(April 2008 – Volume 14, Issue 4)
A few years ago I wrote a book entitled This Little Church Went to Market: Is the Modern Church Reaching Out or Selling Out. There I explored in detail areas in which I believe the “seeker-sensitive” church model is missing the mark biblically, especially in regard to its gospel and doctrinal messages. That book was followed by This Little Church Stayed Home, a Faithful Church in Deceptive Times. The original intent was to identify the marks of a truly biblical church standing firm in the face of wide scale assaults by the forces of deception. While a portion of that volume was in fact dedicated to this intent, I also felt compelled to specifically address the areas of deception surrounding the rapidly growing emergent church movement. I am in the process of writing a third book in the “Little Church” series. This will be a book in which I will talk about “a church in search of truth.” My contention is that the great need of the moment is for Christ’s church to rediscover the truth that it has either lost or minimized, understand the inestimable value of the truth in lives of God’s people, and to recognize its role as the supporter and dispenser of truth (1 Tim 3:15).
I plan to entitle this book This Little Church Had None, a Church in Search of Truth because I believe that the vast majority of so-called evangelical churches and Christians have lost, or at least misplaced, this important mandate. Truth has been sacrificed on the altars of pragmatism, church growth, postmodern ideologies, paganism and hedonism, to name a few. In many cases this defection from truth is not so much by design as by ignorance and neglect. A whole generation of believers has grown up in churches in which the Word of God has not been systematically taught and appreciated. Naturally the people of this generation have marginalized the place of the Scriptures in their lives. How could we expect such Christians, Christians who have lived their lives largely outside the parameters of God’s truth, to understand the place of the centrality of the Word in their lives? After all, these very people have built large churches, funded major ministries, traveled world-wide on mission trips, showered compassion on the poor and needy and much more, all without the benefit of biblically-based lives and churches.
Exactly why should the Bible be returned to center stage? Evangelicalism has never appeared healthier. Megachurches dot our landscape, money is abundant (at least for the more popular ministries), evangelical superstars write books that are read by millions and appear on television talk shows regularly, the evangelical right can make or break a politician, Rick Warren’s P.E.A.C.E. plan is organizing the global church to win the war on poverty, sickness and illiteracy, etc. What more could we want? Christians are now appreciated in the market-place of ideas; we have an impact on culture and influence the political agenda. How could anyone not recognize the great progress made by the followers of Christ over the last 30 years?
Yet something is missing. Pollsters have confirmed this modern brand of evangelicalism is not changing lives – evangelicals live much the same as their unsaved counterparts. Church attendance has grown in the megachurches but not overall. As a percentage, taken as a whole, church growth has remained stagnant for years and millions of people have dropped out of the church. Christians are biblically illiterate and spurn doctrinal issues. The Bible remains the best selling book in the world but few read it and fewer still turn to Scripture for their understanding of life, or even God. It is as if the heart as been extracted from the patient, but few seem to notice because the patient is being kept alive through artificial means.
It is my contention that what is missing is the heart of truth as revealed through the Word. The writer of Hebrews tells us that God “spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways” (1:1), and in that form revealed the truths found in the Old Testament. The Old Testament revelation was supplemented by the New Testament because God “in these last days has spoken to us in His Son” (1:2). This communication of God through His Son was passed on through the apostles: “After it was first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard” (2:3). We therefore possess through the Scriptures the complete revelation of God for these “last days,” a revelation that is “inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17).
