OCTOBER 96 FROM THE PASTOR'S PERSPECTIVE
By Martin Murphy
Does anybody know where our Reformed churches are going? When Alice in Wonderland asked the cat where she ought to go the cat said "That depends a good deal on where you want to get to." Now back to my original question: Does anybody know where our Reformed churches want to get to?
God commissioned Joshua to plant the twelve tribes of Israel - the church of the Old Testament - in an area without the approval of the demographic experts and without the assistance of a "flagship" tribe (church). Joshua was not told to go to the church planting center for a seminar or the assessment center for an assessment. He was not told to listen to the experts in the field of sociology, psychology, or management experts. Joshua's instruction may be summed up in these few words: "Only be strong and very courageous, that you may observe to do according to all the law which Moses My servant commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may prosper wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it" (Joshua 1:7-8).
Sylvester Stallone was the protagonist in the movie "Lockup." He was unjustly imprisoned, so he tried to escape. During the escape, his partner told Stallone to turn left, but Stallone argued that he should go right. At his partners insistence, Stallone turned left and the prison guards captured him. It turned out that his partner betrayed him and was an informer for the prison officials. Making the wrong turn can be very painful or bring death itself. Is it possible that many professing Reformed ministers and ruling elders have taken the wrong turn in church leadership? Is it possible that the spirit of this modern/post-modern world has deceived Reformed ministers and ruling elders? Is it possible to discuss these possibilities? I think the answer to all three of those questions is "yes!".
There are, to my mind, many professing Reformed ministers and ruling elders who have taken a wrong turn in church leadership. The evidence demands a verdict. The evidence is that more and more professing Reformed churches have adopted the methods and the world of the church growth movement. Notice I said methods, because the church growth movement has no definitive theological system. I made that comment in a paper Dr. Michael Horton reviewed and he quickly pointed out that they do have a theological system. Are they not all Arminian in their evangelistic views? I've never known a church that adopted the methodology of the church growth movement that didn't employ eclectic worship practices. Their theology drives them to pragmatism. Their pragmatism drives them toward man-centered authority and away from God-centered authority in matters of faith and practice.
The advocates of the church growth movement have agendas that are incongruous with what the Puritans called the regulative principle and what we call a Reformed world and life view. I could cite numerous examples, but one will suffice. I have before me a report from a mission church that boasts of its women's ministry, Promise Keepers involvement, children's church, small group dynamics, and drama team. I smell anti-covenant theology, Arminianism, inadequate elder leadership, and flagrant violations of scriptural principles in worship in such boasting. In the four page report one whole page is given to "church growth patterns" which is a statistical report about increases in membership and money. If the word church was removed, it would appear that it was no more than a progress report of any pagan entrepreneurial enterprise. The goal is success and success is in numbers. Success in this case is the development of unbiblical programs and using doctrinal principles that are opposite of those in the confession used by that particular denomination.
The arguments in favor of the pragmatic methods always center around "stewardship." The advocates tell us that "God requires good stewardship." Therefore, prudence dictates the consultation of management experts to get the most for your money. Biblical stewardship is married to good sound management, but biblical stewardship follows from faithfulness. Faithfulness is what God had in mind when He sent Joshua in the land of Canaan. Joshua didn't have the option of hiring the Egyptian Army to do his fighting. Joshua had to do it God's way and nothing else was acceptable.
The church growth movement has turned from God's regulative principle. Denominational leaders and financiers actively promote the church growth movement through denominational and independent seminaries. The watershed effect finds its way to pastors who are constantly challenged by sessions and congregations to grow, grow, grow. The pastor sees the glitter and gold. He needs an increase in salary, so why not employ these church growth movement methods. The pastor probably thinks "its not that big of a compromise and who would be against church growth." No Christian can be opposed to church growth, but all Christians must be opposed to church growth methodology that is not in keeping with the Word of God. Compromise is dangerous because the uncritical thinker assumes that God will not require obedience. Dr. Os Guinness reminds us that "[C]ompromise is compromise regardless of when, how, or why it happens. . . ."
