I see that as usual, we have perfect attendance in the back row. I'm sure that most of you have driven past that Reformed Baptist Church just a few blocks away. Have you ever wondered what kind of church it is? Well, a Reformed Baptist is a Baptist who has decided to sit in the front row.
Tonight I am going to comment on some of the important religious trends during the last generation. When I returned to the Lord in 1977, I saw that organized Christianity had undergone many changes since I stopped going to church fourteen years earlier. This fourteen years was a period of great transition. Some of the developments were good—for example, the emergence of the creation science movement, spearheaded by the Institute of Creation Research, and the proliferation of Christian schools. But many developments were not good. And all the undesirable developments had the same cause. They were all rooted in man's sinful desire to change revealed religion into something more pleasing to self.
We find a good illustration of this desire in John 2:23-4. Why did Jesus refuse to commit Himself to the multitudes who were anxious to follow Him? It says clearly that these people truly believed in Him. The problem was that they had wrong motives. The desire of their hearts was not to know a divine Savior, but to enjoy the benefits He could provide as a miracle-worker. They were eager not to repent, but to overthrow their Roman oppressors. They were seeking not a remedy for sin, but a remedy for sickness and every other problem interfering with earthly happiness. Their vision was limited to this world. They wanted Christ for what He could give them here and now, not hereafter.
That is exactly the problem today. Many people are interested in Christianity for essentially selfish reasons. Their attitude is, "What's in it for me?" Some of the reasons that bring them to church are downright illegitimate. Some go to please their spouses and keep peace in the family. Some want to make business contacts or to enhance their professional image. A church connection is something a political candidate needs to mention in his flyers. One advantage of a small church such as ours is that no one could fairly suspect any of our men of coming here for business reasons.
One illegitimate reason for going to church is to seek entertainment. A good sermon is of course enjoyable and good music is enjoyable. But there is a critical difference between entertainment and enjoyment. The closest synonyms of "entertain" are "amuse" and "divert." According to the dictionary, their core meaning is this: "to take the attention from serious thought or worry to something gay or light." In a church service, there might be light moments, just as in a serious drama there might be comic relief. But a church service is, or ought to be, essentially serious, not gay or light. It is a time for the worship of God, for the contemplation of His holiness, for the earnest examination of self in the light of God's Word. All these things can be enjoyable, because joy is the consequence of being close to God, but they are not entertaining.
But we live in a world dominated by the media. As a result of being constantly fed entertainment, we all have a great appetite for it, and we expect to find it even when we go to church. Rather than rebuking this expectation with Scriptural teaching on what a worship service should be, many churches have made themselves larger and more popular by giving people what they want.
The greatest concessions to the selfish desire for entertainment have been in the realm of music. The change in Christian music since my youth has been mind-boggling. It was far from perfect even then. Consider these remarks of Frank E. Gaebelein back in the 50s. "In which direction are we moving? With nation-wide religious broadcasting and television, there has come into Christian work a kind of music and technique of presentation savoring more of Hollywood than of God. Glamour has invaded the proclamation of the Gospel. . . . All this is condoned as being catchy and giving the people what they want." Consider also the words of A. W. Tozer from about the same time. "There is, unfortunately, a feeling in some quarters today that there is something innately wrong about learning, and that to be spiritual one must also be stupid. This tacit philosophy has given us in the last half century a new cult within the confines of orthodoxy; I call it the Cult of Ignorance. It equates learning with unbelief and spirituality with ignorance, and, according to it, never the twain shall meet. This is reflected in a wretchedly inferior religious literature, a slap-happy type of religious meeting, and a grade of Christian song so low as to be positively embarrassing."
In truth, Christian music had been gravitating slowly toward popular styles for almost a hundred years. This movement greatly speeded up in the 40s and 50s through the influence of such publishers as Singspiration and such Christian organizations as Youth for Christ. But it was not until the early 70s that the floodgates opened and the latest and vilest forms of popular music inundated the church. At first after my wife and I returned to the Lord, we went to a conservative Presbyterian church where the music in the morning was slightly on the formal side, but good music. Some of my own compositions were performed there. In the evening service, the music was in a folk style accompanied by guitars. Yet the church had no objection to Christian rock, and I knew people were listening to it. I myself bought a record or two of Christian rock, in a style reminiscent of the Partridge Family. I did not really listen to it much or think about it much. Having lived through the countercultural revolt, I was by no means innocent of rock music. At one time I had been a rather devoted fan of the Beatles. But as a renewed Christian, I had not yet felt any need to develop standards of Christian music.
