It Is Time to Kiss the Church Hello

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(Volume 25, Issue 5, September/October 2019)

By now the details about Josh Harris’s divorce and apostasy is old news and every cheesy pun associated with his best-selling book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, has been trotted out ad nauseam. I thought I would attempt a positive pun instead,–“It is time to kiss the church hello,”–because I think ultimately the focus is on the wrong issue.  Follow my musings for a moment.

Harris experienced the world of evangelical celebrity at a very young age.  As a youth he assisted his parents in their leadership in the homeschooling movement, traveling to home school conferences and selling his father’s materials.  Still, in his teens, Josh was speaking at these conferences and produced a magazine for homeschoolers called New Attitude.  At the ripe old age of 21, he published his signature book, which not only sold over a million copies but also launched a movement (sometimes called the “purity culture” movement) although defining “purity culture” has proven elusive). That at 21 Harris had no business writing a book telling people how to date (or not) and whom to marry, and that his publisher, Multnomah, was culpable for publishing such a book, and that Christian leaders who promoted the book were guilty of not protecting the sheep, seem to go unnoticed to a gullible readership anxious for a manual that might aid in the cause of purity.  By 1997 Harris was a superstar and caught the attention of an older, “A” list Christian celebrity, C. J. Mahaney.  Mahaney had founded Sovereign Grace Ministries which was a rapidly growing denomination of churches known for New Calvinism, which co-mingles Reformed theology with charismatic practices and music. New Calvinism was riding a wave at the time (and to some degree still is) and Sovereign Grace, with its theology and music, was setting the pace. Mahaney saw in Harris a potential replacement for himself as lead pastor of the Sovereign Grace flagship megachurch, Covenant Life Church in Maryland, which would free him to pursue other interests.  The year Harris turned 30 he was installed as the pastor of this huge congregation, which led a growing denomination, all without theological education and proper pastoral training.  It was a big task for any young man, but to add to the difficulty was a brewing sex-scandal at Sovereign Grace. The scandal, the roots of which go back at least to the early 1990s, alleges not only sexual abuse within the various congregations and among some staff but also abuses that were known to upper-level staff and Mahaney himself and were covered up.  While no one has been found guilty of sexual abuse, due largely to the statute of limitation laws and, while Mahaney, Harris, and others have claimed their innocence throughout the years, the accusations simply will not go away and actually have received new life recently.

Into this environment, Harris began his ministry as a megachurch senior pastor. In hindsight, evidence of strain on Harris’s life and ministry is clear. In 2012 he removed his congregation from Sovereign Grace, no doubt due, at least partially, to the scandals. Then in 2015, after pastoring Covenant Life for about a decade, Harris stepped down at age 40 to attend seminary at Regent College.  This is an almost unheard-of step for a megachurch pastor and probably was prompted by Harris’s realization of his lack of theological training for ministry (something neither he nor Mahaney had seen as necessary in the past).  Throughout this process, Harris began to realize that the book that had made him famous was both damaging to the lives of many and partially unbiblical.  By 2018 he publically denounced the book and participated in a documentary called I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Recently he left the ministry entirely and opened a communications consulting business. Then in July 2019, the bombshell hit when he wrote on Instagram that he and his wife, Shannon, were getting a divorce. Of course, given his past writings on dating and marriage, such an announcement was both unexpected and shocking to the Christian world.  But it did not compare to the follow-up announcement a few days later in which Harris wrote, “The information that was left out of our announcement is that I have undergone a massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus… By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian. Many people tell me that there is a different way to practice faith and I want to remain open to this, but I’m not there now.”  He continued by repenting of some of his previously held views, “I have lived in repentance for the past several years—repenting of my self-righteousness, my fear-based approach to life, the teaching of my books, my views of women in the church, and my approach to parenting to name a few… I specifically want to add to this list now: to the LGBTQ+ community.  I want to say that I am sorry for the views that I taught in my books and as a pastor regarding sexuality.  I regret standing against marriage equality, for not affirming you and your place in the church, and for any ways that my writing and speaking contributed to a culture of exclusion and bigotry. I hope you can forgive me.”  While not as vocal with her denouncement of the Christian faith, Shannon Harris (a Christian singer known professionally as Shannon Bonne) wrote on her Instagram account in June a rather telling comment, “Nearly a decade ruminating over my time in a place called church.”  She has also used the hashtag #exvangelical which is a term used among those who have left evangelicalism.  It is likely that Shannon is following the same trajectory as her husband, but time will tell. As a final blow, while asking for privacy Josh indicates he will soon begin a podcast to discuss his doubts and uncertainties.

