The above parody of Paul’s words: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.” (1Cor. 3:6) is an attempt to show the linkage and progression of the Church Growth and Seeker Sensitive model of ministry in America . The Evangelical, some liberal Protestant, some Roman Catholic churches and even a few Jewish synagogues have come to rely on these method-driven paradigms to attain numerical success. For some years now evangelicals have been flexing their muscles and learning how to mix it up politically, relying on their patrons in Washington to attempt to change the culture. This obviously is very ego inflating, but all this belies the fact that pastors and leaders, desperate to increase their numbers and thus validate their ministries have with the best of intentions altered the focus of the Gospel.
The facts, however, suggest to discerning observers like David Wells and others, that like the church in Laodicea , organized evangelicalism says “I am rich, I have prospered…etc” but actually they are really “poor, blind and naked.” Presently evangelicalism is rarely attacked from the outside, for it has curried many friends in the world. But internally it is laced with widening fissures that will surely produce further fragmentation. This frenzy to grow in numbers and cultural influence has fostered a reliance on a pragmatic methodology that the church has never before known. How did we get here? It’s a long trail, but the Schuller, Hybels, and Warren nexus is what is currently driving things in that direction. Church Growth is obviously a worthy goal, but it must be pursued with absolute reliance on Jesus the Head of the church and the guidance of His word. Conversely, direct borrowing from current marketing gurus suggests loud and clear that the church has decided that reliance on Jesus, the faithful announcing of His word, the working of His Spirit and prayer just doesn’t work anymore in the post-modern competitive environment. Hence, there has developed a perceived need to shift dependence to methods and techniques that have their source in the culture, borrowed from sources that have no Christian world-view. Gone are the days of expository preaching, praying, fasting, etc. and a looking to God to give the increase. It all relates to “reliance.”What do we think will give the increase? Obviously, the church will use the tools of the culture. We all know that computers, overheads, etc. are neutral. You can use a hatchet to destroy a tree or pound a tent stake. But in the work of the Gospel we should not place our reliance on physical tools and principles (“not by might, not by power, but by My Spirit says the Lord”). The problem is not in the physical tools of the culture. Rather it is reliance on ideologies and marketing schemes. Even though it is vehemently denied, ultimately, our dependence is placed in schemes and paradigms to give us the increase. Well-intentioned people depend on the well-oiled chariots of Egypt rather than to wait upon the Lord to confirm the truth of His word. Observably, our trust has shifted to imported marketing and psychological therapies abounding in the society. But when these models become what we rely upon, the focus gradually and sometimes imperceptibly shifts to these imported methods rather than the “Word of the Lord.”
Schuller pioneered the adaptation of Church Growth Principles and societal/contextualization from the foreign mission context of McGavren/C. Peter Wagner as taught at Fuller’s “ School of World Mission .” He adapted these growth principles to his own theology of self esteem and fashioned a gospel presentation to lure southern Californians into his church. He then taught this model yearly at the Crystal Cathedral pastors’ conferences. Among his most famous students were first Bill Hybels and then Rick Warren. Schuller’s creation of the Church Growth model for America was clearly a theological departure from historic evangelical doctrine. He off-loaded the doctrine of sin in order to make room for a self esteem gospel. Hybels and significantly Warren did not publicly and officially off-load theology. Rather they marginalized doctrine. They maintained an orthodox position for the record but it was put on ice in favor of personal fulfillment sermons, (posted on line for pastors to replicate to their congregations) and designed for a post-modern audience. For example the doctrine of the cross is accepted, but is then referred to only in passing and placed on the periphery. In practice their preaching is very similar to Schuller, but care is given to keep an acceptable doctrinal statement on reserve like a spare tire lest the seeker friendly message is challenged.
