Froth and bubble churches

Martyn Lloyd-Jones.png
D Martyn Lloyd Jones (Courtesy Wikipedia)

By Spencer D Gear

How would you respond to this comment by Bill Muehlenberg of Culture Watch?

I must confess that I would easily trade 50 of today’s sermons for just one sermon by a great expositor such as D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones of last century. His deep and rich treasure chests make most sermons today look like mere tap water. So much preaching today leaves me cold I must say. But I just love to soak up some of the older great preachers, whether a Spurgeon, or a Boice, or a Stott, or so many others.[1]

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My reply is that Lloyd-Jones was an exceptional expositor. Not many preachers will achieve that gifted standard. However, the desire to be an expositor is far from the thinking of most preachers I hear in Australia today. The ‘fluff’ from the pulpit goes with the shallowness in some of the rock ‘n roll lyrics of the songs that are sung. The focus on God Himself, the glory of Christ and the cross, salvation through Christ alone, is minimised. Go along to your local contemporary church and take a listen to the content of what is sung. If you know your biblical theology, you could find the content extremely disappointing – even superficial.

I find many of the tunes unsingable[2] for a very ordinary singer like me in the congregation! Then there is the added problem that many of the lyrics do not promote profound worship of our Almighty God, Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. They do not present the solid theology of an earlier day when we could sing hymns like:

And Can It Be

And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

Refrain

Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

‘Tis mystery all: th’Immortal dies:
Who can explore His strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine.
‘Tis mercy all! Let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more.

He left His Father’s throne above
So free, so infinite His grace
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race:
‘Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me!

Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free;
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

Still the small inward voice I hear,
That whispers all my sins forgiven;
Still the atoning blood is near,
That quenched the wrath of hostile Heaven.
I feel the life His wounds impart;
I feel the Savior in my heart.

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.[3]

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Charles Wesley

At the time of writing this article, it is 8 months since my wife and I moved to Brisbane and the only expositor of Scriptures we have found is in a Presbyterian Church, but the preacher is as dry as dust to listen to, along with a service of traditional hymns led by someone who is not gifted in music. The preacher doesn’t know how to grab the attention of God’s people, illustrate and apply the message.

I’m of the view that we have a crisis in the pulpit. We visited a local Baptist church a couple of weeks ago and when a retired pastor in the congregation met us as we left the service, he said that this new church plant had to ‘meet the culture’. My response was that it was accommodating to the culture. He did admit that the lyrics of the songs they sing are ‘shallow’. Imagine that from an older man and retired pastor who is supporting this church that offers ‘shallow’ worship songs. We had to stand for the first 15 minutes of the service as a person with a guitar led us in singing these trifling lyrics. However, I have to admit that one of the songs did include the words of Hebrews 4:12, repeated over and over with unsingable music. The verse states:

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart’ (NIV).

Another church we visited

In trying to seek out another church alternative to the dry as dust Presbyterian Church we have been attending, my wife and I visited an evangelical church of a well-known denomination in Australia, in one of the northern suburbs of Brisbane on 25 March 2012. I had emailed the pastor with these questions (after finding the church’s webpage online). Before attending the church, I emailed the pastor with these questions:

  1. Is your worship contemporary? Does it include some of the grand old hymns of the faith? Is there any opportunity for interaction of the gifts of the Spirit when the church gathers or in mid-week groups? Is your church charismatic, cessationist, or ??? His response was that it was a ‘modern contemporary church’ (his influence) in music with the occasional hymn, but not sung ‘in a traditional way’.  They were not against the exercising of the gifts of the Spirit, but they ‘have not experienced that publicly’.
  2. Do you have any mid-week groups that incorporate an interactive Bible study? They have KYB (Know Your Bible) group and one for young adults, but that is an ‘area that we need to work on’.
  3. Do you promote any preferred version of the Bible? (i.e. are you KJVers or NKJVers). I read the NIV, ESV and NLT. He uses the ESV for preaching but also uses NIV, NLT and CEV for his own study. He didn’t push any particular version but encouraged people to move away from a Bible paraphrase.
  4. What would be the representation of age groups in your church? Does it have a youth focus? Since I have just retired, I’m asking whether oldies are welcome and would fit in. They had the range from 80s to newborns and he has ‘a great relationship with all’. Older folks are considered when organising a service but they understand that new and young people are attending ‘who may not connect with some things of old’. They want to be a ‘welcoming community’. The pastor felt very well supported and loved by the older folks – even though he is ‘not a typical looking minister’. He has tattoos and piercings. A lot of young children are at the church but the youth group ‘is small but alive’.
  5. What evangelism do you do in your community? He claimed this was ‘the heart of the church’ as they reach out to the wider community with a tutoring programme for young people and conducting soccer at a local State School. Families come to the church through these outreaches. The youth group is mainly from outside the church.
  6. Do you have any ministry to the social needs of the community? He considered that the tutoring programme was meeting a social need; A.A was using the building and they are connected with the denomination’s care programme.[4]