While any Christian can become entangled in sin, how does one of evangelicalism’s shining stars fall so far as to apostatize? The biblical answer is that Harris was never a Christian, for as John warns us, “They went out from us but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19).  But how does a man fool himself and the church at large for 20 years to such a degree?  These are probably unanswerable questions but a couple of thoughts are worth exploring.

The Nature of the Modern Church

A number of years ago I wrote a book entitled This Little Church Went to Market, in which I critiqued biblically many of the methods and even the message that is being proclaimed in the many evangelical churches. The seeker-sensitive, or attractional, church that appeared in the 1970s, did not materialize out of thin air.  A fundamental shift took place within Christianity in the mid-1960s with the rise of the hippie movement and the sexual revolution.  A new generation of young people was swamping the American scene, especially in California.  A philosophy was being created and embraced that resisted all things traditional, including the church, especially its music, its community, its theology, its emphasis on separation and purity, and its whole approach to “doing” church.  An extremely insightful book, God’s Forever Family, tells the story of the rise, development, and influence of some saved out of this environment. They became known as the Jesus People (or Jesus Freaks, as they were often referred to at the time).  The actual movement was short-lived, arising immediately after the 1967 “Summer of Love” in Haight-Ashbury and fading into history by 1975. But much happened during that decade.  As the hippies flocked to San Francisco to smoke weed, take LSD, engage in immorality and live on the streets, the Christian community began to seek ways to reach those young people for Christ.  Initially, a few who were saved out of the hippie culture began to form ministries, joined by a new brand of churches such as Calvary Chapel.  As many hippies came to Christ the efforts to reach them snowballed and the methods became more creative.  It was determined early on that hippies would most effectively respond if the conservatism methodology of the church was abandoned and music, messages, and programming that mirrored the hippie lifestyle were adopted.   Hence rock music was introduced to the worship times of the church.  Christian communes and coffeehouses popped up everywhere.   Teaching and sermons were mostly simple, superficial, and Pentecostal.  As a result, when the Jesus People movement faded from the scene a mere ten years or so later, left behind was a radically changed evangelical church.  The seeker-sensitive church was born out of the ashes of the 1967-1975 Jesus People subculture, picking up where the efforts to reach “Jesus Freaks” had begun.  Sermons in such churches were short on Scripture and long on experience.  Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) was born and became a staple in many congregations.  Pentecostal theology and practice were spread through the charismatic movement as the Jesus People became part of the church and as Pentecostal music flooded the scene.   A number of cults, such as The Children of God, The Church, and The Way International preyed on these poorly taught converts.

The Jesus People have subsequently shaped modern evangelism in ways that most people do not realize.  If a conservative Christian went into a coma in 1966 and woke up in 1976 the transformation they would have observed in the evangelical church would have made Rip Van Wrinkle’s shock, after his 20-year nap, seem mild.  Modern Christianity cannot even begin to comprehend evangelicalism today without a thorough understanding of the Jesus People movement.  Today, for the first time in church history, Christians have disregarded prohibitions against popular culture and seek to see how closely they can cozy up to the world around them.  The seeker movement, contemporary Christian music, and much of the spread of Pentecostalism, all owe their existence to the Jesus People era.