But all of this concern is overshadowed by the apparent reliance and dependence upon imported sociological, marketing/business and therapeutic models which then displace a robust reliance on the teaching and preaching of the Gospel and reliance upon the work of the Spirit. The method (medium) has become the message. In actual practice the mission statement replaces the word of God. God is not relied upon and is relegated to a spectator who is given a box seat to watch the church apply pragmatic schemes from the culture on His behalf. Martin Luther used a brilliant illustration that is pertinent to this discussion. He referred to a tuning fork used to arrive at middle C on a harpsichord from which all the other notes were based. For Luther, the two vibrating prongs of the tuning fork were the Word and the Spirit. The Word and the Spirit resonated together to produce a spiritual middle C from which all other spiritual notes agreed. Seeker-Sensitive enthusiasts have apparently changed the two prongs to cultural strategies on the one hand, and the churches ability to process them into numerical success on the other.
Paul in his letter to the Romans announced that he is “not ashamed of the Gospel, for IT is the power of God unto salvation.” (Romans 1:16a)
Paul also reminds Timothy that the word of God is “profitable for doctrine for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, in order that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:16 NKJV).
Bible Believing Liberals – by Todd Wilken
“When a thing grows weak and out of date, it is obviously soon going to disappear. That’s also true of churches. If a church cannot change, it will eventually die.” [Rick Warren, Baptist Press, Sept 22, 2003]
“Clearly change in both liturgy and structure is inevitable, and this change will probably be radical, if not total… the forms the Church assumed in the past inevitably must die.” [John Shelby Spong, Why Christians must Change or Die, Harper, 1998, p. 198]
One of these statements comes from a famous Christian liberal and the other comes from a famous Christian conservative… which statement belongs to the conservative and which belongs to the liberal? You can’t tell, can you?
How can this be? One is against abortion, human cloning, embryonic stem-cell research and gay marriage and against removing the words, “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” from the currency. The other is in favor of all these things. One calls himself “Bible-believing.” The other thinks the Bible is a myth. Yet both say that the church must change or die. Full-blown liberal Christians are easy to spot. They will tell you up front that they don’t believe what the Bible says. But what about liberals who think that they are conservative? What about the liberals who claim to be Bible- believing Christians?
Many Christians today think of themselves as conservative. They are pro-life, pro-family. They listen to Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. They watch FOX News. They vote traditional values. For the bible-believing liberal the difference between political parties is serious, but the differences between denominations are petty. While they insist on a strict literal interpretation of US constitution, they play fast and loose with the Bible and its theology.
But can you be political, socially and morally conservative without being theologically conservative? Oh, yes you can.
Meet the Bible-believing liberals. While they believe that the culture needs to return to its historic tradition, they think the Church needs to abandon hers. While maintaining that the flag should be proudly displayed, they fear that a cross in church might offend seekers…
A Contradiction in Terms
Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Bible-believing liberal” is an oxymoron, right? You can’t be truly Bible-believing and be liberal at the same time. THAT is the point. You see, many Christians think of themselves as conservative Christians. But they have confused cultural conservatism with theological conservatism. Theologically these Bible-believing Christians have a lot in common with liberals… Yes, they [Bible-believing liberals] still affirm the divine revelation of the Bible in principle, but …they have adopted the liberals’ way of thinking.
The fact that so many otherwise “conservative” Christians fail to see the similarity between themselves and liberals is remarkable. The fact that so many Bible-believing liberals fail to see the disparity between their cultural beliefs and their theological beliefs is astonishing.
“While evangelicals and other conservative Protestants hold to a high doctrine of Scripture in principle, the last two decades have especially seen a growing disregard for making their sermons expositions of Scripture; rather, it’s often the case that the Bible is used as a sourcebook of quotations for what we really want to say.” Horton, [A Better Way, Baker, 2002, p.218]
You see, you can affirm Scripture’s authority in principle even while denying it in practice. Bible-believing liberals aren’t liberal in what they say about the Bible, Bible-believing liberals are liberal in how they use the Bible…
Doctrinal Minimalism and Meiderlin’s Maxim
“In all things essential: unity; in doubtful: liberty; in all things: charity.” This is a truism for many Christians today. It is often attributed to Saint Augustine . But Augustine never said it. In truth, this saying’s origins are more recent – in early German liberalism. The real author of this sentiment was a 17th century Lutheran, Peter Meiderlin who was disturbed by the doctrinal debates taking place and who thought that insistence on doctrinal purity was satanic. Meiderlin counseled a minimalist approach to doctrine: “In a word, were we to observe unity in essentials, liberty in incidentals, and in all things charity, our affairs would be certainly in a most happy situation.”
