Gary Gilley does what many would consider to be very un-Christian: He names names and points the finger at those who are leading the market-driven church growth movement of today. But how else can one contend for the faith and warn the naÃ£ve and the undiscerning except by calling a spade a spade? He takes issue specifically with Bill Hybels and Rick Warren. The sad thing is that many pastors are uncritically embracing some of their methodology and philosophy of ministry without understanding its foundation and its ultimate effect on Christianity.
The most successful arm of the evangelical church in recent years, in terms of growth, money and prestige, has been the market-driven (seeker-sensitive, new paradigm, user-friendly) church. Because of this success these churches are being mimicked all over the country, and indeed, the world. But is this church fully dressed? Is she outfitted in the biblically prescribed robes of evangelism, edification, worship and instruction? Or, is she wrapped in rags composed of empty human philosophy stitched together with bits and pieces of truth? If the latter is true, why have so few seemed to notice? It is the intent of this book to attempt to answer some of these questions.
Gary is careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water when examining the modern market-driven church growth movement. The leaders are reacting against some common weaknesses in evangelical church culture … but the problem is that they swing the pendulum too far the other direction in seeking correction:
We will say up front that the church growth experts have gotten some things right. They are calling for excellence rather than shabbiness; aggressive evangelism rather than indifference; direction and purpose rather than aimlessness; innovation and creativity rather than traditionalism at any cost; dedication rather than slothfulness. In all of these things we commend them. On the other hand, . . . they have over corrected in important areas. These areas demand careful probing and biblical realignment. (p.16)
Here are some specific tests you could apply to pastoral leadership to determine where they stand in this pivotal paradigm transition:
– Are the church services geared towards drawing in the unsaved, unchurched or towards the edification of the believers to equip them to do the work of the ministry?
– Does the church place a high priority on the communication of doctrine and the authoritative proclamation of the Word of God or is doctrine looked down on as outdated and out of touch and experience made the ultimate goal – without requiring biblical roots to that experience?
– Are the leaders more inclined to turn to demographic studies and sophisticated marketing techniques to fill the pews than to the model of the early church in the Book of Acts and the Epistles?
– Are the leaders enamored with the “eight characteristics of growing churches” as developed by Christian A. Schwarz (p.19)
– “empowering leadership, gift-oriented ministry, passionate spirituality, functional structures, inspiring worship, holistic small groups, need-oriented evangelism and loving relationships“? His research documented that “these principles work in any type of church anywhere in the world” – begging the question of how impressed should we really be if doctrinal integrity and the power of the Holy Spirit are not required ingredients?
– Has an inspiring encounter with God in the worship experience and “fun” replaced holiness and a transformed life as the goal?
– Do the leaders buy into the unbiblical strategy that “to win the world to Christ we must first win the world’s favor? If we can get the world to like us, they will embrace our Savior?” (quoting John MacArthur – p.19) How much effort did Christ and the apostles expend in modifying their approach to get the world to like them?
– Are the elements of the worship service (singing, praise time, etc.) more performance-oriented or sincere expressions of spiritual service?
– Is the focus on glorifying God or making sure the worship participants have a fulfilling and enjoyable experience?
– Are the sermons a true contextual and exegetical exposition of God’s truth (applied to the life of the preacher and then to his audience) or more of an emotional appeal to serve the interests of the felt needs of the people?
– Does the music ministry reflect a depth of truth or a shallowness of emotional repetition?
– Entertainment or Submission to God? — “The problem is that the main business of entertainment is to please the crowd, but the main purpose of authentic Christianity is to please the Lord. Both the Bible and history have repeatedly shown that it is seldom possible to do both at the same time, for very long.” (p.31)
– Are the people growing in their discernment (ability to analyze ideas and differentiate truth from error) or do they readily accept the minimalistic content that is presented?
“Christianity is designed by God to be a ‘thinking faith.’” (p.32)
– Is the gospel message Christ died to meet the felt needs of people or is it much more involved and God-oriented than that? (p.36) “If we are to reach this generation we must then ‘market’ the gospel as something that works (i.e., relieves pain and provides happiness, fulfilment and good self-esteem).” (p.39)
– Is the focus on delivering people from their sin and rebellion against a holy God or offering them happiness and fulfillment – irregardless of whether or not they truly understand or respond in repentance to the Lordship of Christ? “A closer look at Jesus’ evangelism shows that he always quickly got to the heart of the real need of his audience – their sin which separated them from God (e.g. John 3:4; Mark 10:17-31) – in contrast to loneliness, poor self-esteem, lack of fulfillment.” (p.48)
– Is there rock solid confidence in the sufficiency of Scriptures for life and godliness or a need to supplement the Scriptures with “truth” mined from psychology or other secular realms? What then becomes the basis for determining what is truth? (p.54)
– Is there such a clamor for “relevant” teaching and building of “self-esteem” that psychology is substituted for theological insights that don’t have as immediate a connection to our felt needs? “Even the language of theology has been replaced by the vocabulary of the therapeutic.” (p.63)
– Is the gospel message itself being changed to be made more palatable for the sincere seeking Harry? “Harry is being told that he is so valuable to God that he sent his Son to die for him. This is, in effect, a denial of grace, whereby God grants us undeserved favour. Harry is also being told that if he will come to Christ, Christ will meet all of his felt needs and that will lead to personal fulfillment.” (p.68)
– This movement denies the biblical doctrine of Total Depravity – they view Harry as a sincere seeker after God who may have been turned off by the non-relevant forms of current church life but can be attracted to God if he can be entertained and not offended.
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Those are some of the key differentiating questions. The first thing to determine is whether Gilley has accurately represented the ministries of Hybels and Warren. Are these observations faithful expressions of the ministry direction and philosophy at Willow Creek Community Church and Saddleback Community Church? From all that I have read I am convinced on this point. Then one must ask why would anyone be attracted to imitate any of their practices rather than be repulsed by the direction of the shepherding. 1 Corinthians 3 makes it plain that we must be careful what examples we follow and how we build on the foundation laid by the Lord Jesus. The above changes strike me as significant deviations from the NT model. I hope this review encourages you to read the book in full and interact with these issues.
“I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” (2 Timothy 4:1-5)