January 18, 2021

A Contrarian Manifesto for the Church Growth Debate

I have been in a lot of debates about the current worship and church revolution known as the seeker-sensitive, Purpose-Driven church. I’ve stated my case, taken on the other side, and come back to argue the same issues again and again. Today, I felt as exhausted with this discussion as a person could feel.

So I wrote. I wrote my mind, and my emotions and my heart. I may be totally wrong. I may be more wrong than right. I may be somewhere on the path to truth. Only God knows. But here is my manifesto. My personal statement of where I stand, and will keep standing.

I don’t mean to offend, but this has become a highly personal issue; a matter of WHO I AM, and who I will be remembered for being. Read with the understanding that this is the hill I’ve decided to live on, preach on and fight on if need be.

I’m 47. I was born in the era of Elvis and raised with the Beatles. I understand what baby boomers are all about, because I have met the enemy, and he is me. Or us. Or something.

I have been involved in ministry to youth since I was saved at age 15. I started preaching that year. I got my first youth ministry position in 1976. I’ve worked full time in youth ministry since that time, not counting four years in the pastorate, where I fired my youth director and did his job myself most of the time as well. (And nearly got fired.)

I’ve been in the “church renewal” movement. I’ve read Howard Snyder and Elton Trueblood and Finley Edge, all men whom Rick Warren ought to fall down before saying “unworthy!”

I was in the Charismatic movement, too. Secret prayer meetings. Speaking in tongues. Claiming answers. Praying spiritual warfare prayers in the church foyer, because we knew what was really going on in the church. All aimed at “renewing” the church.

I did all the SBC “revive” your church programs. I took 50 people through Masterlife. I’ve done missions trips all over America. I’ve taught revival and prayed for revival, just like Avery Willis and Henry Blackaby said.

I’ve reorganized, renamed, reinvented and renewed everything I could get my hands on in the churches I’ve worked for. I’ve started small groups, hauled busfuls to conferences, brought in the experts and played the videos. I’ve talked spiritual gifts and lay ministry until I was blue in the face.

I started buying CCM when it was The Imperials in leisure suits. I own praise and worship albums older than the people playing in Third Day. I was at Ichthus (the first CCM festival) 18 times, including the ones where 200 people were singing to a banjo plucker in a barn.

Don’t talk to me about changing the church with worship renewal or small groups or the latest thing. On the other side of a few hundred youth services, youth rallies, college nights, concerts, festivals, workshops, seminars, conventions and conferences, I’ve heard it all and done it all.

I read, too. I’ve read Leadership Magazine and Christianity Today for two decades. I’ve read hundreds–yes, hundreds–of books that promised to show the way to changing the church through whatever was the method du jour.

So you will have to forgive me for my lack of enthusiasim for what is going on right now. I’m burnt up and burnt out. You see, I remember when Hybels and company were “The Son City” method. Design the meeting for the seekers and fill up the youth building. Who would have guessed what would come from that?

When I first heard that we should have LOTS MORE MUSIC BY A BAND, it was not a new idea. I was playing rock bass with a three piece band in church when I was 14. Yes, I was the non-Christian kid who came in through the praise band ministry.

When I started hearing about “seeker sensitive methods,” I already had my purple hearts from all those years of pizzas, special events, cool t-shirts, small groups, and extreme games. When people started rattling on about changing the church, I really wanted to say something witty like, “Been there, done that,” because I had.

So dear reader, I have come to a conclusion, and it ain’t pretty.

My generation–that baby boom bunch that we’ve heard so much about–has a compulsion to change the church to be what they want it to be. Why? Oh….don’t you know?

Our generation has been told for the whole trip that we are special. We deserve more. We need more. We are wounded. We are alienated from authority. We are the victims of Vietnam, and divorce, and educational breakdown. Decades of advertising have convinced us that we need our own Oldsmobile, cause we can’t drive daddy’s. We’re smarter. Thinner. Better. We’ve got the short attention span. Television and movies are our medium. We need stories. We’re casual. We need to be met “where we are.” We need to be in “real relationships.” We aren’t satisfied with “church the way it used to be.”

Yeah right. What a crock. This is the most flattered, catered to, lied to and indulged generation in history. I loathe my generation, not because we don’t have some good people. We do, but we also have generational selfishness honed into a kind of idolatry that is truly awesome to behold. We are big, fat, demographic bullies, who won’t play with anyone else unless we get everything “our way.”

My generation is, without a doubt, the generation most likely to repackage God, the Bible, Jesus, the church and the Gospel to suit themselves. My generation must be catered to and told they are special or they won’t show up. My generation must shred what came before them as an act of self-affirmation. My generation must have their own slogans, names and bribes or they won’t come. My generation must be told they are key to everything. My generation doesn’t want to share the faith with other ages and cultures, because we are just so darned cool.

I am tired–bone tired–of being told my church isn’t real, relevant or communicating until we do it like the baby boomer gurus say it must be done. (Insert here an obscene gesture of your choice issued towards the megachurch in general, but make it a good one.) I am tired of hearing that any deviation from the baby boomer preferences means no love, no evangelism, no outreach, no community. I am beyond tired of being told that the baby boomer version of worship and church is the (insert Foghorn Leghorn voice) “real, final, long-awaited wahd from God ahmighty on how things ought to be done ’round heyah.”