God did not challenge me on this issue until we moved to Huntsville, Alabama, and I began to teach in a Christian school. Many of the students there were children of space engineers, and we were shocked to discover how pampered and irreligious they were. Our disappointment plunged us into deep soul-searching, as we pondered what we wanted our own children to become. The crisis came when the school invited the Here's Life rock band to give a concert. Here's Life was the new name of Youth for Christ. In my youth, the Youth for Christ rallies every Saturday night were the Christian substitute for going to the movies. But the band that came to our school was not the Partridge Family. There was nothing about them that was attractive or even Christian. For forty-five minutes they played Top-40 rock tunes, and then at the end they tacked on some Christian rock. I guess it was Christian. It was hard to tell the difference. For someone like myself, who once had been steeped in the culture that spawned hard rock, I understood its philosophical roots. I knew that it was designed to be a cry of defiance against all forms of self-restraint. The evil in it was, to me, palpable. It made me physically sick. I sat down on the floor of the auditorium and put my head down. The principal came up and asked what was the matter, and I said the music was oppressing my spirit. At that moment I decided to leave the school and become a fundamentalist. The next summer we moved to Michigan and started teaching in a fundamental Baptist school.
Closely allied to the desire for entertainment is the desire for luxury. Both give pleasure to self, are sensually appealing. People today want to go to a church that is beautiful in its architecture and plush in its furnishings, and many churches are giving them what they want. What is greatly disturbing is that churches are becoming more and more sumptuous at the same time that it is becoming more and more difficult for missionaries to raise support. Recently we heard that the average time required to complete deputation has risen to three years. The reasons? One is this. The amount of support that churches are accustomed to give individual missionaries is not keeping up with the soaring cost of living in many parts of the world. Yet while American Christians are willing for their missionaries to be underfunded and sacrificial, they are not willing to deny themselves fancy facilities.
This trend began sometime in the 60s. The first time I ever saw a church with a gymnasium was in 1970. The gym had been built in 1962. There is nothing wrong with a church gymnasium or family life center. I am merely showing a trend. Nowadays, some churches have not only gyms, but also bowling alleys, racquetball courts, and movie theaters, and many of the sanctuaries that have been built in the last twenty years rival a Gothic cathedral. The largest church here in Memphis has buildings that can only be described as palatial.
We see the same trend in Christian colleges. From 1949-1953, my sister Dorothy attended Prairie Bible Institute in Three Hills, Alberta, Canada. The school was built by poor farmers who wanted a place to train young people for the mission field. When my family traveled by train to attend her graduation, it seemed as if we went on and on forever until we finally came to the very edge of civilization. The school, situated in the middle of the cold northern prairie, was a collection of drab wooden buildings put up at minimal expense. Dorm rooms were small and rudely furnished. My bed was a tick mattress laid on the floor. The auditorium was a plain wooden structure with hard benches for seats. There were no recreational facilities, no sports teams—hardly an inviting place to spend four years of college. Yet my sister said recently, "I never sensed that students were bothered by the Spartan conditions of life there. Many came from rural areas that lacked modern conveniences. We were children of the depression. Who knows how many of our parents had struggled during those difficult years? Finances were always short when I was young, so I wasn't expecting anything luxurious. In many ways, Prairie was a reflection of L. E. Maxwell (founder and principal). He spoke often of the kernel of wheat falling into the ground—of death bringing forth life. He was a wonderful example of being a servant to all. When we were there, the staff shared and shared alike no matter what position they held. People were friendly and in general I believe that students were happy. I really had a lot of fun."
Contrast her picture of Prairie with a typical Christian college today. Look at the roomy and comfortable dorm accommodations, the beautiful auditoriums, the recreational facilities. I'm not saying that all these things are wrong. I am merely observing a trend. Most of the graduates of Prairie entered Christian service as missionaries or in other capacities. What percent of Christian college graduates today become useful in Christian work?