This beloved passage from Second Timothy is quoted by all segments of the Christian faith, but is apparently not believed by many. We rejoice in the fact that God has “breathed out” His Word so that we can hold in our hands and read with our eyes the inspired communication of God. But we balk at the idea that God’s Word is “adequate [to] equip [us] for every good work” (emphasis mine). Or as Peter says, “His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence” (2 Pet 1:3, emphasis mine). It is the emphasized words in these texts that many refuse to believe. We are most happy to possess the inspired Word of God as long as it does not interfere with our own preconceived notions and learned ideas about how life “really works.” We thrill at the Bible stories and are most grateful that the Scriptures reveal the path to God and eternal life, but real issues must be addressed by other sources. The Word is apparently mute when it comes to emotional problems, marital struggles, personal and interpersonal conflicts and a host of other predicaments. For these types of concerns we turn to human wisdom in its various forms. As a result our churches too often give lip-service to God’s Word but look to man’s word for true solutions and direction. If this is our mindset it should not surprise us that the Bible, while venerated, is seldom consulted. A few years of such neglect and the Word becomes a much-loved museum piece, not a life-changing force looked to first and last for God’s instruction and direction. The Lord may claim that His Word is sharper than any two-edged sword (Heb 4:12), but kept in its sheath its power appears rather dull to the average believer.
Take church management and organization for example. The structure of the local church is now informed more by business techniques (Rick Warrens’ mentor is business management guru Peter Drucker), surveys and pragmatism (“what works”) than by anything the Scriptures might have to say on the subject. Observing today’s church one might get the idea that the Bible had nothing at all to say about how a church is to function. A new convert, reading the New Testament for the first time might be totally puzzled to find the book of Acts, the Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus) and inspired letters such as Colossians and Ephesians which lay out so clearly God’s paradigm for His church. Such a novice might correctly ask the modern church why it is consulting so many experts but not the Divine manual on church life.
The same uninitiated new believer might be equally surprised, at first, by sermons that only superficially draw from the Scriptures, “Christian counseling” that is rooted in Freud or Rogers with an occasional Bible verse thrown into the mix, Christian youth ministries that attract by means of fun, music and/or mysticism, but provide virtually no training in God’s truth, and support groups that are modeled after AA rather than the New Testament. Given time our new disciple catches on – the church is really not that much different from the other clubs, self-help groups and social organizations that were part of their unconverted life. To be sure, in Christian circles you hear a little more about Jesus, an occasional prayer is offered, a few choruses are sung and popular verses of Scripture and slogans thrown around, but little more. The average Christian is marching to the same beat as his unbelieving counterpart, both living out their own patchwork philosophies of life based upon a mix of pragmatism, social standards, faddish ideologies and a dash of Scripture added.
Sadly this is how many children of God have been raised by their leaders. They have no idea that Christ has called them to something more – lives truly based upon the truth of His Word. And if they have a vague suspicion that there is something more, something deeper, something better, than the life they are experiencing, they have no concept where to search for such a life. These deficiencies are increasingly being recognized by the mainstream evangelical church, but the remedy is not. What is needed is a return to full confidence in the power and the authority of the Word of God, which in turn will cause church leaders to once again teach the full counsel of God.
Truth and Worldview
Ever since my college days I have enjoyed the study of philosophy. It is fascinating to delve into the reasoning of thinkers like Plato, Descartes or Kant and study how they piece life together. However, I have always deliberated on these philosophies from a biblical vantage point. That is, I have found their ideas interesting yet largely flawed in light of the teachings of Scripture. But I have often thought, as I examined the writings of such philosophers, about the reaction of unbelievers to the same concepts. For one thing is very noticeable about philosophies – they are constantly changing. As each new philosopher comes along he rejects the previous philosopher. Each generation considers the last generation, with its set of ideas, systems of thought and social structures, as passé, seemingly not recognizing that the next generation will cast the same censorious comments on it.
