CEO, Shrink, or Man of God? Part 3

Desiring God 1993 Conference for Pastors

CEO? Shrink? Or Man of God?

One of my favorite stories is a story about Winston Churchill, and as far as I know, the only one in which he comes out the worst in the repartee. It’s a story about when he was a young man. He went into one of the London clubs and he saw Viscount Haldane standing there, who was an aristocrat with an enormous potbelly. Churchill strode up to him, poked him in the midrib, and said, “Is it a boy or is it a girl?” Haldane naturally was not amused and gave him a frosty stare and said, “Young man, if it’s a girl, I’ll call her Mary after the queen, and if it’s a boy, I’ll call him George after the king, but if it’s simply wind, I shall call it Winston.”

Words for the Wind?

Now, I begin there quite deliberately because although John has put me behind the pulpit, I haven’t opened the word and I’m not expanding the Scriptures and everything I say may be pure wind. So it’s up for you like the Bereans to challenge it, test it, check it out in the Scriptures, and so on. I have welcomed the challenges. Let me just pick up the one that the questioner raised this afternoon and John seconded from the pulpit.

When I put forward that single sentence on what is an Evangelical, I didn’t mean that that single sentence was sufficient. I meant that it assumed and required a fuller covenant to explain the defining features of the evangelical faith, rather as Machen would’ve had the entire Westminster Confession. So no single sentence is enough, and yet we need a sentence today in ordinary conversation that is simple and short and positive, and above all, biblical and true, and does the job of taking the focus away from all the stereotypes of evangelicals — Southern, White, uneducated, etc. You can see them rolling off. It gets it back to what is the heart of what we’re about.

Now, one would have to say, in any era today no single sentence is ever invulnerable to challenge because one of the features of our world, unlike the time of the Reformation, is that vast tracts of Christian truth are challenged. In the Reformation, there were significant, vital truths that were challenged and needed correcting, but much was in place. But that isn’t so today.

One of the defining features of modernity is that there’s not a single truth about humanness or about faith that is not up for challenge somewhere in American society or in the American church today. So no single sentence on anything is enough in most contexts, and certainly it would require the deeper covenant to really explain what it is. But we knew it in simple ways, ways the press can pick up to really say in shorthand ways what it is we’re about.

Mega Churches and Mega Malls

Now, let me shift tonight to bring things down to the whole question of churches growing and church growth and so on, not just looking at this in itself, but as a test case of how we are to engage with modernity critically and learn to raise questions as we grapple with issues today.

One of the fascinating sidelights of this visit for me was a quick trip to the Mall of America, which I’m sure many of the rest of you have already seen. Now, remember much of the fanfare that surrounded it last summer. Hail was one of the seven wonders of the modern world, and this is the largest fully enclosed retail and entertainment complex in America. The statistics you remember were mind boggling. There is enough floor space for 88 football fields. There are twice the number of workers hired by the city of Indianapolis. The first year budget is twice the city of St. Paul. And the expected annual visitors are 10 times the population of Minnesota as a whole, up to 40 million and so on.

Of all the stuff I read, there’s no question that most of the commentary focused on the special services that this mall offered with its 400 shops, the seven-acre Camp Snoopy, the 18-hole miniature golf course, and so on. There were numerous such customer services such as cellular telephones for lost shoppers, and the ultimate special service was the opening service in the mall by the Wooddale Church of Eden Prairie.

Now, some of you, I gather, were there. John Steer said it was the most creative, innovative service I think he said he’d experienced in his time in North America. But the questions I would raise would not concern the church in the mall because I thought from what I heard that it was extremely creative, enterprising, and innovative. The questions I would have would concern the mall in the church because anyone who knows the mega malls knows that America’s modern shopping malls for a long time have been described as the modern cathedrals of consumption, and anyone who’s followed the rise of the megachurches knows that they’re being built quite deliberately on the philosophical and structural patterns of the shopping malls, and in that rather natural symbiosis is much of the interest and the story of the modern megachurches and their relationship to the mega malls.

A Desire to Be Effective

Pete Wagner described megachurch growth in one simple phrase: “the desire to make more effective the propagation of the gospel and the multiplication of churches on new ground, and thus seeing America evangelized in our generation.”

Leading aside for the moment the three words “on new ground,” who on earth could query that magnificent stated purpose? The question is, will the new church growth and the megachurches really change the landscape of American religion? Will their passion for mission and effective evangelism lead to a harvest of new Christian disciples and reverse the steady secularization of the West? Could they have implications for the church worldwide. Above all, will the big churches find secrets that can genuinely be carried over into struggling small churches?

All these questions are important and those aims are highly laudable. But in many people’s enthusiasm, they forget to ask what Wagner meant by “on new ground.” What is the “new ground” of the megachurches, and how much will this new ground really influence the movement as a whole? That’s the question I want to raise tonight.

The Positives of the Church Growth Movement

Now, in case anyone really thinks that I’m relentlessly and inescapably Luddite, which I’m not in fact — and one could easily give a whole series of lectures on the benefits of modernity — let me say that the church growth movement is a good example of where you have pluses and minuses, and I’ll largely be looking at the minuses in raising questions about it. But let me stress some of the pluses before we look at the minuses because clearly, here is a very, very significant movement in the Church of Christ in North America in the 1990s, beginning, of course, with Donald McGavran in India in the 1930s, coming with enormous domestic significance in the late 1950s and early 1960s as it slowly began to be applied to North America. Now, I think in the form of megachurches and much of the rationale that surrounds them, the pop rhetoric of the church growth movement has reached a vital third stage which is really worth looking at.

I have three great things to say about the church growth positively. First, it represents a concern for many of the most needed components of Christian mission, renewal, and reformation, and I for one would be glad to say that. It emphasizes the centrality of the church, the priority of mission, the possibility of growth, the necessity of really speaking to genuine outsiders, the acknowledgement of culture and of cultures in the plural, the insistence on real results, and the wisdom of using the best insights and technologies to be able to plunder the Egyptians of their wealth. All those things are thoroughly to be welcomed.

Secondly, there’s no doubt that it represents one of the most influential movements in the American churches in the 1990s. And thirdly, it’s a significant new initiative in the long story of Christian innovation and adaptation. If you read books like Leith Anderson’s Dying for Change, you’d think evangelicals in particular were hopelessly and had always been hopelessly hidebound. Frankly, he writes, “Evangelical Christianity has done well on revelation, but always poorly on relevance.”

It’s certainly true that stories of hidebound churches are not hard to find, but in fact, that impression is totally wrong. The Christian faith is unrivaled among world religions for its genius in innovation and adaptation, and no branch of a Christian faith has demonstrated that genius more often and more successfully than the evangelical movement. We are not by and large hidebound and stuck in the mud.