The wrong turn to the methods of the church growth movement began at the top with church leadership. Sometimes it seems so right to make the wrong turn. "We should therefore heed Origin's ancient principle: Christians are free to plunder the Egyptians, but forbidden to set up a golden calf" (Dining With the Devil, p. 90).
Why are Christians so easily diverted to the right or to the left. I think it is the spirit of this modern/post-modern world. It doesn't matter which world you live in, they both have seductive powers that are equally dangerous. The end of each system denies the authority and sovereignty of God. Modernity depends on the inherent ability of rationalism to conquer the world with modernism through industry, technology and telecommunications. Post-modernity reduces intelligent human discourse to an irrational vacuum supported only by the feeling of personal interpretation. It stands to reason that if a church planter just uses the right laws of management, understands psychological needs, embraces the pietistic practices of Christianity, and makes a vow to a creed or confession that can be interpreted relative to purpose, then surely he will be successful and please God at the same time. And after all, look at what the church planter has done for God! The temptation to follow the ways of the world is very tempting indeed. So many diversions are before God's people. The dangers of idolatry are ever present. Therefore, I think it is possible for Reformed leaders and laymen to embrace the church growth movement. But I also think it is possible for God to show them the error of their ways.
It doesn't take a precocious genius to realize that the language of the Bible simply doesn't square with the language of the church growth movement experts. It doesn't take an intellectual giant to realize that a "user-friendly church" is nothing more than the argumentum ad populum. This argument simply appeals to public opinion. God's Word will not change even if 100% of the people vote against Him. You don't have to be a scholar to realize that church growth movement churches keep their sermons brief and humorous. Anecdotal preaching reduces the sermon to a talk that ultimately entertains. You don't have to look very far to see the anti-intellectual agenda in the church growth movement.
The starting point for these discussions is the Puritan regulative principle. The Word of God must be the determining principle for any Christian belief system and the method that follows from that belief system. The church growth movement advocates must meet at the debate table willing to engage in fruitful discussion that will lead to reformation (discovery or rediscovery) of biblical truth.
The primary duty of converted souls is to offer to the God of our salvation God-centered worship. During the concourse of worship the law and the gospel goes forth and something happens when a soul hears the preaching of the Word of God (see 2 Corinthians 2:12-17). All the programs, all the man-centered ideas, all the managerial expertise, and all the psychological strategies will never change God's plan for planting churches. The glitter, gold, and glib tongue of the church growth movement may be the popular method to plant churches, but God's people, gracious patience, and genuine preaching is the God-centered way to plant churches.
Rev. Martin Murphy is the pastor or York Presbyterian Church (ARP), York, Alabama and is editor of Informed and Reformed.
By Martin Murphy
Pray for God to send men to the Academy. Do you know any young men who may be interested in preparing for the pastorate? Our Academy will allow men who do not have an undergraduate degree to work on their B.A. and study divinity at the same time. This model will allow the student to complete his undergraduate degree and at the same time accumulate credit in a divinity program through Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. We want God to send men our way who are not afraid of an academic challenge and want to prepare for ministry in the church rather than in a seminary classroom.
Pray for God to provide finances for the Academy. We have one student and provide living accommodations at no cost so he can devote his full time to academic and ministerial preparation. The students are expected to carry a full load at the university, study theology, and be active in the ministry of the local church. The financial burden surfaces in tuition needs and living expenses.
We ask you to pray and give toward the Academy project. If you would like to make a contribution please send it to: York Presbyterian Church, P. O. Box 696, York, AL, 36925 and earmark it "Academy Project."
By Rev. R. C. Sproul Jr.
I have a friend who plays the stockmarket. Not having the courage to do so myself I like to play armchair investor and talk with her about it. The extent of my wisdom isn't much because my counsel usually comes down to this simple maxim: "When everyone is selling, buy. When everyone is buying, sell." Of course the problem is knowing when everyone is doing what. And if she had followed my advice a few years ago and sold when everyone started buying, she would have missed quite a ride. There is wisdom in bucking conventional wisdom. What follows is an attempt to highlight how going against the flow rather than with it just may be the practical way to plant a church. I offer the counsel cautiously because I am no arm chair church planter, but one who is just beginning.