What did we find when we visited this church? Discovering the front door of the building was not obvious from the parking lot at the rear of the church. There was nobody to greet new people at the door. We received a church bulletin that was handed to us. We arrived about 8 minutes before the start of the service, so there were few people sitting in the pews.

The pastor came to introduce himself to us. He had about 5 studs in piercings in his face, but the tattoos were covered by a daggy white T-shirt that could not camouflage the rolls of fat around his belly. He wore long, untidy jeans that were tattered at the bottom as they dragged on the floor around his shoes. He played the lead rhythm guitar in the band. I thought that he was dressed for ministering to the drug addicts in the streets of Fortitude Valley in downtown Brisbane (I have previously worked with the down-and-outs in that region). See, ‘Body piercings and tattoos: A slip into secularism

The pastor was one of two rhythm guitarists in the worship band that also included a very loud drummer (who at least could keep the beat in time), a bass guitar and a singer.

As expected, the lyrics of the songs that were sung, as we stood for the first 10 minutes, were shallow, trifling, me-centred, fluff that were led by a singer who did not have a strong voice. There was no lead instrument like a keyboard or piano to give us the melody lines – I need a melody line for congregational singing. Not one of the songs sung was known to my wife and me (we have been evangelical Christians for about 50 years), so we were not able to sing any of them. We noticed that a good number of people also were not singing the songs.

The church bulletin told us that the church giving was $360 per week worse than this time last year. I wonder why! There is more to come.

Around the Lord’s Supper, The Message paraphrased Bible was read of Phil. 2:5-11. There was no focus on why we celebrate the Lord’s Supper or the relevant passages from Scripture. While there was an isolated verse of Scripture read here and there in the service, there was no reading of the Scriptures as a group of verses as part of worship. No Scripture was read for the sermon.

As for the sermon, it was an ad lib ramble on ‘Hearing God’ as the pastor referred very little to notes and spoke of God speaking to Samuel whose response was, ‘Speak Lord, for your servant hears’, and Moses at the burning bush. He said that last week he dealt with seeing God as with Job and Joseph’s multi-coloured coat. This was the second in a series on ‘sensing God’. The series includes seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching God. The sermon was a shocker by a pastor who doesn’t have a clue about or desire to exegete a text so that he can expound the meaning of Scripture.

When the service was over, my wife and I left the building (even though it was said that there would be morning tea, but no directions were given as to where it was held). There was not a single person in the foyer to greet people and speak with them as they left the church building. The guitars and drummer were still playing as we left. Who knows why this was, as there was no melody line. To be honest, we were glad to be out after such a shocking experience that was supposed to be worship of our almighty God and edification by preaching of the Word of God.

My wife’s comment as we left the building was, “They seemed like a bunch of lemmings”, speaking of the people in the congregation who appeared to  be mindlessly following what was done up front. A lemming is an Arctic rodent, but it also is ‘a member of any large group following an unthinking course towards mass destruction’ (dictionary.com). The online slang dictionary says lemming means ‘a person who blindly follows others’. That’s what the group of about 60 people seemed to be doing yesterday. They were blindly following that rock-a-billy fluff, all in the name of a contemporary, evangelical church’s worship and preaching.

We will never return to that church. I’m convinced the elders and pastor have a lot to answer before God (how dare I be so judgmental)! I left grieving over what is happening to the evangelical church. So far we have visited 9 churches in our region since coming to the northern suburbs of Brisbane 8 months ago and the only one that we have visited that preaches from the biblical text is one where the pastor preaches expositionally but the atmosphere is as dry as dust in a very staid brand of Christianity. Do I have to put up with the Presbyterian anti-Arminian, anti-Pentecostal, hyper Calvinism to get something that is reasonable worship and teaching?

