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What’s Going on in the Churches?

One night a group sang the theme from the “Lord of the Rings” but not one Scriptural song! Each night there was an hour and half of music, some was good, some bad.  Everyone seemed to have a “good time.”  But is that why they were there?

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Just before BBFI pastors from around the world gathered for graduation at the Baptist Bible College Field house in Springfield in May of 2004 the “drums were removed from stage, girls were instructed to wear dresses, and more hymns were sung that week [Fellowship week] than the entire school year put together.” That was the testimony of one graduate’s father. Without addressing the rightness or wrongness of those issues, was that deception? Or desperation? Or maybe deceptive desperation! 

An evangelist friend told me that he preached in a large church for a week and a different group of singers sang each night. One night a group sang the theme from the “Lord of the Rings” but not one Scriptural song! Each night there was an hour and half of music, some was good, some bad. Everyone seemed to have a “good time.” But is that why they were there?

A pastor friend told me that he attended a Rick Warren conference at Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, VA and the music was so bad and loud that he almost became ill. He had to leave the service.

A pastor friend told me that he attended a Rick Warren conference at Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, VA and the music was so bad and loud that he almost became ill. He had to leave the service. Rick Warren said of his church music: “We made that decision and stopped trying to please everybody; Saddleback exploded with growth. Now, I’ll be honest with you, we are loud. We are really, really loud on a weekend service…. I say, ‘We’re not gonna turn it down.’ Now the reason why is baby boomers want to feel the music, not just hear it.” So, give them what they want! And, in my opinion Rick is correct in that he is  not pleasing “everybody” nor is he pleasing Somebody.

It is interesting that in 1977 Dr. Jerry Falwell approached Robbie Hiner from behind just as Robbie started to sing a solo during a service at Thomas Road Baptist Church. The song had a little beat to it and Dr. Falwell said, “Robbie, sit down. I’ve told you that we won’t have that kind of music here.” Dr. Falwell had the right, as pastor of the church, to do what he did. His associate should have obeyed his orders, and he deserved to be reprimanded.  Today, Thomas Road Baptist Church has far more objectionable music than what was forbidden in 1977!

Well, things do change. However, things don’t change overnight. Slowly, very slowly small innovations are taking place in churches across America, and before many people recognize what has happened, whole ministries have been transformed. The Young Turks discard, consciously or unconsciously, Biblical preaching, wholesome, Christ-honoring music, whatever militancy they had,  and move on to feel-good services where they meet the “felt needs” of the crowd.  

My experience at Willow Creek Community Church where the music ranges from rock to jazz to country to classical, was very revealing. They featured a “famous” Latin band and with almost every song, a young woman a few rows in front of us shot straight up and simultaneously swiveled her hips and raised her hands into the air as she snapped her fingers in time to the music. Until the offering plates were passed, there was no way I could have known I was in a church service except the sign over the building. Thousands seemed to have a good time, but was that why they were there?

I understand that I will be perceived as a problem-causing, thoughtless, pot-stirring, over-the-hill-evangelist. Well, I’m not looking for problems (for me or anyone else) and I’ve never been accused of being thoughtless. As for stirring a few pots, I plead guilty. And I am President of the National Association of the Over-the-hill Evangelists. Really, I don’t have an axe to grind, nor do I think I’m called to keep everyone in line. The men I mention in this article are not my enemies. They are probably all believers (except Robert Schuller) and consequently are my brothers. No, they are not my enemies. I simply disagree with them, and think they are doing irrevocable harm to their churches (which is their business) and to the cause of Christ (which is my business). If I am wrong, please let me know and I will apologize on these pages. Frankly, as a brother you are obligated to correct me if I am wrong! 

People are so empty they must fill the void with something and church members are filling that void with entertainment and surface worship. More than a hundred years ago, Charles H. Spurgeon said:  “The devil has seldom done a cleverer thing than hinting to the Church that part of their mission is to provide entertainment for the people, with a view to winning them. From speaking out as the Puritans did, the Church has gradually toned down her testimony, then winked at and excused the frivolities of the day. Then she tolerated them in her borders. Now she has adopted them under the plea of reaching the masses.” Many of the compromising mega-churches are reaching the masses but for whom?

