The Relevant Church
Soft-peddling the gospel?
by William Dicks
The church growth gurus have long claimed that what is necessary for the church, is to become relevant to the world. According to them the church should be in the business of discovering the felt needs of the community and ministering to those needs in culturally acceptable modes. This means that if the community is very entertainment oriented, then the church should gear itself to minister to the community through entertainment and that the gospel should be presented in an entertaining way. In this way we can make the gospel more acceptable to the world in order to make it easier for them to accept it. It is said that the church needs to speak to the world in culturally understood language and that the language of the Bible is not easily understood by the world. The question is: "Is it right that we become so relevant to the world and making the gospel so acceptable to the world that we actually take the truth out of the gospel?"
The fact is that all over the western world there is a conglomeration of different cultures mixing due to wide scale emigration to the west by peoples from the east (middle east to Japan). From all these people also come a wide range of different religions, like Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and many more that have sparked a new hotchpotch religion called New Age. All these people groups and religions have influenced our thinking to help bring about what is called post-modernism. There is no objective truth. What is true for you may not be true for me. What is false to you may be true for me. If God exists for you, then that is fine. If he does not exist for me, that is also fine. Therefore, when the church makes its truth claims it is seen as anything from bigotry to hate speech. This naturally will bring a sense of negative church growth to the church growth gurus.
As a result, many different ways of preaching the "gospel" have been brought into church services in order to make the "gospel" understandable to the world. In many modern western churches normal preaching of God's word has made way for big production shows where congregations are entertained in order to keep their interest in church. Negative things are not brought up in the preaching of the word in order not to offend anybody in the church so that there would be no risk of people leaving the church or people as a result not accepting the "gospel." Therefore, speaking of hell is a taboo that will not be mentioned. The unsaved are never confronted with their evil natures and sin is not mentioned. The preaching of the "gospel" simply amounts to Jesus being a magic wand that will fix up our lives. Jesus will take your pain away! Jesus will solve your financial problems! Jesus will sort out your bad relationships! People no longer know that they are sinners! They are told that they are victims of a world gone bad and they are not really responsible for any of it. Come to Jesus and He will make it better!
The church has become so relevant that they entertain and psychoanalyse people straight into hell!
David Wells, in his very poignant book No Place For Truth Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology, writes concerning the "disappearance of theology" and truth from the church that it "is hard to miss in the evangelical world-in the vacuous worship that is so prevalent, for example, in the shift from God to the self as the central focus of faith, in the psychologized preaching that follows this shift, in the erosion of its conviction, in its strident pragmatism, in its inability to think incisively about the culture, in its reveling in the irrational. And it would have made few of these capitulations to modernity had not its capacity for truth diminished. It is not hard to see these things; avoiding them is what is difficult."1
It is clear from Wells' book that the church has lost its grasp on theology; the truth. Instead of truth being preached from pulpits, pragmatism has taken its place with man as the central focus. Most sermons are "fix-it" sermons. Sermons to prop up our self esteem. It is no longer the "gospel" that saves; methods save! It is no longer Christ that builds His church; fads and entertainment will grow it for Him. Sermons are not reckoned to be true or false anymore. That is completely beside the point. Can I improve myself if I apply the sermon to my life? The truth is measure simply by whether it works or not. Pragmatism...that is what the church is preaching in many areas of the world. If pragmatism is the gauge of truth, then Hinduism, Buddhism, Zen, ESP, the New Age, psychoanalysis are all true, since they bring about good results! According to this system of thought, what makes it Christian? Simply add the name of Jesus. Methodology, what works, has taken precedence over theology; truth.
Quoting 1 Jn 2:16-17, " For all that is in the world- the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions-is not from the Father but is from the world.  And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever (ESV)," John MacArthur writes that this worldliness in the church "is the sin of allowing one's appetites, ambitions, or conduct to be fashioned according to earthly values... today we have the extraordinary spectacle of church programs designed to explicitly cater to fleshly desire, sensual appetites, and human pride-'the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life.' To achieve this worldly appeal, church activities often go beyond the merely frivolous... many in the church believe this is the only way we will ever reach the world. If the unchurched multitudes don't want biblical preaching, we are told, we must give them what they want... Preaching the Word and boldly confronting sin are seen as archaic, ineffectual means of winning the world... [we must make Jesus] more likable or [make] His message less offensive. That kind of thinking badly skews the mission of the church. The Great Commission is not a marketing manifesto. Evangelism does not require salesmen, but prophets."2
Like MacArthur, I do not see innovation as bad in itself, but when it is used as a "philosophy that relegates God and His Word to a subordinate role in the church,"3 then I believe that the church has abdicated her God-given mandate to preach the pure Word of truth, the gospel!
All this new methodology, incorporating fads and entertainment, are simply there as a new marketing strategy. It has become important for the modern church to market itself, since the world has done such a good job at marketing itself. The church is competing against the world! It follows that since many of these churches are no longer run as ministries of the Lord Jesus Christ, but as competing businesses in an ever changing world, that the next step in promoting themselves would be modern marketing strategies designed by experts.
Success in this modern church is measured by the amount of people attending these churches. The bigger the church the more "truth" it is obviously preaching. If the church is growing, then it must be successful!
In all of this, sermons on the evils of sin, eternal punishment or the wrath of God are never heard. Sermons like these will scare people away and it is better not to offend people. The church has become ashamed of the gospel!
Paul's words are so apt in Rom 1:16, "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek." (ESV) The power of God for salvation is not in methods, fads, entertainment or marketing, but in the preaching of the gospel! Later, in Rom 10:13-15, Paul wrote, " For 'everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.'  But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?  And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, 'How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!'" (ESV) Those who call out to the Lord to be saved, do so not due to the methods, fads, entertainment or marketing, but do so as a result of the preaching of the gospel!
