This is the fourth in a series of articles dealing with downward trends in contemporary worship services. In this article we will be dealing with the rush toward a utilitarian approach to worship.
Many evangelical churches are embracing pragmatic methodology because they have lost confidence in the teaching of the Bible concerning the sovereignty of God in salvation. They have lost, as John MacArthur states, “confidence in the power of God to use the preached gospel to reach hardened unbelievers.” He continues, “That’s why they approach evangelism as a marketing problem.”
Over forty years ago, J. I. Packer expressed the same sentiments. He wrote,
If we forget that it is God’s prerogative to give results when the gospel is preached, we shall start to think that it is our responsibility to secure them. And if we forget that only God can give faith, we shall start to think that the making of converts depends, in the last analysis, not on God, but on us, and that the decisive factor is the way in which we evangelize. And this line of thought, consistently followed through, will lead us far astray.
Let us work this out. If we regarded it as our job, not simply to present Christ, but actually to produce converts—to evangelize, not only faithfully, but also successfully —our approach to evangelism would become pragmatic and calculating. We should conclude that our basic equipment, both for personal dealing and for public preaching, must be twofold. We must have, not merely a clear grasp of the meaning and application of the gospel, but also an irresistible technique for inducing a response. We should, therefore, make it our business to try and develop such a technique. And we should evaluate all evangelism, our own and other people’s, by the criterion, not only of the message preached, but also the visible results. If our own efforts were not bearing fruit, we should conclude that our technique still needed improving. If they were bearing fruit, we should conclude that this justified the technique we had been using. We should regard evangelism as an activity involving a battle of wills between ourselves and those to whom we go, a battle in which victory depends on our firing off a heavy enough barrage of calculated effects.
Writing on the extent to which pragmatism has driven churches to novel approaches, MacArthur says, “In the past half decade, some of America’s largest evangelical churches have employed worldly gimmicks like slapstick, vaudeville, wrestling exhibitions, and even mock striptease to spice up their Sunday meetings. No brand of horseplay, it seems, is too outrageous to be brought into the sanctuary. Burlesque is fast becoming the liturgy of the pragmatic church.”
I cannot say that I have witnessed such extremes in Western Australia. But it seems that some churches are moving rapidly in this direction.
Are we coming close to a situation reminiscent of the time when Calvin warned, “The whole form of divine worship in general use in the present day is nothing but mere corruption. For men pay no regard to what God has commanded, or to what he approves, in order that they might serve him in a becoming manner.”
Is a pragmatic approach an acceptable option for the church? Is it biblical? MacArthur sounds a warning, “. . . when pragmatism is used to make judgments about right and wrong, or when it becomes a guiding philosophy of life, theology, and ministry, inevitably it clashes with Scripture. Spiritual and biblical truth is not determined by testing what ‘works’ and what doesn’t. We know from Scripture, for example, that the gospel often does not produce a positive response (I Cor. 1:22, 23; 2:14). On the other hand, satanic lies and deception can be quite effective (Matt. 24:23, 24; 2 Cor. 4:3, 4). Majority reaction is no test of validity (cf Matt. 7:13, 14), and prosperity is no measure of truthfulness (cf Job 12:6). Pragmatism as a guiding philosophy of ministry is inherently flawed. Pragmatism as a test of truth is nothing short of satanic.”
Let me suggest that what the Church desperately needs, is not a novel and more refined pragmatic approach, but more obedience to biblical teaching, and more desperate prayer. Instead of attempting to do what we really cannot do, we should plead with God to do what he has promised to do. I believe that to the degree we attempt to bring about growth through our own strategies and plans—to that degree we stifle the working of the Holy Spirit in our midst.
We live in truly desperate times. Every form of perversity is tolerated. The institution of marriage is collapsing. Family is being re-defined. Homosexuality is exalted. The killing of the unborn is state sanctioned. Some denominations are openly embracing what scripture openly condemns. But desperate times do not require increasingly calculated and pragmatic responses. They call for obedience and for desperate prayer. In order that the gospel might go forward, what does Paul urge the Colossians to do? Does he urge them to fine tune their preaching technique in order to appeal to the sensibilities of the unsaved?—or to abandon preaching altogether?—or to concentrate on music as an avenue to reach the unsaved? No, he urges them to pray. “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should” (Col. 4:2-4).
When Christians are obedient and earnestly pray, according to John Flavel, “the Lord pours outhis Spiritwith the word”,“the voice of ordinances impregnated with convincing and converting efficacy.”
Many Christians from small churches admire larger churches that have employed a barrage of pragmatic approaches over a number of years to build their numbers.
But should we stand in awe of these larger churches and should we imitate them? I do not believe so. After all, the Mormons have successfully grown a huge cult made up of thousands of “churches” and millions of adherents across the world—all without the aid of the Holy Spirit, and in spite of the prayers of the people of God.
When the Holy Spirit pours out his blessing upon the Church, as a result of concerted, earnest prayer, he makes the most grandiose human strategies seem feeble. In the mid-19th century USA, a great revival began and was sustained by a movement of prayer. Jeremiah Lamphir started prayer meetings in New York city with only a handful of people but soon the number grew to thousands praying each week for revival. Then God opened the doors of heaven. Conversions numbered at 4,000 per day in New York (a similar number to Pentecost). This great awakening spread throughout the States. More than one million people out of a population of 30 million were converted to Christ in one year. Huge moral reform was felt for a generation. We will never achieve this sort of blessing through thinking that we can bring it about through our own efforts. It will only come when we humbly admit that we are powerless, and plead with God to do what we cannot.
We need to return to our biblical job description. Paul puts it this way, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow” (1 Corinthians 3:6,7). Our task is proclamation and nurturing. We should stick to that and allow God to do the rest. The early church enjoyed such phenomenal growth because as Acts 6:4 states, the leaders of the early church deter- mined to give themselves “continually to prayer and the ministry of the word.”
Iain Murray writes, “Why is worship not commonly more uplifting and transforming? Why has the expectation of God’s felt presence become faint? The common diagnosis for the unhelpfulness of much contemporary worship is patently wrong. It is not changes in form that we need; not disorganized spontaneity in place of familiar structures; not professional musicians and all their instruments to ease our boredom. Such changes and others have been with us for years but what have they done to restore spiritual conditions? What have they done to inspire holy living and to restore eagerness for the word of God?” He answers, “Without a greater experience of that same supply [the Holy Spirit], we shall see no real change in the present decline in public worship. All other expedients will fail. . . ”
The only way the church will truly flourish is to do exactly what it has been commissioned in Scripture to do, and then in faith, leave the rest to God.