Subscribe now

Article

More in this category:

User-friendly churches

February 1995 | by John MacArthur

The experts are touting the concept of the ‘user-friendly church’. Borrowing a term from the high-tech industries, church specialists are advocating a new approach to church ministry. Church growth can be accelerated, they say, if pastors and church leaders will concentrate their energies on making the church as non-threatening as possible for the unchurched. Provide non-Christians with an agreeable, inoffensive environment. Give them freedom, tolerance, and anonymity. Always be positive and benevolent. If you must have a sermon, keep it brief and amusing. Don’t be preachy or authoritative. Above all, keep everyone entertained. Churches following this pattern will see numerical growth, we’re assured; those that ignore it are doomed to decline.

Do you see how that philosophy necessarily undermines sound doctrine? It discards Jesus’ own methods-preaching and teaching-as the primary means of ministry. It replaces them with methodologies utterly devoid of substance. It exists independently of any creed or canon. In fact, it eschews dogma or strong convictions as divisive, unbecoming, or inappropriate. It dismisses doctrine as academic, abstract, sterile, threatening, or simply impractical. Rather than teaching error or denying truth, it does something far more subtle, but just as effective from the enemy’s point of view. It jettisons content altogether. Instead of attacking orthodoxy head on, it gives lip service to the truth while quietly undermining the foundations of doctrine. Instead of exalting God, it denigrates the things that are precious to him. In that regard, pragmatism poses dangers more subtle than the liberalism that threatened the church in the first half of the century.

A major Christian magazine recently published an article by a well-known charismatic speaker. He mused for a full page about the futility of both preaching and listening to sermons that go beyond mere entertainment. His conclusion? People don’t remember what you say anyway, so most preaching is a waste of time. ‘I’m going to try to do better next year,’ he writes; ‘that means wasting less time listening to long sermons and spending more time preparing short ones. People, I’ve discovered, will forgive even poor theology as long as they get out before noon.’

That perfectly sums up the attitude that dominates much of modern ministry. It is sheer accommodation to a society addicted to entertainment. It follows what is fashionable but reveals little concern for what is true.

A recent best-selling Christian book warns readers to be on guard against preachers whose emphasis is on interpreting Scripture rather than applying it.

Wait a minute. Is that wise counsel? No, it is not. There is no danger of irrelevant doctrine; the real threat is an undoctrinal attempt at relevance. The nucleus of all that is truly practical is found in the teaching of Scripture. We don’t make the Bible relevant; it is inherently so, simply because it is God’s Word. And after all, how can anything God says be irrelevant (2 Timothy 3:16-17)?

The radical pragmatism of the ‘user-friendly’ school of thought robs the church of its prophetic role. It makes the church a populist organization, recruiting members by providing them a warm and friendly atmosphere in which to eat, drink, and be entertained. The church becomes more like a saloon than a house of worship.

That is no overstatement. One recent best-selling book advocating pragmatic church growth ideas included this suggestion: ‘Remember how the corner tavern used to be the place where the men of the neighbourhood would congregate to watch major sports events, like the World Series or championship boxing matches? While times have changed, that same concept can still be used to great impact by the church. Most churches have a large hall or auditorium which could be used for special gatherings built around major media events – sports, political debates, entertainment specials and the like.’

The entire scenario is built on a set of presuppositions that are patently unbiblical. The church is not a lodge recruiting members. It is not a pub for the neighbourhood. It is not a community centre where parties are held. It is not a country club for the masses. It is not a town hall meeting where the community’s problems are addressed. It is not a court to rectify society’s injustices. It is not an open forum, or apolitical convention, or even an evangelical rally.

The church is the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27), and church meetings are for corporate worship and instruction. The church’s only legitimate goal is ‘the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ’ (Ephesians 4:12) – not mere numerical expansion. The notion that church meetings should be used to tantalize or convert non-Christians is a relatively recent development. Nothing like it is found in Scripture; in fact, the apostle Paul spoke of unbelievers entering the assembly as an exceptional event (1 Corinthians 14:23). Hebrews 10:24-25 indicates that church services are for the benefit of believers, not unbelievers: ‘Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together.’

Acts 2:42 shows us the pattern the early church followed when they met: ‘They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.’ Note that the early church’s priorities clearly were to worship God and uplift the brethren. The church came together for worship and edification; it scattered to evangelize the world.

Our Lord commissioned his disciples for evangelism in this way: ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations’ (Matthew 28:19). Christ makes it clear that the church is not to wait for or invite the world to come to its meetings, but to go to the world. That is every “believer’s responsibility. I fear that an approach emphasizing a palatable gospel presentation within the walls of the church absolves the individual believer from his personal obligation to be a light in the world (Matthew 5: 16).

The preaching of God’s Word is to be central in the church (1 Corinthians 1:23, 9: 16; 2 Corinthians 4:5). ‘In season and out of season, ‘it is the task of God’s ministers to ‘reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction’ (2 timothy 4:2). The pastor who sets entertainment above forceful preaching abdicates the primary responsibility of an elder: ‘holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, that he may be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict’ (Titus 1:9).

I’ve often been curious about how advocates of user-friendly methodology deal with the account of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. They lied, so God struck them both dead in front of the entire Jerusalem church. Acts 5:11 says: ‘Great fear came upon the whole church, and upon all who heard of these things.’ It is hard to reconcile that with the concept of a user friendly church. Yet the early church continued to grow exponentially. Verse 14 goes on to say: ‘All the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women, were constantly added to their number.’

The church’s strategy has never been to appeal to the world on the world’s terms. Churches are not supposed to compete for the consumer on the same level as Heineken or Guinness. We cannot stimulate genuine growth by clever persuasion or inventive techniques. It is the Lord who adds to the church (Acts 2:47). Human methodologies cannot accelerate or supersede the divine process. Any additional growth they produce is a barren imitation.

Artificial or unnatural growth in the biological realm can cause disfigurement – or worse, cancer. Synthetic growth in the spiritual realm is every bit as unhealthy.