I am anguished over what is happening here in the northern Brisbane suburbs with the dumbing down of the evangelical church with froth and bubble Christianity, with little to no teaching of basic Christian doctrine from the pulpit. These churches are sick spiritually with their violation of Ephesians 4:11-16, where it is stated that Christian people can be ‘tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming’ (4:14) when the ministry gifts of apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher are not functioning properly in the church.

Paul exhorted the Thessalonians: ‘Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good’ (1 Thess. 5:19-21, emphasis added).

How does this contemporary kind of evangelical church compare with the church after Christ’s resurrection?

The early church

The church of the first few centuries of the Christian church ‘met the culture’ and influenced the Roman Empire. How was this done? Paul the apostle, in writing to the Romans, about 25-35 years after Christ’s resurrection,[5] stated this of the Roman Christian church, ‘Your faith is being reported all over the world’ (Rom. 1:8).[6] Evangelical commentator, Leon Morris, states that ‘world is largely a Pauline and Johannine term in the New Testament.[7] In Romans the word normally means the world at large, as here, or else the inhabitants of the world’.[8]

Eminent Yale University church historian, Kenneth Scott Latourette, wrote:

When we come to the era in which Christianity began,… the roots from which it sprang appeared to promise no very great future for the faith… It is one of the commonplaces of history that in its first three centuries Christianity met persistent and often severe persecution, persecution which rose to a crescendo early in the fourth century, but that it spread in spite of opposition and was even strengthened by it…. So radical are the claims of the Gospel, so sweeping are its demands on the faithful, so uncompromising does it render those who yield themselves fully to it, that opposition and even persecution are to be expected…. Constantine came out more and more pronouncedly in favour of Christianity. Whether he was a Christian from political motives only or from sincere religious conviction has been hotly debated…. Under this prolonged patronage by the Emperors the Christian communities grew rapidly…. Christianity gave to the Graeco-Roman world what so many were craving from a religion…. Whence came these qualities which won for Christianity its astounding victory? Careful and honest investigation can give but one answer, Jesus. It was faith in Jesus and his resurrection which gave birth to the Christian fellowship and which continued to be its inspiration and its common tie…. In this victory of Christianity was also something of defeat. The victory had been accompanied by compromise, compromise with the world which had crucified Jesus, compromise often made so half-consciously or unconsciously that it was all the more serious a peril to the Gospel.[9]

It was the Gospel of the power of God to salvation through Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection (cf. Rom. 1:16) that won the Roman Empire. But what do we get in many of today’s contemporary churches – even evangelical churches?

I’m tired of the froth and bubble from the singers and the fluffy, light content preaching. We are in desperate need of a Holy Spirit revival that gets us back to faithful preaching of the Scriptures – from the text – and not some “story” that doesn’t relate to the text. We urgently need a debunking of the CEO pastoral role, a return to shepherding the sheep, and a renewed opportunity for every member of the body of Christ to function when the church gathers. That sure would be radical Christianity!

I’m not holding my breath waiting for it to change as this contemporary approach seems to be coming from the training colleges and is dominating the churches of most evangelical denominations in my part of the world (South-East Queensland, Australia). It will need to be sent by the Holy Spirit’s conviction.

There is one exception that I have encountered in a region where I have lived in S. E. Queensland and that is Fraser Coast Baptist Church, Hervey Bay (Qld., Australia), where there is excellent expository preaching by the senior pastor, Steve Sauvageot (but not by the other preachers in the church), along with the singing of traditional hymns. By the way, the church building is so full that additional seats are in the foyer to accommodate the congregation. However, the 1 Cor. 14:26 kind of ministry does not take place in this church, which my wife and I attended until we moved from the region.

A fundamental fault [10]

In response to Bill Muehlenberg’s article and my comment, Graham Wood from the UK replied:

I fully sympathise with your description of what you meet by way of a church meeting in Brisbane. It is typical of what can be found in the great majority, almost without exception right throughout ‘western churches’ – UK, USA, Australia and elsewhere. [I am] leaving aside Dr DMLJ[11] for a moment as somewhat special and unique in his gifts and ministry. I suggest that there is a fundamental and basic fault line running through all of these churches, namely that they are closed systems which exalt and institutionalise things which God has not sanctioned and which cut us off from the source of real spiritual growth, namely one another.