The trend in churches and Christian colleges mirrors a trend in Christian homes. We are heaping possessions and entertainment on our children to a degree unprecedented in history. Compare what your children get for Christmas with what you obtained, with what your parents obtained. Compare the time your children spend watching TV and videos with the time you spent on the same kind of entertainment, with the time your parents spent. We are heaping possessions and entertainment on our children because we think we are being good to them. But it is not good if we are teaching them a false concept of happiness—that happiness depends on having things and filling your life with fun and games. It is not good if we are teaching them that the purpose of life is not sacrifice and service, but pleasing yourself. It is not good. It is the spiritual equivalent of putting a gun to your child's head and pulling the trigger.
As I have said, modern materialism has affected even the kind of churches we are building. When we consider the external magnificence of churches in America, we cannot help but remember the warning to Laodicea (Rev. 4:14-22). What practical measures should Laodicea take to repent? One way is to respond constructively to the crisis in Christianity worldwide. The church of Jesus Christ is in decline. Christians should be amassing as much money as they can to support bold new evangelistic efforts to reach the unchurched billions in the world's vast urban areas.
Besides all the illegitimate reasons for going to church, there are also a host of legitimate reasons that are nevertheless selfish. It is fine to want someone who can marry and bury you. It is far from wrong to want wholesome activities for children and opportunities to make friends. But still, these reasons view church as a source of benefits to self. They are equivalent to asking, "What's in it for me?" One reason our church has trouble growing is that people come for awhile to see our services and try our programs and then leave, hoping to find something better in another church. They are church-tasters. Many of them shy away from us precisely because we are so small that it is impossible to join us without coming under a lot of pressure to be faithful and involved. We put people to work. Yet many Christians today would rather be spectators. To take without giving is more pleasing to self.
For such people, the most appealing church is the largest one they can find. As we all know, down the road from us is a megachurch with 26,000 members. A little thought will, I think, lead us to the firm conclusion that the emergence of megachurches has not been a healthy development. We can group the evil results under four headings.
1) The loss of pastoral care. At a megachurch, you listen to one pastor preach, another superintends the activities of your particular age group, you go to another for counseling, another visits you in the hospital, and perhaps another marries or buries you. It's rather like the difference between old-fashioned medical care and medical care today. Instead of having a family doctor who looks after all your needs, you use an array of specialists who individually know very little about you except what they find on your charts. At a megachurch, it is unlikely that you will have any personal contact with the senior pastor. Some years ago, one of the students in our Christian school who attends a megachurch came up to my wife to share some exciting news. Yesterday at church he had actually spoken a few words to the senior pastor. How many people in his church do you suppose he knows by name?
2. The loss of service opportunities for God's people. A church with 26,000 members is equivalent to 52 churches with 500 members each. Now, a church with 500 members is a full-sized church. We will pass over the question of whether a single megachurch can have as much impact on the community as the 500 churches it replaces. For our purposes here we will be content to examine the impact on God's people. A typical church of 500 has at least three men on the pastoral staff. In 52 there would be at least 150 pastors. Yet at our local megachurch there are only about 25. You see then that megachurches are putting large numbers of men out of the ministry. Also, they are limiting opportunities for lay people. In 52 churches there would be at least 500 deacons, far more than at a megachurch. In every realm of service a megachurch achieves economies of scale. There is a need for fewer musicians, Sunday School workers, bus drivers, etc. The result is that many people in the congregation are left with no meaningful responsibilities. It is enough if they attend and watch. They do not even need to give much money, since the per capita giving a church requires decreases with church size. A megachurch turns many Christians into spectators only.
3. The destruction of other churches. Of the 26,000 or so who attend the megachurch down the road, how many did not previously go to other churches? That is, how many were previously unchurched? I'm afraid the percentage is pretty low. This megachurch has grown largely by taking people from other churches, including our own. We all know people who once came here, but who are now going there. Christ surely is not pleased when one church is sucking the life blood out of other churches.
