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Chasing Windmills
by Derek Elkins
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With the prevalence of casinos and the lottery throughout the United States, it could seem to the casual observer that Americans are obsessed with a “get-rich-quick” mentality. If there is a way that Americans, as a whole, could work less and get paid more, it has been thought of and dreamed of by someone before. Movie stars and star athletes are revered as gods, not only because their visages are bigger than life, but also because they have achieved the capitalist dream of getting rich, usually at an early age in life. We live under the false conception that if we were rich, all of our problems would disappear. We think that if we are successful, as the culture defines success, then our joy will become complete. With the rise and duplication of the mega-church, those churches whose members number way over 1000, this “get-rich-quick” mentality has pervaded the modern church as well.

A simple search for “church growth books” on Amazon.com yielded 2288 results, ranging from the well known, such as the Purpose Driven Church by Rick Warren to the slightly less known, such as The Church Growth Handbook by William Easum. These books seemed designed for one underlying purpose: to assist lead pastors in growing their congregations to mega-size. They offer a variety of methods and programs, each designed to stimulate growth and attract Christians and non-believers especially. The Purpose Driven Church by Rick Warren, lead Pastor of Saddleback Church was first published in 1995. The book presents a model that is aimed to attract the un-churched to the local church. This model is especially appealing because it is written by a pastor whose church now numbers over 20,000 members. The aim of the church growth book was to lesson the reasons that would make un-churched people hesitant to visit the church. Theology-heavy dialogue and religious symbols were discouraged and a heavier emphasis on entertainment in the worship services was prescribed. The book has sold over 25 million copies, making The Purpose Driven Church the best-selling church growth book of all time.

Now, eleven years after The Purpose Driven Church first made an appearance, church leaders are noticing a surprising trend among the un-churched. According to Dan Kimball, a leading writer on the forefront of a new church growth movement, modern un-churched people are looking to church for a greater degree of spirituality than the Purpose-Driven model allowed. They now want to return to the church’s roots. In his book The Emerging Church, Kimball tells the story of one such postmodern coming to Christianity.
“In fact,” he writes, “I learned later from Sky that if we had offered the type of things typically associated with a ‘seeker-sensitive service,’ he wouldn’t have been interested. If he was going to take the time to go to a church service, he told me, he wanted to experience an authentic spiritual event in which he could see if God was truly alive and being worshipped.”
The Emerging Church movement presents several valid reasons why the local church needs to change its format in order to reach the next generation of un-churched individuals. It paints a very real and vivid image of the problems associated with the modern church and modern Christians in particular. However, while the Emerging Church Movement is very astute in recognizing definite problems in modern Christianity that need to be addressed and corrected, the solution it provides does no more than the Purpose-Driven Movement did to fix the problems it identifies.

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “I like your Christ but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” When one looks around at modern Christianity, one can agree somewhat with what Gandhi was saying. There are a number of attributes introduced into Christianity that did not come from the Bible. And if the Emergent Church movement has done anything, it has been instrumental in pointing out these deficiencies to a church that is in desperate need of being awakened to its problems. Unbelievers today are very well aware of the problems associated with Christianity, and it is these problems that keep many non-Christians far away from the doors of any Christian church.

In his book A New Kind of Christian, Brian McLaren speaks through his character Neo to aptly describe our current situation. Other religions besides Christianity “aren’t the enemy of the gospel, in my mind, any more than Christianity is the enemy – though, of course, sometimes it is” (McLaren, p.63). Neo’s point is twofold. One, other religions shouldn’t be attacked because attacking other religions is no way to make Christianity attractive to others. Second, Christians, when they are not acting anything like Christ can be very detrimental to the non-Christian’s view of Christianity.

There are several ways in which Christians can make Christianity unattractive to non-believers. The biggest characteristic that comes to mind when discussing the ugliness of some Christians is that they act like hypocrites. But acting like a hypocrite is really just a summation of several different bad qualities; a generalization rather than specific fault finding. So, what makes up a Christian hypocrite? For starters, Christians are often viewed as unloving by some non-Christians (Kimball p.79). This is obviously in direct contradiction to Jesus, Who proclaimed that love was the highest goal.

Another major difficulty for non-Christians is one that has already received sufficient spotlight from the Rick Warren book A Purpose Driven Church: the worship services of the modern church are seen as irrelevant or boring. They exist to serve themselves, are lacking in spirituality, and are simply not attractive to non-Christians.

