December 4, 2020

The iMonk Weekend File: 3:12:05

belushi1941.jpgA story on franchised churches, a personal question that is really troubling me, and a few thoughts on “What is Faith?”

This is the future.

What is to stop a “Rick Warren Purpose Driven Church” from opening up in every mall in America?

If you used to think of a congregation as a group of people who believed the same thing…..think again. These churches are now made up of people who have all BOUGHT the same thing. Doctrine and theology will be sliced so thin that it will be invisible. Full service programs, high tech entertainments, lots of age-grouped goodies: Get ready for the Total Package Church. Only a fool wouldn’t go.

What the Southern Baptist Convention and every other denomination never anticipated: Denominations based on doctrine and practice are now being replaced by franchises connected by the templates of style, technology, personalities and market niche. The Christian is now a customer, and the product is in marketing high-gear.

It’s the end of the world as we know it. In an evangelicalism where methodology writes theology, where will it all end? Get on this train and you’ll find out. Brands. Not Churches, but brands.

My Question:

I am reading a lot about church planting, trying to get a feel for how the “new” churches, especially the Warren-modeled churches and the Emergent churches, are growing. I want my church to grow. Genuinely. But there is an issue here:

My community is one of the poorest and least educated in America. The churches that grow in my setting are “Holy Roller” Pentecostals and “Holy Roller” Baptists. Yes, we have a couple of “middle class, suburban” churches, but they are the extreme minority. The men in this country are rough. Illiterate. Very, very, very blue collar. I’ll bet less than 3% ever read a book. Life here in the Appalachia is a different world. Poverty. Ignorance. Mountain culture.

Every church I am reading about and every church I survey on the web, is upper middle class. Suburban, white yuppies. Young Professionals. College types. Literate. Artistic. Highly cultured. The churches are built to respond to what these people perceive as their “needs.”

I can’t find anything that talks about doing church in the setting where I find myself without admitting that I am the wrong guy, at the wrong church, doing things the wrong way.

Should I just accept that Clay County Kentucky is the wrong place for me to think about a literate, intelligent, Reformed Christianity?

Showing us examples of “What is Faith?” is a major project of the Bible. I Cor 10:6 and Hebrews 11 make it clear that the OT is full of personal case studies on the nature of faith. I would say that a major theme of the entire Old Testament narrative- I mean one of the 5 big questions being answered in the entire Hebrew Bible- is “What is faith?”

[UPDATE: In fact, let me say this: This is such a glaring, huge, “Big Picture” issue, that I want to warn every reader to carefully watch how those who complicate the issue of salvation by faith NEVER do so from the “big picture,” but always from the use of favorite texts to which they return over and over. There is NO DOUBT that there are some texts that seem to contradict or complicate the idea that we are saved EXACTLY like Abraham, but anyone with a grasp of the total message of scripture will know this is a major, dominating theme and that the teaching of scripture is uniform and unmistakable on this matter. I particularly fear that some forms of dividing scripture into “Old and New” or dispensations turns away the teaching of the whole Bible for the hammered distortions of one or two texts.]

Allowing the Old Testament to have its say on all of this pretty important. The New Testament defines faith with Old Testament examples. Yes, the gospels show us many examples of faith, but Paul doesn’t return to them in the epistles. When discussing Christian faith that rightly responds to the Gospel, he returns to Abraham. This is crucial, because Christians have a tendency to define faith in strictly New Testament terms- especially John and Romans terms- without taking full note that the Old Testament is full of examples of that same faith.

Romans 4:1-13 says the defintion of faith is right there in the Abraham cycle. Genesis 15:6. Before circumcision. Before sacrifice. Before the Ten Commandments. Before there was “Judaism.” Before all those things Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness.

Abraham knew almost nothing about God. His faith experience was two fold: 1) A personal, God-initiated encounter with a God he didn’t know. He trusted and obeyed this God. Imperfectly, but genuinely. 2) Hearing, Believing and acting upon the word of God’s covenant promise. While that promise was in terms that look at bit odd to Christians today -Genesis 12:1-4, etc.- it was Abraham’s salvation, just as it is ours.

