Monday, December 27, 2010

This Little Church Went to Market

In the late 70's a ground-breaking cultural movement was recognized, commonly called Postmodernism.  This movement is a challenge to rational thought, so much so that classical liberal theologians, asserting that most of the Bible is not factually true, have no more cultural support than Bible-believing Christians.  The "Jesus Seminar" is the final bloom of liberal theologians attempting a last hurrah.  In Postmodern thought there is no universal truth to be established; everyone has total freedom to create his or her own truth.  Postmoderns are driven by the heart rather than the head.  Current pop-spirituality reflects this in its focus on feeling, the inner life, and promotion of spiritual pluralism.  Consequently, evangelicals do not have the same need, as previously, to think through their apologetics.  In fact there is a truth "vacuum" which frees the church to present an audience-driven, user-friendly gospel in order to compete with the new smorgasbord of spiritualities.  There is no longer a compelling need for evangelicals to express their faith in clear and logical propositions.
This Little Church Went to Market

by Gary E. Gilley

... [Evangelicals] having watched a large segment of the church become content with short yardage and lousy scores, ... decided that there had to be a better way. The church was not penetrating society; she was not pulling in the masses; she was not making a significant impact for the gospel. It was not that the church leaders didn't care, it was, it seemed, that they lacked the "know how," the tools, to effect change. The gospel was still the "power of God for salvation" (Romans 1:16), but it was being rejected out-of-hand by too many. What was needed, apparently, were new methods to reach the lost, new techniques to promote the church, new packages for the gospel message. People, we were told, were not rejecting the gospel or Christ; they were rejecting our out-of-date, unappetizing form, philosophies, and methods...

... We will focus on the two flagship churches: Saddleback Valley Community Church in Orange County, California, and Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago. These churches serve as the models that are reshaping the way we "do church" today. As a matter of fact, many refer to these churches and their clones as "new paradigm churches." Churches all over the world ... are imitating the many methods promoted by Saddleback and the "Creekers." Others have written about church growth, but these two churches have made it work, and for their success they are idolized and adored by the modem evangelical community...

An interesting article, just the type that shapes the new paradigm system, is found in American Demographics (American Demographics, April 1999, "Choosing My Religion," pp. 60-65, by Richard Cimino and Don Lattin) ... According to this article people today claim they are:

"...into spirituality, not religion... Behind this shift is the search for an experiential faith, a religion of the heart, not the head. It's a religious expression that downplays doctrine and dogma, and revels in direct experience of the divine - whether it's called die "Holy Spirit" or "cosmic consciousness" or the "true self." It is practical and personal, more about stress reduction dw salvation, more therapeutic than theological. It's about feeling, on being good. It's as much about the body as the soul... Some marketing gurus have begun calling it "the experience industry". (Ibid., p 62).

But is a market-driven church so bad? After all, a lot of people seem to be getting saved and they're really "packing 'em in." Rick Warren puts a positive spin on new paradigm philosophy in his very popular book The Purpose Driven Church ... Many of Warren's suggestions are excellent. Churches should pay attention to cleanliness and attractiveness, where people are going to park ... We should strive for excellence and do the best to communicate God's truth. And we should want to grow - in the right ways. Warren states, "Every church needs to grow warmer through fellowship, deeper through discipleship, stronger through worship, broader through ministry, and larger through evangelism." (The Purpose Driven Church, Rick Warren, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, p. 48)

Who could argue with that? And who would debate the need for churches to know why they exist (their purpose), channeling their energies in that direction rather than wandering aimlessly as many do? And what about evangelism? Warren and the new paradigm churches are geared to reaching the lost. While many churches are wasting precious energy fussing over the color of the drapes in the foyer, the Saddlebacks and Willow Creeks are focusing their attention on bringing unchurched Harry and Saddleback Sam to Christ. You can't help admire that kind of emphasis ... Perhaps no single source carries as much weight in the "seeker sensitive" church as George Barna and his Barna Research Group. Barna, the church counterpart to George Gallup, has ignited a number of fires in Christian circles with his books such as The Frog in the Kettle and Marketing the Church. In his more recent book Church Marketing, Breaking Ground for the Harvest, Barna declares that he and his types have won the ideological battle over the issue of marketing the church (p. 13, 14). That is, only a few old-fashioned stick-in-the-muds still question the validity of the market-driven strategy ... Barna assures us that churches sell (or market) their product the same way Wal-Mart sells shoes and Sears sells tools. But what is the church's product? What are we trying to peddle to consumers? This has to be thought through carefully, for unlike shoes and tools that have great attraction for some consumers, the gospel is repulsive, foolishness to the unsaved (I Cor. 1: 18-23). How do we market such a product? By changing the package. Note the subtle bait and switch in Barna's philosophy. Ministry, in essence, has the same objective as marketing - to meet people's needs. Christian ministry, by definition, meets people's real needs by providing them with biblical solutions to their life circumstances (p 21).

By repackaging ministry ... Barna has made it attractive. If we can convince people that Christ died to meet their need, they will line up at our doors to buy our product. But is this the Gospel message? Has Barna merely repackaged ... the Gospel product, or has he gutted it of its purpose and value? An important question upon which so much hinges...