It was Bill Hybels and his Willow Creek church and association, that most effectively transferred the methods drawn from outreach to the Jesus People into the American church scene.  Claiming to change the methods but not the message of Christianity, Hybels, in reality, did both.  The message, including the gospel, was softened to make it less offensive and more palpable to the unregenerate.  The gospel was no longer the good news about how sinful people can be reconciled to a holy God, and how God’s wrath against sin could be satisfied, but how Jesus could provide us with success, purpose, good self-images, wonderful marriages, and meet a whole range of felt-needs.  This message seemed to “work” as thousands flocked to megachurches employing this new self-focused gospel, which, by-the-way, is drawn from marketing techniques, and surveys and psychological anthropology rather than from Scripture.  Discipleship was not spared either.  A therapeutic model of Christian living began to infiltrate the church’s approach to sanctification.  Emphasis shifted from careful Bible study and theology to small groups, and sermons focused on how to feel better about ourselves, rather than on how to glorify God and be holy.  Before long the traditional, time-honored, and biblical means of church life fell out of vogue and seemed hopelessly out-of-date.  Trendy new techniques were needed to draw the masses and keep them coming.  The pragmatic church began to employ methods drawn from the entertainment world, because, well, the methods worked.  The attractional church became performance-oriented with bigger and better bands, musical groups, light shows, videos, dramas, and motivational sermons taking center stage. Excellence in performance replaced serious, exegetically-sound teaching of God’s Word and Christ-honoring music.  Many megachurches minimized teaching and centered their attention on the weekend “celebration” and performance laced meetings, along with small groups that were largely relational.  Gone were the old-fashioned Sunday Schools, in-depth Bible studies and theological training.  They were replaced by a good show and “relevant” and “authentic” gatherings, often unrelated to the study of the Word.  The church assembled, which according to the New Testament is a gathering of the body of Christ composed of true believers who come together for corporate worship, prayer, communion, and biblical teaching, now became centered on drawing unbelievers to hear exciting music and pep rally sermons.  While many churches employing such methods claimed that in-depth Bible teaching took place at other times throughout the week, the truth was such studies and teaching became rare. Thus the majority of almost two generations of American evangelicals (however that term is defined) have become biblically illiterate and have never experienced how a New Testament church is to function.

I am purposefully painting with a broad brush.  I realize that, by God’s grace, there are many exceptions to this portrait, in churches of all sizes.  But I believe these exceptions are becoming increasingly uncommon, as churches imbibe the latest trends in church growth and church life.  I also write out of a sense of frustration.  Despite the regular parade of fallen church superstars, moral and financial scandals, and admissions by megachurch empires such as Willow Creek that they are failing to produce disciples, most Christians either shrug off these reports or simply don’t care.  Part of the problem, I believe, is that the understanding of what constitutes a church has been so deformed by attractional church leaders that few understand God’s design for His church.  Possibly over half of all evangelical Christians attend churches that do not match God’s definition for a church, and these folks have never known any other kind of Christian congregation.  They are not necessarily insincere, or even naïve, they simply do not realize that another model for the church, one patterned after the Scriptures, exists.  The churches they attend have become entertainment centers, proclaiming a therapeutic message and propagating a social justice/missional ministry, while neglecting the essentials of church life found in the New Testament.  As a result, I fear that many church members are not truly saved, even while they are convinced they are, because they have never heard the true gospel.  The biblical gospel tends to offend and repel the unregenerate (1 Cor 1:18), and it is difficult to build church empires by proclaiming an offensive message.  It is grievous to consider how many precious souls have been deceived by this pragmatic message found in many modern churches.  And those who have come to Christ often to not move on to maturity because discipleship takes place through the proclamation of the Word which too often today takes a backseat to everything else.  Careful biblical study and theological training simply don’t draw the masses. Light shows, professional music, me-centered sermonettes, and massive programs do.  Consequently, while discipleship is the primary purpose of the biblical church, relatively few have experienced it.

A New Testament Church

If my readers have just moved to another part of the country and are searching for a new church what should you look for?  I recently checked out the website of two churches in different parts of the country that friends from my past had attended.  My friends had not progressed in Christ for decades and I was curious about the churches they had chosen to attend over the years.  The two websites were very similar.  They highlighted huge weekend performance-type services, had virtually no listed teaching ministries, while offering a full roster of programs of every kind, and showcased their 12-step ministries and small groups.  As expected, their doctrinal statements were minimalistic, general, and reduced to five or six short statements.  A fuller statement of faith did not seem to be available. Both churches were large and growing.  Both had adopted the multi-campus paradigm that has become increasingly popular in an effort to spread their brand.  Both had an appearance of life and excitement, but neither showed evidence that making disciples was the reason for their existence.

If none of the things listed above, as found on the websites of these churches, constitutes a biblical church, what does?  What should the child of God, who is seeking to grow in Christ within the context of a true church, look for in a local fellowship? Let me offer a list of some of the basics:

Let’s begin with the glory of God and the centrality of Christ. The church is Christ’s church; He is its head (Col 1:18), and all that we individually and corporately do is to be done for God’s glory (1 Cor 10:31). God has declared that He will not share His glory with another (Isa 42:8) and our task is to magnify Christ, not anyone or anything else (Phil 1:20).  When Christian leaders are unduly exalted, it is obvious that something is out of alignment.  When we say, (insert famous name)’s church is doing such and such, we know that the emphasis is wrong.  Celebrity culture is anathema to the cause of Christ. While in context John the Baptist’s famous statement was unique, he certainly nailed the correct attitude by claiming that “He (Jesus) must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

Next, the proclamation of the Word is at the core of what a biblical church does. The early church gathered for the express purpose of being instructed by the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42); Paul’s final directive to Timothy was to “preach the Word” (2 Tim 4:2); and the church is the “pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15).  A congregation that is not dedicated to teaching and applying the Scriptures may be many things, but it is not the church.

