Recently there have been a couple of movements that have been gaining attention. Michael Spencer has recently posted a list of 13 items that he has seen as problems facing evangelicalism. This is a fairly good summary of what I have been thinking for years now about some of the older movements (like the prosperity teachers or the emerging church) and even more recently with another movement (broadly referred to as the church planting movement).
Many of Spencer's bullet points can be seen in these churches; such as #5: "The triumph and glorification of unchecked pragmatic entrepreneurialism, especially in worship". To me, this means that many new things are being attempted (the entrepreneurialism) and looked upon as something that is Godly just because they have been observed as being something that "works" (the pragmatism) - by driving people in the door. This may involve always doing "crazy" new things because of the observance of "radical results" that have been working to, partly, increase the numbers as well as "enlarging the territory". Over 50 years ago, we can find this written by A.W. Tozer:
The emphasis today in Christian circles appears to be on quantity, with a corresponding lack of emphasis on quality. Numbers, size and amount seem to be very nearly all that matters even among evangelicals. The size of the crowd, the number of converts, the size of the budget, the amount of the weekly collections: if these look good the church is prospering and the pastor is thought to be a success. The church that can show an impressive quantitative growth is frankly envied and imitated by other ambitious churches.Time and again throughout church history, you can find pastors and teachers cautioning the emphasis on gimmicks to increase the church's membership roll. From Pink to MacArthur. One of the other issues that Spencer sees is: "The demise of quality Biblical preaching at the hands of technology and entertainment." This is something that I really find fascinating, and it seems to me that the focus on "pragmatic entrepreneurialism" in doing new things may be causing a demise in the exposition of the Scriptures.
This is the age of the Laodiceans. The great goddess Numbers is worshiped with fervent devotion and all things religious are brought before her for examination. Her Old Testament is the financial report and her New Testament is the membership roll. To these she appeals as arbiters of all questions, the test of spiritual growth and the proof of success or failure in every Christian endeavor.
A little acquaintance with the Bible should show this up for the heresy it is. To judge anything spiritual by statistics is to judge by another than scriptural judgment. It is to admit the validity of externalism and to deny the value our Lord places upon the soul as over against the body. It is to mistake the old creation for the new and to confuse things eternal with things temporal. Yet it is being done every day by ministers, church boards and denominational leaders. And hardly anyone notices the deep and dangerous error.
But the ones of us who are complaining about these entertaining methods are not in the trenches trying to reach people for Jesus in full-time ministry. Who am I to say that things shouldn't be done this way? As the church planting movement has demonstrated, you have to do lots of new and crazy things in order to grow a church, right? The sermon has to be one of practicality without being too concerned with theology. However, I absolutely cannot believe that expository preaching and theology have to be given up in order to preach a practical message.
One of the most telling revelations was from Bill Hybels, pastor of the Willow Creek "megachurch". Just in the past couple of weeks he has issued the following apology related to the failure of the many programs at that church to produce true spiritual growth: "spiritual growth doesn't happen best by becoming dependent on elaborate church programs but through the age old spiritual practices of prayer, bible reading, and relationships. And, ironically, these basic disciplines do not require multi-million dollar facilities and hundreds of staff to manage". There are some who are skeptical about his apology, but I am seeing it as something truly hopeful and would like to see this church growth pioneer do even more in the future after being honest about the failures at his church. This is exactly what I've been trying to say.
This is where a man named Charles Spurgeon comes into play. Spurgeon is one of the greatest theologians in the history of Christendom and at 22 he was already preaching to 10,000 people (and was seeing growth that would stagger many minds in these recent movements). But Spurgeon wasn't one who would rely on gimmicks or entertainment. He is quoted as saying "Dear friends, we know that souls are not won by music, if they were it would be time for preachers to give way to opera singers." ("Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit," Volume 18, page 239) and "The heaving of the masses under newly invented excitements we are too apt to identify with the power of God. This age of novelties would seem to have discovered spiritual power in brass bands and tambourines...The tendency of the time is towards bigness, parade, and show of power, as if these would surely accomplish what more regular agencies have failed to achieve." ("Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit," Volume 28, page 377, 1882).
Truly, these sane words from a church growth phenomenon and theologian alike from nearly 130 years ago speak to the fact that a reformation is again needed in the minds of those who are trying to grow the church. Gimmicks aren't necessary for the Holy Spirit to work and grow His church. Of course, sometimes things can and should be done that are out of the box - I have no problem with this and being sensitive to the call of the Spirit. But continually looking for something that's never been done before can be a gimmick in itself.
Finally, there is something else that Spencer touched on that has a great deal of truth: "The failure of most evangelical denominations to broadly embrace and effectively mentor the current church planting movement." This is also something that Dr. Albert Mohler has recently touched upon. Not only has he has written of the loss of expository preaching at the center of worship (as I have mentioned earlier), but he has also written about the church planting movement and the fact that the traditional church needs to work hand-in-hand with that movement instead of seeming to be at odds. Dr. Mohler states:
Similarly, the passion to reach unreached populations is entirely laudable and urgent. The sad reality is that many of our established evangelical churches seem determined to reach only people who look like themselves -- if they are committed to reach anyone at all. The danger on the other side is that many of these newly-planted churches begin to look like their founders and first members. A church of tattooed twenty-somethings in New York can be just as lacking in diversity as the aging middle class congregation at First Church....Dr. Mohler is spot-on. The Church needs to work together more than we currently do. At the same time, there needs to be a re-evaluation of what is going to define "evangelicalism" (as in orthodox Christianity). This is my heartfelt effort at a call for Reformation. We, as Christ-followers, should be sensitive to the focus of our core mission - to "make disciples".
The energy and commitment evident in the church planting movement should encourage all who long to see a new wave of evangelism throughout North America. But this movement must be driven by a robust New Testament ecclesiology and must be undergirded by an eager embrace of the faith once for all delivered to the saints. This movement must complement -- not castigate -- existing churches. Each needs the other, and both can learn from each other.