Now, of course, all innovation is open to different assessments and to question, but you can see down through history the enormous place of innovation. You could think of Augustine’s translation of Platonism, or even if we come closer to the world of management, how did John Wesley get the name “the Methodist” to surround his new group? Well, he himself had the nickname in the holy club at Oxford, “the Manager,” and if we understand the early understanding of management simply is stewardship — people, resources, and time — there’s nothing that managerial studies in themselves present any particular problem for the church. In fact, they’re very much a heart of stewardship and there’s no question there.

The church growth movement, if it were to use the insights and technologies of the modern world critically and discerningly, could unleash a period of innovation with enormous potential significance for the gospel of Christ, and one could go on. So I don’t want to go down as someone who’s hopelessly Luddite and always negative far from it. One can spend a lot more time on stressing the positive, but on the other hand, there are obvious weaknesses in the movement. Again, let me just say them briefly in headline fashion and then go on to raise some of the deco questions and go beyond the chapter in the book.

The Problems with the Church Growth Movement

Obviously, size itself is not the problem. Someone said to me during the break today, “It must be because you English don’t like big churches.” Not at all. One of my heroes is Spurgeon. He had many, many more in his congregation in the 19th century than most megachurches do now in the 20th century. Size itself is not the problem. Size is only the passport. Why? Because when churches reach that critical mass of a thousand in terms of people and financial resources, then the sky’s the limit for their potential to go into all sorts of insights, technologies, and ideologies, and it allures them to various forms, for better or worse, of possible growth. So size is not the problem, it’s merely the entryway into the possibilities for the better or the worse.

What are some of the problems in headlines? One is that the church growth movement, by and large, particularly at the pop level, has two common deficiencies. On the one hand, its theological understanding is desperately superficial. There’s almost no element of biblical criticism at the popular level. One of the most widely read and widely heard proponents often says this when he begins his seminars, “I don’t deal with theology. I’m simply a methodologist,” as if his theology were thereby guaranteed to remain critical and his methodology neutral. In fact, there’s never any theology and their methodology is totally uncriticized.

Now, when McGavran and the early church growth movement started that didn’t matter probably because they were more theological and people were much more used to using theology to tackle these questions. But a generation later, you can see that much that is swelling around has almost no relation to theology at all.

The other deficiency is a minimal sense of historical awareness, which is true to its evangelical parentage because evangelicalism, by and large, has a minimal sense of historical awareness, and therefore a sense of humility in the face of history, and of the sense of irony and unforeseen, unintended consequences in the face of history. One can think of many periods in church history which would give a sense of caution to those who want to adapt in the way that church growth often does. One is the 18th century and the story of liberalism’s attempt to reach the culture despisers of the gospel, because so much of what’s happening today is almost the recycling of the 18th century by evangelicals and not by liberals.

The other is the 19th century, not in Europe but America, and the story of the early 19th century meltdown of Puritanism, and the enormously significant shift which has been fateful for evangelicalism ever since, not simply from Calvinism to Arminianism, but from theology at all to almost bare experience on the frontier, from truth to technique, from elites to populism, and from an emphasis from serving God to an emphasis on serving self in serving God. And in many ways, all that happened in the Jacksonian era, which is partly good and partly disastrous for evangelicalism, is being deepened and recapitulated in the present movement of church growth. But without historical awareness, there’s no understanding of that.

Lopsided Biblical Principles

Secondly, the church growth movement has two common flaws that deepen those two deficiencies. One is it often employs a lopsided application of biblical principle. The biblical principle is contextualization, or known more simply today as relevance. Obviously, the pattern for contextualization is our Lord himself and the incarnation, or passages like 1 Corinthians 9, where Paul becomes all things to all people by all means to persuade them to Christ.

Clearly, contextualization, or relevance, is a very important indispensable first step in all Christian communication. So there’s a half truth in the notion such as niche marketing, being audience driven, being seeker friendly, having full service churches, and having a certain extent of the homogeneous unit principle, or the birds of a feather principle. And this is a half truth that is deeply biblical and thoroughly indispensable, but as Scripture shows and history teaches us, without maintaining a critical tension, the principle of identification by itself very often leads to compromise and capitulation.

It’s no accident that Paul’s phrase, “All things to all men,” has become a popular synonym for the process of becoming compromised in our culture. If “all things to all men” is left by itself, that’s in fact what’s happening. Unless church growth resists this danger, it will prove to be a gigantic exercise in cultural adjustment and even surrender.

On the other hand, the church growth movement — and this is important in relation to the words “the new ground” — has a minimal understanding of how to be critical about modernity. Now, of course, all truth is God’s truth, or as George McDonald puts it, “Truth is truth whether on the lips of Jesus or Balam.” So we should expect to be able to plunder the Egyptians, use the best insights of anthropology, sociology, psychology, and so on, but always discerningly, always critically. It’s amazing to see church growth leaders who a generation ago didn’t even know of sociology, picking out the latest insights of sociology with barely a question in their lemming-like rush to be relevant.

Two Potential Perils

A third danger you could put simply in headline format is the church growth movement carries two potential perils. You could sum it up in four words: no God and no grandchildren. In the first case, the danger is that the insights and technologies of modernity are so brilliant and so effective that eventually there no longer appears to be any need for God.

In the case of a second danger, the problem arises because the tools of modernity are so successful in one generation but cannot be sustained to the third generation. The success undermines the succession. I suspect that many of today’s super churches are simply artificially inflated local churches with charismatically inflated super pastors that will not be able to survive their super growth to the third generation. After all, the grand and gleaming mega malls will themselves become an anachronism, and the latest thinking about shopping is already hailing the end of the supermall era, and many of the megachurches may become anachronisms having copied them.

In other words, the Catholics can justify the size and scale of St. Peters by the papacy and by a worldwide church, but third generation super churches will have only their size and their earlier success with neither papal authority nor Catholic universality to justify them down the line.

Seven Reminders

Let me raise seven reminders this evening to help us as we grapple with something like the church growth movement to help us to really be discerning in seeing where it’s good and where it’s not so good.

One Main Question

First, there is one main question to always ask ourselves. Link everything here with what Ben said this morning in connection with Christ saying, “I will build My church.” When all is said and done, the church growth movement will stand and fall by one question: Is the Church of Christ primarily guided and shaped by its own character and calling or by considerations and circumstances alien to itself? Or to put that question differently: Is the church of Christ truly a social reality that is shaped by a theological cause, namely the word and Spirit of God? What in practice is the church growth movement decisive authority for growing churches?