Tragically Spurgeon’s prescient evaluation is being observed as I write.  A. W. Tozer said, “Of us Bible Christians it may truthfully be said that we ‘sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play.’ The separating line between the Church and the world has been all but obliterated.” He was right. Jesus did not say, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel but if people find it offensive, make them laugh and give them a good time.” He told His disciples to take up their cross and follow Him. That kind of preaching tends to put a coolness on the “feel good” crowd that is only interested in being entertained.

Few people want doctrine anymore. Most evangelists have been warned: “We don’t preach doctrine around here. We just preach the Word!” That revealed ignorance is exceeded only by the blindness. Doctrine is preached when the Word is preached. Preaching fluff and cotton candy sermons is why people leave Bible preaching churches and join cultic, work-salvation churches. They don’t know what they believe, and they don’t know that they don’t know. That is dangerous. What you believe determines how you behave. Since so many Christians are living like the world could it not be because they don’t believe anything of substance?  People do not want to hear doctrine because it “causes controversy.” No, Bible doctrine settles controversy–-within the Body, but causes controversy in the world.

Agape International Spiritual Center in suburban LA has about 7,000 members. Pastor Michael Beckwith says it is “new thought” combined with ancient wisdom.  “Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, young, old, rich, poor—we cut across all lines to reach what is true.” Therefore, Christians must go to false religions to extract bits of truth that can be cobbled together with Bible truth! Fifty years ago, that pastor would have been tried for heresy and booted from the ministry.

Columnist Thomas Friedman wrote that religious totalitarianism is “the view that one faith must reign supreme and can be affirmed and held passionately only if all others are negated.”  He said: “Can Islam, Christianity, and Judaism know that God speaks Arabic on Fridays, Hebrew on Saturdays and Latin on Sundays and that he welcomes different human beings approaching him through their own history, out of their language and cultural heritage?” He added that it is important, even urgent, that different religions “reinterpret their traditions to embrace modernity and pluralism and to create space for secularism and alternative faiths.”

That is not only a dumb statement but also super dumb! First, I would like to know how Friedman knows what language God speaks. I am sure He is multi-lingual but Friedman’s statement screams that doctrine (truth) is not at all important. He tells us to change what we believe so that we will not be offensive to others. I suggest “others” change what they believe to be more in line with truth! Furthermore, I have no desire to “create space for secularism and alternative faiths.” None!

With the absence of doctrine, we have lost responsible militancy.  A. W. Tozer said, “Christians were once revolutionists–moral, not political–but we have lost our revolutionary character. It is no longer either dangerous or costly to be a Christian….. We are busy these days proving to the world that they can have all the benefits of the Gospel without any of the inconvenience to their customary way of life. It’s ‘all this and heaven too.’ ” He rang the bell over forty years ago and it is still ringing today. Even “dedicated” Christians don’t want to be inconvenienced by godly, consistent living and taking (and living) the Gospel in their daily lives. Church is now a very casual Sunday morning experience with starting time to fit their lifestyle, loud (often rock) music, and an 18 minute sermonette that says very little to Christianettes and less to sinnerettes. 

One of America’s five largest churches decided to “perk up” the attendance at evening services by staging a wrestling match. And then there is the pastor who concluded a sermon by ascending to heaven via invisible wires that drew him up out of sight while the choir and orchestra added a musical accompaniment to the smoke, fire and light show. Those pastors think that when the audience speaks to each other during those times, they are expressing delight but many are expressing disgust. However, most members are willing to overlook such tackiness and even wackiness because “look at the crowds.”  The crowds will disappear with the smoke, fire, and lights. I wonder if the unsaved in the service are impressed, and if so, are impressed to do what? The church used to be a force to be reckoned with; now it is a farce to be ridiculed.

