though I utilize Power Point (at least it’s easier than an overhead projector) when appropriate, I resist the time involved in preparing the screen rather than preparing my head and heart with the Text. Going to the classroom with all the technical bells and whistles is no substitute for the cognitive understanding of chapter and verses and their subsequent doctrines, confirmed by the witness of the Holy Spirit.
Names and Familiar Objects
One of the most common symbols of the contemporary church is to have no symbols. That is, the polls and surveys have led them to do away with denominational names, buildings and auditoriums that look like a church, pulpits and church-like furniture, and even the word “church” itself. It is more common today for a person to walk into a business-looking building, with a theater-looking auditorium, with casual-looking people (including the pastor), with culturally-looking objects, all saturated with worldly-sounding music. We’ve become more afraid of what the world thinks than what God thinks.
In an Atlantic Monthly interview, Leith Anderson, of Wooddale Baptist Church in Minneapolis, gave the reason for dropping the name Baptist if they relocated, “Putting ‘Baptist’ in a name is to the unchurched about the surest turnoff there is . . . . One Midwestern Episcopal rector I met [said] ‘Denominations as we know them are a historical anomaly . . . The very large churches are becoming the new dioceses.’”5
I believe denominational names, as well as church related décor is a plus to teaching as well as evangelism. A sinner must begin to learn of his own sinfulness somehow. So why should we remove those things that make him think of God, church or other Scriptural things? It seems the contemporary calculation is that creating immediate good feelings is more advantageous than immediate conviction. Where they may see these names and symbols as hindrances, I see them as advantages because they break the ice, open the conversation and begin the thinking process.
Paul was concerned that Timothy would behave himself properly in the church because it is the pillar and ground of the truth and portrays the mystery of godliness by which people believe (1 Tim. 3:15-16). Retaining the names and symbols of our conservative churches is not just a matter of stubbornness or traditionalism, it is a thinking that believes it is better to put things up front rather than in a stealth fashion; that it is better to confess than to hide one’s faith; and that the best thing that can happen to the sinner is to see and experience what believers do in church. Beside all of this, those of us who retain the traditional forms of church feel a strong connection to our history and feel it is imperative that we pass that on to our children. In the contemporary mode, we are seeing hundreds of years of testimony cut off like a fishing line and it will not easily be replaced. When this experiment has run its course it will be too late to say “oops, I guess we shouldn’t have done that.”
Separation and Protection
Of the many areas of conservative/traditional Christianity that are being attacked today, the only area that receives more vitriol is Fundamentalism (but that’s for another issue). The doctrine of separation is being reviewed, rewritten, repulsed and replaced. Personal separation (Rom. 12:1-2; Eph. 5:7-11; et al.) is now, at best, only on the inside, in the mind and heart. Nothing on the outside looks different than the world. Ecclesiastical separation (2 Jn. 10; 2 Thes. 3:6, 14; et al.) has been so realigned or totally discarded that even our fathers and grandfathers in the faith can’t recognize it. But both areas of separation are in the Bible and are important though unpopular. They also protect families and the church. The Purpose Driven phenomenon will bring conflicting doctrinal positions together by making other issues the focus. Warren said, “I think that’s how evangelicals and Catholics can get together. And I don’t know if you know this or not, but fundamentalists and Pentecostals don’t like each other, okay? They don’t. But they could get together. ‘In the essentials, unity; in the non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.’”6
My mail box is full of advertisements to Christian rock concerts, dances and various contemporary things to make sure the young people in the church don’t feel ostracized or different from their lost peers. But this is not protection, it is accommodation, and it is spiritually dangerous for our kids. Every pastor feels the undertow of young people who would hold the church hostage to these things if they could. They can make life so miserable for conservative parents that they are forced to change to a contemporary church. The only way a church can justify this is to redefine separation completely, dumbing it down to the lowest common denominator with the world. Then it can be stated that the doctrine is the same, only the methods have changed (but ask Moses about striking the rock, or Uzzah about holding the ark).
Our churches must not abrogate the responsibility to train and discipline our own children. It is part of our heritage for which all other generations have made sacrifices. Leonard Verduin, in his classic book on Reformation history described what would take place when some of our forefathers were brought to trial for their faith.
When certain people were being investigated for suspected Anabaptist leanings, this testimony was offered: ‘Because their children are being so carefully and devoutly reared and because they do not have the practice of cursing and swearing, therefore they are suspected of being Anabaptists.’7
Spurgeon asked, “When fathers are tongue-tied religiously with their offspring, need they wonder if their children’s hearts remain sin-tied?”8
—To Be Continued—
1. Distributed by Southwest Radio Ministries, www.swrc.com
2. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “The Primacy of Preaching,” Feed My Sheep, Don Kistler, ed. (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 2002) 6.
3. Daniel L. Akin, “Willow Creek Community Church: Driven by Culture or the Scriptures?” National Liberty Journal. 1996.
4. Pew Forum’s biannual Faith Angle conference in Key West, Fl., May 2005.
5. Charles Trueheart, “The Next Church,” Atlantic Monthly, August, 1996, p. 57.
6. Pew Forum.
7. Leonard Verduin, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964) 108.
8. C.H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, vol. ii (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1978) 333.