Now, behind that is the simple fact that the danger of modernity is not due to it being negative and hostile. There are places where it is. The leading danger of modernity is because it works so well. Its insights and technologies are so effective that they can really bring genuine, dramatic, successful growth so eventually you have the largest culture the world has ever seen dedicated to “by bread alone,” and one no longer needs “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”

In other words, it’s not dangerous because it doesn’t work; it’s dangerous precisely because it does work. It’s not dangerous because it’s hostile to the church; it’s dangerous because it’s so beneficial to the church that eventually one loses a reliance on the word and the Spirit and prayer and many of the other things which are so essential to faith. Jesus said, “I will build my church,” as Ben reminded us. And there’s the standing and falling question.

Now, I don’t mean to say that modernity and spiritual growth are mutually exclusive, not at all. That would be a super-spiritual fallacy, which would be a danger in the opposite direction. But I’m saying in practice, operationally, which is the ultimate decisive authority, the ultimate factor in growth? If it’s the tools and insights of modernity, the growth will be the same, but it will be humanistic religious engineering, not church growth by faith in God himself.

In other words you might say, beware of modernity bearing gifts. It’s not modernity soared that is the danger. At certain points it is, but not here with church growth. It’s modernity bearing gifts. How often I’ve seen people who say a generation ago would’ve talked about founding a new church, praying, consulting with brothers and sisters, and looking to the Lord’s guidance. Now, just run the demographics through it, you know exactly where to go. You don’t need to give it a moment’s thought or prayer. There’s nothing very deadly or dangerous or anti-Christian in the computer. Yet in the very brilliance and effectiveness of what it offers it is the seed of the whole temptation “by bread alone.” That question should be strongly in our minds with all the modern tools and not just in church growth.

Two Roots of the Challenge

Second, there are two main roots of the challenge. I won’t amplify on this one because I said much about this last night, but if we look at the origins of modernity, how it flows down from the world of ideas on the one hand and why it grows up from the structures and lifestyles all around us, we see this very profound challenge which we’re facing, and not surprisingly, it represents the greatest single opportunity and the greatest single challenge that the church has ever faced. But let me leave that one out because we looked at that last night.

Three Main Dangers

Third, and let me expand more on this, there are three main dangers of modernity. One can apply this to church growth and many other areas. A generation ago, many people who analyzed the impact of modernity and religion said that secularization was progressive and irreversible. So religion was finished. That, in fact, had a great deal of secular bias in the analysis and that view has been thrown out today, and thank God. But many Christians have heaved such a sigh of relief at the extreme secular thesis being thrown out that they tend to think that modernity has done no real damage to religion, and that’s wrong too.

Modernity has made deep, deep damage in religion with three main principles that have caused the damage, and let me fasten on one and show how you see the signs of this with the church growth movement. The three are secularization, privatization, and pluralization. Secularization is the process through which modernity removes successive sectors of modern society from the decisive influence of religion and religious institutions. In other words, religion is marginalized.

The second process is what’s called privatization, the process by which modernity produces a cleavage or a chasm between the private sector and the public sector. The private sector is where religion is encouraged to flourish, not the public.

The third process is pluralization, the process through which modernity multiplies the number of options that people have in the private sphere at all levels, including faiths, worldviews, and ideologies, which enormously increases the sense of self-consciousness, relativism, subjectivism, uncertainty, and anxiety surrounding all religion in the modern world.

Secular Rationalization

Now, let me pick one out of that and talk about secularization. There are many things that are behind secularization, but one of them is technically known as rationalization — not what Freud meant by that, giving reasons other than your real reasons. Rationalization is the process in the modern world by which more and more is figured out on the basis of reason. Therefore, it is called rationalization. Things are classified, calculated, and controlled by figuring them out. So do you want to market a perfume? Do you want to land a man on the moon? Do you want to grow a church? You can figure it out, all 101 steps you go through, and you have your recipe for doing it. Nothing is left a chance and nothing is left a mystery. Everything is reduced to rational procedures and ways of doing things.

Now, this process of rationalization itself has two of its most telltale modern marks, which are highly visible in the megachurch movement. Incidentally, I should have said that rationalization leads to disenchantment, because when everything can be reduced to reason — nothing left to chance, nothing left to mystery, nothing left to the supernatural, nothing left to God — you’ve secularized the supernatural and you’ve created a disenchanted, secular, down-to-the-earth world.

Now, as one looks at secularization and rationalization, the two most easily recognized hallmarks of these are the exaltation of numbers and the exaltation of technique. Let’s take numbers. A fascination with statistics and data is at the heart of modernity, an emphasis on quantifiable measures, in other words, on counting.

Now, you have to come from abroad maybe to see how much this affects America. You take it for granted so much because in a generation, it’s everywhere. You have government by polling, television programming by ratings, and sports commentary by analysis. It would be unthinkable to watch a European soccer game and have all the analysis that follows immediately, all your basketball shots, or football players, or whatever.

You have education by grade point average. You have academic tenure by the number of publications a person puts out. In other words, secularized, rationalized America is a world of number crunchers, bean counters, and computer analysts. Not surprisingly, church growth is riddled with that mentality.

Now, one problem is that quantity doesn’t measure quality. “Big Mac” may not mean “Good Mac,” and if that’s true at the level of hamburgers, how much more true is it if you go up through fast food to sports prowess, to education, to presidential character, and finally to spiritual death?

The Pleasure of the Miser

Now, think for a moment what traditional people and the scriptures think of calculation. Have you ever thought, for example, that in the traditional mentality, calculation was closely linked to the sin of avarice? Avarice was not a matter of possession, no, it was a matter of possessing, and it was closely connected with the love of possessing and, therefore, counting was the chief pleasure of the miser, and money is the most pleasurable counting of all.

A second thing traditional people thought about counting was that it was linked to the idea of control. What you could count, you could calculate, and what you could calculate, you could control, and many theologians pointed out that this is one of the Old Testament reasons for the prohibition on numbers. The census in the Old Testament stood for the royal power to regiment people to royal purposes, even while pretending to serve gods. Counting was therefore critical in the rise of a royal ideology in subtle but profound opposition to God’s sovereignty and kingship.

It was a fatal step away from David’s earlier, unsupported radical trust in God towards the vast standing army of Solomon. The call to arms became an exercise in royal power rather than it was under David in the beginning, a response to the mobilization of God’s Spirit in a time of crisis. You’ve picked up any of that in the way we talk about churches and numbers and evangelism today and the thousands and the cost effective and the calculus, and so on.

Lastly for traditional people, counting was closely linked to human self-reliance and therefore to presumption, not just in the Scriptures. For instance, if you go to many traditional parts of the world, say Algeria, the peasants don’t count their seed corn and they don’t fully measure their harvest because they believe very strongly that that’s a form of presumption and they must trust directly in God.

Closer to Scripture or Modernity?

Now, think of that in relation to our modern world where everything is reduced to technique and to numbers. Why was David judged for the census? Why was Uzzah judged and killed for putting out his hand to steady the ark in a way which is unacceptable to God? You could go through many, many examples in the Scripture, passages which we just push out wholesale today in our reliance on numbers and statistics and calculation and control and counting. Are we today closer to the Scriptures or closer to the modern world? In fact, we’re halfway towards a deep secularization.

