The 2014 issue of Tabletalk from Ligonier Ministries contains an article by John MacArthur entitled “Appearance Is Everything?” MacArthur begins the article recounting a letter received by his ministry from an advertising agency that contained this message: “Let’s face it: appearance is everything. Let us help you enhance your image.” Initially MacArthur thought that the agency must not have realized it was writing to a Christian ministry. After further reflection, though, MacArthur came to this conclusion: “that is precisely the impression many unbelievers get from the state of evangelical Christianity today: appearance is everything.Truth and reality often take a back seat to image.”
That is a sobering thought. When I read it reminded me of something else I read a couple of months ago, so I dug it out. The December 14, 2013 issue of WORLD contains an article by Sophia Lee on the television show The Preachers of L.A. I have never seen the show, but Lee describes it as a reality show on the Oxygen network starring six mega-pastors. According to Lee’s review, “They claim to live for God, His people, and His kingdom. But halfway into an episode, it becomes clear that they are the gods–though they sure do love the people for their adoration, and they’ve built a nice earthly kingdom for themselves.”
MacArthur’s article is not about super-rich pastors of mega churches and I do not intend to turn this post into that, either. Indeed, MacArthur’s focus is more on the appearances Christians tend to present individually in their day-to-day activities. Lee’s article is about the appearance presented by individual mega church pastors but also about the appearance presented by mega churches and parachurch ministries. I would like to address Lee’s point first and MacArthur’s second.
Later in her article Lee mentions three former pastors who now “own a consulting company, called Church Hoppers, which helps struggling churches balance three components: business, marketing and systems.” Interesting, is is not, that the three-fold purpose of this church consulting group includes nothing about biblical principles, sound doctrine or theology. In fact, Lee proceeded to ask one of the partners of Church Hoppers about what they do if the church they are consulting with has a problem that is theological. “We’re not going to go in and try to change their theology,” Lee quoted Jerry Bentley saying. “I think churches are there in the community to meet the community’s needs.” Lee elaborated by explaining that Church Hoppers exists to “help churches give ‘customers’ what they want.”
First of all, there is a real problem when “customers” is the word used to refer to or think of individuals attending church or considering attending a church. This mentality is what led to much of the error of the seeker-friendly movement. This mentality is what leads many churches to put food courts and bookstores and other “amenities” within the confines of the church. Food courts and bookstores and playgrounds and coffee shops are not wrong in and of themselves, I might add, but the motivation for including them must be questioned. Churches need to plan and design their ministries first and foremost based on what people need, not what they want. After all, what people need and what people want are polar opposites if you believe in the total depravity of man. In their sin nature no one wants to hear sermons about sin or hell or the need for a Savior. That is exactly what sinners need, though.
I feel quite certain that the Apostle Paul would have run the other way had anyone suggested to him that he should consider improving his image, that he should carefully consider what the “customers” were looking for. Paul, after all, received the message loud and clear, on numerous occasions, that what he was offering was not what very many people wanted. He never wavered in his mission, though, because he was all about pleasing God not pleasing people. He was so committed to that mission that after being stoned and left for dead he got up and walked back into the town! I rather doubt market analysts would recommend that response.
Church Hoppers focuses on “business, marketing and systems.” I would suggest that churches focus instead on the Basic Message of Salvation. When churches remain faithful to the Word of God they will have effective ministries and their church will grow. The church may not grow in attendance, in offering, in building size or in publicity, but those are not the measures of an effective church. Therein, of course, lies no small part of the image problem–image isn’t really worth much. After all, some of the largest, richest, flashiest and most well-known “Christian” ministries are teaching things and promoting things that are contrary to the Word of God (and not teaching things that are in the Word of God, I might add).
I should state that I am not anti-image. In fact, appearance does matter, I think. I believe that churches and Christian ministries should be good stewards of what the Lord has entrusted them with, and that includes presenting and maintaining a clean, well-cared for and pleasing physical plant, regardless of whether it is new or old, big or small, expensive or cheap. So do not read this to indicate that I oppose nice buildings, comfortable seats, attractive decor or well-manicured lawns. I do not…not by a long shot. Quite the contrary, in fact, I think that Christian ministries should present very impressive appearances if by “impressive” you mean worthy of respect. But the impressive appearance should come as a result of doing all things to the glory of God, not as a result of bringing glory to ones self or ones ministry. When that becomes the motivation the impressive appearance becomes an idol.
Let us remember the old adage that appearances may be deceiving, and appearances must not be where our focus lies.
Next time I will address the appearances MacArthur writes about, the appearances on the individual level….