Have Churches Become Laboratories?

Much has been said about the impact of marketing strategies and Madison Avenue techniques being drawn into fundamental Christian circles, but none is so threatening as the transformation of local churches into places of experimentation and innovation. It should be evident that too many have moved the focus away from our pulpits and preaching and elevated the demands of people in order to secure their attendance and participation.

Let us be clear that we do not canonize traditions, as some have accused, but we are suspicious of change for its own sake and concerned over the endless pursuit of novelty that can diminish the clear preaching and teaching of the Word of God. We ought, at the least, to be somewhat suspect of those too eager to tear down traditions just because they are highly regarded norms that have simply lasted too long, in their opinion. Those anxious for change need to remember that traditions have not risen out of obscurity, nor were they born without rationale. Therefore, they deserve reasonable examination before we hastily declare them out of date, and those who press for change must bear the burden of explanation as to why change should be made.

The real threat, however, is the endless fleshly passion for novelty and creativity so well demonstrated on Mars Hill. The great attraction there was not the teaching of absolute Truth, but the perpetual pursuit of novelty, seeking to "hear some new thing." The altar to the unknown god marked them as ever learning but never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. When the Apostle Paul declared unto them Jesus Christ, it is clear from the text that they preferred the excitation of unpredictable novelty to the singular, unchanging message of the Gospel.

The lesson of Mars Hill ought not to be lost on us, especially in our churches. While we no longer use Gregorian chants and enjoy the blessings of modern times, we must hasten to add that, until recently, the changes introduced were not objectives unto themselves. Two principles have prevailed that should not be abandoned: First, those changes that were accepted enhanced and complemented, but never eclipsed, the preaching and teaching of the whole counsel of the Word of God and the fulfillment of the Great Commission. Secondly, contrary to the spirit of our day, those changes never came in response to pleasing people more than pleasing God. In far too many churches, innovations in worship have diminished the preaching of the Word, both in quantity and quality; and leaders have become more swayed by the expectations of the spiritually illiterate and reprobate and less determined to honor the Lord in their methods as well as their message.

Obviously, churches suffer the quantitative loss of preaching when the preaching of the Word is relegated to a postscript or commercial message tagged on at the end of what has evolved into little more than fleshly entertainment. Both preaching and prayer have become the minority portion of worship services, with the result that the people understand precious little of the Word and, thereby, become more vulnerable to every wind of doctrine they hear elsewhere from wolves in sheep's clothing. "Worship leaders" and "praise bands" teach generic praise choruses that could be sung in almost any church and have scorned the doctrinally rich hymns of the faith for so long that the coming generation doesn't know them.

So likewise, churches suffer the loss of qualitative preaching of the Word. Typically the preaching not only becomes shorter but also shallower. When we look for ways to appease "seekers" in our church services, we will be tempted to pull the punches of our preaching, and the price of our misplaced temperance will be measured by the ignorance of Bible doctrine and the worldliness of professing believers, making our local churches more like social clubs than outposts of the Gospel. First, let us remember that the preaching of the cross of Christ will always be foolishness to unregenerate men and an offence to the unbelieving world. Shall we then fail to mention the blood and the cross because that would offend sensitive seekers, or shall we set aside strong doctrine in favor of lighter subjects, or better still, move away from Scripture altogether and limit our speaking to popular subjects in psychology? Some of our brethren have bought into such foolishness and sold their calling to the ministry of the Gospel far too cheaply in the process. How can unbelievers and worldly Christians really know what they need, spiritually speaking, and since when has the younger generation of professing fundamentalists become wiser than their elders?

What happens when the experiments fail? Worship, in ways that are more appealing because they are worldly, has a limited life span. Many who have sold out to the contemporary worship and upbeat speaking hold fond hopes of switching their new sheep from the entertainment to serious doctrine, but the track record thus far suggests that the churches thus engaged will more likely compromise further to keep the crowd than draw them into real fundamentalism. What a tragic loss when a church betrays its testimony and its position in the name of success. If on the other hand, the church does try to take a doctrinal stand while using contemporary methods, the resulting confusion from the mixed message will drive people away, disillusioned and unlikely to ever find their way back to any kind of fundamental convictions.

We must seriously ask ourselves if our indulgence in creativity and invention is really worth the price of those who have been casualties of our innovative ministries. We need to assert the Biblical pattern for the local church and stop wasting time and resources looking for Scriptural loopholes that open the doors to fleshly indulgences. As pastors eagerly search for liberty and license, by perverting the Word, so also their people learn to live as close to the world as possible. The resulting changes are evident, such as in concessionary attitudes towards entertainment, as well as the rising acceptance of divorce and remarriage, "innocent" parties notwithstanding.

Where is the distinction between the holy and the unholy? Where is the certain sound from our pulpits to be conformed to Christ and deformed to the world? Since when are God's servants commendable for endorsing the people's hunger for the "quail" of this world and their dissatisfaction with God's heavenly manna? We need to turn the eyes of our people away from men, including themselves, and bring their focus to Christ, submitting them to the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit and the whole counsel of God's Word. It is His work, not our's.

Pastor Charles L. Dear