The same is true of technique. In the world of technique, as Jacques Ellul and others have analyzed it, life is viewed as a set of problems, each has a rational solution, each has an identifiable expert, and therefore, there is a practical procedure and mechanism to solve it.

Now, this I think is the significance of something that I know has offended some of you in our book, No God but God. I’m referring to David Wells’s analysis of Leadership Magazine]. He analyzed leadership for 10 years. Almost every conceivable local church problem was analyzed in terms of how to look at it, how to solve it, etc. But in those 10 years of studies with every conceivable problem tackled, less than one percent of Leadership Magazine’s articles had any reference to the Scripture or Jesus or theology at all.

Where did all the answers come from? Well, from the worldview of one or two sources: either the therapeutic in the psychological revolution, or the managerial and the marketing solutions. And you had very heavily a modern reliance and technique and technical solutions and technical experts and so on with absolutely no reference to theology or Scripture itself. You can see that at many, many points.

Take much of the church growth discussion of leadership. Again, the studies show that until recently, descriptions of church leadership were simple, brief, and mostly biblical. The church leader was the pastor, the teacher, the council, and things like this, which are recognizably biblical and comparatively few, but where are we today? The current discussion, as analyzed by scholars, shows that not only has the difference between evangelical views and liberal views virtually disappeared, both the Christian sorts of views have become very close to the secular views and the biblical component has virtually vanished from the discussion.

So you look into the discussion today and it’s all about delegating and all sorts of things like that and has absolutely nothing that has any relationship to theology, spiritual gifts, or the Scriptures at all, and this by our evangelical pastors. One that I read last year in a full chapter on leadership had about one line, if you put all the words together, about the personal call of the pastor and a spiritual vision, and that was it. The rest of the chapter was on things you could have easily got from the Fortune 100 discussions. After all, that’s where it did come from.

So you can see, as you look at the church growth — and remember, these are good things, which have grown out of place and out of proportion — if you just look at statistics and numbers alone, or the use in place of technique alone, you have what are two of the central hallmarks of modern rationalization, which is at the very heart of modern secularization, which has done the most enormous damage to the gospel. We need to go into this with our eyes open.

Four Steps of Compromise

A fourth one is that there are four main steps in our compromise. Obviously, Christian history is a 2,000-year conversation with the world. We’re in it, but not of it. Sometimes we’re too close to it, sometimes we’re too far away from it. Doubtless, everyone thinks they hold the balance. Everyone sees the other man’s extremes, and very few people admit their own imbalances, and certainly I don’t see mine and probably you don’t see yours. But we can look back in Christian history and see egregious examples of imbalance and compromise, and as evangelicals, we’re inclined to quote the Schleiermachers and the Harnacks and various people like this who are classic cases of Christian compromise becoming not only in the world but of the world.

Now, when this happens, there’s no question that there is a cycle of compromise with four very simple steps which people do not see that they’re taking. Let me mention the four briefly and then give modern examples from the church growth of people who I suggest to you have compromised in that way. The first step to compromise is to make a false assumption. Nothing is further from a believer’s mind than compromise, but like the Chinese journey of a thousand miles, the road to compromise begins with a very full small first step. Some aspect of modern life or thought is entertained not only as significant (and therefore worth acknowledging), but superior to what we believe is Christians, and therefore worth assuming as true and useful. It’s an assumption, and that level is usually not noticed.

The second step is abandonment. All that does not fit in with a new assumption that is old, out of date, and out of touch is abandoned. It’s now irrelevant.

The third step is adaptation. All that remains are what Christians once believe is adapted into the shape and pattern of the new assumption, whatever it is.

The fourth step, if people go the whole way, is assimilation. The gospel is finally assimilated to whatever other thing is with which Christians compromise. Anyone who’s been through theology remembers famous quotations like the description of Adolf Harnack. The Christ Harnack sees is only the reflection of a liberal Protestant face seen at the bottom of a deep well. In other words, he discovered himself, not really discovering Christ, and you can say that about many of the movements in the church over 2,000 years.

Now, the World Council of Church’s statement in 1966, “The world must set the agenda for the church,” is a remarkably brazen formula for that series of compromises. But I suggest to you, if you listen to a lot of the church growth populist rhetoric, you get similar versions. For instance, here’s the guru of marketing who shall be nameless.

Half-Truths, Quarter-Truths, and Flat Out Lies

Let me just give you, and I’ve had people check my lifting out of these sentences, some short sentences lifted out of one single chapter. What you see here is a string of truths, half-truths, and quarter-truths, and then some flat out lies. But you just shift across a seamless web and most people just go with the flow without realizing where it leads and where you’ve arrived. Let me read these to you:

The church is a business. Marketing is essential for a business to operate successfully. The Bible is one of the world’s great marketing texts. However, the point is indisputable: the Bible does not warn against the evils of marketing. So it behooves us not to spend time bickering about techniques and processes. Think of your church not as a religious meeting place, but a service agency, an entity that exists solely to satisfy people’s needs. The marketing plan is the Bible of the marketing game. Everything that happens in the life of the product occurs because the plan wills it.

Then he comes up to his climax:

It is also critical and absolutely critical that we keep in mind the fundamental principle of Christian communication. The audience, not the message, is sovereign.

Is that right or wrong? Wrong, a million times wrong. Is it correct that a sovereign audience is a fundamental principle of Christian communication? That’s a dangerously distorted half-truth of becoming all things to all men, and that’s exactly the recycling of classical liberalism in a Schleiermacherian sense.

Listen to a New Yorker lament. In other words, this isn’t my Luddite comment on that. Here is this bastion of theological orthodoxy, the New Yorker, lamenting what’s happened to evangelical sermons. He’s talking about the brave new audience-driven preaching of our day. He says:

The preacher, instead of looking out upon the world, looks out on public opinion, trying to find out what the public would like to hear. Then he tries his best to duplicate that and bring his finished product into a marketplace into which others are doing the same. Then the public, turning to our culture to find out about the world, discovers there is nothing there but its own reflection. The unexamined world, meanwhile, drifts blindly into its own future.

Now, the idea of compromise would be horrifying to those people, and yet through their uncritical engagement with modernity, that’s exactly what they’ve done in a case like that.

Five Ironies of Evangelicalism

Fifthly, there are five main ironies. It’s amazing that Christians don’t have a stronger view of the place of irony. People think it’s a literary category, a modern intellectual toast of the mind, which it is today. But actually, the deepest source of the understanding of irony, of things ending up the opposite of what we expect, of unforeseen consequences, unintended fallout, is found in Scripture. Human beings hold the truth in unrighteousness, so things never turn out as they hope in their sin, but it does take a developed sense of irony to appreciate American evangelicalism today.