The average Church member is so untaught that he thinks a great revival is taking place as megachurches constantly expand their auditoriums and parking lots. He has no conception of good and evil with no ability to differentiate between the two. They see the large crowds, hear terms like “sharing your faith,” “building self-esteem,” “overcoming evil,” etc., and assume God is at work.

Sixteen thousand people watched Victoria Osteen (wife of Pastor Joel Osteen) step up to the podium at the Houston Compaq Center and say: “We’re going to rock today. This place has been rocked a lot of times, but it has never been rocked for Jesus.” It was another service of the Lakewood Church with more than 25,000 attending each week.  Everything was positive and upbeat. No singing about being a “wretch,” or “worm,” or “lost in sin,” even though such is the condition of every person. The preaching of her husband was full of, well, fluff and feel-good stuff. As my mother said of Joel, “I feel so good after his preaching, and he smiles all the time.” However, my contacts tell me he does not smile all the time! Enough said.

Alan Wolfe, director of the Boise Center of Religion and American Public Life at Boston College was on target when he said of the Houston church:  “There’s none of that old time religion; none of the hell and damnation, fire and brimstone preaching. The message tends to be more upbeat, one of empowerment. And it seems to be working. These churches are packed.” That assessment would be true of many of the mega-churches, but not all.  I am a member of a megachurch (one of the nation’s first) and the message is not fluff and cotton candy. Same with Thomas Road Baptist and others that I have experienced.   

In 1970 there were 10 megachurches nationwide with a megachurch defined as non-Catholic churches with at least 2,000 weekly attendants. As of December of 2003, there were 1740. (The Christian Science Monitor 12/20/03.) Some independent Baptist churches are not listed. Of course all large churches are not unsavory and extremist. I have preached in a few where the music is still Christ honoring and the pulpit is still hot with God’s Truth.

Church growth is good, desirable, and will usually result where the gospel is preached, good music is presented, the crowd is friendly, and the people are aggressively living the normal Christian life day-by-day.  However, we are seeing growth at any price often for the result of building a personal empire for the pastor. 

During the 1970s and 80s many Baptist churches entered the “attendance derby” whereby we had to keep something unusual going on to beat last week’s attendance. As a Christian school administrator, I was also involved in looking for ways to increase the Sunday school attendance via various promotions. We were competing with many other churches on Indianapolis’ Southside, especially Indianapolis Baptist Temple only a few minutes away. Therefore, I was always looking for a magazine called, Gimmicks Monthly, but never found it.

As a pastor on Indianapolis’ Westside, I had been involved even in the 1960s with the “attendance derby.” I had a “Beat the Devil Contest” and each Sunday the various Sunday school classes competed with each other to “best the devil” by having a bigger crowd than the other classes. The winning class had the honor of “beating the devil out of the devil.” One of my young daughters was terrified at the limp, long-tailed, red-suited “devil” that was beaten with paddles. I smile today at some of my indiscretions in church building. The other indiscretions are none of your business!

So, before Rick Warren and Bill Hybels were out of knee-pants some of us were using gimmicks in church-building, and the gimmicks worked but they were not lasting. The big difference is that we did not tailor our message to satisfy our crowd. We used the gimmicks to get the crowd then laid the truth on them. We, like Warren, Hybels, Schuller, and Company wanted a crowd, and were willing to use “worldly” methods to accomplish that end.  While all of us may have been sincere, it was not honorable then and is not honorable (or scriptural) now. 

Every pastor wants his church to grow and most are motivated to reach people because “soul-winning is the most important thing in the world,” but that is not so. According to Ecclesiastes 12:13, God commands us to “Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.” Of course, if we do that then it will take care of all our duties such as witnessing, giving, attending church, living godly, etc. If your top priority is to win people to Christ, then anything can be justified. However, if we are motivated by Ecc. 12:13, then we will say, “Yes, I want to win people to Christ, but there are some things I will not do to accomplish that task.” We must never offend a holy God by our actions, nor cheapen the ministry, nor use deception, etc. No one wins in the “attendance derby” except the gimmick producers.