This constant flux concerning truth would have to be most frustrating to those without Christ as they observe historically the changing views of thinking people. Even within our lifetimes the rapid presentation of new worldviews that promised to solve the “mysteries of life” – only to soon be relegated to the philosophical trash heap and replaced with the newest idea on the block – has to be unsettling. It is no wonder that postmodernism has taken root in Western thinking. After all, if Plato, Descartes, Kant and a whole train-load of others have presented unique systems of truth, only to be rejected and contradicted by the next set of thinkers, after a while one begins to assume that maybe there is no such thing as objective, universal truth. Perhaps what remains is selective truth, temporary truth, individual truth (truth for you but not for me). If the “truth claims” of the best and brightest from the past have not proven true then what hope do we have that the next philosophy will offer the key to life’s issues. In a real sense, after thousands of years riding the merry-go-round of philosophical thought, people have grown tired and want off the ride. There apparently is no absolute truth. There is no final authority. There is no one whose ideas are superior to anyone else’s. We are left with relativism – let each of us do his own thing and believe his own way and let’s just accept one another’s ideas as equal. Eventually all of this rings hollow. Postmodernism, which challenges absolute truth and embraces relativism, has been birthed from the ashes of disillusionment.
Popular movie star Brad Pitt, in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, expressed well the disillusionment that many face today. Pitt was discussing a character ( Tyler) who he played in the movie Fight Club:
Pitt: The point is, the question has to be asked: “What track are we on?” Tyler starts out in the movie saying, “Man, I know all these things are supposed to seem important to us – the car, the condo, our versions of success – but if that’s the case, why is the general feeling out there reflecting more impotence and isolation and desperation and loneliness?” If you ask me, I say, “Toss all this, we gotta find something else.” Because all I know is that at this point in time, we are heading for a dead end, a numbing of the soul, a complete atrophy of the spiritual being. And I don’t want that.”
RS: So if we’re heading toward this kind of existential dead end in society, what do you think should happen?
Pitt: Hey, man, I don’t have those answers yet. The emphasis now is on success and personal gain. [Smiles] I’m sitting in it, and I’m telling you, that’s not it.
RS: But, and I’m glad you said it first, people will read your saying that and think…
Pitt: I’m the guy who’s got everything. I know. But I’m telling you, once you get everything, then you’re just left with yourself. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It doesn’t help you sleep any better, and you don’t wake up any better because of it. Now, no one’s going to want to hear that. I understand it. I’m sorry I’m the guy who’s got to say it. But I’m telling you.
There is something within the nature of man that rejects this type of existence and end. There has to be more to our life than what many experience. Something has gone wrong but, having already factored out the biblical view of reality, people are forced to turn to false sources for a handle on life. Having missed the fountain of life other wells must be dug (Jer 2:13).
The Scripture has a different story to tell. Paul informs us in Romans 1:19-23 man’s problem is that he has suppressed the truth about God that has been revealed in the creation around him. This suppression has led to darkened hearts and imaginations that are empty of spiritual reality. Man tries to fill in the blanks with whatever might be in vogue at the moment — in biblical times it was idols and the direct conscious worship of creation. Today it might be New Age philosophy, Eastern religions, human achievement, humanistic theory, modernistic certainty, postmodern uncertainty, or any number of other theories. Bottom line: mankind has rejected God and His truth and suffers the consequences of that choice as God hands him over to enslavement by his own worldview with its resulting sins (1:24-32). It is no wonder people are disillusioned with life; sin and false beliefs ultimately have that affect. As the world system propagates its various views and philosophies we should expect nothing less than minds scratching about in empty speculation and foolish hearts wandering around in darkness (1:21).
Enter the church. One of the things that separates the church from all other organizations is that it is to be the pillar and support of the truth (1 Tim 3:15). The congregation not functioning as the support and dispenser of truth falls short of the biblical criteria for a local church; therefore the assembly which does not major on truth does not fit the definition of a New Testament church. Its attendance may be “mega,” its programs prolific, its enthusiasm contagious, and its motives honorable, but if it is not the pillar and support of truth it fails in its job description as a church. Call it a club, a social gathering, a political awareness group, a socially concerned assembly or an entertainment center, but don’t call it a church. May it be our heartfelt desire as the people of God to live out God’s design for His church.
 As quoted by Jim Thomas, Answering the Big Questions About God, ( Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 2000/2001) p. 21.