The church growth movement has done an outstanding job in capturing the right words. Everybody opposed to churches growing raise your hands. Anybody out there not want to attract unbelievers to the church of Christ? Is anybody seeking ways to grow the church impractically? The way the theory is couched just about guarantees its being accepted. The problem is the theory doesn't match the words.
Is the church growing because of the church growth movement? Yes and no. Individual churches are growing, but the church is standing still. Though church growth pundits desire to win the lost usually what happens is they lose the found. Church growth techniques create a giant game of evangelical musical chairs. It is like those rare days when the stock index remains level. Some stocks go up, others go down. It shows the economy isn't growing.
The only seekers we tend to draw with seeker sensitive services are believers seeking a different church. By presenting a God who wants us to look at ourselves, who doesn't judge and command, who has a wonderful set of insights on how to have a happy, healthy marriage we put God's imprimatur on narcisism. There's nothing evangelicals like more than to be told that God loves them just the way they are.
But why aren't the seekers coming? They like pop music, so we give them pop music. They like stories so we give them dramas. They like anonymity, so we let them have it. They like convenience, so we'll change their oil while they're here (this by the way is being done). The problem is that we can do none of these things as well as the world can. Why get up on a Sunday morning and drive somewhere to listen to pop music, when its as close as my stereo? Why settle for cheesy scripts and sets when the television does it so much better? Why spend an hour getting an oil change when the pros can do it in ten minutes?
Imagine every company on the stock exchange looking to the one company whose stock rose the highest in a given year deciding to do what they did. "Gee", thinks Ford, "Microsoft made a killing. Let's get out of the car business and make software." Or imagine PBS deciding to air nothing but sitcoms made up of sophisticated urban x-ers.
The problem with this practical approach, apart from being unbiblical, is that its just not practical. In fact these two problems, that it's unbiblical and impractical are really one problem. The church growth pundits counsel us to look to the experts for wisdom. They then provide mountains of demographic, sociological, marketing factoids. The experts are Madison Avenue pagans who may know a great deal about how to sell toothpaste, but know nothing about proclaiming the Good News. Are we left then to grope in the dark? If you can't trust sociologists and pollsters, who can you trust? God.
We have in the Bible an example of church growth which has never been paralleled. We have the first evangelistic sermon ever preached. And it is recorded for us by the Holy Spirit, without error. Consider how Peter practiced church growth. First the Spirit descended at Pentecost. Do you suppose the unbelievers there were comfortable, at ease, in this strange situation? Did Peter try to mold and control this work of the Spirit?
Peter instead pointed the crowd to the Old Testament, to the prophecy of Joel. He gave evidence that God was with them. And then he gave a sermon. Did he preach on how Jesus could help you with your finances? Did he announce a new series on how to raise you children's self-esteem? Peter's sermon went something like this: "You all remember Jesus, the one with the miracle that you saw, the one God had sent, the one you crucified." Wow. That was not very sensitive to the seekers.
Peter went on with more Old Testament evidence for Jesus. And then, perhaps for the sake of those seeker who arrived late to this service he concluded with the bombshell, "Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has mad Him both Lord and Christ-this Jesus whom you crucified"(Acts 2:36).
Peter would have found himself in hot water with the "experts." They would tell him that people come to church carrying guilt with them, adding to that guilt will only drive them away. But from a strictly practical point of view, if we want to be experimental about this we need to check the response. Luke tells us, "Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, 'Brethren, what shall we do?' " Peter answered, "Repent"
That, of course is not the message of choice among the experts. Perhaps they should seek healing for their wounded psyches. They needed affirmation after all. Peter instead pours on the guilt by telling the crowd, "Be saved from this perverse generation." Judgment, judgment. Hasn't Peter heard that Jesus told us not to judge? Doesn't he know judgment drives them away?
Luke then tells us that 3000 were saved.
The foolishness of the gospel routes the wisdom of the wise. Practically speaking the experts are failures. What they consider failure, on the other hand succeeds.
