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Seminar 3 - Phil Johnson - The Fad Driven Church

This seminar deals with the tendency of so many churches today to be driven by fads and pre-packaged programs to influence the agenda of the church. Phil will attempt to show why this is a really bad strategy.

There are many pastors and leaders who feel that, to be convincing to their audience, they need to keep abreast of what happens to be the latest craze. There are many web sites that package sermons around whatever is popular in our culture. Christianity Today maintains one of these sites where you can buy dozens of Bible studies that will help you understand the plots and themes in popular movies, including ones that are patently unbiblical and blasphemous. Fads like this are accepted almost without question. Many pastors have bought the lie that not adapting church to popular culture will make a church irrelevant. This is the very thing Paul warned Timothy (2 Timothy 4:3-4). This is what apostasy looks like and it is being actively peddled by supposed Evangelicals.

“Much or most of the contemporary church is already utterly apostate by any biblical standard.” By Phil’s assessment, the Evangelical movement is not really Evangelical at all anymore. Many fundamental doctrines have been attacked by Evangelical authors and leaders who are still considered Evangelical. “Billy Graham, for example, has repeatedly made statements that undermine the clarity of the gospel and question the exclusivity of Christ.” Billy Graham has been making statements like this for almost thirty years and is doing so in increasing frequency and increasingly blatantly. The evangelical movement has been on a long slide so that today even a man like T.D. Jakes, who denies the doctrine of the Trinity, can be considered one of the most influential Christians in America. While he may be influential, he is not an Evangelical, for by the definition of the word, one cannot be both Evangelical and anti-Trinitarian.

Christianity Today is now fifty years old. It was supposed to be a voice for Evangelicals that affirmed Evangelical theology. CT has become a forum for nearly every major theological aberration. The main contribution to the Evangelical movement has been to move the borders of the movement continually outward. Historic Evangelicalism no longer really exists in America as a cohesive, Evangelical movement. If you are consistently and faithfully Evangelical, you are now outside the mainstream of the movement that has co-opted that name. The visible church of Christ is in more serious need of revival and Reformation than the Church of Rome was when Martin Luther nailed his Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church.

As Christians we can affirm that, despite this, God’s purposes are being fulfilled. While what is happening today is as disturbing as was the situation in Martin Luther’s day, we simply are not getting as agitated about it. We have people worse than Tetzel on the airwaves every day, peddling miracles for money. We are heading towards a biblical ignorance that is as serious and widespread as during the medieval times. Evangelical seminaries are downplaying doctrine and biblical studies in favor of business, branding and management courses. Men like Barna are telling us that it is the audience rather than the message that is sovereign and this philosophy has influenced untold numbers of authors and pastors since then who have adapted their message to the desires of the listener.

Evangelicalism was once almost unknown, but recently has ballooned in numbers, influence and visibility so much so that even Time Magazine has given a cover to this movement. But the list of pastors who make their list shows that Evangelicalism is in big trouble, for even thirty years ago not one of these people would have been considered Evangelical.

So what changed?

The word “Evangelical” has lost its historic meaning and now means nothing. It has systematically rendered itself useless for the advance of Evangelical truth. Time showed that Evangelicalism is having its greatest influence not in theology or culture but in politics. It is now little more than a political lobby and its representatives represent a wide variety of theological beliefs that deny non-negotiable biblical truths. None of the people on the list would agree on any distinctive points of doctrine - not even the simple points of the gospel message. But what they would agree on would be that they’d like to see Evangelicalism become as broad as possible. There is another common trait shared by the people on Time’s list: they are the fad-makers. Among these are Rick Warren, Tim Lahaye, J.I. Packer, Richard Neuhaus, and so on.

What is it that makes these trends and programs “fads?” None of them have anything to do with the theological distinctives of Evangelicalism. All of these fads have this in common: Not one program existed thirty-five years ago or would even have been dreamed of. None is likely to last another generation.

Why is it that Evangelicals are so susceptible to these fads? What is it that makes pastors and leaders just wait to catch on to the next big thing? (Phil gave us an aside in which he showed that publishing has become “big business” and this has helped the slide away from hard, Evangelical truths). Phil noted that the latest, greatest fad always manages to draw more people than the previous fad and this shows the power and lure of the fad mentality. It doesn’t matter how big or unbiblical or irrational it is - people will line up to be part of it.

Promise Keepers was a recent fad that swept Evangelicalism. That was followed by What Would Jesus Do and Jabez and Left Behind. Publishers were suddenly raking in billions of dollars from these fads. The fads were suddenly bigger but cheaper than ever and were having ever-shorter shelf lives. The Passion of the Christ made a huge splash but petered out before the DVD even hit the shelves. The Purpose Driven Life is the latest and greatest and has become one of the best-selling books of all time. Beyond the success of the book are shelves full of associated merchandise. Every publisher in the world will spend the next five years trying to replicate this and this will guarantee many new fads.

Phil turned to The Purpose Driven Life and asked if there is anything in it to make it deserving of being the best-selling Evangelical book of all time. The truth is, there really isn’t. The extraordinary success of the book owes primarily to clever marketing. It hit the shelves at the very moment that the Evangelical culture was right for fads and stampedes. And this is the current atmosphere of Evangelicalism. The next big fad is already here: it is the Emerging church.

What is scary is that professing Christians are becoming less and less discerning and less concerned with the danger of jumping on the next bandwagon. “We have to rescue Evangelicalism from the Evangelical movement.” A new generation of pastors needs to rise up who will preach the gospel and say “no” to these fads that continue to come along, for Scripture is better than any fad. Preaching the gospel is better than any method the marketers have ever invented.

Phil turned to Hebrews 4:12 and reminded us of the power of Scripture. It is a rich text full of meaning and significance. Three main qualities of the Word of God as highlighted in this text:

The Word of God is powerful and alive: That speaks of life, vitality, energy. It has the power to impart life to those who are spiritually dead. It has power that is unique to the Scripture. Nothing can take the place of the Bible for it imparts life to the spiritually dead. We don’t have to make the Bible come alive, for it is, by its very nature, both alive and relevant!

The Word of God is penetrating: This is portrayed vividly by the author of Hebrews. The Word of God is like a pointed, two-edged sword that cuts no matter which way you swing it or thrust it. In the hands of an amateur it will still work. There is nothing so hard that it cannot penetrate. No human interest or worldly technique is more effective than the Word of God to penetrate the human heart.

The Word of God is precise: The sword pierces with surgical precision. It cuts with painstaking accuracy and cuts what otherwise cannot be divided.

We ought to make better use of the Word of God in our ministry and we must ignore all of these Evangelical fads that come and go. We are called to do this as leaders and pastors. Only the Word of God has the power, penetration and precision necessary to change lives.