James Hamilton, Professor of Biblical Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, writing on The Greatest Danger Facing the Church:
The greatest danger facing the church is probably not what most of us expect. We expect some sort of direct challenge from without, but it probably comes from within. In our day, it may well come from well-meaning pastors.
How could well-meaning pastors pose the greatest threat to evangelical churches today? Do they deny the truth?
No, the pastors who pose the greatest threat to the church today will confess belief in the right things. They will confess the authority and inerrancy of the Bible, that Jesus saves, and that he is the only way of salvation.
So how can these guys who mean well and make the good confession pose such a threat to the church?
They are a threat because, in spite of their confession, their words and actions treat Christianity as nothing more than the best form of therapy. They treat it as self-help. They treat it as the path to better marriages, better parent-child relationships, better attitudes and performance at work, and on and on.
With their cover of Britney Spears’ Circus, Church Circus by the Glades illustrates the point of the article, The Church Growth Movement: innovating like it’s 1894. They write:
For the grand opening of our new building, we launched into a series called Life is a Circus and I’m Surrounded by Clowns. Here’s the performance of “Circus” that helped us get the series started!
One can’t help but admire the Christ-centred lyrics that so clearly proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins in Him:
There’s only two types of people in the world
The ones that entertain and the ones that observe
Well baby, I’m a put-on-a-show kind of girl
Don’t like the backseat, gotta be first
I’m a like the ringleader, I call the shots
(Call the shots)
I’m like a firecracker I make it hot
When I put on a show
I feel the adrenaline moving through my veins
Spotlight on me and I’m ready to break
I’m like a performer, the dancefloor is my stage
Better be ready, hope that you feel the same
All eyes on me in the center of the ring just like a circus
When I crack that whip, everybody gon’ trip just like a circus
Don’t stand there watching me, follow me, show me what you can do
Everybody let go, we can make a dancefloor just like a circus ahhhhha
I was struck by three things while watching the opening minutes of NewSpring’s now infamous Christmas Eve service: first, by the vast effort that had been put into the production; second, by what must have been the incredible expense of the whole enterprise; and third, by the utter irrelevance of the entertainment experience to the faithful proclamation of Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins. As a taste, here is the opening set:
For those who cannot (or do not wish to) watch the video, here are the lyrics to the song:
Hang all the misletoe
I’m going to get to know you better
And as we trim the tree
How much fun it’s going to be together
Fireside is blazing bright
And we’re caroling through the night
And this Christmas will be
A very special Christmas for me
Presents and cards are here
My world is filled with cheer and you
And as I look around
Your eyes outshine the town, they do
Try to reconcile this performance with Luke’s account of Christ’s commission to the church:
Then He [Jesus] said to them, “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.” And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures.
Then He said to them, “Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And you are witnesses of these things.
Christ has tasked His church with preaching repentance and remission of sins in His name to all nations. Nothing less, and nothing more.
It is perhaps a little unfair to single out NewSpring. They would no doubt say that they are being ‘innovative, using modern methods to communicate a timeless message’. In this, NewSpring is merely representative of the Innovation Cult that has subjugated so much of the visible church.
Still, even if one were to grant the premise that ‘innovative’ and ‘modern methods’ may be used, what exactly does a performance of Chris Brown’s This Christmas have to do with the ‘timeless message’ of (one presumes) repentance and the forgiveness of sins? Anyone? It is abundantly clear that NewSpring – and the other churches of the Innovation Cult – are rebelliously off-mission.
Have you noticed how the most self-professedly innovative churches all look just the same? (An unsympathetic observer may be tempted to think that they exhibit rather less innovation than they do slavish imitation.) This uniformity is an inevitable consequence of the seeker-driven method, for in their desire to make themselves attractive to the cultural zeitgeist, these churches conform themselves to the image of the world. The great irony is that they thereby denude themselves of the one thing that the world does not have.
If the leaders of the Church Growth Movement had any sense of church history prior to their own, they would realize that their supposed ‘innovation’ is nothing other than failed 19th century revivalism of the kind repudiated by C.H. Spurgeon in his 1894 sermon, The Lord Leading; David Following:
Oh, what would some preachers do to get the people to hear them at all? Ah, what are they not doing, dear friends? As things now go, I should not wonder at all if we were to have, in some of our places of worship, a part of Mr. Barnum’s show, in order to attract a congregation! We have all kinds of fiddling, and tinkering, and I know not what, going on to get people to come and hear what is called the gospel. “Oh,” said one, “but he brought so many to the place!” Yes, if they had had a clown out of the theatre, he would, no doubt, have brought still more. If that is all that you want – simply to gather a crowd together – it is not so very difficult if you are not squeamish about the means you employ.