So what does this tell us about how to grow the church? It demonstrates that we're listening to the wrong experts. Even the pagans know it is wise to counter-program. When everyone is going one way, go the other way. You will stand out. You will be noticed. You will be effective. If there were such a thing as a "seeker", someone who is looking for something, they would certainly not be looking for more of the same, or a bad imitation of what he is fleeing. When the world gives us mindless drivel, then is the time to say of the church, "Come in here. You'll get none of the nonsense you're so tired of." When the world is happy and light, we need to be somber, serious. When the gods of this world are distant, spineless, voiceless, reflections of our baser selves, our duty is to present the on true God, transcendent and immanent, omnipotent and tender, the God who speaks with all authority and wisdom. And we need to reflect not the perverse generation form which we have been saved, but Him in whom we have been regenerated, Him whose image we are to be.
More importantly this reminds us whence comes true wisdom. Proverbs tells us "There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death (Proverbs 14:12). Ours is a God which confounds the wise, on who tells us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Practically, if we want to grow churches, we too must begin with the fear of God. If we want wisdom we need to turn in His Word which tells us, "But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all men generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him ( James 1:5).
R.C. Sproul jr. is an ordained minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. He is planting a church in the Bristol, Tennessee area in the Tennessee Alabama Presbytery. If you have friends or family in that area who may be interested in a Reformed and Presbyterian church, you may contact R.C. at (540) 475-6035.
Nineteenth Century Style*
Historians tell us that those who refuse to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. With this in mind, we must acknowledge that the current church growth movement is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, the modern phenomenon is the belated legacy of old traditions of compromise.
The Rev. Sheldon Jackson, then super hero -- now antihero, plays the main character in one of Presbyterianism's most interesting historical-theological dramas. A nineteenth century church planter on the American frontier, Jackson traveled widely in the American West, beginning in 1869 when he accompanied the Union Pacific track laying crew across Southern Wyoming.
He gained appointment by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) as superintendent of western missions. and so oversaw and coordinated the Presbyterian missionary effort. As the rail-building effort inched West, so did Jackson's string of newly established Presbyterian churches.
But the Rev. Jackson was a bundle of contradictions. On one hand his credentials were sterling. As a graduate of old Princeton Seminary, he had some "Old School" (i.e. the "TR's" of that century) tendencies to the degree that he declined to install former "New School" (i.e. that same century's "evangelical Presbyterians!) elders. But this organizational antipathy may now be seen as somewhat hypocritical. For Sheldon Jackson grasped methodologically precisely what he eschewed ecclesiastically. Jackson was a frontier model of his more sophisticated church-growth counterparts today. He subordinated theology to...growth. And in summing up his life, one would have to note a divine irony: for it would appear that God subordinated Jackson's growth to...His theology!
But first let us study Jackson's subordinating policies. Five identifiable strains can be described. Initially, we can see a spirit of independency. Jackson manifested impatience with the "red tape" of Presbyterian government, and did not wait for them to provide oversight and support. He maintained his own "war chest," called the Raven Fund (alluding to Elijah) to fund his works. And he was quite adept in his direct appeals to the women's missionary societies of his day. Ecclesiastical channels were bypassed, and somehow Jackson's "Old School" training missed the irony that some of his local mission became answerable to boards of women. A man of proverbial "itchy feet," Jackson's motto was to press West. He was a man of action!
Secondly, Jackson believed popularism provided the core to preaching Routine course at the organization of a new work was a sermon of Joshua 1:11, entitled "Possess the Land." In the best spirit of modern church growth thought, his sermons contained almost nothing of exegetical insight, or redemptive-historical development. But the were "tub-thumpers" for developing the new community's spirit. They earned Presbyterianism an immediate right to the life of a community.
Thirdly, there was a distinctive loss of covenant perspective. Early on Jackson committed himself to vogue "mission schooling" which would be the modern equivalent to public schooling. This was not the only alternative, for twenty-five years later the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) introduced the idea of Christian schools to New Mexico. Jackson was quite antagonistic to this idea. To Jackson's mind, covenant Christianity divided his prospective communities.
But, as we shall see, the orthodoxy of the CRC proved to have the truer temper and mettle. Following his errant convictions, Jackson forfeited the opportunity to teach covenant distinctives to his first generation converts. Such started fast but finished weak!