As I said this morning, it’s Protestants today who most need protesting and reforming. It’s fundamentalists who become the most worldly. It’s many of our fellow evangelical conservatives who are now the most progressive Christians around. Christians are becoming agents of their own secularization. The church is becoming its own grave digger. One could go on down the line and point out the ironies that we have to face today, but I want to give examples of it in terms of church growth.

There are two breeding grounds for irony in the church growth movement. One is the uncritical espousal of relevance, and its companion, church growth slogans, seeker friendly attempts, audience driven sermons, and full-service churches. Now, as I said before, we cannot communicate without relevance. Relevance is an indispensable prerequisite for all communication. Without it, there’s only a message addressed to no one nowhere, but relevance is a much trickier theme than many of its advocates today acknowledge.

Dean Ning captured half the problem when he said in a celebrated line, “He who marries the spirit of the age soon becomes a widower.” Liberals learned that to a cost and we are today or you might put it differently. Many a youth director has discovered that to his cost. The price of trendiness is burnout, and evangelicals at large are beginning to discover that today. Simone Veil captured the other side, saying, “To be always relevant, you have to say things which are eternal.”

In other words, modernity, with its relentless insistence on change, makes relevance extremely difficult to manage and to manage successfully. Hell, it’s been said, will be full of newspapers with a fresh edition every 30 seconds so that none of us will ever feel caught up, and that’s the dilemma of the terrible pursuit of relevance. This is why someone like Chesterton could actually boast that the Catholic church is the only thing which keeps a man from being a child of his own age.

At the very moment when evangelicals are lusting after relevance and often reaching the point of trendiness and burnout and superficiality in the process, thousands of others are going towards Catholicism and orthodoxy precisely because they’re not relevant in that contemporary, superficial way. That’s why Henri Nouwen says bluntly, “I’m convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant. That is the way Jesus came to reveal God’s love.” That’s an overstatement of course, but anyone who knows what the pursuit of relevance does knows this.

And I’ll say personally, that was one of the illusions which many of us who were young at Lebri fell for. If we were really in touch with the times and witnessing to the people caught in these times, we could always be in touch and ride the ninth wave like surfers. There was a terrible cost many of us face by trying to keep up with that, and yet a generation later, the church growth is hot in pursuit of an uncritical view of relevance.

Modern Notions of Need

The second breeding ground for irony is the uncritical elevation of modern notions of need. We all know how the church growth stresses, “Find a need and meet it, find a hurt and heal it.” Now, of course, on the surface, nothing can be more biblical. As Jesus says, “It’s not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick,” and anyone who thinks that we don’t meet needs has not understood the compassion of our Lord. So every need is a seeking of God in one way, but there are deep problems in the way the church growth movement is doing this uncritically.

First, there is no matching emphasis on truth, and so much of the church growth movement and its discipleship is carelessly vulnerable to intellectual dismissal.

Second, as Immanuel Kant pointed out a long time ago about this form of need-meeting, it does not always satisfy needs, it often stokes further needs. As Kant said, “Give a person everything he desires and at that very moment he will feel that everything is not everything.” You can see that in our modern consumer society, which has the heart of the deliberate intention of selling.

Third, modernity has corrupted the notion of need by creating a need on demand society. As Tony Walters, the Christian sociologist, says, “We have reversed the Beatles song and created a society in which you can say ‘all you love is need.’” Of course, the new status of need has debased true needs and elevated a new generation of experts with authority to describe our needs and prescribe the solution to our needs. So our needs become subject to consumer fashion and they become shallow, plastic, and manipulable. They’re closer today to wants rather than genuine needs.

Six Carriers of Modernity

Now, you can see in Scripture the place of needs is incredibly important, and above all the place of pain, for example in the Exodus. But there’s a very different attitude towards pain because pain has a very different element to it. With pain, there’s always, in the Jewish understanding, an element of complaint as well as lament.

Now, I’m not saying these are out there in the church growth movement. My calling, for instance, is very easily seduced into one or other of these, and none of us escape these easily. The first carrier is the pundit, the person for whom everything can be known and everything can be pronounced upon, centered professionally in the world of information — the pundit. That’s the one my calling is always pulled towards.

Second, there is the engineer, the one for whom everything can be designed, everything can be produced.

The third is the marketer, the modern character type for whom everything can be positioned and everything can be sold.

The fourth is the consultant, the one for whom everything can be better organized, everything better delivered.

Fifth is the therapist, the one for whom everything can be gotten in touch with, everything can be adjusted or healed.

The sixth in the sat list is the impresario, the one from whom everything can be conveyed to advantage through the presentation of images regardless of reality, centered on what’s called today, “impression management,” or “spin control” and public relations.

Now, let me just take the one I mentioned that’s closest to my own calling and therefore the most dangerous maybe to the church growth movement too — although several of these are — and that’s the pundit. Why do we live in what’s been described as a punditocracy with experts claiming again and again and again that they know this and they can pronounce on that and the other, and so on?

Well, there are obvious factors like the knowledge society, the rising status of data and information, the triumph of the new class, the importance of ideas, brokers, think tanks, and culture wars, and so on. But just think of the pundits in our society. For example, think of the McLaughlin group. What do you see in something like that? The trivializing of issues, sound-bite reasoning, contrived aggression, locker room machoism, off-camera celebrity pimping for corporations, and enormous hypocrisy because these men, and I’m ashamed to say most of them are men not women, expect to be taken deeply seriously when they’re writing newspapers, but they don’t expect to be taken seriously when they josh around on television in their talk shows. Yet in America today, pundit power is absolutely enormous and much informed opinion is today’s replay of yesterday’s talk shows by the pundits.

Pundits in the Church

Now, in fact, some of those people are Christians and evangelicals, but the more important thing is we have our own equivalent of pundits across the church. Two common problems develop when we do, and the church growth movement is riddled with traveling pundits pronouncing on all sorts of things, much of which is sheer nonsense.

First, there’s a dependency on professional expertise. The ministry was once the prototype of the profession, but now, it’s almost the echoing of modern professionalism. Professionalism embodies the power to prescribe, to determine need, to define clients, to deliver solutions, and to deepen dependency. But the result is not greater freedom. Rather, it’s dependent on the new experts that are flooding our society, and this is what Christopher Ash calls “paternalism without a father,” or what Ivan Illich calls “the disabling professions.” You can think of how many people listen to the latest book from so-and-so, or the latest seminar from so-and-so, and it is taken as gospel.

Whereas you put that stuff back to the sociologists from which it came at a nonsense some of this, but it’s absolutely uncriticized as Christians take it all down as the latest thing. That’s just as important to what they read in the book of Romans that day. I don’t mean theologically, but in the seriousness they take it and apply it. There is a new dependency on professionalism and expertise.

