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 THE CHURCH IN THE 21ST CENTURY
(Written in 2004; revised, edited, 2017)

The state of the church in the beginning of the 21st. century is a distressful one. For many there is much concern brought about by the pragmatism which has become so pervasive, and which is now challenging traditional practices, and in many instances eclipsing them. This phenomenon, along with other factors, is cause for alarm. One of these disturbing factors is the apparent decline of theological interest within these movements and in the Church in general. Within the Evangelical wing the emphasis upon what brings results seems to have become paramount and thus there is a diminishing appeal to theological and/or exegetical argumentation as the basis of these trends. With the rise of pragmatism there has been a decline in theology and doctrine in shaping lives unlike in previous generations. God is now perceived as the answer to modern needs and not the sovereign Lord to be obeyed. We have entered a new day, unlike what has gone before, in that the Church seems to be guided more by the Barna philosophy and psychological pundits than by the Word of God.

This is perhaps the number one issue facing us today. The apparent success of these popular marketing techniques seems to argue for the adoption of their practice. On the doctrinal front we mention two matters being debated by theologians. One of these is the so-called “Openness Theology.” a view which teaches that God’s omniscience does not necessarily involve all things pertaining to decisions made by men. In fact, it is asserted that God “learns” things and that He changes his mind. Proponents of this heresy include John Sanders, Greg Boyd, and Clark Pinnock.

A second doctrinal discussion is labeled by some as “neo-legalism,” or the “new perspective,” and is an attempt to redefine justification as it is related to works. Among those espousing this theological view are Norman Shepherd, Don Garlington, and others. Both of these topics are outside the scope of this paper, but are nevertheless in some circles two of the most discussed theological topics today.

We might well ask ourselves how the Church arrived at these circumstances. The issue has many origins which this paper is an attempt to address

The subject before us is a challenging one for a number of reasons. For one thing, history is subject to interpretation, especially contemporary history. In addition, our subject is a many-faceted one, and difficult to define. Thus our conclusions are purely subjective. Let me hasten to challenge you not to take comfort in thinking that our own assemblies and associations may be free from the disturbing problems which exist. The sad truth is the spirit of the times has an insidious way of filtering into what we might call orthodox churches. The historic churches and denominations which are so bankrupt today certainly did not begin that way. Their decline was usually a gradual one, and many times engineered by those within the movement.. We are all too well aware of the down grade which overcame many church bodies through the corrupting influence of the very schools and seminaries which were charged with training the clergy. Today, hardly any of the great institutions founded to train men in the ministry of the gospel remain true to their original intent. This came about over a period of time as standards and doctrine were weakened and eventually abandoned. History demonstrates that institutions and movements invariably undergo revision, almost always toward a liberal or downward course. The fervency and convictions of the founders are often less meaningful among the followers and within a generation or two the surviving institutions and movements commonly drift from their original course. This comes about despite efforts by these founding fathers to safeguard the integrity of their works. Charters, constitutions, by-laws, and doctrinal statements are eventually circumvented so that in the end they are meaningless. From all indications it appears impossible to safeguard the original ideals, and finally, schools, institutions, publishing houses, churches, and ministers function in distinct contrast to their heritage. This can easily be documented among many historic Seminaries, Bible Colleges, and Institutes.

The abandonment of historical and doctrinal roots has had a long-term and profound impact upon the heirs. It is well known that endowments are being used to promote the very things the givers sought to repudiate. Theological chairs bearing the names of illustrious men now put forth doctrine rejected and opposed by those whose name they bear. Sowing to the wind has indeed produced the proverbial whirlwind. The tragic result is that men and women are being seduced with false and even blasphemous doctrine in the name of Christianity. You and I have lived to see the day when the holy name of God is evoked to support the most heretical and oftentimes vile teachings, including the denial of our Lord’s deity and the condoning of sodomy. This perversion of truth found its way into numerous churches and hearts of men as this century began.