Liberal Christians have taken Meiderlin’s maxim to heart. But so have many Bible-believing Christians. When it comes to doctrine, they don’t sweat the details. And, just like liberals, when Bible-believing Christians talk about “unity in essentials” it isn’t altogether clear what those “essentials” are. Bishop T.D. Jakes was the keynote speaker for the Willow Creek’s August 2004 Leadership Summit. Jakes is a best selling author, a mega-church pastor and a popular televangelist. The only problem is that Jakes denies the biblical doctrine of the trinity. Is the Trinity “essential” or “incidental” at Willow Creek? To be sure, Willow Creek affirms the Trinity in its public statement. But remember, what Bible-believing liberals affirm in principle, they often deny in practice. Rick Warren downplays “supposed theological conflicts” between Christians. He sees them as a product of our limited knowledge of God. He dismisses such differences by appealing to how “awesome” God is:
“On earth we ‘see through a glass darkly’ so we all need a large dose of
humility in dealing with our differences. God’s ways are awesome and far
beyond human capabilities. He has no problem reconciling the supposed
theological conflicts that we debate when ideas don’t fit neatly into our
logical rational systems.”
[Rick Warren, Purpose-Driven® Preaching, Preaching, Sept/Oct 2001]
This sounds broadminded but is it really inadequate? Can God reconcile a theology that says man is totally depraved with one that says he isn’t? [i.e. Schuller]. Can God reconcile a theology that teaches faith alone with one that teaches faith and works? [Roman Catholicism]…
Don Matzat summed up the doctrinal minimalism of Bible-believing liberals well:
“Successful evangelical pastors like Bill Hybels and Robert Schuller are really no different than the successful modern liberal clergy, like Sloan Coffin and Harry Emerson Fosdick. While Coffin and Fosdick built their congregations by appealing to human reason, Hybels and Schuller ‘grow a church’ by appealing to the feelings [felt needs] and experiences of people. While the classic liberal pastor questioned on the basis of reason the truth of traditional Christian doctrine, the postmodern pastor ignores doctrine and focuses on methods which produce success.”
[Matzat, The New Liberals, Issues and Etc. Vol. 3 #2, 1998]
The Mission Justifies the Means
In 2004 Pastor James Perry made an impassioned plea to his church:
“What would it be like if we had a moratorium on issues that divide us, and spent all our time and energy focusing on reaching out to those in our world who feel like outcasts, and share God’s love with them? It is my hope that we will be more concerned about extending God’s grace than getting it right.”
