We live in a culture where everyone has their say, where I can press the interactive buttons and register my view on television, where I can set up a blog and proclaim my views on anything and everything to the world, where the most friendly thing we can say in welcoming newcomers is ‘We want to know what you think’, but dare I say it – God does not want to know what we think. He wants us to know what he thinks.
Christopher Ash, The Priority of Preaching (Christian Focus, 2009), 35.
There is one important distinction between the metaphor of father and that of shepherd. Children grow up and become less dependent on their earthly father, though the relationship continues. Sheep, on the other hand, are always completely dependent on their shepherd. They never outgrow their need for the shepherd to care for them, feed them, lead them, and protect them. The shepherd cares for the newborn lambs and is still there when the sheep grow old and weak. Therefore, the imagery of shepherd-sheep captures the comprehensive sovereignty of the shepherd over the sheep and the need of the sheep to yield completely to his care. The good news is that the Lord uses his sovereign power for the well-being of his flock.
Timothy Witmer, The Shepherd Leader: Achieving Effective Shepherding in Your Church (P&R, 2010), 13.
It is a fact that falsehood is never so false as when it is very nearly true. It is when the stab comes near the nerve of truth, that the Christian conscience cries out in pain.
G. K. Chesterton
Chesterton lived a few decades before neo-orthodoxy (N-O) hit its stride and 70 years before N-O’s expression in the emerging church reared its ugly head. Chesterton probably wrote these words about theological liberalism, but liberalism never used the sophisticated tactics of N-O, which used the same language as orthodoxy, but meant entirely different things. N-O’s use of words like sin, salvation, atonement, etc. were parasitic, stealing the orthodox terms, while gutting them of their meaning.
The emerging church is just the latest dress of neo-orthodoxy mixed with postmodernism. While not every practice of emerging churches is wrong (some are a corrective of the errors of the traditional church and the seeker-sensitive church), the theology of most emerging churches is thoroughly N-O. And as Chesterton says above, this makes the theology of the emerging church downright dangerous. It is error of the most devious kind. As one of my apologetics professors often says, if you want to kill a church, preach neo-orthodox doctrine. Every church that lets it in the door ends up dying.
What compounds the threat of emerging postmodern theology is its tendency to change the locks as soon as it gets in the door of a church. As soon as it starts infecting the host with its venom, it declares discernment and biblical critique to be mean-spirited, Pharisaical, and judgmental. This tactic immediately precludes any attempt to judge everything by Scripture. In no time, the hip, young emerging pastor (or “life coach” as they are wont to call themselves) becomes the sole authority, and coolness becomes the measure of all things. The very thing that would save the church, biblical authority and discernment, is cut off at the knees.
One of my favorite contemporary authors, Englishman Carl Trueman sums it up best:
Of course, if we pause for a second and reflect, it will become clear that errors which are a million miles from the truth — denial of the resurrection, say, or of the deity of Christ — are unlikely to deceive most Christians or do much damage to the church. Errors which are nearly there, nearly true, nearly within the pale of orthodoxy, perhaps which even use the language of traditional orthodoxy in nearly the same way as the orthodox do, are much more difficult to discern and to handle; and Matt. 24:24 seems to indicate that the deadliest falsehoods are akin to this kind. What a shame that the modern evangelical aesthetic regards exposing and opposing such as distasteful, divisive, and about as welcome as a prize of a couple of Barry Manilow concert tickets in a raffle at a biker gang fundraiser.
Stephen Hawking’s new book The Grand Design was released last week, and it has already caused quite a stir. Hawking, a British theoretical physicist and cosmologist, is most well known as the genius in a wheelchair, having lived with neuro-muscular dystrophy for many years.
The Grand Design is oddly named since Hawking denies the need for a designer, at least an intelligent one. He trots out the same worn-out idea of a non-existent universe creating itself and designing change along the way:
Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going.
Somewhere along the line, most evolutionary scientists missed the logic class in their college years, and therefore proceed to make nonsensical statements such as this. The “nothing” which he says sparked the universe is, logically and scientifically speaking, no-thing. And every good scientist knows that nothing can come from nothing. Everything only comes from a pre-existing something.
