Something is happening in evangelical circles. There’s been a subtle shift; a movement with no name and no leader, but spreading like the mists that roll in from the sea — swift, silent and chilling.
It’s hard to put your finger on it, but it shows itself in a plethora of ways — the psychedelic brochure inviting me to a conference for ‘Worship leaders’; the email advertising a tour of famous Christian musicians; the advertisement for a youth event that looks more like a pop concert than a Christian gathering; a conversation with a Christian enthusiastic about an approaching conference and those leading its ‘worship’, but no idea who will be preaching.
It used to be preaching that drew a crowd of evangelical Christians. It was the preacher who was anticipated and his sermons talked about. Now it’s the music that attracts, the ‘worship leader’ who has prominence, and the ‘awesome worship’ that is spoken of afterwards.
Uninvited to the ball
Preaching has become the evangelical Cinderella — uninvited to the ball. The pragmatist will see no problem here, ‘What does it matter, as long as people are crowding in to Christian events?’
The moderniser sees it as something to celebrate: ‘We’re moving with the times. Preaching has had its day; it’s time to find a new vehicle to carry the gospel to the world’. The pessimist surrenders, ‘If we don’t use music no one will come’; while the optimist hopes, ‘If they come for the music, then later we can give them the gospel’.
But there are things that should give us real concern. First, where is the biblical justification for holding Christian events centred on music?
Where has the idea come from of an office in the church called ‘Worship leader’? What is the biblical basis for promoting the gospel through music and singing?
The questions seem to answer themselves — there is no biblical basis for any of this. But even more worrying is that no one seems to care; the questions aren’t even asked! It leaves a rising suspicion that many evangelicals aren’t actually too bothered what the Bible teaches.
However, the apostolic practice was to preach the gospel. Peter did not sing the gospel to the crowds at Pentecost when 3000 souls were added to the church in one day. Paul did not hold ‘worship events’ when he was used by God to plant churches all over the Roman empire.
It was preachers who ‘turned the world upside down’, for ‘it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe’ (1 Corinthians 1:21).
Have we lost confidence in the God-appointed means? Does preaching now need to be propped up with an entertainment crutch? If preaching seems ‘foolish’ now, it was no different in the apostolic era!
One gets the feeling that many Christians have been duped into thinking that the more people who come and the more noise they make, the more successful an event has been.
This may seem cynical, but it is deeply troubling to see the carnal hype that so often accompanies promotional material for Christian ‘events’. Can we imagine the apostle Paul, on arriving in Corinth, putting up posters promoting a ‘truly awesome worship occasion’?
Paul tells us how he approached that pagan city: ‘My speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human reason, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power’ (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).
His confidence was not in human methods, but in the power of the Spirit. He deliberately refused to use manipulative techniques — in his day, clever oratory.
What is needed is not man-generated hype, but the genuine power of the Spirit of God working through the preaching of the Word of God. To what was Paul referring when he said that he had ‘renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness, nor adulterating the word of God’ (2 Corinthians 4:2)?
There has always been the temptation to resort to human methods and tactics in the face of the world’s unbelief. To rely on music to do the work of the Spirit is both foolish and deceitful.
‘But people have been saved at these events!’ Yes, and God saved the sailors on Jonah’s boat, but that was no justification for Jonah’s disobedience.
One of the most troubling aspects in all of this is the shallowness that is being exposed in so much of evangelical Christianity. This shallowness is seen in at least two ways. First, there is a lack of hunger for the Word of God. It seems almost impossible to excite even Christians to attend a meeting where preaching the Word of God is the focus.
How often the numbers attending some special meeting such as a church anniversary or preaching rally on a Saturday afternoon have disappointed us.
Those who are there tend to be the old-faithfuls; sadly, the young people are often conspicuous by their absence. Where is the hunger for the deep things of God? Are evangelical Christians more interested in the trivialities of a football match than hearing the ‘unsearchable riches of Christ’? Woe to us!
There was a time when Christian young people would flock to hear well known preachers, and student Christian Unions gathered to hear the Word of God expounded. Now there is little appetite for this, but a boundless capacity for the latest innovations in music and song.
Second, this shallowness is seen in the banal and spiritually vacuous nature of the events that draw huge crowds of Christians. Videos are posted on the Internet of a semi-darkened hall where all the attention is on the floodlit stage and there are crowds of young and old, arms raised, swaying trance-like to the music.
No, it is not a heathen night club, but a ‘Christian concert’! How does this fit with the challenge of the New Testament, ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God’ (Romans 12:2)?
We have no doubt that those attending will believe they have had a ‘wonderful experience’, but have they been gripped by the power of truth, or was it just an emotional catharsis?
Damage being done
When feeling is dislocated from truth, we are in serious danger. The evangelical church has been softened up and is now a sitting duck for the next onslaught of half-truths and heresies.
Pandering to the tastes of the world has never been the way for the church to advance. It is when the church has been most different to the world that it has had the most influence on the world.
If those who promote these music events believe they are advancing the kingdom of God, then someone needs to tell them the truth — they are in fact doing damage!
With a look of shock and hurt they may ask, ‘How can that be?’ The answer is, ‘In a whole host of ways: by distracting the church from its real task of preaching the gospel; by drawing resources away from this task; by cultivating self-indulgence in Christian young people; by trying to advance the kingdom with deceitful methods; by introducing worldly and fleshly practices to the church’.
At a time when the world around us is ‘drunk’ on its pleasures, including the idolising of music and musicians, it is all the more necessary that the church is a counterbalance to this.
What is needed at this time are Christians who are clearly unimpressed with the pleasures of this world, and show it by living lives that are Word-governed and heaven-orientated.
Such lives will be characterised by an insatiable appetite for the Word of God; by soberness, seriousness and sacrificial service; by a prayerful conviction that only the power of the Spirit of God can advance the kingdom of God; and by a burning passion that souls should be saved from eternal ruin and brought into the liberty of the sons of God, to the glory of God’s grace.
If we claim to be evangelical Christians, then let us be willing to put ourselves and our pleasures under the spotlight of the Word of God. Let us take seriously the principle of sola scriptura.
For too long now, ‘Cinderella’ has been uninvited or undervalued at our big events. We need to wake up to the overlooked beauty and power of the preaching of the Word of God. May it please God to create the hunger for and lift the famine of the Word of God, and restore the church from its emaciated condition!