This downgrade finds its cause in numerous factors, the most serious of which is the attack upon the veracity of Scripture. The abandonment of Biblical authority and belief in its inerrancy has come about through several developments, most within the last two centuries. For instance, the so-called “enlightenment” produced a circle of schoolmen who soon dominated the intellectual realm, particularly the universities and schools of higher learning. Science and philosophy replaced the humanities and theology as the major forces governing social and political thinking, even among churchmen. The expansion of man’s knowledge of the world around him brought about further skepticism regarding the supernatural and thus engendered a developing naturalism that raised serious challenges to the authority of Scripture. No longer was advanced knowledge limited to the few, but now more and more the general population was exposed to these innovative ideas as the availability of books and schools of learning became practical for the average man. The church waged an anemic battle to maintain its supremacy, but it was a losing cause, partly because the challenge came from within its own ranks. Many churchmen joined forces with the skeptics, thus in principle becoming the antagonists to the very things they were entrusted to defend. The influence of the Puritan movement also waned as men sought greater freedom of thought and practice both in their private lives and within the church, which itself essentially had become adrift in many ways. Having moved out of the “dark ages” and the grinding poverty it had produced, men began to turn more and more to material things for comfort. Materialism is not a new development, although the modern version is certainly much broader and intense. The unregenerate heart has always been a covetous one, even at a time when material things were far less available than in our day. Although it may be argued that mankind has benefitted in many ways from the period of the so-called enlightenment, we recognize that it also brought numerous changes that eventually were discovered to have some very deleterious consequences.

Another serious challenge which had a profound impact on the Church came into prominence with the appearance of evolution. One can hardly over-state the effect this produced. Clearly, this hypothesis and the straightforward teachings of the Scripture regarding the origin of man cannot both be correct. Although there have been feeble attempts to harmonize the two, the antithesis remains. Without equivocation we believe this teaching has brought about much of the chaos found in today’s society .Although set forth as a “theory” this doctrine has gained the aura of infallibility within almost every segment of society and the academic realm. Sadly, many theological institutions are unsettled in their position toward Darwinian evolution and not a few teach it outright. This is possible since some have abandoned the doctrine of the infallibility of Scripture, especially the earlier chapters where the account of divine creation is recorded. Those of us who are committed to an authoritative Bible are considered out of touch with up-to-date science and are often maligned as “obscurantists.”

The 20th century ushered in other issues which impacted the Church greatly, not the least of which was two world wars followed by remarkable growth of the economy after WW II. The trauma caused by the wars gave further rise to skepticism as men witnessed the wickedness and brutality perpetrated by men. Many who had dreamed of a world of brotherhood and peace became disillusioned and wondered where God was in all this. Between the wars, the depression of the 30's had a dual effect. On one hand, it drove some to a greater sense of dependency upon God; on the other hand, it tested the faith of many who questioned God’s existence in the midst of such want.

Following WW II, and up to the present time, mankind has become increasingly prosperous. Materialism has grown in an unprecedented way and the market place is filled with all manner of goods. Man’s heart is turned from God to a life of self-indulgence and pleasure. In addition, scientific developments and technology has brought about a world with seemingly unlimited potential for self-fulfilment. Advances in medical knowledge and experimentation has expanded man’s understanding of the mystery of life and has to a degree devalued its sanctity in the eyes of some. Life itself is now perceived as expendable, at least in the womb and when terminal.

All this, along with many other things, has turned the hearts of many away from God in a way previously unknown. Sadly, the Church ineffectively struggled to meet these challenges as the century has dawned.. Now brethren, these are some of the circumstances in which we find ourselves. A terrible calamity has beset us and what has been the response of many within the church? We can describe it in one word, adaptation, or perhaps more precisely, compromise. That is, facing these challenges, the Church has attempted to address them on the world’s terms. Many believe that by softening long-held doctrine and changing their practices, men will take note and turn to God. To accomplish this the Church in many instances has become little more than another organization in the world, seeking to compete by following the world’s practices. It is not a pretty sight!