Some churches don’t have any promotions to build attendance yet the crowds keep coming. One independent Baptist Church in California started 19 years ago with a handful of people and now runs over 3,000 weekly, and has never had a growth goal or attendance contest! However, they are not in a city that has a hundred independent Baptist Churches in the area such as Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Chattanooga, Dallas, Ft. Worth, etc.  Of course, the goal is not to compete with other churches but to develop mature Christians who will reach others for Christ.

I have no problems with churches that have “Family Day,” “Friend Day,” “Neighbor Day,” etc., but that is the problem–-what is acceptable and what is unacceptable, and who differentiates between them? What about having the “Biggest hot dog in the world?” Or, the “World’s biggest banana split? I don’t know, and since I am not a pastor, I don’t have to make that decision! I will come to your church and preach your “Family Day” or “Creation Sunday: What About Dinosaurs?” and try to get a big crowd; however, don’t expect me to swallow a gold fish if we have 20 visitors! Growth is good but growth alone does not indicate God’s blessings!
 
In Revelation 3, the Laodicean church reached the crowds. They were “rich and increased with goods,” and in fact, had “need of nothing.” Maybe a forerunner of Robert Schuller convinced them of their natural goodness and helped develop an abundance of self-esteem, self-assurance, etc. Any preacher, “feeling led of God to make a move,” would be thrilled to be considered as a candidate for that church. The chairman of the pulpit committee would receive hundreds of resumes. That was not true of the other churches in Asia Minor.

Who would want to pastor in Ephesus where the members had left their first love and had put alleged apostles on trial and found them to be liars? And no one would be interested in Smyrna where Christ mentioned their poverty and tribulations, then prophesied their suffering, imprisonment and death! Hey, who wants to go there?  Who would want to pastor the church at Pergamos since that is where “Satan’s seat is”? And what sane preacher would want to pastor the Thyatira church where a woman preacher had dedicated herself to make church leaders climb into a bed of fornication?  Of course no one would consider the church at Sardis since it had a good reputation but was dead. The church at Philadelphia might be a possibility but any pastor who goes there would face a battle because of false Jews in the church.

However, you will note that Christ will spew the rich, growing Laodicean church out of His mouth, and the poor, suffering church at Smyrna would receive the crown of life!  It seems that Christ is more impressed with a struggling church than a “successful” church!  We must remember that growth for growth’s sake is not desirable. Some growth is cancerous!  In fact, all cancer is characterized by growth. 

Rick Warren tries to preempt criticism of his program by writing in his Purpose Driven book: “Never criticize what God is blessing, even though it may be a style of ministry that makes you uncomfortable.” However, in light of the Laodicean church, can we be sure it is God’s blessing? So, we are expected to overlook, be silent, and be accepting of the loud, rock music, shallow preaching, and aping of the world because of the “success.” “Look how many I had last Sunday. How many did you have in church?”

Ever increasing crowds can be heady stuff for a pastor of a small church who wants to grow into a bigger church. Most seminary seniors pray before their graduation as they enter the religious world: “God give me a big church and a beautiful wife,” but they usually end up with a big wife and a beautiful church. 

The allure of the megachurch may be even stronger for the pastor of a large church who sees his crowds dwindling (along with the bank account) and he begins to panic. That happened to the first megachurch in America, Cadle Tabernacle in Indianapolis. When my friend  B. R. Lakin (who was from my home county in West Virginia) was pastor of Cadle, he had thousands in attendance, (even Sunday evenings). After he left the church, the crowds fled back to the churches from which they came (or into oblivion) and I was there when the Sunday crowd met in the 1400-seat choir!  Such a thought chills the blood of a preacher, so he reaches out for anything that will help him climb back to the top of the heap.