[Proceedings of the General Council, UMC, Daily Editions, Vol. 4, #6]
Was Perry arguing for more evangelism? Was Perry pleading for greater mission efforts? Not really. Perry was speaking at the 2004 General Conference of the United Methodist Church in Pittsburg , arguing for the full inclusion of active homosexuals in the church… Mike Horton describes this mindset well:
“Increasingly, we hear that what unites us is mission, not theology. Doctrinal diversity is encouraged, as long as we can all agree on the mission and its methods…[Horton, A Better Way , p.215]
George Barna likewise urges the Church:
“It is critical that we keep in mind a fundamental principle of communication: the audience, not the message, is sovereign…our message has to be adapted to the needs of the audience”… [G. Barna, Marketing the Church, NavPress, 1998, p.145]
C. Peter Wagner agrees:
“…We ought to see clearly that the end DOES justify the means. What else possible could justify the means? If the method I am using accomplishes the goal I am aiming at, it is for that reason a good method…” [Wagner, Your Church Can Grow, Regal Books, 1976, p. 137]
“God Loves You” – A Gospel without Sin
John Shelby Spong, perhaps the most liberal Christian alive today, writes:
“The language of sin and atonement has emanated from Christian circles for so long that it has achieved the status of sacred mantra…Yet upon close inspection, these sacred concepts involve us in a view of human life that is no longer operative.” [Spong, Why Churches must Change, p.44]
Joel Osteen, a “Bible-believing Christian and pastor of the largest mega-church in America , says nearly the same thing in simpler language:
“We’ve heard a lot about the judgment of God and what we can’t do and what’s going to keep us out of heaven. But it is time people start hearing about the goodness of God, about a God that loves them. A God that believes in them. A God that wants to help them.” [Joel Osteen, Your Best Life Now, 2004, p. 57]
And why does the perfect and holy God love us with all our faults and weaknesses? Is it because Jesus lived a perfect life and died a perfect death in our place? No! [apparently not.]
Apparently for Joel Osteen, sin is simply not a problem to God or for us. Bill Hybels, on the other hand, certainly believes that sin is a problem. But what Bible-believing liberals affirm in principle, they often deny in practice. When an internal survey of Willow Creek members revealed that “large percentages of singles” (25% of singles, 38% of single parents, and 41% of divorced individuals) admitted having illicit sexual relations in the last six months, Hybels failed to focus on the seriousness of sin:
“Hybels did not call the congregation to repent for their rebellion against a holy God. Instead he emphasized God’s compassionate love: ‘We are a love-starved people, with broken hearts that need the kind of repair that only he can give long-term…” [ Prichard , Willow Creek Seeker Services, Baker, 1996]
Yes, the members in the survey certainly have been “love-starved people, with broken hearts… All this is true, of course, but it’s not the whole truth. What’s missing? Is this gospel? We are presented as unsatisfied, unable, needy, restless, longing, wounded and fearful but not sinful. This is a gospel without sin. A gospel without sin satisfies sinners, but doesn’t save them…A gospel without sin requires a Jesus who is merely sympathetic, not our substitute at the Cross. A gospel without sin is a gospel wherein Christ crucified is unnecessary. John Spong realizes this; he has done away with the cross.
“God loves you” isn’t the Gospel. The world is full of unbelievers who firmly believe God loves them. Prichard writes in his study of Willow Creek, “all the seekers or weekend attenders I interviewed were convinced that God loves them. They held this belief before coming to Willow Creek.” [G.A. Prichard, Willow Creek Seeker Services, Baker, 1996, 2002, p. 264].
“God loves you” will not do. What unbelievers need to know is how God loves them: “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we love God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice [propitiation] for our sins. (1 John 4:9-10).
We have heard liberals say it for years: “The Church must change or die. The culture calls the shots. We must re-read the Bible to fit the culture. When it comes to doctrine, don’t sweat the details. Our differences don’t matter anyway. After all, doctrine divides; it is the mission [statement] that really unites us. And when it comes to that mission, we are justified in using means we deem necessary. Remember, people just need to know that God loves them. Now we’re hearing Bible-believing Christians saying the very same things.
The old-line liberals consider the Gospel irrational: Bible-believing liberals consider it irrelevant. The old-line liberals criticized the Gospel. Bible-believing liberals are trying to give it a make-over. The old-line liberals tried to deconstruct the Gospel; Bible-believing liberals are trying to re-invent it…
Do Bible-believing liberals realize how liberal they really are? No. Are they well-intentioned? Certainly! But some of the old- line liberals were well-intentioned too…
When the Church follows the advice of liberals – Bible-believing or otherwise – the Gospel message suffers. When liberals – bible-believing or otherwise – have their way, the cross ends up obscured. When the cross is obscured sinners go unsaved.