For instance, in response to the Enlightenment, men often turned to a more philosophical and rationalistic approach to the Word of God. This is clearly seen in the school of higher criticism which came into prominence during the 18th century. Some have more aptly named it the school of destructive criticism for this hermeneutic eventually destroyed the faith of many concerning the Word of God. Its influence widened as the 20th century unfolded and finally became the dominating approach to the Bible in nearly every seminary and university. The sad story of how Princeton and other strongholds of the faith eventually fell under its spell is a tragic one indeed. We are too well aware of the harmful effect this has brought about among churches overall. Loss of confidence in the integrity of the Bible has resulted in all manner of aberrations and an abandonment of what is described as the “Puritan ethic.” We cannot overstate the devastation wrought as men abandoned Holy Writ and its authority for the shifting sands of human speculation. The abiding consequences upon Christianity is tragic as many pulpits and churches are hardly more than a reflection of the society around them and are fashioned more by humanistic emphases than by either historical doctrine or the Bible itself.

The fact is that the Church’s response to this distress has hardly been stellar. In many instance the cause of God and truth has frequently been a rear-guard action For example, the unhappy events of the "fundamentalist-liberal" controversy of the 1920's is proof enough that once the slide starts, it is nearly impossible to arrest. Despite the most concerted efforts of prominent men of God, the tide turned against the “fundamentalists” and the new spirit of the age prevailed. And then, some of us were around to witness another response by some churchmen. I refer to the rise and formation of what was named "Neo Evangelicalism." Following the guidance of men who shied from the plain implications of Scripture regarding separation and purity, many were taken in by this attempt to answer the challenge of the new age on its own terms. Harold John Ockenga and others were convinced that Christianity needed a new face and should rise to the challenge on the intellectual turf ruled by liberal minds. This effort focused on the formation of Fuller Seminary, the founding of Christianity Today, and the ministry of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Years later the results are in, and the evidence reveals that attempts such as this eventually are betrayed by their inbred weaknesses. This clearly illustrates how the hermeneutic of evidentialism is a losing cause in seeking to convince unregenerate men of truth as evidenced in the failure of "neo-Evangelicalism” to win over the pagan and liberal mind. Although many defenders of the faith have become disinclined to use the term "fundamentalist" to describe themselves, we believe it is an faithful description of the remnant who remain true to the historic faith, sound doctrine, separation ( both personal and ecclesiastical), and who believe that godliness is the chief characteristic of the elect of God.

Another phenomenon appeared on the scene about the turn of the century with the advent of "Pentecostalism." As the name implies, the leaders thought of themselves as restoring the manifest gifts experienced by the Apostles on Pentecost. The most dramatic and innovative feature of this movement was the emphasis upon “speaking in tongues." A corollary to this newly-revived emphasis was the belief in miraculous gifts of healing and other less spectacular gifts. Out of this venture grew a number of "Pentecostal" and "Holiness" movements all of which saw themselves as restorationists, bringing the old Gospel to men. Although decidedly Arminian to a fault, many stood upon and defended an inerrant Bible for which we can be grateful. Furthermore, they called men back to the standards of holy living and decried the compromise many had made with the world. Although we may think they went too far in some of their conclusions, yet it is hard to fault their insistence upon godliness of life. Sadly, this is a missing dimension in many circles today, even among the Holiness/Pentecostal groups themselves!