A number of theologians and Christian philosophers have already begun to respond to Hawkins. Here are a few links to good articles that demonstrate the foolishness, irrationality and illogic of a universe that created itself:
There are few things more disheartening as a congregant than hearing a forty minute preacher preach for fifty minutes, a thirty minute preacher preach for forty minutes, or a twenty minute preacher preach for thirty minutes. Somehow, that last ten minutes can weaken and even destroy the impact of all that has been said in the sermon to that point. There is no virtue in length for the sake of it. I think I’ve heard two preachers in my entire life who could preach for an hour; and most preachers I know would be much better if they shaved at least five or ten minutes off their typical length. Get up there, say what you’ve got to say as clearly as you can, and then sit down again. That’s all that’s necessary. As Luther says elsewhere in Table Talk (2643a), `I hate a long sermon, because the desire on the part of the congregation to listen is destroyed by them, and the preachers hurt themselves.’ And, as usual, Luther got it right.
Carl Trueman, “Luther on the Marks of a Good Preacher, II”
What role do revivalism, evangelists, emotional altar calls, crisis decisions, etc. have in a church dedicated to faithful preaching? According to Kevin Bauder, none. And I agree. Bauder is the president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Plymouth, MN, near Minneapolis. He has made revivalism, that very familiar cultural practice in Baptist Fundamentalism, an object of study for some time. He contrasts revivalism with genuine biblical revival, and demonstrates that revivalism is a man-made phenomenon that is a detriment to the church, and often to truth as well.
These [characteristics of revivalism] all stem from the presupposition that the normal Christian life is one of decline, i.e., that Christian people, left to themselves, will usually just stagnate and then backslide.
(1) A belief that crisis decisions are the normal and principal
mechanism of sanctification and spiritual development, and that such decisions are typically manifested by “going to the altar” during the public invitation. “Evangelists” are thought of as preachers who have a special ability to produce these crises. Often a preacher is expected to have some special spiritual enduement or anointing to be able to perform the function of precipitating these crises.
(2) A failure to distinguish persuasion from manipulation in seeking to precipitate such crises, accompanied by an inability to distinguish legitimate appeals to the mind through the affections from appeals to the appetites. Tear-jerking stories, ranting, and demagoguery are the special province of revivalism.
(3) A suspicion or rejection of biblical exposition as the normal and principal mode of preaching, and the adoption of storytelling and “hard preaching,” which focuses on the invitation to salvation and the berating of God’s people for their failure to evangelize or to live up to the “standards.”
(4) The use of amusements and propaganda techniques in gathering and holding a crowd.
(5) The displacement of corporate worship by religious amusements and crowd evangelism in the public gatherings of the church.
(6) A reluctance to commit the decision-making process of the church into the hands of the members, resulting in a de facto pastoral dictatorship. Sometimes this form of spiritual contempt extends even to the private lives of church members, who are told that they should seek the pastor’s counsel before making any important decision. Very often, this philosophy of manifested in an attitude of suspicion or even contempt toward pastoral arrangements that involve a real sharing of authority and responsibility among multiple pastors.
(7) A belief that the spiritual effectiveness of ministers and ministries can be gauged (ceteris paribus) by the number of crisis decisions that are being made. Soul-winning covers a multitude of sins.
“Now, this is a short description, and it is therefore incomplete. Still, to the degree that a ministry is characterized by the above, then it can fairly be called revivalistic. Of course, non-revivalists also favor revival (or, as we prefer to call it, “awakening”–and there is a good reason for this). In contrast to revivalism, biblical Christianity assumes that spiritual growth is the default state for true believers. The corollaries work out as follows.”
(1) A belief that spiritual decisions are being made constantly and that they are not normally crisis decisions. Over time, small decisions add up to big growth. When crisis decisions are necessary (and they sometimes are), then they should be made in the right ways and for the right reasons.