These two things- God as a person initiating relationship with Abraham, and the word/promise of God in covenant terms- are what Abraham “believes” and we are pointed to as being FAITH.

The New Testament never argues with or replaces this:

Romans 4:16 16 That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring- not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all,

Galatians 3:5-9 5 Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith- 6 just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”? 7 Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. 8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” 9 So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

The New Covenant now fills in the blanks. Abraham’s God was the Trinitarian God we know in Jesus. Abraham’s promise was the promise of Jesus and the Kingdom he brings. Abraham’s salvation is our salvation in Jesus. The God who came to Abraham now comes to us in Jesus.

John 8:56 56 Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.”

Acts 3:13-16 13 The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. 14 But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, 15 and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. 16 And his name- by faith in his name- has made this man strong whom you see and know, and the faith that is through Jesus has given the man this perfect health in the presence of you all.

This is the faith that God has been creating all along:

Romans 4:12-13 12 and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. 13 For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.

So whatever the cognitive, subject or objective aspects, faith believes that the God we meet in Jesus is worth our loyalty, obedience, worship, trust and love.


  1. (I have enjoyed your website very much- prob’ly because I agree with you about 99% of the time 😉 Question: is it impossible or extremely improbable that these seeker-sensitive churches would/could be strong theologically?

  2. “Seeker-sensitive” churches are founded on the premise that “seekers” are put off by the liturgical/traditional forms of the church, heavy doctrinal content, or both; and that by downplaying these facets of Christianity, more “seekers” can be attracted to the church.

    The problem is that you can draw a large crowd by doing that, but making the leap from “attendee” to “disciple” is very difficult – as the very things that shape Christian discipleship (tradition, theology, discipline) are downplayed by the very system that was set up to people in.

  3. Excellent thoughts on faith. Paul’s main argument in Galatians 3:15-29 is that the promise of God preceded the Law, and therefore the Law is subservient to the promise, which is received by faith.

    It is a delicate balance to maintain the continuity and discontinuity of the Testaments. On the one hand, we are sons of Abraham when we share in the same faith that he had. And yet, there is a significant difference between us and him because of the dividing line of the cross. In fact, this difference is so significant that Paul could even speak of faith coming at a definite point in history (Gal. 3:23-25). I think his use of the word “faith” there refers to the objective reality, or “the faith” that comes from Christ and of which Christ is the object. In that sense, it is actually the fulfillment of Abraham’s faith in the promise of God.

  4. Chuck Bridgeland says

    “Should I just accept that Clay County Kentucky is the wrong place for me to think about a literate, intelligent, Reformed Christianity?”

    Before you do that, read this:

    Re franchised churches: This sounds like something only a TV raised generation would like. I suspect (based on my admittedly limited experience with black churches) that this is primarily an upper class white people thing.

  5. Mark Whittinghill says


    That article is encouraging on so many levels, I don’t even know where to start. God is great! It’s so easy for me to look at what I have or haven’t “done for God” and start feeling like a failure. God has His own timing and purposes. Plus, I’m studying at Covenant, too (MA in Theology, not MDiv), so this was cool to see. Thanks for sharing that.

  6. The more I hear about seeker-sensitive churches the less I like them. The whole focus is wrong. We go to worship service in order to worship God, not to be entertained.

    Gustavo asked: is it impossible or extremely improbable that these seeker-sensitive churches would/could be strong theologically?

    I suspect that the answer is yes, it is virtually impossible for seeker-sensitive churches to have a meaningful theology. I would like the Internet Monk’s thoughts on that matter.

    Once I visited such a church for Sunday morning worship service. The place was packed. Instead of a sermon, the pastor spoke for 45 minutes on how to avoid credit card debt. This was the second part in a five part series on finances, complete with workbooks and a powerpoint presentation.

    Now I am all for fiscal responsibility, but I can’t see how this was worshipping God. We *need* to worship God. That is our first and foremost need, even if we don’t always recognize it.