However, none of these or other measures was able to stem the flood of secularism, humanism, and disbelief that overtook the Church. Consequently, new reforms were sought (and found), in an effort to make the Church relevant and appealing to the modern pagan. Thus as the 20th century drew to an end, we witnessed a number of novel approaches to the ministry of the Gospel. There are many similarities among them and in fact they seem to be inter-related. Perhaps the most notable phenomenon is what is known as the "Charismatic" movement (CM), which essentially is a refined interpretation of the old Pentecostal sects. It too emphasizes tongues speaking and the miraculous with some variations to Pentecostalism. We might add that the CM has moved away in a dramatic fashion from the holiness emphasis of its predecessors. Many of the austere standards observable in the Holiness and Pentecostal groups are not to be found in the CM as a whole. Since its beginning about 1950 the CM has evidenced remarkable growth. It is to be found in every denomination which is one of its unique characteristics. That is, it is not a denomination or formally organized group at all, but draws adherents across the spectrum of the Church. With such a broad base of appeal, one might conclude that the CM could possibly be the remedy for the weak condition evident in many churches. This has not proven to be the case. Despite reported numbers of "conversions" and followers, there has been no significant observable impact upon the world or the Church. In fact, the scandalous conduct of several of its leaders has had a pernicious effect upon Christianity in general. We believe that these occurrences are the product of an unbridled carnality tied to doctrinal ignorance. That the flesh thrives on such antics should be warning enough for the spiritually-minded.

We hasten on to mention the "faith healers” and “prosperity” exponents who are so prominent today. These are further sensationalized ministries which have duped many. One would think that with such spectacular claims made by these ministries, multitudes would flock to churches confessing their sin seeking to receive the blessings. The reality is many of their claims often go unchallenged and fail under close scrutiny, while the “healers” live lavish life-styles. You no doubt are aware of the distress foisted upon those who fail to realize the promised blessings because they “lack faith.” (See MacArthur's "Charismatic Chaos" for examples.)

Our last example of the Churches response to the crisis is the so-called "user-friendly" church growth movement. There are a number of examples we might cite, among them the Vineyard Movement. However, the most notable is the Willow Creek Church near Chicago and the Saddleback Community Church of California. These two churches have experienced explosive growth since their founding a few years ago and have introduced several novel as well as bizarre approaches to ministry. Pastors across the land flock to these Meccas to observe their techniques, taking them home to their own assemblies. The senior pastors, Bill Hybels of Willow Creek and Rick Warren of Saddleback, are much in demand on many platforms where they expound their philosophy of ministry The sought-after gurus of these innovations are thought to be the “messiahs” who will lead the church out of the wilderness in which she finds herself. Those of the faithful remnant believe otherwise. Much of what we have discussed to this point reveals the unhappy spectacle of churches and churchmen attempting to repair the breech in the good ship Zion with carnal tactics.

A common factor observable in these movements is the abandonment of traditional music for what is said to be "contemporary Christian music,” some more contemporary than others! Regrettably, this has proven to be a most divisive innovation. The inroads of this type of music is alarming, yet is a reflection upon the mentality of churchmen who believe one must adapt to the mood of the times. One must be "relevant," we are told, if we are ever to reach men with the gospel. Such reasoning betrays a denial of effectual calling, substituting carnal tactics instead.

As alarming as these trends may be, we remind you that the church has witnessed many fads and aberrations which eventually faded from the picture. Within our lifetime we have had “situation ethics” which was the rage not so many years ago. And then, the heretical notion that “God is dead” captured attention for a time. It was my sad experience to attend a session at a prominent seminary in the mid “60's where a professor of a well-known theological seminary proclaimed the death of God. Again, when was the last time you heard anything about this absurdity? We have also listened to men who professed to be “demythologizing” Scripture and the “neo-orthodox” argument that the Bible “contains”the word of God, but is not the word of God. Further back in the last century there was the “social gospel” and the old liberalism of optimism, looking for the millennium generated by the triumph of the gospel.