But, oh! when God sends the people to hear the gospel and nothing else, and they come and listen to what a man has to say to them about heaven and hell, life and death, the cross of Christ and the way of salvation, that is the sound of a going in the tops of the mulberry trees.
C.H. Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons (vol. 40; London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1894), 79–80.
Spurgeon preached repentance and forgiveness of sins in Christ. He has his (eternal) legacy. Those whom he was critiquing held their circuses and attracted great crowds, yet now are completely forgotten.
Spurgeon’s insight is that it is no great feat to gather a crowd, if one is willing to use any means. He spoke hyperbolically of P.T. Barnum’s ‘Greatest Show On Earth’, but the Church Growth Movement seems to have missed the joke. It employs pastors of the ‘creative arts’ who transform worship services into entertainment experiences with song-and-dance routines, worthless stunts and assorted other madness. Even children are enticed with sacrilegious novelties such as fire engine baptistries, replete with sirens and confetti cannons.
The Church Growth Movement’s huge numbers are therefore no impressive feat, readily achievable as they are through mere human effort. And, having attracted such crowds through means that appeal to the unregenerate nature, the megachurch leader dares not tell them plainly that their sin condemns them before a just and holy God. He cannot proclaim repentance and remission of sins. He is unable to give the unadulterated Gospel of Jesus. He is utterly constrained in what he may say, for a crowd so easily gathered will just as readily scatter at the foolishness of preaching the cross of Christ.
This is why the doctrine and preaching of the seeker-driven megachurch is necessarily so powerless and pitiful. This is why those churches are full of false converts and starving sheep. The seeker-driven method militates against the message of the Gospel. The two cannot long coexist.
The entire Church Growth Movement is thus seen to be founded upon a false premise, for the ‘timeless message’ of Christ crucified and raised from the dead may only be communicated through the means that Christ Himself has ordained. And that means is the foolishness of preaching that message.
You cannot entice people to be saved, for they are dead in their sins and – apart from the working of the Holy Spirit – incapable of any move toward God. And the Holy Spirit does not, will not work repentance and faith through an entertainment experience. No, Paul says, ‘faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ’ (Rom. 10:17, ESV). Jesus, then, comes to us only through His Word, Baptism, and Supper.
May God therefore cause us to pray the Lord of the harvest to send out faithful labourers into His harvest – workers who will rightly divide the word of truth, preaching the Law in all its ferocity to frighten comfortable sinners, and the Gospel in all its sweetness to comfort frightened sinners. May the Holy Spirit grant seeker-driven leaders – and we ourselves – to repent and truly believe the words He breathed through Paul:
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
And bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.”
Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
1 Cor. 1:18–25
We have already covered Perry Noble’s claim that there is no word in Hebrew for ‘commandment’, and his subsequent doubling-down on that error. However, there have been further rebuttals of Noble’s dangerous false teaching and, since he is lead pastor of NewSpring, the largest church in the Southern Baptist Convention, Nobel’s errors propagate widely. A round-up of the best responses may therefore prove helpful.
Responses to Noble’s original claims:
- James Duncan – Noble rescinds the Ten Commandments for 2015
- Pastor Chris Rosebrough – Jesus Called Them Commandments, Mr. Noble
- Pastor Chris Rosebrough – Perry Noble’s False Hebrew Information (audio, segment discussing Noble starts at 32:50)
- Dr. James R. White, director of Alpha and Omega Ministries – Yes, Perry, Hebrew Has Multiple Words that Mean “Command” (video and audio)
Further discussion, and responses to Noble’s subsequent spin and obfuscation:
- James Duncan – Noble departs Christian orthodoxy, announces he’s staying put
- Pastor Chris Rosebrough – Perry Noble’s Explanation (audio, segment discussing Noble starts at 45:15)
- Pastor Kevin Boling, host of the Knowing the Truth radio programme, interviews James Duncan – Perry Noble’s Problem with God (audio)
- Janet Mefferd interviews James Duncan – Janet Mefferd Radio Show (audio)
Photo credit: Detail from Moses Smashing the Tablets of the Law, Rembrandt, 1659.