The standard rhetoric coming from new paradigm churches is that they teach the same message, the same gospel, as the more traditional evangelical churches; that they differ only in methodology and philosophy of ministry. Lee Strobel (former Teaching Pastor at Willow Creek Community Church) writes, "Objections [to the market-driven church] generally relate to the method that's used to communicate the Gospel, not the message itself and consequently we're free to use the God-given creativity to present Christ's message in new ways that our target audience will connect with" (Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary, by Lee Stroebel, p. 168). This is simply not the case. While some methods may disturb us it is their message that is of real concern. ... Barna defines marketing as "a broad term that encompasses all the activities that lead to an exchange of equally valued goods between consenting parties."...Is the gospel marketable by this definition? Is the gospel the "exchange of equally valued goods between consenting parties" Let's see. The Gospel is offered by grace (undeserved favor) and received by faith. In the exchange God gets us, we get Him (equally valued goods?). In the exchange we receive the righteousness of Christ, He takes our sins upon Himself (equally valued goods?). The market process breaks down in its very definition when the "product" is Christ... The Gospel is not bringing people to Christ in order to meet their felt-needs. According to Scripture the gospel is the good news that lost sinners can be forgiven of their sins and receive the righteousness of Christ in exchange. This is the real need of humanity, the need for which Christ died... The gospel message in a nutshell is this: Harry (to use Willow Creek's name for the unsaved) is a sinner, in full-blown rebellion against God (Rom. 3:23; 5:1-12). While some Harrys are outwardly religious and some even desire the gifts and benefits that God can supply, no Harrys truly seek after God or desire Him (Rom. 3:10-18). As a result of Harry's sinfulness he is under the wrath of God (Rom. 1: 18), faces future judgment (Heb. 9:27), will die both physically and spiritually (Rom. 6:23) and will spend eternity in hell (Rev. 20:11-15)...

The new paradigm church operates under the credo that Harry is "hostile to the church, friendly to Jesus Christ" (ibid. p. 47) ... Now we know that Harry is not motivated by the commands of God, nor is he all that interested in truth, [so] we can abandon the direct approach. And since he is looking for something that will help him reach his goals in life and feel good in the process, we are ready to package the gospel to draw his attention. The new paradigm church does this by focusing on the gospel of felt need. "The Church's problem today is simply that it does not believe that without tinkering, the Gospel will be all that interesting to modern people" (Losing Our Virtue, by David Wells, p. 207). And tinker it must... The new paradigm church is offering a purely Americanized, yuppie brand of Christianity found nowhere in the NT...

G.A. Pritchard, after spending a year (onsite) studying the ministry at Willow Creek, eventually came to the conclusion that "Hybels believes that Harry's most important concern is for his personal fulfillment"...Hybels teaches that Christianity will satisfy Harry's felt need and provide him fulfillment ... Hybels and the other speakers do not condemn the search for fulfillment. Rather they argue that Harry has not searched in the right place. (Willow Creek Seeker Services, p. 254-256). Pritchard's analysis is on the money:

"Is Willow Creek correct in their teaching that a relationship with Christ will provide a life of fulfillment? In a word, no. ... Personal fulfillment is the dominant goal of the vast majority of Americans. In this context it is a great temptation for American evangelicals to argue that Christianity is a means of a more fulfilling life. ... the Church becomes another place that promises to satisfy emotional desires.... To argue for Christianity primarily by pointing to its usefulness in satisfying felt needs is to ultimately undercut it. To teach Christianity as a means eventually teaches that it is superfluous. If someone is able to satisfy their felt needs without Christ, the message of Christianity can be discarded. ... The bottom line why individuals should repent and worship God is because God deserves it. Fulfillment theology does not reflect the teaching of the Bible. We find in Scripture vast evidence that Christianity is often not 'fulfilling, " Jesus promises his disciples that "in this world you will have trouble....... The Lord did not promise fulfillment, or even relief, in this world but only in the next... (Pritchart, p. 254-256),

In response to those who object to the new gospel, Stroebel counters that "these objections generally relate to the method that's used to communicate the Gospel, not the message itself, and consequently we're free to use our God-given creativity to present Christ's message in new ways that our target audience will connect with" (Stroebel, p. 168). This is simply not the case. While some of the methods way disturb us, it is their message that is of real concern. The new paradigm church would loudly proclaim that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. But they have redefined salvation. Salvation is not simply, under the new gospel, the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of righteousness. It is not a deliverance from the wrath of God upon a deserving and rebellious people. The new gospel is liberation from low self-esteem, a freedom from emptiness and loneliness, a means of fulfillment and excitement, a way to receive your heart's desire, a means to meeting your needs. The old gospel was about God; the new gospel is about us. The old gospel was about sin; the new gospel is about needs. The old gospel was about our need for righteousness; the new gospel is about our need of fulfillment. The old gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing; the new gospel is attractive... We are forced to ask, with Peter Jennings in the thought-provoking video, In the Name of God, "As these churches try to attract sell-out crowds, are they in danger of selling out the gospel?"

The above article consists of excerpted sections from a four-part article at

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