If we look at this new paradigm in the church, then Jesus certainly was a failure at evangelism! " And behold, a man came up to him, saying, "Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?"  And he said to him, "Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments."  He said to him, "Which ones?" And Jesus said, "You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness,  Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself."  The young man said to him, "All these I have kept. What do I still lack?"  Jesus said to him, "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me."  When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.  And Jesus said to his disciples, "Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven.  Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God."  When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, "Who then can be saved?"  But Jesus looked at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."" (Mt 19:16-26 ESV)
Here was a young man that came to Jesus to inquire about eternal life. Obviously he was ripe for the picking. Jesus did not have to do door-to-door evangelism. The young man approached Him. All Jesus had to do was to close the deal. Here was a young man that had an honest desire for eternal life. All that Jesus had to do was tell him to simply believe in Jesus. That would have sealed it! However, when the young man asked what he needed to do to have eternal life, Jesus told him to keep the commandments. The young man must have known the commandments well and so he wanted to know which ones he was to keep. It is interesting that Jesus did not quote the first four commandments dealing with God-ward actions but rather quoted the last six commandments that dealt with human relationships! Did Jesus indeed know that this man was doing just fine on the first four, but not with the last six? The young man then replied with the fact that he indeed kept all these commandments. The words of Jesus must have ripped through the heart of the young man when He said "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." Jesus in essence told the young man, "If you want eternal life, you need to be perfect. In order to be perfect you can try to keep all the commandments, but you will still fail. And upon the remote possibility that you could keep all the commandments, you will need to lay down your whole life, including all your possessions to inherit eternal life, which comes only through Me!" Jesus was showing this man the futility in trying to please God, since our sinful natures can try to keep the commandments, but still fail in getting eternal life, since we are in essence selfish! When the young man left in a sorrowful state, Jesus did not change His message to reel the young man in, but let him go, since the young man simply could not and would not walk in the path that Jesus walked!
Paul charged Timothy to "preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.  For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions,  and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths." (2 Tim 4:2-4 ESV) In a world where the first love of people is themselves, such a market-driven philosophy in ministry cater well to their selfish lifestyles. A religion like this allows such people to be comfortable in their materialistic urges and as a result they will flock to it in their multitudes. Promise people to be patted on the back for their self-love and they will respond positively! Paul makes it clear to Timothy that he must continue to preach the truth at every occasion, not giving in to the whim of people, but if necessary rather rebuke and reprove people with the truth. When the world starts using the methods of the world to prop people up in their selfish attitudes it will inadvertently lead to the church and the people they intend to bring in, to turning away from listening to and preaching the truth toward wandering off into myths.
Naturally in the church's attempt to become relevant to the world, there is the need to become inoffensive to the world. That means that the inherent offensiveness of the gospel must be removed. Three offensive parts of the gospel message must be removed. First of all, we find the fact of the human sin condition. Next, God's wrath against this sin must be removed from the message. Lastly, Christ Himself must be removed as a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence.
First, we need to deal with the problem of sin. In the modern world sin has become a non-entity. It simply does not exist! What do exist are victims, victims of our society and of our surroundings. When someone gruesomely murders someone else, it is not because he is a sinner, but because of his background; the way he was brought up. Something went wrong in his upbringing. He is the victim of his own past. However, the Bible calls this sin. Should we, as the church, call it anything else but sin too? Without sin, there would be no need for forgiveness from God. There would have been no need for Jesus to die on the cross! Jesus died to carry our sins on the cross. "He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed." (1 Pet 2:24 ESV) Why would He carry our sins on the cross if it was not the problem of the human condition?
Next, in the church's message it has to deal with the wrath of God toward sinners. The fact is that God hates sin and "the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth." (Rom 1:18 ESV) Only in Christ can we be saved from the wrath of God. (Rom 5:9) In their sin and disobedience toward God, those without Christ will experience the wrath of God. (Eph 5:6) The wrath of God is coming on account of sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire and covetousness. (Col 3:5-6) Why is it that the church does not preach on God's wrath anymore? Is it perhaps that, in their quest for relevance, it is ashamed of the true gospel? How can a God of love also be a God of wrath? The church has lost its theology!
Finally, Christ Himself must be taken off the solo scene so as not to offend those from other faiths. "as it is written, 'Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.'" (Rom 9:33 ESV; see 1 Pet 2:7-8) Christ is a stumbling stone to the world. "Jesus said to him, 'I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.'" (Jn 14:6 ESV) The world tells us that Jesus cannot be the only one. Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit said, "there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved." (Ac 4:12 ESV) In our preaching, are we clear on this point?
When we preach our sermons, are we clear on man's condition of sin? Are we making sure that people understand the fact that God hates sin and as a result His wrath bears down on those who continue in it? Do we painstakingly continue preaching salvation in Christ and Christ alone? If we continue not to preach these elements, then the gospel we preach is a watered down gospel and the people we claim were saved by this "non-gospel" may not be saved at all!
It is now time for each church and ministry that names the name of Christ to rely on the preaching of the pure unadulterated gospel for the gospel "is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes." (Rom 1:16 ESV)
1 Wells, David, No Place For Truth Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology, Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, Paperback Edition 1993, p95.
2 MacArthur, John Jr., Ashamed of the Gospel, Crossway Books, Wheaton, Illinois, First printing, 1993, Preface, xvii-xviii.
3 Ibid., xviii-xix.
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