My grandfather used to say that if a thousand people are doing a stupid thing, it would still be a stupid thing. Moses said, “You shall not follow a crowd to do evil” (Exodus 23:2).
“North American Protestantism,” one writer declared, “is man centered, manipulative, success orientated, self-indulgent and sentimental … 3,000 miles wide and half an inch deep” (J.I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness page 32).
Packer’s words deserve careful reflection. Perhaps his sharpest indictment is the claim that churches are “man centered.” Of all the organizations on the planet, you would think, the church should be the one that is God centered.
The charge that churches are often “manipulative” is a reminder that appeals to mere sentimentality are never a substitute for commitment of the head and heart. His charge that churches are “success orientated” goes right to the heart of this discussion. Just because people are packed in pews does not mean that there is spiritual growth going on. The term “self-indulgent” is a reminder that church is not about “us,” it is about “Him.”
The fact is that churches often push to make worship more “attractive” and “popular” in order to appeal to the unsaved public and draw them to churches. The temptation is to water down “church” to make it more palatable to the public. “We cannot sow (the gospel) in shallowness … if we wish to reap deep discipleship” (Marva Dawn, Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, page 50).
This is not to condone those who believe that worship conducted as if it is a drudgery to endure, or those who believe that Christianity is a thing one does for an hour or so on a Sunday morning. Neither is it to say that a small church that ventures nothing with members who serve only themselves is preferable. “Brother we may be small, but boy are we right!” Negative messages and insular views of their community are just as hurtful as the fast growing congregation that cares little about God’s will.
Yet allowing the world to set the agenda for the church is to capitulate to society. We cannot abandon biblical truth for plastic, trendy, throwaways. Rather than meeting “felt needs,” we need to show outsiders that needs lie deeper than the surface, that the needs people feel are symptoms of a more profound spiritual poverty.
The Gospel’s truth calls for holiness and repentance, qualities that save us from falling into the present culture’s cult of happiness. “Worship” is a misnomer if its purpose is to attract people rather than please God, and church leaders are guilty of committing market-driven church growth when they study what consumers want more than they study the word of God.
We have all seen churches grow explosively under the leadership of a talented, charismatic leader. For a time this congregation is “the happening place,” the whole community, it seems, flocks to it. Then something happens. Perhaps the congregation’s spiritual leader is caught in scandal – a sexual liaison or embezzlement – and the congregation implodes. The spiritually walking-wounded melt away to tend their wounds without benefit of spiritual leadership or shepherding. Hurt and disillusioned, like “sheep having no shepherd” (Matthew 9:36) they scatter, vulnerable in an uncaring world.
Yet churches grow in spite of the humans who lead them. Jesus uses exquisite irony when he declares of a field of grain, “For the earth yields crops by itself: first the blade, then the head, after that the full grain in the head” (Mark 4:28). “By itself”? Of course the Lord means that God enables the crop to grow.
The same is true of Paul and Apollos, workers in the Lord’s field (1 Corinthians 3:3-7). Paul’s role is to plant churches, it seems. Apollos’ role is to build on that foundation. But it is God who blesses their work with success.
As Solomon would have said, “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it” (Psalm 127:1). No human endeavor can succeed in the end without God’s approval. Humility and perspective should suddenly follow such a truth.
There are no “crackerjack” methods that will save the church, still less an eloquent and talented proclaimer; the church grows with God’s blessing, or it does not grow at all.