Prayer, both individual and corporate, is essential to the body of Christ.  A prayerless church is composed of people who do not see the need for the power and energy of the Holy Spirit.  Prayer is one of the four components that comprised the gatherings of the first church, according to Acts 2:42. Men are to lead in public prayer (1 Tim 2:8). Conflicts are resolved through prayer (Phil 4:6). Christians are to be constantly in prayer (1 Thess 5:17). Prayer meetings often draw small crowds, but they draw the most important witness, God Himself.

Fellowship is big today.  Local churches often refer to themselves as communities and recognize the need for community.  But our fellowship must be wrapped around Christ not simply common secular interests.  When the first church gathered for fellowship, they did so because they had something in common (Christ), and they desperately needed each other. Churches today may foster this fellowship through various means, but it is essential to remember that at the heart of our fellowship is Christ’s love for us and ours for Him, which is fleshed out in love for one another (1 John 3:16).

Practicing the ordinances of both baptism and communion is incumbent on the church. Many, now and throughout church history, have distorted the meaning of both.  Sadly, some have taught that both are essential to salvation, and the church needs clear teaching from the Word concerning their true purpose.  Water baptism symbolizes our union with Christ through Spirit baptism and our identity with Christ before the world.  The Supper reminds us of Christ’s sacrificial death for us, His present ministry and His future coming.  Together, they are essential signposts of what it means to be a Christian.

Church discipline is about as unattractional as anything the church is called to do.  I am aware of no church growth conference which lists discipline as one of the means of drawing great crowds.  Yet, the New Testament is clear that the church corrects its own for the purpose of restoration of the fallen ones and the purity of the church itself (1 Cor 5; Gal 6:1-2). When God’s people do not take sin seriously, it becomes a “dirty” church that is unable to reflect the glory of God and unintentionally teaches that sinful living does not matter to the Lord. The people of God are called to be holy (1 Pet 1:15-16), and discipline is one of the means of effecting holiness within the body of Christ.

A biblical church is led by spiritually qualified men who meet character requirements identified in texts such as 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.  Too often today, churches look for guidance from men and women with magnetic personalities, impressive leadership abilities, and great communication skills.  Never mind that many do not meet the biblical qualification of an elder.  This practice is a recipe for disaster.

While all of the marks of the New Testament church so far have been intramural, evangelism reaches out to those not yet part of the body of Christ.  The first church was formed when 3,000 souls came to Christ in one day, and many followed later (Acts 2:41).  The church has always been evangelistic, and there is no greater privilege than to “proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Pet 2:9).

A few other items could be added to this list but these are the core essentials. Unfortunately, few are examining or seeking to be part of churches that understand and live by these essentials.  In an article about Josh Harris entitled “Time to Kiss New Calvinism Goodbye” R. Scott Clark writes,

The first question most evangelicals ask about church is whether it has a youth group or a singles ministry. The second question is how fast is the church growing, is it popular? Does it have the right kind of (contemporary) worship? Neither the New Testament nor the historic Christian church knows anything of the Modern evangelical marks. Jesus said, “feed my lambs” (John 21:15) not “be popular.” The Joshua Harris episode is a wake-up call to Evangelicals. It comes after the scandalous behavior of fellow “New Calvinist” James MacDonald and before him Mark Driscoll and somewhere in there Tullian Tchividjian. Entrepreneurism is a great virtue in business but the church is no business. It is an authorized embassy for King Jesus. We serve him, at his pleasure, with his message, according to his Word.