The second problem is that it creates a disregard for the specifically Christian content of expertise. We have pundits and experts today who give us masses of material, and it has almost no relation to any biblical at all. Much of it is completely interchangeable with what you get in a corporation management seminar or elsewhere. Now, a good deal if it’s highly useful and some of it’s deeply true, but people aren’t saying, “How does this stack up?” People aren’t saying, “Do we need to examine the Scriptures to see whether or not these things are true?”

I can never read Jeremiah without being really challenged by Jeremiah’s question, “Which of them has stood in the counsel of the Lord, seen him or heard his word?” (Jeremiah 23:18). I ask myself every time, “Have I? Have we?” but for some of them, the very thought of that just isn’t in their minds. You know where they’ve got the stuff and you know where the stuff is wrong, but out it comes and it’s taken down as gospel by many, many Christians.

Seven Tips for Discernment

Let me raise the last point, which is not in the book. Here are seven main tips for discernment. They are little points. I hope they don’t annoy some people in some of them because they’re a little more rude, though not all of them. I hope everything I’ve said you’re putting through the grid too. First, ask what the emperor is wearing today. Church growth movements need checking for their claims and statements that have outrun reality. The only thing worse than a gullible public is a cocky emperor whose self-importance and passion for novelty blinds himself to his own nakedness. We need more small boys who have the guts to stand up and say, “The emperor’s got no clothes on.”

You could analyze at various levels, what’s been described by analysts as “the vogue for the vague” in the church growth movement, big megachurch movement, churches like the one in Houston that describes itself as “a fellowship of excitement.” What on earth is that? More importantly, listen to the language of much of the church growth movement. I’ve listened to too much of it — speeches, books, and workshops. They foam and sparkle with a torrent of words like crisis, challenge, change, change agent, new paradigm, wake-up call, dynamism, opportunity, new dimensions, be a difference maker, devise strategies, re-enliven your organization, emergent, innovative, revolutionary, entrepreneurial, etc.

These words flow all over the place, but the net effect is a grand statistical barrage and a grand rhetorical massage, and often there’s not much behind it. I’m serious. As one management expert says, “We must beware the numbskull factor in most managerial writing,” and I’m sorry, we have to say that about a lot of the church growth stuff today. Beware the numbskull factor. The emperor doesn’t have any clothes on, and who’s going to say it?

A Fascination with Marketing

Here’s a second tip: Note whose the bottom line is. Now, the word “bottom line” is almost canonical today, and certainly in the church growth movement, the bottom line is, but the question is not just what is the bottom line, but whose is the bottom line? Because behind many of these things, such as a fascination with futurism, is a very expanding business in many ways, and we need to examine it very carefully.

Above all, there is a general preoccupation with marketing. Now, the church growth people are quick to say that the hangup over marketing is because the whole notion of sales has a dirty reputation and so on. Really, they say marketing is much more neutral. Hardly. For a start, there’s an extraordinary irony in the new Christian enthusiasm for marketing. At the very moment when totalitarianism has failed and people like Bob Beller and others are warning us that with Soviet totalitarianism out of the way, we need to examine what he calls “market totalitarianism” in the West, where market forces are invading and colonizing more and more and more of life, so that things are becoming commodified all over the place.

I find it annoying that many people refer to the whole public square as “the marketplace.” The Greeks and the Romans never did that. They had a marketplace. That’s where you bought and sold. But they also had a forum. That’s where you debated politics. They had a theater. That’s where they had their entertainment. They didn’t call the whole of public life the marketplace. They were far more careful than that. The modern, sloppy Christian language, which looks at all public things as the marketplace, is bad.

One church growth expert judges your ministerial accountability not by faithfulness, but productivity. He says it’s about “whether we can keep people coming and keep people giving.” Now, that’s very natural under the impact of the bottom line, but is it biblical? I trust not. More importantly though, look at the impact of marketing on the style and ideology of the super churches. The super churches are quite deliberately the natural counterparts of the mega malls, the supermarkets, and the multiplex cinemas, and they resemble a sort of cross between shopping malls and theme parks. Modernity is ultimate in people-moving, selling machines.

In other words, they’re quite deliberately, as some of the early architects said, “spiritual emporiums.” They’re quite deliberately, “the malling of religion.” Grand cathedral is a consumption. They are one-stop church complexes premised on controlled environments with multioption boutiques catering to diverse needs. But the worst thing of all is not when it touches the architecture and the style, but when it touches the message itself, as one very serious historian concluded:

Once marketing becomes dominant, the concern is not with finding an audience to hear the message, but with finding a message to hold the audience.

After all, when the audience and not the message is sovereign, the good news is no longer the end, it’s become the means.

The Missing Words in Our Witness

Now, that sounds very damning to say, but just think of what’s missing in much of the church growth movements preaching at its more debased end. Where are the hard sayings of Jesus? Where is the cost of discipleship? Where is the church standing crosswise to the world? Richard Niebuhr complained of liberalism, something which is largely true of segments of evangelicalism today. We’ve produced “a God without wrath, bringing men without sin into a kingdom without judgment, through the administrations of a Christ without the cross,” and it’s not because of a liberal excising of the gospel, but because of a distortion of the gospel through the imperatives of marketing and the bottom line unawares.

Contemporary Conceit

Here’s a fourth tip: Check for contemporary conceit. John was saying this afternoon, nothing is more characteristic of modernity than a repudiation of the past. This comes in very silly forms like the newer, the truer, or the latest, greatest attitude, but it also comes in what Tom Oden calls “modern chauvinism,” thinking that everything modern is better than everything that came before.

You can see this contemporary conceit in at least a couple of areas in the church growth movement. First, it underestimates the power of the present in its arguments. For example, consider futurism. I said earlier something rude about futurism. Futurism should really be called presentism because it is not a true prediction. It is projection of the present into the future, and in that sense, futurism is both intellectually and morally bogus.

George Orwell is often considered a futurist, but he never was. His novel, 1984, was not a futurist prediction. He simply turned around the years of the year he wrote the novel, 1948. He described futurism as a major mental disease of our time, and it riddles much of the language of the church growth movement. They say, “The church in the 20th century, this is what’s coming!” Much of it is merely a projection of what’s happening now projected down the line, and there’s no intellectual or moral critique of what’s happening here.

As I said, even John Nesbitt has the candor to describe himself not as a futurist but a “nowist” because he knows darn well that’s what he’s doing. He’s projecting the present into the future. And yet, many of our church growth brothers and sisters have an extraordinarily uncritical attitude towards Christian futurism or secular futurism.