Now, we ask, where are these faddish notions today? They are no doubt still with us, but they have essentially been dismissed as the curiosities they are. Church history reveals many such anomalies, many of which faded from view as rightly they should. Thus, I believe the “user friendly” movement will eventually become another dinosaur on the landscape, much like the much-touted bus ministry. This is also true of the faddish theological dialogues happening today. Fresh ideas will arise as did the popular theological fads of the 1960's, however, in time, I believe these trends will eventuallly be forgotten. No doubt the 21st century will continue to experience many such issues. Moreover, as the church continues to move further away from the Scriptures, and with the ascendency of secularism, I believe fundamental Christianity will experience a decline. This is the sobering reality we face.

THE DECADE OF THE 60'S

Perhaps nothing has affected the posture of the church more than the events which transpired during the decade of the ‘60's. The cultural and sexual revolution had a profound effect upon the church. The long-term effects are seen in the fact that many of those who were embroiled in this activity are now in positions of leadership both in the culture and the church. Having been influenced by their radical experiences they have eagerly accepted the revolutionary ideas which are now in vogue. Abandoning, and even decrying the former church polities and standards, they have brought into the church an entirely restructured protocol. Thus today’s church is radically dissimilar from what it formerly was. The church has become marginalized so that it is now no longer respected, merely tolerated.

MODERNITY

We now turn our attention to the prevailing sentiment which has captured today’s world.
In 1932 Aldous Huxley published a novel titled “Brave New World”,a fantasized look
into the future which contained some remarkable insightsinto our present circumstances. George Orwell’s book “1984" was another forward-looking novel that anticipated some happenings at the close of the 20th century. As insightful as these were, they only faintly anticipated the dramatic transformations which accompanied the arrival of the 21st century. This is no less true for the Church. For many of us it is troublesome and distressful to adjust to the changes that have occurred in recent years. This is true both culturally and within the Church. That things are different, sometimes radically different, is quite obvious. We are persuaded that the changes have not all been for the better, in fact, many for the worse.

[Much of the following is based upon David Wells book: “God in the Wasteland”]

The trend which brought about this transformation has been labeled “modernity,” and it has influenced both society and the Church. Modernity is at once a philosophy and a mind-set which controls one’s lifestyle as well as the culture. It has borne different names at times such as “modernism’ or “progressivism,” but always has described the general sentiment which prevailed at any given time among certain members of society. It is perhaps most observable in the contemporary clothing fashions and popular entertainment of the day, as these often express the current attitudes and thinking of the general populace. The fact is that modernity is all-pervasive, intrusive, and inescapable, and tends to create a shallow culture says Wells (p 118). Modernity focuses on self, believing that materialism is the norm and is required to create happiness. Thus modern man is preoccupied with pursuing material things and is beset with what has been typically described as “worldliness.” This is all too common in churches today.

Entering the 21st century our culture has fallen under the spell of modernity in an unparalleled way. The obsession with self-indulgence has fostered a diminished awareness of the spiritual previously unknown. Instead, man’s attention has turned to self-fulfillment sought in entertainment and recreation which represses creative thinking and introspection. Modern man fills his mind with constant activity hence there is no more “be still and know that I am God.” The pervasive “music”, the ubiquitous cell phone and headsets, along with TV--these are all characteristics of modernity and nearly impossible to evade, and few make the effort to do so. Many within the Church have embraced this philosophy and this has significantly contributed to the acceptance of the “user friendly” movement. Wells concludes that,
“ Even the church seems inclined to view this sea of horrors as the ‘real world Rather than standing apart from it, the church has entered into negotiations with this world, has made extraordinary efforts to accommodate it, and to a significant extent has absorbed its values, apparently oblivious to the fact that this world has no ultimate reality--and to the fact that this external world which seems so faded and threadbare by comparison, is nevertheless the genuine real world, the domain over which God is sovereign.” ( p 174, 176)

Furthermore, Wells adds, “If a convergence has in fact taken place between modernity and evangelicalism, it is not because modernity has become more theological, but because evangelicalism has become more modern” (p 26). This is quite obvious in what has typically been described as “worldliness” which turns attention to the material and away from the spiritual. “Worldliness . . . is that set of practices in a society, its ways of looking at life, that make sin look more normal and righteousness look strange” (W p. 86).