(2) Refusal to bypass the mind when appealing to the emotions, but recognition that the emotions (in the form of Christian affections) are extremely important. Loving God rightly is the most important thing that we can ever do, and this right love (orthopathy) must undergird every attempt to serve and obey Him.
(3) An insistence upon biblical exposition as the normal and vital pattern of preaching and the focal point of worship. As the Scriptures are carefully interpreted, explained, and applied, the lives of God’s people will be transformed. They will see Christ in His beauty, love Him for Himself, and live out that love increasingly in their daily conduct.
(4) The recognition that the most important presence in the assembly of the Church is God Himself, leading to the utter rejection of any attempt to convert Christianity into a system of amusement for the religiously inclined.
(5) A commitment to worship as the central activity of the assembled church, and a recognition that all other activities must be grounded in this. Evangelism (outreach) and fellowship (inreach) must both stem from a vital worship (upreach) or they will be shallow, perfunctory, and contrived. Christians have no higher duty or greater delight than to exult in the presence of the Mighty God, the merciful Savior, and the eternal Spirit. Where His holiness strikes us with awe, it also fills us with longing and joy. No church can offer any higher inducement for attendance at any meeting than the presence of God Himself.
(6) Rejoicing in the priesthood of believers and its implication that spiritual wisdom is available to all of God’s people. Baptists understand this to imply congregational polity and to permit–perhaps even encourage–shared pastoral authority. Presbyterians also affirm the vital role of the congregation in the selection of ruling elders, which elders constitute the voice of the “laity” in church decisions. Spiritual leadership is understood primarily as a matter of exposition and example rather than as the exercise of fiat authority.
(7) Radical commitment to the notion that the success of the church must be measured by the degree to which it achieves the unity of the faith and of the full knowledge of the Son of God, unto a mature man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.
I think Bauder’s description here is exceptional for its brevity and clarity. Having grown up in Baptist Fundamentalism with revivalism as an essential part of the experience, I have seen the long-term destructive influence of this approach. The most compelling influences in the lives of my classmates in high school toward godliness were certainly not evangelists, Christian camps and Christian school chapels. Each of those had some spiritual value in our lives, but this was true in spite of revivalism, not because of it. No, the influences to godliness were the daily examples set by our teachers and youth pastors who lacked the polish of the one-week wonders and who rejected their manipulative methods.
In addition, it was the culture of revivalism that I finger as the main culprit in the majority of Christian teens who walked away from God in my high school years. They found their crisis decisions lasted fewer and fewer days and hours over time, like the diminishing returns of drugs or pornography. Unless something harder and more extreme was sought, eventually no emotion could be stirred by that kind of preaching and hearts grew cold. Kids stopped going to camp because they knew it would cost too much money to buy new cassettes of their favorite rock music a week after they broke them upon returning from camp. Other teens accepted the challenge to just try harder and attended more extreme schools such as Hyles-Anderson and Fairhaven and either drank the Kool-Aid (the equivalent of a spiritual lobotomy) or disappeared entirely from the spiritual radar once they were completely burned out. Few exceptions to these generalizations exist.
Adults were affected too. Two week revival meetings became one week meetings, and now most churches have a hard time mustering the excitement necessary to sustain a Sunday-Wednesday meeting. This occasionally results in the clamor for old-fashioned endurance, and when pastors fall for it and schedule a week-long meeting, they find that those who shouted the loudest don’t bother to attend what they demanded in the first place.
Nothing more needs to be added to this post. Bauder’s description says it all more than adequately. When churches stop swallowing the unbiblical culture of revivalism, they will see, over time, a repair and restoration of souls as the centrality of Scripture is restored to lives and the church.
There is a heroic quality to the thought of men who are willing to tackle the greatest themes relating to God, creation, salvation, and the church: even when they make mistakes, they make magnificent mistakes from which we can all learn. In a day of small men and small minds, we should be grateful that the Lord is truly good, and has provided such brilliant men to inform the great traditions of the church and to provide us with immense resources of theology and devotion.