How We Got Here

The following is an excerpt from the author’s upcoming book, Apostasy!  This book will be based largely on the resarch work in the Wolves in Wool series on this blog.

How We Got Here

The gospel message is – and always has been – by Christ, from Christ and for Christ.  At any point this understanding is corrupted, apostasy is sure to follow.  If salvation is not by Christ, then it is by some other means which will ultimately take Christ’s place as the author and sustainer of salvation.  The most obvious example of this is the Roman Catholic Church, which after corrupting its gospel to a sacramental and sacerdotal system of works, became more important than Christ’s own work in the church’s now-corrupt doctrine of salvation.  If salvation is not from Christ, then it has another source as its guarantor which deserves our rightful worship.  Most commonly in modern apostasy salvation is believed to be from one’s own religious investments rather than Christ’s grace.  The common sentiment is that while perhaps Christ secured the means of salvation, the application of this provision is a uniquely human act.  In that case, it is almighty man who receives the glory from the transaction.  (Weren’t you smart to have seized the opportunity of salvation for yourself when you saw it!)  If salvation is not for Christ, then it becomes yet another in a long line of readily available products by which man’s existence is enhanced.  The gospel, in this circumstance, is not about God redeeming lost humanity to himself.  It is rather about man “finding God” and harvesting the fruition of that endeavor for his own use.  This corruption of the gospel leads to an all-too-familiar man-centered understanding of atonement.  That general misconception is that salvation “was all about me.”

It takes very little self-interest for sinful man to defile the best of ideals.  Once salvation becomes “all about me” then it is only a mild step until a television preacher can convince you that indeed Christ suffered, bled and died so that you could have all of the comforts in life that He never concerned himself with.  A man-centric gospel, when full blown, develops the local church into a self-help service center by which Christian products are doled out to meet the various needs of its constituency.  It is not at all uncommon today to hear the sentiment on tele-church that Jesus died for one’s debts, disappointments and diseases – without a hint spoken of sin.

Several decades back this man-centered approach to the faith generated a church growth venture which captured the true spirit of American capitalism.  While apostasy finds its mark in every generation, this movement profoundly changed the direction of the modern congregation; primarily in America, but around the world as well.  Men like Bill Hybels and Rick Warren helped to pioneer the modern rendition of this crusade which systematically attempted to change the functional church growth model from gospel centered to growth centered.  With a constant eye trained on a numerical growth oriented valuation, these men and others like them methodically brainwashed an entire generation of pastors into a success-oriented church growth paradigm (where “success” equals “filled pews”).   Gone were the days of shaking the dust off of one’s feet where the gospel was rejected.  Instead, men were called to reinvent the gospel until it produced the desired results.

As a young youth pastor in the early 90s I was taken to a Rick Warren church growth conference in Houston, Texas along with our church staff.  I articulately recall his testimony concerning the establishment of Saddleback Church, the shining monument to the success of and therefore the presumed merit of Warren’s growth model.  He explained how he was able to establish a church that people would flock to in droves.  Essentially, he visited door to door in their California neighborhoods, approaching the lost and asking them “what type of church” they would want to attend.  After compiling the results of his exhaustive surveying work, long story short, he built a church that matched the market demands of his neighborhood.  Warren continued to explain to us that we should spend less time worrying about theology and that no one in our congregations cared what the underlying Greek terms were for any portion of biblical text.  Rather than boring our people with doctrine, he noted that we should focus on preaching twenty minute “how to” sermons on topics that were frankly, irrelevant to the legitimate gospel needs of our congregation.  Our focus was to be on holding their attention (while they died in their sins, perhaps) with subjects like “How to Have a Healthy Marriage” or “How to Raise Children to be Leaders.”   While I have no reason to doubt Warren’s motives, I have every reason to castigate his methods.

A new modus operandi was born as an essentially capitalistic approach to “doing church.”  New tactics reduced prospective converts to customers and the church became a vendor of market-tested self-help product.  Some noted the paradigm shift as a gateway only, after which the gospel could be presented in small groups.  The sad issue with this scenario is that the average “customer” will never desire to hear about their sin, condemnation and future destruction by God’s righteous display of wrath concerning it.  The truth was abandoned in all but the most desirable areas.  Any difficult, challenging or scary parts were quickly replaced by the warmer and fuzzier in-demand doctrinal fodder.  The gospel of Christ was slowly replaced by self-interested ear-scratching platitudes in large portions of the modern church.

While Warren is only one example of numerous growth-oriented church model shapers, such program based, market driven methodologies became the “church planting 101” prototype from that time on:  “If you want to plant a church, get a youth group to go door to door collecting surveys, find out what the people want in a church, hire a top notch implementation team who can deliver it and a good speaker who can sell it every Sunday.”  We have now literally established in America a market-driven church model to enhance our overtly market-driven culture.  The new message, gospel optional, is “do whatever what gets people in the doors.”  Of course, this “new” method, at root level, isn’t new at all.  It is a warmed over, internet savvy recasting of the oldest religious shell game on earth.  A big score has always awaited the one who could draw disciples off of the church, as the apostles continually warned even in their day.

When huge areas of the visible church attempt a truly market-driven approach to growth, foreign issues necessarily emerge on the harvest field.  Markets cannot help but to be competitive by nature.  If the church’s vision is to win market share, then every other local church becomes an enemy of the cause.  A new competitive arena is then born whereby the goals and visions of the organization have nothing to do with the gospel, the corporate body or the ministry of Christ, but the success and veneration of the congregational brand – to the exclusion and repudiation of all others.

Contrarily, the biblical church works in concert with other congregations to share the gospel to a lost world.  No legitimate church considers itself anything but an extension of the body of Christ in a local field.  A victory for another God-honoring church is a victory for us all (although God-honoring churches are now incredibly rare and hard to find).  But a church which operates as a growth-oriented local business will find itself in necessary competition with other congregations; drawing off the dross of their rival by having a better or more marketable commodity.

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