Indulge me a moment please. After being bombed for the last fifteen years with the constant message that I really suck because I’m not purpose-driven, I need to clear the pipes. I preach my heart out to my students and my church. I labor in the study and the pulpit to communicate well. I illustrate with humor and clarity. I pay attention to the flow and the text. I connect with the mind, heart and emotions. I’m passionate, and I’m Biblical. I may not be the best, but I’m one of those thousands who give my energy of mind and soul to the labor of preaching.

Don’t haul a video screen into my church and tell me that if I don’t show clips from The Martrix, I’m not communicating. Don’t tell me to buy Rick Warren pre-packaged, alliterated pablum or risk not connecting. Don’t tell me I have to be charming and sweet and positive like the Christless Joel Osteen. Don’t tell me the Gospel I preach–Spurgeon’s Gospel, Luther’s Gospel, Paul’s Gospel–isn’t relevant. Put that stuff up.

I love my people enough to be faithful to the Word of God in both its method and its message. I am not ashamed to have said no to the pressure of baby boomer consumerists and yes to the instructions for preaching in the pastoral letters. I’m not an entrepreneur. I’m not a therapist. I’m not your buddy or your success coach. I’m exalting and proclaiming the Lord Jesus Christ as presented in the scriptures and the confessions. If that’s not good enough, relevant enough or real enough, then either you kill me or you deal with it.

I don’t care about the Purpose-Driven Church, the Emergent Church, the Seeker Church, The Church-Growth Church or any other trendy moniker. I’m into the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. If baby boomers want their own church, with everything done their way so they don’t have to share with the rest of Christianity, fine. Go have your play date. I’m hanging with the big dogs of Christian history and passing on the hot dogs of American evangelicalism.

Am I mad at someone? No, not unless you penetrate the perimeter and get into my pulpit. Then we’re gonna fight. But I am truly happy that millions of boomers are convinced their way of doing church is better than anyone else’s. I don’t resent their success, though I have to say that seeing the largest church in the country pastored by the nearly certain apostate Joel Osteen is pretty humbling.

I’m fairly confident the time will come when the flash, the smoke and the mirrors will lose their appeal and the truth of classic Christianity will shine through. I’m certain many are sitting in churches right now wondering why they are starving to death on seeker-oriented sermons and entertained to the point of sheer boredom by the gimmick of the week. They write me hundreds of letters. I know they are there. If I hear from them in such numbers, how many more must there be?

Let me be clear, I’m not a nut just being contrary for contrary’s sake. I am solidly in favor of all kinds of music. “There is No God Like Our God” or “I’m Forgiven Because You Are Forsaken” and all their kind are wonderful. Bring them on. But don’t talk to me about throwing out the great hymns of the church to make room for a style that “helps you to worship.” I’m not going to listen.

Let’s go casual? Fine. But don’t ask me to give up a sense of worship being a coming before the Lord. Are we going to use film clips for illustrations, because boomers like movies? Not much we’re not, because if my church doesn’t have all ages in it, I’m going elsewhere.

Humor in the pulpit? In the service of good Gospel preaching, I’m all for that. But don’t start hanging a few “principles” on a bunch of pablum and stories and call it “seeker friendly preaching.” That dog won’t hunt. “Contemporary” and “traditional” services? If you can convince me that we will be one church, with one set of leaders and one mission, and not a bunch of niche groups being catered to instead of called into community, I’ll listen. I’ve seen it work, but not the way it’s being promoted by most boomers today. Bail on the liturgy and get with the current therapeudic God-chatter coming out of the emergent church? Take it home and bake it longer. I’m not giving up the liturgy of the church.

Let’s be honest: those two services that we must have? They exist so the boomers can have everything done their way and not have to deal with the old people.

But rather than recite all the things any reasonable person would consider in responding to this constant and annoying pressure, let me be perfectly clear. Most of the changes demanded by boomers in order to “connect” and “be real” and “meet people where they are” will be in concrete in no time, and when the twenty-somethings or their successors ask the aging baby boomers to change and incorporate their ideas about worship, watch the wars begin. Giving the boomers their stylistic preferences in reshaping the church is going to prove to be the worst mistake American evangelicals ever made. The “boomer megachurches” aren’t presiding over a rediscovery of Biblical Christianity. They are leading a revolution where culture, generational niche groups and consumeristic agendas subvert the Gospel.

I sometimes wonder if this fight is worth it. My generation won’t be deterred. If there is to be a genuine reformation in evangelicalism, I won’t live to see it. I know from my conversations with my friends that the theology of the Solas and the Doctrines of Grace are in no danger of recapturing the mainstream. All I can do is stand my ground in the places God has given me to serve, preach, pray, worship, exalt the King, and await my day in glory, where these battles will be over.

Spurgeon voiced his concerns for his age, and they echo my concern with our own:

“Sometimes we are inclined to think that a very great portion of modern revivalism has been more a curse than a blessing, because it has led thousands to a kind of peace before they have known their misery; restoring the prodigal to the Father’s house, and never making him say, ‘Father, I have sinned.’ How can he be healed who is not sick? or he be satisfied with the bread of life who is not hungry? The old-fashioned sense of sin is despised, and consequently a religion is run up before the foundations are dug out. Everything in this age is shallow. Deep-sea fishing is almost an extinct business so far as men’s souls are concerned. The consequence is that men leap into religion, and then leap out again. Unhumbled they come to the church, unhumbled they remained in it, and unhumbled they go from it.”

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