The other place the church growth movement is vulnerable is where it overestimates the power of the present in its arguments. My example here would be the claims about reaching the unchurched. We all know the statements such as “45 percent of Americans are unchurched,” and so on. Now, don’t misunderstand me, nothing can take away from the joy in heaven over any sinner who repents, baby boom or otherwise, but much of the discussion of reaching the unchurched is inflated and exaggerated.

First, many megachurches give you their front door statistics, not their back door statistics. In other words, they tell you who comes and why. But they don’t tell you who leaves and why. In the long run, that will be the significance. Otherwise, they’ll become like fast-growing life insurance companies whose unrenewed policies come to exceed their new policies and then they decline and collapse, and as we know, that’s happened to several of the megachurches already.

Secondly, a very large part of the church growth in the West, some say 80 percent in America, is growth by transfer, not conversion. It’s a reshuffling of the cards, the revolving door, and that’s not truly reaching the unchurched.

Thirdly, most of the unchurched reached by the megachurch movement would be better described as “semi-churched.” Studies show that nearly half of America’s “unchurched” think at least once a week about possibly going to church, which vastly increases the chances of their going if they’re invited. Now, that’s not true in parts of New England and parts of the extreme west and north, which are much more secularized. But even there, they’re not nearly as secularized as Europe. The European unchurched are genuinely unchurched. They’re a generation or two away, and they’re really hardened in their differences. The American unchurched are actually semi-churched and remarkably easy to reach.

In other words, the day may come when we have truly unchurched here, and when that day comes, they’re not going to come into churches. We’ll have to be like Jim Peterson’s “church without walls.” In other words, missionaries will be going out to them where they are. Notions of the most jazzy, seeker-friendly, audience-driven churches and services are simply not going to reach the truly unchurched. So much of the talk of the unchurched today is understandable, and the desire to go out and reach them is laudable. Don’t misunderstand me for a moment. But many people are overestimating the significance of what they’re actually doing and achieving.

Engaging Modernity with Our Eyes Open

Let me just draw the conclusion here. The church growth movement is a wonderful movement in its intentions, but through being uncritical, in many ways, it’s bringing the Trojan horse of modernity back into the church. To me, I always smile when Christians are panicking and get paranoid about, say, humanism and the new age. Those are two very, very significant, dangerous movements, but they hadn’t caused a 10th or a hundredth of the damage to the church that the therapeutic revolution or the managerial revolution have done. Christians have wheeled these in and are dancing around the golden calf with gay abandon. We’re going to need to be enormously more critical as we look at the unchurched today.

At the end of the day, there are deep ironies of this. Now, as I said, the church growth movement is a highly significant movement in itself, but far more importantly than that, it’s an example of engaging with modernity, which we must do, but which we must do with our eyes open. Plunder the Egyptians by all means, but don’t set up a golden calf. We should be highly critical people who know how to use the best and avoid the worst for God’s sake.

Questions and Answers

Was there ever any discussion about some of these potential pitfalls during the early or middle stages of the church growth movement?

In the early stages, and that was stage one when it was McGavran and stage two when McGavran applied to North America, particularly through Pete Wagner, there was a great deal of discussion, and then the arguments faded away, particularly at the time when it became non-theological, more statistical. So for instance, I didn’t mention it, but Leadership Magazine, when it did its 21st birthday tribute to the church growth movement, did a purely statistical analysis. There wasn’t a word said biblically, theologically, or in any way that was critical at all. It just gave you statistics on how pastors found it useful or not useful, and so on.

So in the middle stage, there’s no question that the criticism just died away and it became something that worked or didn’t work. I think now, in its more populous stage, as it’s raised some of these issues in such a brazen form that there is something of a more critical movement starting.

How should we think about the church growth movement in relation to multicultural churches and the difficulty of churches growing when people are from different backgrounds and socio-economic levels?

Obviously, we have here something that’s enormously significant as a biblical principle, first and foremost, but secondly, as something that touches on the whole multicultural diverse debate today. So that’s an enormously important discussion.

I think as a sociological fact, it is true as an observation that churches grow faster (and most institutions grow faster) when the birds of a feather flock together. It’s the homogeneous unit principle, whether it’s black, white, or whatever. But theologically, we must criticize that. In other words, that is not representative of the body of Christ healing all the divisions of the nations — Jew, Greek, Gentile, and so on — let alone are the divisions of our society today. So I think in the name of what Christ has done on the cross and in the name of us witness to justice today in terms of what Christ has done on the cross, we dare not ever be satisfied with the homogeneous unit principle.

How can we practice our spirituality in the midst of the emphasis on church growth initiatives and marketing strategies abounding in the church?

It’s not easy. We have to start by saying it’s not easy. But as I see it, it’s our modern variation of the early Christian challenge to the practice of spirituality. It could be something like in the medieval period like Brother Lawrence says in practicing the presence of God, and so on. I mean, he practiced the presence of God in the kitchen, and that wasn’t an easy place compared with a chapel and other places he could have done in the monastery.

I find myself surrounded by computer wiz kids in my office, people who are incredible with all the things they can do. Our challenge has been to train ourselves to use these things to the maximum where they’re useful and good, but to really build time in our day for prayer, and to build time in our months and our year for prayer and fasting, for solitude, and for things that really balance and give us a deep sense of grace and dependency of God.

I often like to go in and pray by the computer banks. To me, that’s the challenge of practicing the presence of God like Brother Lawrence by the sink, because it’s a world where everything’s so magnificent you don’t give a thought to the supernatural. I try to walk in those areas with a close knowledge of God. So for me, that’s the heart of it. We need the spiritual disciplines and the practice of the presence of God amidst technology and insights, which are inherently secularizing if you just use them.

I’d stress, again, I’m not a Luddite. These things are very, very useful and they’re enormous fun, many of them, but we need to practice the presence of God in, with, and through them, so that God is as real to us there and we’re as dependent on him and his grace there as anywhere else in life.

How should we think about the link between church growth and revival? Are there any other ways church growth could be good if the focus wasn’t on renewal through “the new ground”?

The church growth movement sometimes stresses renewal through “the new ground,” which is mostly what I’ve critiqued tonight, but there’s also another large part which stresses renewal through, say, charismatic gifts and so on.

Now, that second part of the renewal boom, which I haven’t focused on at all, is much closer to a desire for spiritual warfare and to a keen hunger for revival. But that being said, my view is that much of church growth per se at its best is a very good thing, but it’s not revival. In other words, these are human insights and human technologies which produce genuine growth, but they’re not the direct result of the outpouring of God’s Spirit, and just as I did this morning, I distinguished revival from charismatic renewal, from sociological resurgence, and so on. I would distinguish revival from the type of growth the church growth movement brings.

Are there practices from the church growth movement that we might be able to utilize in order to bring about true revival in the church?