The author of this article has a point.  All the blame cannot be placed on the church universal or local. Personal choices have been made and sins committed. And even in the best of churches, some Christians have fallen into grievous sins and always will. In this case, Josh Harris apparently was not a Christian at all, although he played the game extremely well.  But I do believe the modern attractional church has created a culture that is destroying people like Harris, Tchividjian, Driscoll, and MacDonald.  As tragic as their stories are, they are merely the tip of the iceberg. For every Josh Harris who stumbles and receives headlines in the process, there are 10,000 unnamed people who have been chewed up and spit out by this system. When true Christians are being entertained to death, rather than being trained by the Word, when performance is more important than exegesis, when programs replace ministry, when the crowd replaces the body, when the gospel is reduced to prosperity formulas, when discipleship holds little value; then the people of God have no basis to understand what true, authentic, Christ-honoring living is like.  As the above quotation states, maybe Josh Harris, and many others, can provide a wakeup call.  Maybe it is time to rethink church by returning to the design God has already given us.

An Applicational Conclusion

One of the last conversations Jesus had with His disciples took place on the banks of the Sea of Galilee. After a breakfast of bread and fish, Jesus turned to Peter and asked him if he loved Him.  Three times Jesus asked the same question and three times Peter affirmed his love for his Lord.  With each affirmation, Jesus told his struggling apostle that if this were the case, he was to “feed (or tend) His sheep (or lambs)” (John 21:15-17). What the sheep (the regenerate children of God) needed was tending and feeding, and they still do.  The critical modern cliché still rings true: “The Lord has tasked the church to feed the sheep, not entertain the goats.” Somewhere along the way much of the modern church has missed this memo.  The name of the “game” seems to be developing methods to draw crowds, to keep the sheep happy and pacified, and to offer a superficial feel-good Christianity-lite.  Jesus’s mandate to His disciples was not to offer performance-oriented services and to draw large crowds to join churches and sit on the side-lines.  His mandate was to make disciples – learners and followers of Christ (Matt 28:19-20). Day one of church history found the newly regenerated believers gathering in droves to absorb the apostles’s teachings (Acts 2:42). These early believers knew that life was to be found in these teachings.  They understood that if they wanted truly to follow their new Master they would have to do so according to His revelation that the apostles were now disseminating. Those doctrines were later inscripturated in the New Testament and serve today as the inspired message from the Holy Spirit that God uses to form disciples.  There is no substitute for the Word of God in the disciple-making process.  Lives are not transformed except through the Holy Spirit empowered Scriptures.

Much of the modern evangelical church has done the world a disservice. By offering an anemic and often faulty gospel message, many people have prayed a prayer, walked an aisle, entered the baptismal waters, joined the church, and truly believed they have met the requirement for salvation, and yet they have not.  How heartbreaking to find life-time church members who have no concept of the gospel.  Many others have been born again but do not understand what it means to be a disciple, nor how to become one.  They think that because they are on a worship team, attend a celebration service regularly, have joined a small group, take mission trips, or serve in a soup kitchen, that they are followers of Christ. Yet, Jesus said, “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:14). First John 5:3 continues, “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome.”  When the Word of God is not seriously, systematically, and carefully taught in the local church, believers have two deficiencies: they do not know the will of God, and therefore, they cannot live the will of God. They cannot obey God because they do not know His commandments. How tragic to attend a local church and never be taught the ways and requirements of God.  Paul informs us that the Scriptures are profitable for four things: teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness. The Scriptures teach us what is true and the ways of God; they tell us where and how we have left the path; they correct us and bring us back to the path; over time they train us in the path of righteousness.  When the work of Divine Revelation is done, it enables the people of God to be adequate and equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:16-17).  Immediately following this pronouncement about the Word, Paul charges Timothy to devote his life to preaching and teaching it (4:1-2).  Nothing else has  the ability to transform lives. For the unbeliever, the gospel message is the “power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16).  For the believer, the teaching of the Word is what equips them to be what God wants them to be.  Ministries and programs that are not directly linked to the proclamation of the Word cannot transform lives. Marketing strategies, business techniques, charismatic leaders, an abundance of programs, world-class music, and entertainment, can all be used to build big congregations.  But only the inspired Scriptures, empowered by the Holy Spirit, can transform lives and develop disciples.  Since it is our Christ-given task to make disciples, with virtually no Scriptural reference about drawing great crowds, building leader-centered dynasties, or being successful, it is incumbent upon us to be about the Master’s business rather than our own.  Could the massive fall-out of so many from the local church in recent days, including the fall and defection of some of its “superstars,” be due at least in part to ignoring these simple truths?  Let the church do what only the church can do—glorify God through the proclamation of the transformative power of the Word.  Maybe it is time to kiss the God-designed church hello – once again.

by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/teacher, Southern View Chapel

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