Fourthly, Jackson suffered from what we could call non-reformed apologetics. Instead of seeing the Christian life in a philosophically wholistic, reformed light, Jackson envisioned missionary outreach as split into two radically different functions: conversion and discipleship. First he would draw sinners into Protestant evangelicalism, and only when that was accomplished, into specifically Presbyterian doctrines. (Would not modern church growth think this positively inspired!)
Anecdotally, we see this divided theology worked out in Jackson's dismissal of a Rev. John A. Annin from the New Mexico field. This pastor was the first missionary to the Hispanics in the area. But his Calvinism was of too strong a strain. Annin had the gall to call for church discipline against sexual immorality within the first eight years of the life of the church as Las Vegas. This was precipitous! How could one build a church with such puritanical calls for holiness.
Fifthly, one can note Jackson's zeal for cooperation with the "New School" when it suited his first prerequisite -- church growth. Spanish Southern Colorado stood almost alone as a western mission work of this looser brand of Presbyterianism. Despite Jackson's rejection of the earlier elders, he hastened to add the Colorado "New School" works to his "parish." The ultimate cost came when he finally secured funding for a seminary in this region. It located in "New School" and had its curriculum supplied by "New School" Lane Seminary.
The Frontier Influence
The freedom of the frontier, like the wide open pluralism of the present, claimed other victims. Though the previous John Annin had some superior scruples to the man who recruited him, he was in want of many others -- namely, Presbyterian! For Annin was afflicted with a penchant for free masonry, precipitous ordinations of church officers, and decisionist revival service evangelism.
Annin was an ardent lodge member. He belonged to the lodge in the town of his previous pastorate in Minnesota, and arrived in Las Vegas with virtually two calls: one to start a church, and one to launch a Lodge! As his tutor Jackson had seen the public school, so Annin saw the Lodge -- as an ally of the church in promoting Christian values the church could then follow up.
Then too, because officers are in order for raising up of churches, one could not afford much dallying. Las Vegas church records show that Annin's record for examining prospective officers as spotty at best. That which was required back East somehow got overlooked out West. Besides, there were innovations to learn, like the holding of Arminian "revival services."
These measures were most "helpful" in getting ecclesiastical "things" going.
One could ask, "What were the lasting fruits of this kind of work?" Do they whether negative or positive, have anything to teach us today? In answer, we must say that they certainly started positively. In the twenty years between 1869-1890 the Presbyterian church in New Mexico flourished. It became the largest and politically most powerful Protestant church in the territory.
The experience of New Mexico is that when missions becomes divided into the "conversion now/discipleship later" model, the former may be attained with the illusion of success. But the latter is never attained, and the illusion is later exposed.
But there was a downside too. Spiritually, the work was weak. It was ignorant of covenant theology and saddled with masonry, revivalism, and prematurely ordained elders. An outside presbytery observer commented after one of the meetings that the Hispanic pastors, all products of Jackson and Annin, were caught up in concerns over smoking and drinking. In other words, they were much more sensitive to the frontier "evangelical" causes of the day than to the Calvinism of Old Princeton.
And while many, especially today, believe these latter tenets are perfectly expendable, the New Mexico field proved their worth! Doctrinal ignorance was preserved in this case until the third generation, until, as L. E. Buck stated, "Presbyterians proselytized the Roman Catholic Church; (and) Baptists proselytized the Presbyterian church!" The latter became a shell of a vital believing church. It had the form without the power thereof.
The conclusion seems to be that patience with respect to numbers proves to be a greater virtue than patience with respect to doctrinal discipleship; and that he serves best who says forthrightly what his King, Jesus Christ, requires him to say. The experience of New Mexico is that when missions becomes divided into the "conversion now/discipleship later" model, the former may be attained with the illusion of success. But the latter is never attained, and the illusion is later exposed.
Modern Sheldon Jacksons, ecclesiastical (church growth) phenoms, thought they may be, need to think on just this one thing. How does stubble do in a fire? In the apostle's words, this last factor is the one given in our future. And then everything will be exposed. For better...or worse! Is there not a loud exhortation here concerning tour modern mission methodologies? And may not modern Calvinism be turning to a mess of pottage at precisely that time when, if they stayed on course, the sovereign Lord would bless them?
