Eight Menacing Trends in the American Evangelical Church
Part 1 is available here.
When I pastored a country church, a farmer didn’t like the sermons I preached on hell. He said, “Preach about the meek and lowly Jesus.” I said, “That’s where I got my information about hell.”
One day a North Carolina farmer and a Texas rancher were talking. The Texas rancher told his friend, “I want you to know that when I’m home I can rise early, even before dawn, climb into my truck, and begin to travel across my land. I can travel for hours, and when the sun finally begins to slip behind the horizon at the end of the day, I still won’t have reached the end of my property!”
“Boy! I sure do pity you!” said the North Carolina farmer. “I used to have a truck like that, too!”
Having a proper perspective is vitally important. Without a perspective aligned with reality, the North Carolina farmer missed the point his friend from Texas was trying to make.
This article will challenge the perspective and the conventional wisdom prevalent in the modern evangelical church. It very well may shake some of the assumptions you’ve held for many years. Read with an open mind as we seek to explore why, generally speaking, the church lacks discernment and no longer speaks with a prophetic voice. After highlighting two philosophical shifts that have occurred in history (one in the culture at large and the other in the church), we will seek examine several choices the church has made (perhaps even unconsciously) that have severely weakened its effectiveness.
Shift Number One: Society Rejects the Concept of Absolute Truth
In a sermon he preached on February 28, 1999, the late Dr. D. James Kennedy, long time pastor of the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, placed a spotlight on the one virtue that modern society upholds and seeks to demand of everyone—tolerance.2 Dr. Kennedy explains that the tolerance society now champions isn’t the same kind of tolerance Americans have practiced throughout the country’s history. Historically, tolerating someone has meant bearing with and putting up with him or her, even though a person didn’t agree with that individual. This kind of tolerance assumes mutual respect among parties that disagree and implies amiable relationships, despite differences. The new tolerance, by contrast, says that differing views are equal in value and are equally true. Thus, to tolerate someone in this sense is to esteem his or her opinion as just as valid as one’s own. Someone might disagree with someone else, but he can’t say that person is wrong. If every opinion is equally valid, then no one has a corner on truth. This is key, because if no one has a corner on truth, absolute truth does not exist, and a universal right and wrong cannot exist, either. The new tolerance says that all views must be endorsed and affirmed by everyone, because no view is inferior or superior in any way to any other view. In addition, to fail to endorse the perspective of someone with whom we disagree is to be intolerant.3
The new tolerance is a byproduct of the postmodern era. Every once in a while, says Dr. Kennedy, we should stick our heads out and look around to see what’s going on in the culture and in the world. The modern era lasted from the fall of the Bastille in France in 1789 to the collapse of the Berlin Wall in Germany in 1989—a period of 200 years. Sometimes called rationalism or the age of reason, modernism “reached its pinnacle in the atheistic, scientific, evolutionary, socialistic USSR—the Soviet Union.”4 Then, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the postmodern era dawned and brought with it a whole new set of assumptions. Principle among these assumptions was and is the idea that there are no absolutes and that everything is relative. While some will cite Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to make the case that everything is relative, Einstein himself said, “Relativity applies to physics, not ethics.”5,6
Yet the consensus in American culture is that even in the ethical realm, no absolute truth exists. What are the implications of this as a cultural belief? Dr. Kennedy explains,
Postmodernism says that rationalism has failed. The modernist said, “Faith has failed. We must be rational.” The postmodernist has said “Reason has failed. We must resort to feeling.”
How often do you hear people say, “Well I feel that so-and-so. I feel that Washington, D.C. is the capital of this country”? I don’t feel that. I think it. But it’s always not “I think” but “I feel.” The only important thing is how they feel. And we have even invented a new civil right. And that is the civil right for my feelings not to be hurt.…
We cannot have anybody’s feelings hurt. And part of postmodernism is this universal individual. We don’t have countries, we don’t have anything except the individual. There’s no human race, there’s just the individual and his feelings, and they must not be offended.…
And so we have gone from a democracy, a government by the people—of the people, by the people, and for the people—to a government by the sovereign individual. Or should I say, more accurately, the sovereign individual’s feelings? And that brings us to the fact that there are not even any universal truths of any kind for people, and whatever truths we have are simply societal constructs that each community or society or nation has created and these do not apply beyond the borders of that culture.
This is why I have repeatedly said that tolerance is the last virtue of a depraved society. When you have an immoral society that has blatantly, proudly violated all of the commandments of God, there’s one last virtue they insist upon—tolerance for their immorality. And they will not have you condemning what they have done as being wrong. And they’ve created a whole world construct in which it’s not, and in which they are no longer the criminal or the villain or the evil person, but you are. And so they call evil good and good evil (see Isaiah 5:20)7 [minor edits made for clarity].