These are churches which have largely abandoned the New Testament criteria for meeting together which is for mutual edification.

Radical and revolutionary as it may sound our meetings are not to perpetuate the practice of a “worship service” (not found in the NT), or of a ‘sermon’, or the role of a monologue by a ‘preacher/pastor’ week by week, or of a passive non participatory ‘audience’, in complete neglect of the NT clear teaching about the functioning of the priesthood of ALL believers in an open meetings as given us in 1 Corinthians 12-14. The early church meeting was the God-created environment that produced spiritual growth, both corporately and individually (Eph. 4:11-16). We grow into spiritual maturity (and blessing) when we allow the many varied parts of the body of Christ (1 Cor 12) to actually function and to minister Christ to us. (1 Cor. 12:7) As somebody rightly asked: ‘How is [it] that in many people can hear good preaching all their lives and yet not know who or what God is?

I am not against preaching in its rightful context as primarily an evangelistic activity (not to be confused with teaching) aimed at the unconverted and outside the Christian gathering.

Inside the church, with preaching directed at Christians it is merely a tradition, a one way monologue, and which is the greatest single barrier to a church functioning with mutual ministries as intended.

Please explain why we totally ignore the NT pattern and substitute instead the closed ‘system’ which has minimum benefit, and minimum corporate edification which Paul teaches is the object of our meeting? (the word ‘edify’ occurs 8 times in 1 Cor. 14 – all in the context of ‘body ministry’) Much more could be said, but I believe this identifies a major element of error in the majority of our churches.[12]

Which is the better way?

I’m of the view that a radical church will get back to faithful teaching of the Scriptures (‘Preach the word of God’), but especially to this kind of functioning church:

1 Corinthians 14:26: “What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up” (NIV).

The New Living Translation provides this version of the meaning of the text:

Well, my brothers and sisters, let’s summarize. When you meet together, one will sing, another will teach, another will tell some special revelation God has given, one will speak in tongues, and another will interpret what is said. But everything that is done must strengthen all of you (1 Cor. 14:26 NLT).

In our contemporary ‘froth and bubble’ churches, there is a close down of the 1 Cor. 14:26 kind of ministry, not only in the large gatherings (which make such function very difficult), but also this every-member ministry of the gifts often doesn’t happen in the home groups of the local church either.

From the pulpit, my experience is that there is more of an interest in:

(1) Preaching that is topical and that does not involve itself with an exegesis and exposition of the biblical text. (I as a preacher know that exegesis and preparation of expository messages involves a lot of hard work) ;

(2) Preachers who think that it is better to tell stories or parables than deal with the content of the text.

(3) Hype and excitement rather than faithfulness to the biblical text.

(4) Excluding or minimising the theological content of the text.

See my article, ‘Can the sermon be redeemed?

We have an interesting example of an admission of failure from one of the leading churches in the world that has promoted the seeker-sensitive kind of church. Take a read of

Willow Creek’s[13] admission: ‘We made a mistake’

Leadership Journal’s, Out of Ur in 2007 made this assessment of what was happening at the Willow Creek Community Church led by Bill Hybels:

Not long ago Willow released its findings from a multiple year qualitative study of its ministry. Basically, they wanted to know what programs and activities of the church were actually helping people mature spiritually and which were not. The results were published in a book, Reveal: Where Are You?, co-authored by Greg Hawkins, executive pastor of Willow Creek. Hybels called the findings “earth shaking,” “ground breaking,” and “mind blowing”….

Having put so many of their eggs into the program-driven church basket, you can understand their shock when the research revealed that “Increasing levels of participation in these sets of activities does NOT predict whether someone’s becoming more of a disciple of Christ. It does NOT predict whether they love God more or they love people more.”

Speaking at the Leadership Summit, Hybels summarized the findings this way:

Some of the stuff that we have put millions of dollars into thinking it would really help our people grow and develop spiritually, when the data actually came back, it wasn’t helping people that much. Other things that we didn’t put that much money into and didn’t put much staff against is stuff our people are crying out for.

