Today’s church killers are not that different from years ago. I recently came across a powerful quote from an 18th-century English pastor named Job Orton. Ironically, he wrote to the ministers of his day about doctrinal compromise. The struggles of churches nearly 300 years ago are the struggles of churches today. Read what he says:
“I have long since found (and every year that I live increases my conviction of it), that when ministers entertain their people with lively and pretty things, confine themselves to general harangues, insist principally on moral duties, without enforcing them warmly and affectionately by evangelical motives; while they neglect the peculiars of the gospel, never or seldom display the grace of God, and the love of Christ in our redemption; the necessity of regeneration and sanctification by a constant dependence on the Holy Spirit of God for assistance and strength in the duties of the Christian life, their congregations are in a wretched state; some are dwindling to nothing, as is the case with several in this neighbourhood, where there are now not as many scores as there were hundreds in their meeting-places, fifty years ago. … There is a fatal deadness spread over the congregation. They run in ‘the course of this world,’ follow every fashionable folly, and family and personal godliness seems in general to be lost among them. There is scarcely any appearance of life and zeal.”
Church Killers That’ve Stood the Test of Time…Unfortunately
It seems that Satan was neutralizing local churches 300 years ago in the same way he is today. Notice the ways churches decline, according to Orton:
1. Create an Entertainment-Driven Ministry—Orton writes “when ministers entertain their people with lively and pretty things.” I’ve seen two extremes in entertainment-driven ministry. Both are simply different manifestations of the same false assumptions and bad values.
The first bad model I saw was a contest-driven, circus-style, promotion-based ministry model. It was a model that bribed people to attend church, entertained them once they came, and attempted to “sneak up” on them with the gospel. It worked to get people to church, but it was weak in producing devoted disciples and rooted believers.
The second bad model I’ve seen is a concert-style, party-atmosphere ministry complete with loud rock music, smoke machines, laser lights and a lot of entertainment. Again, it works to get people to attend, but it lulls them into nonparticipation, nonworship and lethargic, carnal Christianity.
Both models fail because of two false assumptions. The first false assumption is that Jesus and His Word are boring and unattractive. The second false assumption is that people won’t respond to simple, biblical love and grace. These methods attempt to DISGUISE the gospel to “make it attractive.” The false assumption being, it’s not attractive unless we disguise it! This is REALLY BAD theology! Entertainment-driven ministry is a broken road.
2. Focus on “General Harangues”—Orton mentions leaders who “confine themselves to general harangues.” This is a church-family focused on debate and theological inspection over Spirit-led obedience and unified practice. The Word of God is like a window, and some people prefer to spend more time looking AT the window rather than looking THROUGH the window. Paul wrote to Titus, “But avoid foolish questions, and genealogies, and contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and vain.” (Titus 3:9)
An honest Bible student is comfortable accepting God’s Word where it is clear and where it is unclear. An unhealthy church is content to “look AT the window”—to inspect and debate foolish questions that generate strife and contention. A healthy church is only content to practice what IS clear in God’s Word.
Unbelievers rarely come to these churches, and when they do, they rarely come back. Focusing on pointless debates, personal disputes and biblical conjecture is a broken road.
3. Teach Behaviorism Absent Love and Worship—Orton writes “insist principally on moral duties, without enforcing them warmly and affectionately by evangelical motives”—external duty without internal love as a motive. External conformity or performance-based acceptance generates a church family that looks good but is not motivated by true love and worship of Jesus. Enough badgering from the pulpit will manipulate many Christians into a manmade mold. But eventually those same Christians become disillusioned and hurt by man-centered leadership tactics.