  7. “In fact, the Naperville church’s foyer is a coffee shop”

    God help us all.

    This sort of thing irritates me, because churches use it as a selling point. “Come to our church and get _______!” I’m quasi-Catholic, and the parish I attend provides coffee and donuts every Sunday after mass, but I strongly doubt that is what draws people in… we go because that’s what we’ve been forced to do since we were children, even though now we are all spiritually dead 🙂

  8. I was going to take you to taks for your hatin’ on mountain people, but your county is really poorly off. Less than 50% high school graduates compared to Kentucky’s 75%, 40% below poverty (KY=16%), 8% collge grad or better (KY=16%) and not even a lot of seniors to blame it on.

    The mountains have changed since my dad abandoned Mingo County, with an unstoppable brain drain that included him and all his peers. America has increasingly become a meritocracy, where the rich are the smarter people. No, it’s not 100% but you are much more likely to find smart people who have money than you would 50 years ago. There’s no money to be made in Clay County, so almost every grad who can leave does. In my dad’s day, a lot of smart people didn’t have high school diplomas. That’s changed. Them thats got, get and them thats don’t, don’t even get to keep what they had.

    That’s probably the reason that the answer to your question (“Should I just accept that Clay County Kentucky is the wrong place for me to think about a literate, intelligent, Reformed Christianity?”) is “Probably” if by “think” you mean have anyone to talk to or live through it with you. You can think about it alone, of course.

    The chances of you even having someone in the county that’s in your league is pretty small. Sorry, but that’s how it is.

    Come to think of it, this dynamic probably explains of lot of what’s going on in churches, too.

  9. Re: seeker churches- I guess I’m a fence straddler on this one. I believe sound theology is a must, but I don’t see the harm in shaking up the externals, or offering folks a friendly cup of coffee, etc. (Seems like some of our brethren who are against the seeker type churches would have been the ones opposing translating the Bible into modern languages, and we would still be speaking Latin in church if they had their way.) I recently visited a church in Texas that meets at a school- uses the gym for the services and other facilities for a nursery, etc. The music was contemporary- led by a “worship team”. Yes, they had coffee (and bottled water). The preaching was expository (PTL!) and I almost wet my pants when I heard that “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him” (!!!) That was just one experience, but it makes me wonder if we are painting with too broad a brush (hence my question earlier). Anybody else have a good experience at a seeker-type church?

  10. I have no issue with externals either, as long as we have contemplated the connection between externals and the Gospel. In that respect, some of the seeker innovations are very good. Others are not.

  11. The church based on brand? Unfortunately, this is probably where a lot of folks are headed. I know I’m stepping into somewhat touchy territory here, but I have to say that I’m not overly excited about “a congregation as a group of people who believed the same thing” either, however. Now I’m not saying anything goes, but I believe it was in this very blog that I recently read an article (that I agreed with) lamenting the need for us all to be little cookie cutter evangelical Christians who never think or question. I always come back to the fact that Father placed me in His family by what Jesus did, not by what I did. My faith is in Jesus, a person, not in a set of spiritual principles or articles of faith.

    With regards to the personal question, 1 Cor 1:25-27 comes to mind. I think we need careful self-examination when the kind of people Paul described in this passage are largely absent from the growth of our churches.

    With regards to faith–right on! That was one of the clearest presentations of this Biblical truth I’ve read. Why do we miss this so often?

  12. Raising questions about the “seeker-friendly” format lays one open to the possibility of being misinterpreted as being “anti-friendly.” My beef with the whole “seeker-friendly” rage is that that it tends to be faddish, and a weakness of American evangelicalism is that it gravitates towards fads. In a church we used to attend which adopted the “seeker-friendly” approach, it was adopted largely because the church offered nothing else to those attending. If one can blend-in sound theological teaching and discipleship with a “seeker-friendly” approach to doing church, that would be one thing, and a positive thing at that. But the “seeker-friendly” formula is often seen as a program for success — take it out of the box, follow the instructions, and you too can become a mega-church! Where’s Jesus Christ in all of this? Where’s the Holy Spirit? And where’s sound teaching?