I don’t think so. I don’t think revival is something open to that sort of formula, that sort of recipe, and that’s the danger that’s inherent in the Finney-esque view of revival, as if you do certain things and the Spirit will fall. I think that’s dangerous. But we can say as Jay Bannor so often said, “The one thing we do bring is a deep hunger that is so hungry it can cry out only to God, and a deep expectancy that knows we can look to no one else except the Lord for what we need.”

So there is at least that human contribution of our poverty through hunger and expectancy, but beyond very, very limited things like that, revival is crying out for the mercy and grace of the Lord to fall out upon us.

Do you think America is central to the future of modernity and what transpires with the church growth movement? Are there things we can learn from other nations in this regard?

Good question. I don’t think I said America is central. What I said is that it’s in the heart of the stormfront, and there are two others today. But one of the obvious implications of modernity is that no one is number one for long. In other words, Egypt could be a huge empire for x-thousand years. The Spanish empire lasted long, the British Empire was shorter, and the American empire shorter still. As modernity accelerates, the nation that is at the leading edge of modernity has the privilege of being there for a shorter and shorter time.

So we should recognize that modernity gives the number one nation in the world — by which I don’t mean America is better, but she’s at the leading edge of modernity, what sociologists called “the world’s lead society” — a comparatively precarious position to be in. There’s absolutely no triumphalism in it because the second you see you’re number one, that’s the second you acknowledge that you won’t be number one for long.

My point is simply that you are number one today. So the full brunt of modernity with its latest, strongest, deepest brunt comes down on the church here and now, and that’s the only reason that I say that America is central to modernity. I don’t mean it in any triumphal sense at all.

Now, when we go to the third world, be it Africa, Asia, Latin America, or whatever, what we see there is a pre-modern world, which we can only read about in terms of the West. In other words, you can see family structures, community living, neighborhoods, and forms of solidarity. You think, “My goodness, do we have this here once?” and you have to go a long way back sometimes to find that sort of thing here. That’s the main thing you see in terms of the way they live, and of course, that leads to the vibrancy of their faith. So there is an enormous amount we can see from the way they’ve been privileged to live because their world still is pre-modern and the depth and profundity and joy of their faith when in those settings they come to know Christ, with all the simplicity and so on. So there’s an enormous amount to pick up from them, but much of what we have to share is our failure and to warn them, “This is what’s coming.”

I went to Poland and I went to Singapore and did the same thing. I did a whole series of lectures on what modernity does, how it affects discipleship here and evangelism there, and this, that, the other, and how it affects the family in this place, and so on. I told them to watch out for these things, so they could be on the lookout when they come to them. In other words, we don’t have much to tell them of our successes. It’s mostly how we didn’t overcome it. I think then it would be too crude to call them “laboratories,” but in many ways, that’s what they are.

Do more third-world nations have an upper hand on us in some of these ways where their faith is more vibrant?

They do. I’ve mentioned passion, joy, and numerous things like that. All of us who’ve been to the third world can’t fail to be touched by them. I’m just putting a slightly skeptical cast on that whole spin. In other words, it’s true that the north to the south of the United States and Europe, to the third world, and so on. All that’s undeniably true if you look at numerical things and certain spiritual things, but that’s not the whole story because it leads to the defeatism that I was examining yesterday, and the challenge is truly to stand here.

Many of those people find it enormously difficult to live six months a year here and still have that same joy, simplicity, and passion. There are some who do, but it’s much easier to come over on trips from Uganda here and bring that every time than to stay here, say, for five years and maintain that under the conditions of modernity. I’m not disagreeing with you, and I have wonderful friends in Asia and places like that where I grew up, but I’m a little skeptical of the talk that Michael gave because the logic of that leads in the wrong direction. It turns Americans away from where the real fight is.

So yes, say all the things they have. They have an integration of their faith for the whole of their life because life is simple and integrated. They have a deep passion for their faith. They have simplicity and they have joy. They have all these things. That’s fine. Say it all and pick it all up. But then try and bring it back here and practice it here. That’s the real challenge. A lot of this sort of talk doesn’t do it. What they say is on the surface right there is this swing, numerically and in other ways, but that misses the real point. We are here, so this is our place. The biggest brunt of modernity is here, so this is a good place to stand. That’s my thrust. It’s not a denial of what they say, it’s a counterbalance.

Actually, the sad thing is that there are many more people coming here who stay here longer and are corrupted by our system. They come to our seminaries and they’re as hung up in credentials as we are. They come to our seminaries and they go back with head knowledge that’s divorced from their simple, intuitive heart knowledge, and so on. In other words, the longer they’re here, the more they’re affected by our ways too. You can see many, many third world critiques of the third world people who have been to the West and have essentially been ruined. So we do have an immense amount to learn, and it’s not easy for them or us.

How is the church growth trend affecting places like South Korea?

I’ve never been there. My parents were in Southeast Asia, like Singapore and Indonesia and countries around there. I’ve never been to Korea. Now, my good friend with whom I co-edited the book, John Seel, grew up in Korea and he speaks a lot about that. I’ve never really heard him in depth, but ask Bill that tomorrow. What I’ve heard is that Korea at the moment is being modernized so rapidly in terms of general cultural development that is now affecting the churches, that many of the powerful strong movements of even the last 20 years are beginning to show signs of modernized corruption. Now, I have no firsthand knowledge of that at all. So ask Bill tomorrow morning here. I think he knows that very much better than I do.

How can we raise our children within the context of modernity so they don’t fall into some of these things you’ve spoken of? Are there any models of this we can look to?

I have tried mainly through the model of watching the Schaeffers. Because the Schaeffers, although they didn’t live in America in the heart of modernity in that way, they kept their children (and they encouraged other people to keep their children) always discussing, thinking, and understanding whatever they were into — films, television, books, whatever it was — and in the constant close relationship of critical discussion to become ahead of the game and aware of the game.

There’s no perfect way. We’ve tried that. I mean, one little tiny thing I did was a whole series of analysis in advertising because I think advertising in America is just as corrupting as television. Of course, advertising on television is the most corrupting of all discourse. For a long time with my son I played a little game I called “Spot the Lie.” Every time he could watch a commercial and tell me what the lie or the total lack of logic was, or the complete jump, or say it was all images and you were asked to buy something but give him no reasons — if he could tell me why it worked in that way that was illogical or a lie, I gave him a quarter. And whether for pecuniary reasons or whatever, he became quite critical of American advertising.

He’s at a Christian school now, which puts a heavy stress on thinking Christianly and really discussing and understanding and talking and going to see films and going back and talking them through afterwards and so on. I’m not perfect and he’s not perfect by any long way, but I’m trying to do that Schaeffer way of close relationship, the critical discussion, which keeps them all always just one step ahead of the game. I think if we do this community wide, then we really have responsible, intelligent Christians growing up who are not hoodwinked by this, but that’s much easier said in two minutes up here than done. So we’re certainly not paragons of that.