Religion in America has gone from stuffy to sloppy. For the past 20 years or so, many churches have grown in numbers on we will call a “gimmicks for God” campaign. The problem of such was highlighted in a recent The Wall Street Journal article on the Willow Creek Church (full article here). The opening paragraph will suffice to show the reality of religion in America.
Religion, like marketing, has its funnel. And many evangelical megachurches have spent the past quarter-century focusing on the rim, attempting to get spiritual “seekers” just to sample a service – and hoping that they will at some point join the faith. These churches have grown by staying away from hard-core biblical teaching and instead have lured the curious with slick multimedia presentations and skits, sermons with the cultural relevance of “Saturday Night Live,” and maybe an iced cappuccino for the trip home.
This article will not focus specifically on Willow Creek. Rather, the broader issue of shallow, slick sales salvation will be.
As our nation has progressed further into secularism and pluralism, fewer people have attended church. They do not want to hear about sin or how they need to change their life and sacrifice for the Lord. Combine that with the message many churches preach—believe once and you will go to heaven no matter what—and you have a recipe for religious disaster.
The less people wanted to hear about their personal faults and failings, the more pastors avoided the subject to keep their numbers up. Less Bible, more entertainment and feel-goodism has been the rage of the day. As some churches are now realizing, this makes for spiritually weak people.
How are churches supposed to grow? What are preachers to preach? Where should we turn for answers? Some want to turn to marketing firms and surveys. The spiritually conscious will turn to the Word of God.
It seems a fundamental truth that the way the Holy Spirit guided men in the first century is the right way. We have it written down for us in the New Testament. We know it was right; and worked.
Preaching To The People
The first gospel sermon in Acts 2 is a great model for what preachers need to do. As Peter preached to the Jews he convicted them of the sin of killing Christ (Acts 2:22-36). He did not waste his time on convincing them that God created the world, that men must be moral, or that Moses was a great prophet of God. They believed all that. What they did not believe was that Jesus is the Christ. He focused on their need—not a physical or even psychological one, but their greatest need of the soul—to be saved.
When it was evident that many were convicted by the preaching (Acts 2:37), Peter commanded them to “repent and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). This is not done today in most churches.
On the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2 about 3,000 submitted to the Lord in baptism and were added to the church (Acts 2:40, 41, 47). Hence, the beginning of the church; instant, explosive growth.
By the time we get to Acts 4 there are about 5,000 Christians in Jerusalem (Acts 4:4). This happened as the preaching of the apostles was done. The preaching was plain and pointed. Peter told the Jews in Acts 3 that they were guilty of killing the “Prince of life” (Acts 3:15). He commanded them to “repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19).
So, what we have is a group of preachers (the apostles) condemning men for their sins in plain language and commanding them to repent and convert. The church grew in this environment.
In Acts 5 Ananias and Sapphira were put to death for lying to God (Acts 5:1-11). This was a case of church discipline; and the people feared (Acts 5:11). Still, the Bible says, “And believers were increasingly added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women” (Acts 5:14).
If we were to ask the leading church-growth gurus how to increase numbers, do you suppose they would say, “Tell people plainly how sinful they are and discipline members who are in sin”? Hardly.
Do These Always Work?
While the gospel was very successful in many areas, it was not always accepted.
The church of the first century went from being exclusively Jewish to predominantly Gentile. The Jews as a whole rejected Christ and His message of salvation. The Gentiles were more receptive; still there were difficult areas.
When Paul preached in Athens, the overall reception was chilly (Acts 17:16-34). Some mocked him for teaching the resurrection (Acts 17:32). Nothing else is really said about the work of the Lord in Athens which leads us to conclude hardly anything was going on there.
So, what does this mean? Should we keep tweaking things until we find a way it will work and produce the numbers we are looking for? No!
Here is where many go off track. It is not about us tinkering with the message to make it more appealing to people. Rather, it is about doing what God wants done. We know this by looking into His Word.
Our job is to plant and water; it is up to God to give the increase (1 Cor. 3:6).
We cannot improve on the message of the gospel. Avoiding men’s sins does nothing to help their souls and bring them to Christ. It only hinders them and hardens them in sin. Many preachers have preached men into hell by allowing them to be comfortable in their sin.
What About The Changing Times?
Should the gospel be updated for the 21st century?
The entirety of truth was revealed in the first century. The Holy Spirit guided the apostles into all truth (Jn. 16:13). If not, then God did them a disservice—and lied. That truth has not changed, for truth is unchanging. The same truth they had then is the same truth we have now.
Since the truth has not changed, the message we are to preach has not changed. The sins in which men were involved in the first century are the same ones they commit today. The same truth that exposed those sins is the one that will do it today. The same gospel that led them to salvation will do the same now (Rom. 1:16).
It is true that the method or means of delivering that message has changed. We have bulletins, radio, and the internet. Using these tools to spread the Word does not change the essence of the Word.
The problem churches have had is changing the message, avoiding convicting men of sin. Along with this has been a huge emphasis on entertainment. Some church services today can hardly be distinguished from a circus or pep rally. It is not a time of sober reflection on their life. Men are no longer called on to examine themselves to see if they are in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5).
What Should You Do?
People in churches where the gospel is watered down, where “gimmicks for God” is the norm, need to insist on a change.
The first change is in them. They need to go to the Word to see what it actually says, not depend on the preacher (Acts 17:11). Learn the truth and the way the Spirit-led apostles and prophets did things.
Second, people need to examine what is done in their churches in light of Scripture. Do they match or not? Most will find they do not (1 Jn. 4:1-6).
Third, if the church is not guided by the New Testament of Jesus Christ, then they ought to plead for a change. At this point many will receive resistance and often face hostility. If they change is not made in a timely manner, the only choice is to leave and find a church that is striving to adhere to the New Testament.
Our soul is not worth friendships. It is not worth displeasing God and not serving Him to stay where we have always been or where the popular or large crowd is. Rather, we need to put God first even if that means a separation from those dear to us.
Instead of being content with shallow religion, we need to be those dedicated to being mature in Christ. We need to devote ourselves to a deeper understanding of the Word and a personal application of it to our lives. Anything short of this is dereliction of duty.
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God (Rom. 12:1, 2).