Having spent thirty years creating and promoting a multi-million dollar organization driven by programs and measuring participation, and convincing other church leaders to do the same, you can see why Hybels called this research “the wake-up call” of his adult life.

Hybels confessed:

We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become ‘self feeders.’ We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their bible between service, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.

In other words, spiritual growth doesn’t happen best by becoming dependent on elaborate church programs but through the age old spiritual practices of prayer, bible reading, and relationships. And, ironically, these basic disciplines do not require multi-million dollar facilities and hundreds of staff to manage.

Does this mark the end of Willow’s thirty years of influence over the American church? Not according to Hawkins:

Our dream is that we fundamentally change the way we do church. That we take out a clean sheet of paper and we rethink all of our old assumptions. Replace it with new insights. Insights that are informed by research and rooted in Scripture. Our dream is really to discover what God is doing and how he’s asking us to transform this planet.[14]

I have a deep ache for a return to the 1 Cor. 14:26 kind of functioning church where every Christian is regarded as a minister who is available for the ministry of the gifts of the Spirit when the church gathers. See my article, “I have a heartache for the church”.

See my article, “Is theology important?

Notes:

[1] Bill Muehlenberg 2012, Culture Watch, ‘Martyn Lloyd-Jones on Romans 1:18’, 20 March. Available at: http://www.billmuehlenberg.com/2012/03/20/martyn-lloyd-jones-on-romans-118/comment-page-1/#comment-262957 (Accessed 23 March 2012).

[2] The Merriam-Webster Dictionary (online) defines unsingable as ‘not fitted for singing’. Available at: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/unsingable (Accessed 23 March 2012).

[3] Lyrics and other details available at: http://songsandhymns.org/hymns/lyrics/and-can-it-be (Accessed 23 March 2012). Charles Wesley, one of the founders of British Methodism, wrote the hymn in 1738. The music was composed by Thomas Campbell in 1825 and the tune is known as ‘Sagina’. These details are from the Center for Church Music, Grand Haven MI.

[4] I have deliberately left out the details here so as not to identify the specific name of this church.

[5] Leon Morris (1988:6-7) – bibliographical reference in next endnote – stated that dating the Book of Romans ‘with any precision is something of a problem’, but he places the date in about A.D. 55, but admits that there are ‘many uncertainties’.

[6] Douglas Moo considers that ‘a measure of hyperbole is undoubtedly present in the phrase “in all the world”; but it must be remembered that Paul is thinking of fellow Christians and thus of places where the gospel had already been preached’ (Moo, D 1996. The epistle to the Romans (The New International Commentary on the New Testament). Grand Rapids, Michigan / Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, p. 57.

[7] At this point Morris notes that ‘kosmos occurs 185 times in the New Testament, of which 78 are in John, 24 in the Johannine epistles, and 47 in Paul (nine in Romans). Outside these two writers the most in any one book is eight in Matthew’ (Morris 1988:57 n 108).

[8] Morris, L 1988. The epistle to the Romans. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company / Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, p.57.

[9] Latourette, K S 1975. A history of Christianity, vol 1 to A.D. 1500 (rev ed). New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, pp. 6, 81, 92, 107, 108.

[10] Graham Wood, 22 March 2012, Culture Watch, available at: http://www.billmuehlenberg.com/2012/03/20/martyn-lloyd-jones-on-romans-118/ (Accessed 23 March 2012).

[11] This is D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones.

[12] Graham Wood, 22 March 2012, available at: http://www.billmuehlenberg.com/2012/03/20/martyn-lloyd-jones-on-romans-118/comment-page-1/#comment-262957 (Accessed 23 March 2012).

[13] Willow Creek Community Church is in South Barrington, IL, USA. South Barrington is a wealthy suburb of Chicago. This article in Wikipedia on ‘South Barrington, Illinois’ states that ‘the village is known throughout the area for its extreme affluence, and is on the list of the 100 wealthiest towns in the nation’. Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_Barrington,_Illinois (Accessed 23 March 2012).

[14] ‘Willow Creek Repents’, Leadership Journal: Out of Ur, October 18, 2007, available at: http://www.outofur.com/archives/2007/10/willow_creek_re.html (Accessed 23 March 2012).

 

Copyright © 2012 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 16 October 2015.

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