It seems almost anything goes, if it works. Change to music that speaks to the body, not the soul. After all, all music has a beat and many people like loud music that reaches the foot before it ever reaches the soul–if ever. Adjust the preaching so that no one is ever offended. Of course, one will not apostatize and deny the essentials of the Scripture, but in our modern day, some doctrines don’t have to be emphasized. Change the buzzwords “repent,” “confess,” “born-again,” etc., to more positive, feel-good terms.  Replace Bible terms with non-offensive psychobabble; however, a pastor is not a therapist but a teacher; not a psychologist but a preacher; not a salesman but a shepherd. 
 
Megachurches and wannabes advertise: “We’re always positive,” “Let us entertain you,” “Come as you are,” “We’ll lighten your day,” “Let us make you feel good about yourself,” “We will never offend you,” “We keep it light,” “We will meet your felt needs,” “We’re your therapists,” “We will never make you feel uncomfortable,” “We do it your way.” What a mockery of historic Christianity! It seems the early Christians were simply not “with it”–like many of us.

In a letter to his church family, Rick Warren, pitching his 25th anniversary to be celebrated at Angel Stadium on August 17, told them that it “may be the greatest party any of us ever attend!” He suggested that when they arrive early, “concessions will be open, and thousands of small group tailgate parties will be fun. We have bands playing at the three entrances from 11:15-12:15, Jana Alayra for our children at the Main Gate, a jazz band is at Gate 1 and Saddleback Praise at Gate 3. We even have the Riders4Christ doing freestyle motorcycle jumps in the parking lot!… There’s even a rumor there may be a Rick Warren ‘talking mouth’ like on Conan O’ Brian!… [Whatever that means.] PRAY that this event will begin a movement to change the world!” Rick, we already have a “movement” that has been changing the world for 2,000 years.

A.W. Tozer wrote long before our slide into feel-good religion: “A religion, even popular Christianity, could enjoy a boom altogether divorced from the transforming power of the Holy Spirit and so leave the church of the next generation worse off than it would have been if the boom had never occurred. I believe that the imperative need of the day is not simply revival, but a radical reformation that will go to the root of our moral and spiritual maladies and deal with causes rather than with consequences, with the disease rather than with symptoms.” Tozer predicted that something like the megachurch movement would be more harmful rather than helpful to the cause of Christ. He was on target.

A.W. Tozer wrote long before our slide into feel-good religion: “A religion, even popular Christianity, could enjoy a boom altogether divorced from the transforming power of the Holy Spirit…”

The impressive “success” of the megachurch movement could become a curse upon Christianity. First, they are not winning that many people to Christ. They have become the Wal-Mart of religion. They, like Wal-Mart, move into an area, build impressive, comfortable, accessible showcase churches and pull untaught, weak, dissatisfied members from smaller churches within thirty miles. However, when the “bloom is off the rose” (or when the bloom is off the boom) the flower wilts and so will the churches–especially those who specialize in fluff and cotton candy sermons.  Maybe those megachurches will be turned into, well, maybe Wal-Marts. 

I would remind pastors who are flirting with Hybels, Warren, and Company (modern day pitchmen for snake-oil remedies) to remember that Paul told us in I Cor. 1:18: “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness….” It will never be popular to follow Christ and carry the bloodstained banner of the cross. Real Christians following in the footsteps of the Apostle Paul will always be considered the “off scouring” of the earth. (Please don’t tell Robbie Schuller I said that.) Feel-good preachers do not want to recognize that real Christians down through the ages have been hated and they have been hated because unregenerate men hate our Savior.

Charles H. Spurgeon who pastored the first megachurch over a hundred years ago in London, wrote:  “That very church which the world likes best is sure to be that which God abhors.” He would not be invited to preach at any of the national preachers’ meetings with that kind of attitude!

So principled pastors must swim against the current or to change metaphors, they must face the prevailing winds and lean into the wind as they oppose novelties, frivolities, and trivialities that are being pitched as new, innovative, and sure-cure answers for dwindling crowds and lack of interest. They are not “sure-cures” but cheap snake oil that will make the Body sick. We must remember that our success comes from Him: “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty” (Zec. 4:6).

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