Many in the today’s generation also see Christians as being judgmental and close-minded. They see Christians as being fundamentalists who are against all other religions, against any sort of fun, against any other culture than the Western one, and against what society has deemed socially acceptable, such as homosexuality, evolution, and abortion. And Christians have even fed into those misconceptions. After all, Christianity has invented its own subculture where they can get any style of music festooned with Christian lyrics, Christian movies for the adults and Christian cartoons for the kids. There are even Christian yellow pages, where one can know for certain that those they hire will also be Christian. Christians have separated themselves from the world, then copied the world’s toys and labeled those new toys “Christian”.

Non-Christians are also reacting negatively to the entertainment-driven worship service that was prescribed so heavily in “The Purpose Driven Church”. They see the entertainment of the modern church as being false or not spiritual enough. They are seeking a more spiritual encounter when they enter into their worship of the divine. Dan Kimball in The Emerging Church writes of one such encounter with non-Christians.
“It didn’t look like a church in there; it looked like a Wal-Mart.” This
comment caught me totally off guard. A Wal-Mart? It was a brand-new
building, with state-of-the-art equipment – great lighting, nice video
screens, and contemporary architecture. Most pastors would absolutely
love to have a worship center like this. But my “focus group” friends said
the building had the air of a chain church, somewhat corporate and
Kimball’s “focus group” was reacting to the church that had been prescribed to lure in non-Christians just less than fifteen years before by Rick Warren. What Kimball discovered was that people today are more spiritually sensitive than those twenty years prior.

Finally, Christians, as a whole have been maligned through efforts of the media and the Internet. For example, on television, Christians are portrayed for the most part as buffoons, the crazy ones, and as the ones who still need a grip on reality. Rarely, except for some Christian television stations, are Christians portrayed as wise and caring. Americans, however, are seemingly more spiritual in nature than the generation that came before us, so they are seeking things that are more spiritual in nature. That is why there is a Christian on a hit show, such as Lost, but that Christian has no more biblically-based beliefs than any of the non-Christians on the island. In fact, the Christians in media are more likely to be pluralistic in their religious beliefs: they are more likely to endorse the idea that all religions are equal.

The Emergent Church Movement does present several different suggestions to combat the difficulties found in the modern church. But it must be pointed out that quite a number of the solutions that the Emergent Church Movement offers are a direct reaction to what was offered non-Christians several years ago by the Purpose-Driven Movement. The old methods to drawing unbelievers in are just not working anymore it seems, so the new movement offers fresh ideas to draw in the crowd. In fact, the old ways introduced in The Purpose Driven Church have repulsed this current generation, so the Emergent Church Movement offers a certain style for those who will not be drawn in by past tried and true methods.

The Seeker-Sensitive solution offered by Warren presented a more entertainment-driven arena for worship. Gone was anything that made unbelievers feel uncomfortable, such as theological terminology and Christian symbols. In place of the old was a more relevant style of worship, with every modern convenience, such as media-assisted holy seminars, a full praise and worship band, and a slightly more corporate approach to church advertising. A fast-paced approach to discipleship was introduced as a gauge to measure the maturity of the Christians. The church building became the evangelistic tool most favored.

What the Emerging Church Movement found out, however, is that the Seeker-Sensitive approach was driving away those of a younger generation. Those in this newer generation were not interested in a church that tried hard to compete with the world for the non-believer’s attention. This younger generation, called by some the “postmodern generation”, desires a worship experience that is heavy on spirituality, community, and an acceptance for all. With a few exceptions, the Emergent Church Movement’s response to the dissatisfaction of the postmodern generation is to adapt the worship service so that it is focused on spirituality and community. In all fairness, Dan Kimball in “The Emerging Church” does frequently warn that meeting the demands of the postmodern generation cannot be resolved through changing the worship service alone. He signifies that worship leaders and pastors “must not try to simply replace the outer wrappings of our ministries. We must look at the inner core with a new mind set” (Kimball p.15). He recognizes that the problem with the postmodern generation is not one that can be overcome by changing our methods of advertising, such as worship styles. Rather, the problems are such that Christians must change the way they think and deal with the non-Christian population. It is all the more disappointing therefore when the entire second half of his book is devoted to offering a new dynamic for worship services.

Both the Seeker-Sensitive model presented by Warren and the basic Emergent Church model presented chiefly by Kimball and McLaren fall short of fixing the aforementioned problems with the modern Christian church for two reasons. First, both solutions do not accept the fact that the local church was established to spiritually mature believers and not to cater to unbelievers. When the church starts to focus on how to draw in additional non-Christians, it can fall into the trap of watering down the gospel message or placing it second to style. The church tends also to focus on giving non-Christians what they want (such as a heavy emphasis on spiritual symbols and atmosphere) rather than what they need (a point blank addressing of man’s sinful nature and his punishment). Perhaps non-Christians are avoiding church not because they think church is boring but because they don’t wish to be convicted of their sin.