We are also told that “The fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is that God rests too inconsequentially upon the church. His truth is too distant, His grace too ordinary, His judgment is too benign, His gospel too easy, and His Christ too common” (W, p 30)

Unhappily, modern evangelicalism evidences a trend to worldliness, coupled with a decided lack of discernment, seeming unable to see how worldly engagement has values hostile to the Christian faith.

To speak of marketing the gospel as any other commodity betrays a vast intrusion of worldliness into the church. The church growth principles are pragmatic organizing principles, many patterned after the world. Wells remarks, “As theology moved from the center to the periphery of evangelical faith, techniques moved from the periphery to the center. . . .a new more culturally adapted evangelicalism emerged, the central figures of which were no longer the scholars, but rather a host of managers, planners, and bureaucrats--and not far behind them, the marketers. . . .Church growth has increasingly been reduced to a matter of knowing how to market the church, and George Barna is the epitome of this diminished understanding, . . . Barna’s efforts to make megachurches the benchmark of normality and then to argue that churches of conventional size are failures is simply unwarranted and wrongheaded. . . . Barna’s solution to the problem of smallness is to transform traditional churches into User Friendly churches” (W p. 79).

Wells further observes, “the “user friendly” model holds to the premise that the “consumer’s needs is sovereign, that the customer is always right, . . . thus it is believed that the consumer’s “needs” are paramount and ideas are valid only to the extent that they prove their usefulness in the marketplace. But this is a false assumption since “this is precisely what the gospel insists cannot be the case” (W p.85, 82)

Richard Niebuhr, a noted advocate of “neo-orthodoxy,” once described the gospel of liberalism as “consisting in a God without wrath bringing a people without sin into a kingdom without judgment through a Christ without a cross.” (W p. 82). The remarkable similarity to the “user friendly” gospel is all too apparent.

As wells remarks, “Today’s evangelicalism tends to think that the external features of the church are more important than the substance since the external features are what draw people in. As a result, the truly important matters are marginalized, and the marginal aspects of the life of the church are made central. Barna shows no interest in the New Testament criteria for those in leadership, such as soundness of character, knowledge of God, understanding of His word, and an aptness to teach it; he focuses instead on traits valued in modern business, such as self-confidence and managerial skill” ( p, 84).

These are some sobering and alarming insights into the circumstances which prevail as the new century unfolds. They portend some alarming trends which we believe will eventually run their course, but which will leave their imprint on the church. Spiritual oversight requires not only leadership, but discernment as well, and the overpowering influence of modernity puts one to the test. New is not always better, nor always right. Not only are we to assess the values of modernity as a mind-set, but more importantly, we must evaluate its philosophy by Scripture. This poses a difficult task as modernity prevails in the world and in the church, for the “church” is comprised of men and women who are also part of the “world.” It is therefore extremely important for the church to engage the world, not on its terms, but upon the unchanging, infallible Word of God. Only in this way can we have any hope to overcome the influence modernity is exerting on the church.

We have lived to see some very troublesome days. The character of our society is being refashioned through the ascendency of a number of “isms”--among them secularism, materialism, pluralism, globalism. We live in a decadent world which exercises a powerful influence upon our lives, and which we seem unable to avoid. This is serious enough is it not? However, I believe the greater tragedy of our times is the downgrade within the Church which is all too evident. Brethren, it is a time to weep and repent for the church is now more fashioned by the world than the word of God. In this bewildering circumstance, it is all the more important for us to draw close to the Lord, to stand firm in our faith, and at all costs to insure that in our sphere of influence the pure doctrine of God’s sovereign, electing grace is maintained!


“I warn you: do not for one second let the crowds, the bustle of religious activity, the surge of religious thinking, fool you into supposing that there is a vast amount of spirituality. It is not so.” TOZER, FBR, 13

 

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