    Again, my observation is that the pre-packed “seeker-friendly” program is designed for churches that have nothing else to offer.

  13. I am responding to Matthew BowmanÂ’s comments about a congregation being a group of people who all believe the same thing. If a church does not have a common set of beliefs, then they will not be very unified. Even a seeker sensitive church has a bunch of people who all believe the same thing. They all believe that the music and the programs are the main thing, and have all agreed that doctrine is not important.

    As far as your comment about having faith in a person, in fact faith in a particular person Jesus Christ, I thank God that you do believe in Him. However, consider this, you believe in certain things about Him, namely what He did on the cross and why He did it. And that is doctrine. We can expand from there to other things we believe about Jesus and about God and about how we are saved. These things used to be considered essentials to the Christian faith. All of these are important and make us either within the orthodox church or not. The main point was that if we don’t care about the essentials in choosing a church but, only care about the style of music, the size of the building or whether we “get something out of” the worship, we risk ending up in a congregation that does not preach the gospel because we have not made that a criteria.

  14. I agree with the “main point” as you state it, Mark. And I also understand what you are saying about belief in a person including some statements. I certainly have strong opinions on a lot of things. I also recognize that I am fallible, and probably don’t have everything just right. It seems to me that a lot of what we like to call “unity” has created more division in the church than anything else. Anytime we disagree on a little tweak of some point of doctrine we should form new denominations and be unified…separately. Right?

    I don’t claim to have it all figured out. I do, however, question this “unity” that divides us so, this certainty that we are right while they are wrong. Could this partly lie behind Paul’s determination to know nothing among the Corinthians except Christ and Him crucified? Could it be that our unity is related more to what Christ did than to what we do? Could it be that the Father adopts who He will into His family whether we brothers and sisters think it appropriate or not?

    I also wonder if we concentrate too much on getting people to agree to doctrine rather than simply pointing them again and again to Christ and His Word and trusting that the Spirit will lead them into all truth as was promised.

    Sorry, I don’t mean to hijack this–just some thoughts.

  15. Matthew, I hear you and somewhat agree, none of us has it all figured out (well, 😉 except for some of us Calvinists). I agree – we Christians can sometimes focus to much on arguing about the non-essentials. Perhaps a good idea for a future post by Michael, a multitude of things come to mind: pre-trib/post trib, alcohol or no alcohol, dipping or sprinkling, believer or infant baptism, organ or praise band, tongues or no tongues, Rick Warren or Joel Osteen (oops, sorry that was a joke). I have many opinions as well but, would rather discuss them than throw someone out of the family over them.

    I was merely resisting the current attitude that seems to be “all we need to do is love Jesus” and disregard doctrine. That is one of the issues with CCM, a focus on the experiential and not on the content or the truth about God. To worship a God who is not the God of Scripture is idolatry. For example a God who is only “love”, would be a false God. A lot of CCM stuff focuses on how I feel about God, not on who or what God has done. I will shutup now because I have gotten off topic, thanks for reading.

  16. Thanks for your clarification, Mark. I agree about being able to discuss without dividing. I also agree with you that replacing who God is and what he has done completely with how I feel about it is shallow at best and dangerous at worst. I happen to think the gospel has a very strong narrative character, and knowledge of that concrete Story is important to living within it.

  17. Michael,
    Thanks for being so transparent about your struggles in ministry in your area. I want to encourage you, keep at it! Our church has begun a Sunday morning outdoor congregation for the homeless in the French Quarter of New Orleans. As you can probably imagine, many of the people we minister to are pretty rough; many are illiterate. At the same time, we strive to preach expositional, doctrinally informed sermons that stick close to the Biblical text. Sometimes they feel engaged by the sermons, sometimes not. All of the leaders of the congregation, including myself, have at times felt like you did in your post. Nevertheless, God has been showing us that He wants us to grow through consistency, compassion, and discipleship. Just your “being there” for your church members means a lot.