This is part five of a seven-part series called Seven Plagues of the Evangelical American Church where I am identifying certain church trends that are causing unhealthy situations in the church. You can read part one here.
The Situation: Anything Short of Sin
Southern Baptist churches have a recent, 20th century tradition of being “numbers-driven.” While in seminary, I remember learning about the three Bs: budgets, buildings, and bottoms in the pew. For many years, church success was tracked by whether or not a congregation was growing in these three areas. Is the church budget increasing every year? That is a sign of success. Is the church building more facilities? This, too, is a sign of success. Finally, are there more bottoms in the pews this week this year than this week last year? If these three scorecards are increasing, then that church must be a success.
In the early 2000s this way of looking at church success seemed to be dwindling. There was a new way of “doing church” that was getting pastors’ attention and it was called the emerging church. This “emerging” way of doing things was hard to define and had some very troubling theological beliefs bound in it; however, pastors and thinkers in the movement rightly identified the suburban megachurch growth pattern of doing things was not very authentic and seemed insincere and may not necessarily tell the full story of success.
Therefore, while the emerging church movement had some major theological issues, the pushback on churches being “numbers-driven” was somewhat refreshing.
Then, Rob Bell (a leading pastor in the emerging church, who, ironically enough, pastored a church that was growing in the three Bs) wrote a book on Hell that essentially said, “No one is going there.” He later resigned from pastoring and the emerging church movement simultaneously sort of faded away.
What the emerging church left was a void. Many young pastors looked to these emerging leaders for insight and leadership. The emerging churches were “different” kinds of churches. This void has been filled by young, hip churches that play really loud music and unapologetically defend the authority of Scripture (something that the emerging church didn’t do). Somehow (and I’m still trying to figure this out) the idea of authenticity went by the wayside, and these “new” churches all started to look the same: cool-looking pastor, really loud music, sermon series with titles that were meant to be provocative and an unhealthy obsession with numbers.
In the church growth days of the late 20th century, there was an obsession with numbers. However, rarely was this obsession publicly acknowledged and celebrated. The new church alternative (I still can’t find a name for it) is unapologetically obsessed with numbers. It would not be unusual for the pastors of these churches to say something like, “We will do everything short of sin to reach people in this town,” or “Numbers matter and we will do everything we can to increase numbers.” This attitude is sort of a pushback to the pushback on numbers-driven churches. Therefore, these newer churches have essentially doubled-down on their criticism and have owned it. And they are committed to doing anything short of sin to reach people. But what they’ve really done is just repackage late 20th century numbers-driven churches with really loud music and a club-like atmosphere.
The Problem: Nowhere in Scripture are God’s people commanded or encouraged to partake in any activity where we dance on the edge of sin without falling off. In fact, we are encouraged to do the exact opposite. Ephesians 5 is a long passage of scripture that instructs God’s people to avoid any appearance of sin.
“But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them. For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light.” (Eph. 5:3-13)
Therefore, if this is the command for believers, how can we adopt a “get as close as you can without getting burned” numbers-driven philosophy and use that as a methodology for reaching people? Doing whatever we can without sinning is just not a healthy way of living. Scripture says that we are to flee sin and not come anywhere close to it.
The Prescription: The prescription for this idea is very simple:
“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.” (1 Corinthians 10:31-33)
Paul’s evangelistic method is the exact opposite of “nothing short of sin.” Paul states that he tries to please everyone in all that he does to save the many. He doesn’t intentionally use anti-authoritarian or provocative language. He does the opposite. He goes to great lengths to not offend anyone. And in so doing, he asks, “Is this glorifying God?”
I would plead to pastors and church leaders to not think of reaching people in this way of “whatever it takes short of sin.” Would we encourage our church members to live their lives like that? No, we would tell them to seek to glorify God in all that they do. Therefore, as we week to make disciples, we too should seek to glorify God in our methodologies.
Paul concludes in Ephesians 5:15-17: “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.” Pastors, don’t be fools. Be wise. Your actions may have eternal consequences.