From Voice, Nov/Dec 2013. Used by permission.
One of the most insightful of recent books concerning the church is actually written by an unbeliever. Alan Wolfe, a social scientist, has been observing the changing American religious scene for years. A few years ago he shared his research in The Transformation of American Religion (New York: Free Press, 2003). The message of his book is that “religion in the United States is being transformed in radically new directions” (3). Wolfe claims,
Talk of Hell, damnation, and even sin has been replaced by a nonjudgmental language of understanding and empathy. Gone are the arguments over doctrine and theology… More Americans than ever proclaim themselves born again in Christ, but the Lord to whom they turn rarely gets angry and frequently strengthens self-esteem. [As a result] the faithful in the United States are remarkably like everyone else. (3)
If Wolfe’s assessments are on target, what would be the catalyst for this transformation (or better, degeneration)? Wolfe’s thesis is that in an effort to win over American culture, Evangelicalism has stooped so low that it can no longer be distinguished from that culture. Take doctrine for example. Small-group Bible studies avoid theology like the plague, lest it prove divisive. Sermons are no better.
Generally speaking, preaching in Evangelically oriented growth churches, however dynamic in delivery, has remarkably little actual content. Scripture is invariably cited but only as a launching pad to reinforce the message of salvation that Jesus can offer. (31)
And what kind of salvation is Jesus offering? Why, “Jesus will save your soul and your marriage, make you happy, heal your body, and even make you rich. Who wouldn’t look twice at that offer?” (32).
Nor is this a message found only in the Prosperity Gospel fringe. The wildly popular book The Prayer of Jabez, written not too many years ago and endorsed, not to mention read, by mainstream Evangelicals, “is a concept of religion so narcissistic that it makes prosperity theology look demanding by contrast” (33).
As a matter of fact, the rapid growth of Evangelicalism, as Wolfe sees it, is not due to their unique message but to their capitulation to the culture’s message: “Evangelicalism’s popularity is due as much to its populistic and democratic urges—its determination to find out exactly what believers want and offer it to them—as it is to certainties of the faith” (36).
One megachurch pastor in Cincinnati describes his church growth philosophy with an “almost” biblical quote, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is fun!” (194). And another pastor in Houston frankly admits, “I take what is worldly, and baptize it” (195). These approaches are resulting in popularity.
But popularity means bowing to, rather than resisting, popular culture, and since American popular culture is one that puts more emphasis on feeling good than thinking right, these movements tend to be especially hostile to potentially divisive doctrinal controversy. (76)
I find myself agreeing with this self-avowed unsaved man who concludes his book with this statement:
This adherence to growth can have its frustrations; watching sermons reduced to PowerPoint presentations or listening to one easily forgettable praise song after another makes one long for an Evangelical willing to stand up, Luther-like, and proclaim his opposition to the latest survey of Evangelical taste. (256)
But enough of Mr. Wolfe’s penetrating analysis of Evangelicalism. Alan Wolfe has skillfully exposed the mortal disease of the new paradigm church, but what is the remedy? For that we turn, not to Mr. Wolfe, but to the New Testament. And I can think of no better passage for our purposes than Ephesians 4:11-16.
God’s design for the church
What is God’s design for the church? How should it function? What is its mission? The inspired Apostle Paul, in a few short verses, sets the agenda. God’s plan begins with gifted men whom He has given to the church (Ephesians 4:11). These include apostles and prophets, who were foundational to the church, passing from the scene when that foundation had been laid (Ephesians 2:20). They were followed by evangelists and pastor-teachers who build the superstructure upon the apostolic base. These gifted men are given to the church for a specific task: “the equipping of the saints for the work of service to the building up of the body of Christ” (v. 12).
This building up of the body is for the purpose of achieving four things: unity of the faith, the knowledge of the Son of God, maturity and Christlikeness (v. 13). In turn the attaining of these objectives results in: no longer being easily deceived spiritual children, speaking the truth in love, growing up into Christ (vv. 14-15). When such lives predominate in a local church, and when the individuals of that body are living out their God-given roles, then that body of believers will be one that is both growing spiritually and being built up in love (v. 16). That’s the big picture, let’s now examine the details.
Gifted men are given to the local church in order to “equip the saints for the work of service.” The word “equip” was a term used in the first century for the setting of bones. When an arm is broken, for example, the arm is out of alignment and functionally useless. The gifted men were to be instruments of God to bring proper alignment to the body in order that there might be “the building up of the body of Christ.” In order for the body of Christ to be built up the gifted men would need to bring about an adjustment in the local church, which would enable believers to carry out the “work of service.”
How would they do this? How were they to equip the saints, what was their method? I think we can safely say that this was not to be accomplished through conducting seminars on the latest business techniques or providing psychological profiles. The instrument used for equipping was, and is, the Word of God. This is not a logical deduction but rather clear revelation.
Paul wrote to Timothy, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16, 17). The word for “equipped” in both Ephesians 4:12 and 2 Timothy 3:17 comes from the same root word attics, which carries the idea of equipping for a delegated task. Paul is clear in his instructions to Timothy: it is the Scriptures that equip us for every good work. So we are not surprised to find that the immediate charge to Timothy is to “preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:1, 2). If Timothy is to equip the church he must be a preacher of the Word. And if he is to properly preach the Word, he must first be one who is “handling accurately the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). That is, Timothy must be a careful student of the Word so that when he preached, he would be preaching the message that God intended. That is how God proposes His church be built up—through the careful, accurate, clear preaching and teaching of His Word. Nothing else will accomplish the task.
We can tell inspiring stories, sing beautiful or peppy music, fill our calendars full of social events, professionalize our program and provide small groups for every conceivable interest, but if the Scripture is not diligently, systematically and correctly taught, Christ’s people will not be equipped and the body will not be built up, period! There are no exceptions to this mandate. The church must be proclaimers of the “word of truth,” it must be the utmost priority. Congregations which focus on techniques, programs and entertainment, at the expense of the centrality of the Word, may very well build large followings but they will not build the church of God. Programs, drama and entertainment may amuse, soothe inspire and stir the emotions, but they will not build Christians. Only the Word of God can do that.
(Tomorrow: Four marks of maturing churches)
Gary Gilley has served as Senior Pastor of Southern View Chapel in Springfield, Illinois since 1975. He has authored several books and is the book review editor for the Journal of Dispensational Theology. He received his BA from Moody Bible Institute and MBS and ThD degrees from Cambridge Graduate School. He and his wife Marsha have two adult sons and six grandchildren.