4. The loss of accountability. A megachurch is perfect for people asking, "What's in It for Me"? Not only is there a good show to watch, but also it is easy to escape demands. No one really knows how often you attend, and no one will really pay attention to your lifestyle away from church. You can attend as seldom as you please and live as loosely as you please and risk no disapproval. If by chance a pastor discovers that you are living in sin, you need not fear any public discipline. In short, there is little accountability and therefore little external pressure to maintain a fervent Christian life. It is the ideal kind of church for people who want some religious entertainment in the happy moments of life and some religious consolation in the hard moments—all at the attractive price of little involvement and little self-denial.
There is yet another class of motives for going to church that we need to consider. Like the multitudes who followed Jesus, many people today also understand that He is a miracle-worker. They go to church because they want to bring His power into their lives. But too many are seeking His power for the wrong things. They are more interested in His ability to heal their bodies and fix their problems than in His ability to deliver them from sin and hell. They are less concerned with getting to heaven than with avoiding hardships along the way. That is the reason for the explosion in the last generation of churches in the Pentecostal and charismatic wing of Christianity. They emphasize solutions to temporal problems. If you are sick, they will heal you. Whether or not you are actually oppressed by evil spirits, they will deliver you from them. If you are a failure, they will turn you into a success. All you need is faith. Lack of faith is the only obstacle that can keep you from realizing your dreams. Some in this camp go so far as to teach that there is no excuse for not being rich. This teaching, well named the prosperity gospel, is a heresy. Not only does it distort the true gospel, but it raises expectations that are certain to be disappointed. In the end, the false promises turn people away from Christianity.
One day when I was visiting my mother in the nursing home, I noticed as I was coming out that a church was holding a healing service. To hold a healing service in a nursing home certainly requires faith, but it is a foolish faith. The basic malady of nearly every patient there was just old age. They were all nearing the end of the life that God had allotted to them. There is no warrant in Scripture to expect that God will heal the aged of their old age. Indeed, I did not hear of anyone leaving the nursing home the next day because they had been healed. Nor did I see any patient who even looked younger. Instead of a healing service, what they needed was a gospel service, giving the lost another chance of salvation before death finally overtook them. But the perspective of the Pentecostalists leading the service was so warped by earthly-mindedness that they said nothing about the gospel.
True Christianity does not see its purpose as providing escape from pain and trouble in this world. Rather, it sees its purpose as confronting men with the grand question of what they will do with Christ. If they respond by repenting of their sins and placing their faith in Him, they will enter the Christian life, which is a series of trials designed to strengthen their faith and their resistance to sin.
Recently, as I drove to church, I saw a church with a tent next to it, where special meetings were being held. Outside was a sign saying, "Prayer for the sick." It was a Pentecostal church, of course. It looked as though their meeting was going to be well attended. Would they have drawn as many people if they had put out a sign that said, "Prayer for the sinners," or "Repentance available here"? No, they were catering to what people want today. As we have said, modern man views Christianity in the light of the question, "What's in it for me?"
What is the remedy for all these problems—for the corruption of church music, the substitution of lavish facilities for a proper use of God's money, the shift of preaching away from sin and salvation to promises of earthly happiness? There may be no remedy if we live in the Last Days (2 Tim. 4:3-4). Yet that does not excuse any of us from doing our duty. As a church, we must remain true to sound doctrine and practice. We must offer God the best music we can, recognizing that we are seeking to please Him, not to entertain ourselves. We must be content with nice but modest facilities, so that we can contribute as much of our resources as possible to evangelism worldwide. And we must continue preaching what is unpopular. We must tell people honestly that Christianity is not a way to fulfill earthly desires, but a way to heaven. As a result, we may stay relatively small, but what we lack in size, we can offset by warmth of spirit, diligence of service, and fervency of love for Christ and for each other.
Above all, each of us must guard against falling into the mentality that sees this church as another tool for pleasing self. If you understand that your purpose here is to serve God, you will never be discontent, because here there is plenty of work to do. I have never heard anyone complain that our church is lacking in opportunities for service. If you feel deprived, see me. See one of the pastors. We will gladly point you to jobs that need to be done.
The question is not, "What's in it for me?" No, don't be self-centered. A self-centered person is soon alone. The question is, "How can God use me?"
© 2007, 2012 Stanley Edgar Rickard (Ed Rickard, the author). All rights reserved.