Second, multiplying believers is better than adding them. When the church focuses its efforts on evangelism, or on making the worship services the main evangelistic tool, it simply adds those who may happen into the services and also happen to accept Christ as their Lord and Savior. When the modern church focuses its efforts on bringing unbelievers into the church, it limits its evangelism to one individual: the local church building. If the church could instead focus on discipleship of those that are already Christians, it could end up multiplying its evangelistic efforts. After a full discipleship, there are now two mature Christians, who will both be involved in evangelistic efforts rather just the one mature Christian before. Then, when that newly mature Christian disciples a new believer, and the old mature Christian disciples a new believer as well, that multiplies into four mature believers. The greater the number of mature believers equals a greater number of evangelistic attempts, effectively reaching non-Christians that may never enter into a church on their own.
So, what would be a better model for a church to reach the postmodern or any generation? The design of the church is not the problem. Regardless of what a person believes, their main concern is really not with how Christians are hypocrites or how the modern church can be boring and irrelevant. Man is a sinner and separated from God regardless if that person is a postmodern or a modern thinker. So, it really is not a matter of what will attract this or that generation, but if a person will admit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in their lives. The style of the worship service simply doesn’t matter.

Knowing that multiplication is better than addition, it makes better sense for a church to be designed to mature the believers it already has. The model church would concentrate on educating the Christians in its midst. It would also concentrate on utilizing application alongside its teaching, because a person can remember a little of what they hear, and a little more of what they see, but they can remember the most from what they do hands-on. It is not enough to tell people how to study the Bible. Incorporating an application that forces them to perform studying using the correct techniques will enable them to remember how to study and to do so more frequently.
The model church would also make the Christians wholly responsible for evangelism. For one reason, any Christian who came to Christ should be able to explain to a non-Christian how to traverse that same path. If a Christian cannot explain the way to eternal life to someone else then maybe that person never traveled that path in the first place. Second, Christians are commanded to make disciples and teach others about Christ by Jesus Himself. If the local church does not enable the Christian properly then the church leaders are assisting the Christians in their midst to sin against the commands of Jesus.

Finally, the model church would emphasize and promote mentoring within the confines of the local church. If overcoming the hypocrisy of Christians is the goal, then the church needs a valid plan to mature new Christians into more of a semblance of Jesus. Mentoring would put an end or at least be a starting point to putting an end to immature Christians. Mentoring pairs a mature believer with a new Christian and enables that mature Christian to concentrate his or her efforts in bringing their fellow Christian to maturity. With a one-on-one relationship instead of a group study, the new believer can receive specialized attention and a greater degree of accountability and follow through.

Like Don Quixote, the Emergent Church Movement is attacking a straw man instead of the real issues it establishes. The points of contention that the movement has identified, such as the hypocrisy of many Christians, the insensitivity of many Christians to other cultures and religions, and the desires and thought patterns of a new generation, are very real and a definite stumbling block for the modern church. But the modern church will not overcome these very real problems by changing its worship service to become more attractive to non-Christians.

There are patterns in Christianity’s past where Christians have gone through periods of strong academic pursuits. These periods are followed by a desire by Christians as a whole to pursue more spiritual concerns over knowledge or academic concerns. Perhaps the current spiritual fervor is a direct result of a strong emphasis upon knowledge from a previous generation, and perhaps the resulting academic revival is a direct result of a period of heavy spiritual pursuit from directly before that. Whatever the reasons, the modern church has found itself in the midst of a people and time which desires a stronger emphasis on spiritual activity rather than knowledge. But the goal of the local church has and always will remain a constant regardless of the pursuits of the world around it. The local church is to be a light to a world in darkness, salt to a flavorless people. The style of the worship should not be a factor. Whether the local church is meeting its requirements given by God is the only criteria that the church should be judged upon.

*Dan Kimball. The Emerging Church. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003.

*Brian McLaren. A New Kind of Christian. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001.

*Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo. Adventures in Missing the Point. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003.

*Rick Warren. The Purpose Driven Church. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995.

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Member Comments
Member Date
Thomas Kittrell 03 May 2006
This article has a lot of food for thought. We must remember it is Christ's church, not ours. Therefore we must be led by the Holy Spirit in our management of the affairs of the local church activities, or our efforts will not bear the fruit Christ intended. Your thoughts are mainly on target, and I commend you. One thing I questioned, however, was your allusion to the mega-church being a modern day thing. I could not help but remember the account of the thousands who were added to the church in the book of Acts. But the message I believe you are trying to get across is a timely one and a good one. Thank you for allowing me to read this. Thomas, www.dustonthebible.com


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