Beware Appearances (Part 1)

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….

Making Church Uncomfortable

I’ll just come right out and say it: I don’t think churches should be trying to make people comfortable.

It crossed my mind to end today’s entry right there, but I suppose I should explain. Attempts to make church more user-friendly or seeker-sensitive has been going on for quite a while, and has been getting considerable attention for more than a decade now. And despite the bestselling books and megachurches that would contradict me, I have long been of the conviction that if I can sit in church Sunday after Sunday and never feel uncomfortable then there is a serious problem. Specifically, either the church is not preaching the whole Word of God or I am not listening to what is being preached.

Why do I say that? Well, for one, the Bible makes it pretty clear that the cross and the message of the gospel are an offense to the world. Have you ever felt comfortable being offended? I didn’t think so. If the church is preaching the gospel message, sinners will be convicted, offended, and uncomfortable. Second, even believers continue to sin and to have areas of their lives where improvement and spiritual growth is needed, so even individuals who are no longer offended by the cross should feel conviction in church from time to time. Quite frankly, we shouldn’t be able to read the Bible without getting uncomfortable once in a while, so why should I expect to be able to sit in church and be comfy?

Now, there are arguments–many of them–in favor of reaching out to people. Jesus did not just sit in the temple and wait for people to come to Him; rather, He went out into the streets and villages and sought out those who needed to hear His message. We need to meet people where they are, right? Right. I agree. But that is an incomplete idea. Jesus did go find people where they were, but He showed them their need and He did not leave them there. There may well be times when churches as corporate bodies and believers as individuals need to go to the world, or design events to draw in the world, but those should be limited strategies designed to expose the unbelievers to the Truth. I simply cannot find evidence in Scripture for the notion that we should become more and more like the world in an effort to reach the world.

Yet, that is exactly what many churches are doing. There was an article on USATODAY.com yesterday called “Churches go less formal to make people comfortable.” Right off the bat the article quotes Ron Williams, pastor of Church at the GYM in Sanford, FL: he says the goal of their church is to “remove the ‘stained-glass barriers’ for people who might not be comfortable in traditional church settings. ‘I think all the trappings of traditional religion can make it difficult for people to start coming. You can invite someone, and they will say, “I don’t have any clothes to wear to church.”‘” There is some truth in that, and I firmly believe that no church should turn someone away or look down on someone for coming to church in attire that may not measure up to what others in the church usually wear. There is no room for that kind of judgmental attitude in the church. On the other hand, to intentionally dress in an overly casual manner just because (1) it makes you comfortable, or (2) you want to avoid making someone else feel uncomfortable is not appropriate. My personal conviction is that I go to the Lord’s house to worship Him, and He is worthy of my best, so I will dress accordingly. To me, to dress better for work or a family reunion that I will to go to church just doesn’t make sense. However, I have learned to respect others’ convictions on this, too, and since I cannot show you chapter and verse that “thou shalt wear thy Sunday best” every time you go to church I don’t make a big deal about it. But please keep in mind that while you might be uncomfortable coming to church in dress pants and a tie, I might be equally uncomfortable coming in jeans and a t-shirt!

The USA Today article goes on to discuss the number of churches popping up in “non-traditional spaces” around the U.S., such as “movie theaters, skating rinks, strip malls and old warehouses, among others.” I don’t have a big issue with where churches meet. I think what the church believes and preaches and does is far more important than where the church meets. So this is a non-issue to me.

But the article goes on to discuss a church called The Bridge in Flint, Michigan that is in a strip mall. The church’s latest example of “want[ing] to be relevant to people’s lives” was to open a tattoo parlor. It likely won’t surprise you to know that I think that goes too far. Regardless of whether or not you or I personally have tattoos and/or have strong opinions on the increasing popularity of them, there is no denying that tattoos have traditionally been associated predominantly with people and behaviors who are not consistent with a Christian message. Maybe the church’s tattoo parlor has a policy of only providing Christian or unoffensive tattoos, I don’t know, but I don’t think that’s the point. Why does the Church feel the need to take what the world has to offer and “Christianize it” in an effort to reach the world?

I think there is plenty of evidence to support my assertion that more often than not, when the world tries to get more of the world by becoming more like the world it is the world that gets more of the church. More often than not the message of the gospel is compromised and watered down so as not to be offensive. (We want people to be comfortable, remember?)

I believe that you will find the strongest believers and the most effective churches are ones that are easily and clearly differentiated from the world. (Of course, we will have to define what it means to be an effective church in order to have that discussion, but that will have to wait for another day). And I think you will find that, generally speaking, the world is looking for something that is genuine and real, not something that has to disguise itself or adopt worldly methods in order to attract people.

So, think what you want, but my original statement stands–I don’t think churches should be trying to make people comfortable.