*This article was originally published in Journey, March/April 1987.
Editor's note: The concepts used by the modern church growth movement are not new concepts. They are simply new names for the age old philosophy of homo mensura. The ancient philosopher, Protagoras, believed that "man was the measure of all things." It is true that man believes such a foolish philosophy, but the truth of Scripture reveals that man is the measure of a sinful creature absolute dependent on God for his mere existence. The simplest things are the most difficult to understand. Christians agree that God requires obedience. The dispute is over how God expects us to carry out his covenant promises. The church growth movement people emphasize homo mensura (man the measure) and de-emphasize Deus mensura (God the measure). What man says about worship is not important. What God says about worship is ultimately important. What man devises as a scheme for evangelism is not important. What evangelistic methods God requires of man is absolutely important. Look at the history of the church and the concepts used by the church growth movement will emerge under other names from time to time throughout the history of the church.
Language Used by Entrepreneurs in the Church Growth Movement
This is a workshop for potential church planters. Each participant is required to take a psychological test such as the NEO PI-R or some other heathen personality test. The contestant must meet some nebulous standard for leadership style, effectiveness, personality style and administrative ability. The attendants are placed in simulated ministry situations to see how well they perform. Some attendants are given the green light to plant churches. (With the blessing of the assessment center they are certain to succeed!?) Other attendants are told they are not qualified to plant churches! (Maybe they can attend another seminar to determine where God might be able to use them!?)
Market Driven Worship
The words "market driven" mean that like liberal politicians you survey the people, determine what the majority wants at that particular point and time in history. Since many new church plants will have unbelievers visiting from time to time, then it may be prudent to furnish liturgical tools that tend toward entertainment.
Pastor or church planter determines what the congregation feels like it needs. Sermons tend to be "how to" lessons on the pressing needs of the congregation.
Visioning faith and prayer is the single most important principle that a Christian leader can employ.*
We interviewed dozens of church planters and pastors to determine what common factors healthy growing churches share. "It is the personal vision of a pastor or church planter and his ability to communicate that vision that drives churches to growth."
We might define vision as "the ability to see things which are not." At least things which are not yet! As in the progression of Ephesians 3:20-21 the nature of "vision" progresses beyond our task, toward our ability to imagine what God is able to do with our lives and our churches. The question we must ask is not "How much is God able to do?" but rather "How much are we able to imagine?"
Vision has two interdependent components: faith and tenacity. If you are like most church-growth leaders you fervently believe in a God-given vision and you may experience some early blessings. You have no doubt that God heartily desires you to help establish a network of growing, reproducing churches.
Yet God may play hard to get. He may require that you tenaciously cling to your vision and wrestle with Him for His blessing. Perhaps the fulfillment of your vision is years down the road. Yet God is faithful to honor that tenacious visionizing faith of His elect.
Editors Note on the article: Visioning faith and prayer is the single most important principle that a Christian leader can employ.
The above article appeared in the first issue of Enabling which was a publication of the Church Planting Center in Orlando, Florida. The language in this article (common factors, vision that drives, how much we are able to imagine, establish a network, reproducing churches, cling to your vision) is nothing more than pagan managerialism expressed in religious jargon. This article was written in the Summer of 1991 and five years later we find the proponents of the ideas still alive and well. They are working with liberals and conservatives. They are in broad evangelical churches and Reformed churches. May God save us from the spirit of this age by His Word and Spirit.
Other missions in the Tennessee Alabama Presbytery:
Covenant Family Fellowship, Birmingham, Alabama - Contact
Rev. Kerry Ptacek at (205) 978-7627.
Ozark ARP Mision, Ozark, Alabama - Contact Rev. Martin Murphy at (205)392-9238.
For more information about other possible missions in the Tennessee Alabama Presbytery:
Nashville, Tennessee - Contact Rev. Charles Bradley at (615) 380-2291.
Tuscaloosa, Alabama - Contact Rev. Martin Murphy at (205) 392-9238.
Reprinted by permission of Informed and Reformed.