The monarchial government of many seeker-driven churches is certainly efficient. When a leader is supported by a board of subordinates whom he has appointed, and can just as easily remove, he is well placed to Get Things Done. Nevertheless, is efficiency a virtue in the church?
In a reflective, thought-provoking piece entitled Is Efficiency A Virtue In The Church?, Dr. R. Scott Clark suggests that a desire for efficiency can militate against the very means of grace through which the Holy Spirit works in Christ’s church. Here is an extract:
It’s not obvious from Scripture that our Lord is much interested in efficiency. He established an institution (the visible church) to which he gave the keys of the kingdom (Matt 16) and slow, even cumbersome system of church discipline (Matt 18) that, in execution, may take a long time to work out. My argument is that was intentional because the church is populated by sinners who, in an “efficient” system would be more apt to use the church not to love and serve one another but to hurt them. There are benefits to efficiency in business. A product that is produced more efficiently is probably going to be less expensive and more affordable for a greater number of people and government is rarely efficient and that wastes tax dollars and sometimes even human lives. Nevertheless, one of the calling cards of twentieth-century totalitarianism is that it was efficient, that it made the trains run on time. That experiment did not end well.
Loving people, caring for them takes time. People are sinful and sin results in brokenness and restoring (e.g., in church discipline) them takes time. The preaching of the Word and administration of the sacraments takes time. In the ordinary providence people might have to hear essentially the same message 10 times before it sinks in. The Spirit works when he and where he pleases. Ministry is much more like farming than it is like factory work. Perhaps that’s why Scripture tends toward agrarian metaphors of planting and harvesting.
I also think I understand the attraction of efficiency and church-growth thinking. It’s a subtle form of rationalism. Ministry, after all, is a mystery. Why does that one, who seemed to show so much enthusiasm and so much fruit suddenly apostatize and how is that the other one, who never seemed to “get it,” who was late for church, who was never going to be a leader in the church, turn out, on his death bed to have been a fundamentally faithful, grace-filled believer? That’s a mystery. There’s no way to fix or speed up the work of the Spirit through the Word and sacraments. So, when so someone comes along with a slick plan that seems to make ministry that much more “rational” (that was a buzzword in government and business in the first half of the 20th century) it’s hard to resist. It’s something that elders, who might also be businessmen can understand and support. It seems to build bridges but it also, subtly perhaps, puts us just a little bit more in control of church and ministry and tends to marginalize the Word, sacraments, and Spirit (were that possible).
Photo credit: Ryan McGuire.
Here’s some good advice for Noble: when you make a mistake in the pulpit, repent and put it right. The shed blood of Christ is sufficient to atone even for such sins. When you instead spin, obfuscate and attack your critics, you demonstrate that you do not love the Truth.
The church growth movement’s leadership model is not that of the Chief Executive Officer, but the absolute monarch. CEOs report to a board of directors who, in the case of a public company, are themselves accountable to shareholders. Self-appointed, vision-casting megachurch leaders refuse to hear godly criticism and are truly accountable to no one. Forsaking the faith and practice of the historic, orthodox Christian Church, they impose the vain imaginings of their own hearts upon flocks starving for the Bread of Life.
And the word of the LORD came to me, saying, “Son of man, prophesy against the prophets of Israel who prophesy, and say to those who prophesy out of their own heart, ‘Hear the word of the LORD!’”
Thus says the Lord GOD: “Woe to the foolish prophets, who follow their own spirit and have seen nothing! O Israel, your prophets are like foxes in the deserts. You have not gone up into the gaps to build a wall for the house of Israel to stand in battle on the day of the LORD. They have envisioned futility and false divination, saying, ‘Thus says the LORD!’ But the LORD has not sent them; yet they hope that the word may be confirmed. Have you not seen a futile vision, and have you not spoken false divination? You say, ‘The LORD says,’ but I have not spoken.”
Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: “Because you have spoken nonsense and envisioned lies, therefore I am indeed against you,” says the Lord GOD. “My hand will be against the prophets who envision futility and who divine lies; they shall not be in the assembly of My people, nor be written in the record of the house of Israel, nor shall they enter into the land of Israel. Then you shall know that I am the Lord GOD.
The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away.
1 Peter 5:1–4
But Jesus called them to Himself and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
Photo credit: Henry VIII and the Barber Surgeons, Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1543.