Even if you’ve been unfamiliar with the terms modernism and postmodernism, surely you’ve seen evidence of the grip of the new tolerance on American culture. Note carefully how accurate Dr. Kennedy is when he says that a new civil right has been established—the right not to have one’s feelings hurt, or we might call it the right not to be offended.
Shift Number Two: The Church Began to Deemphasize God’s Law in Its Gospel Presentations
In his signature sermon, “Hell’s Best Kept Secret,”8 evangelist Ray Comfort describes the second shift we need to consider, one that took place in the evangelical church. Comfort begins by highlighting the purpose of the law as explained in Psalm 19:7: “The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul.” He explains that without a proper understanding of God’s law, a sinner cannot fully understand his own guilt before God and his desperate need for divine forgiveness. Yet with such an understanding, sinners comprehend at last that God’s holiness and their own sin cannot coexist. With this insight, they are ready to hear and understand that Christ’s substitutionary death is the only solution to their biggest problem (see Rom. 3:19-20; 7:7; Gal. 3:24). While God’s law cannot save and therefore leaves us helpless before the Lord, it also causes us to see our utter helplessness, and it gives us a sense of urgency regarding our sinful condition. In other words, a proper understanding of God’s law causes sinners to thirst for and to respond positively to the good news of God’s saving grace in Christ.9
Comfort explains that unfortunately, most evangelism presentations today do not present a clear, biblical understanding of God’s law and its ominous implications for sinners. Instead, they emphasize primarily that Christ gives meaning, purpose, and fulfillment in life.10 Christ does indeed give meaning to life (see John 10:10), but this point must not overshadow an emphasis on God’s law and what it reveals about sinners.
I began to study the book of Romans intently, and specifically the gospel proclamations of men like Spurgeon, Wesley, Moody, Finney, Whitefield, Luther—others that God used down through the ages, and I found they used a principle which is almost neglected entirely by modern methods.…
If I approach an impenitent sinner and say, “Jesus Christ died on the cross for your sins,” it will be foolishness to him and offensive to him. Foolishness because it won’t make sense. The Bible says that: “The preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness” [see 1 Cor. 1:18]. And offensive because I’m insinuating he’s a sinner, but he doesn’t think he is. As far as he’s concerned, there are a lot of people far worse than him.
But if I take the time to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, it may make more sense. If I take the time to open up the divine law, the Ten Commandments, and show the sinner precisely what he’s done wrong, that he has offended God by violating His law, then when he becomes, as James says, convinced of the law as a transgressor [see James 2:9], the good news of the fine being paid [of Christ’s dying for his sins on the cross] will not be foolishness. It will not be offensive. It will be the power of God unto salvation [see Rom. 1:16].…
The tragedy of modern evangelism, is…[that] around the turn of the century…it forsook the law and its capacity to convert the soul—to drive sinners to Christ. Modern evangelism had to therefore find another reason for sinners to respond to the gospel. And the issue that modern evangelism chose to attract sinners was the issue of life enhancement. The gospel degenerated into “Jesus Christ will give you peace, joy, love, fulfillment, and lasting happiness”11 [minor edits made for clarity].
Often today an individual will receive Christ on the premise that becoming a Christian will bring meaning and purpose to life. Then the new convert naturally encounters opposition, ridicule, frustration, and other difficulties, because the forces of evil always work diligently to throw the inquirer, and especially the new believer, off track. He or she may easily become disillusioned and conclude that Christianity isn’t what it was cracked up to be. This accounts for large numbers of conversions but significantly few disciples. Yet when the new Christian understands that Christ died to secure eternal life—to exempt him or her from eternal punishment—he or she will be more likely to maintain an eternal perspective when encountering challenges to living the Christian life. In other words, the new convert will be far less likely to become disillusioned and to give up.12
Please make the investment of time to listen to “Hell’s Best Kept Secret” in its entirety. It truly is a life-changing message. For now, take Ray Comfort’s insight to heart and keep it in mind: Around 1900, the church abandoned an emphasis on God’s law in its gospel presentations and instead began to uphold “life enhancement” as the primary benefit of becoming a Christian.
Influenced by the World
Now, equipped with background information about these two monumental shifts—one in the culture and the other in the church—can you answer an important question? What do these shifts have in common? They both set the stage, on the one hand, for downplaying anything offensive and, on the other, for emphasizing anything and everything that will make people feel good.
The modern evangelical church has been heavily influenced by the world in ways that are both subtle and obvious. Taking a cue from the culture at large, modern Christians have tried desperately not to make people feel uncomfortable. We even have sought to “enhance” the gospel message by making it less offensive and more attractive. Yet the gospel is inherently offensive, because it exposes sinners as guilty before a holy God. As Ray Comfort reminds us, if a sinner doesn’t understand that, than he or she cannot respond properly to the good news of Christ’s death on the cross.
In the aftermath of these two monumental shifts, the church abandoned godly discernment and lost its prophetic voice. This weakening of the church’s effectiveness has been manifested in numerous ways, including a diminished emphasis on sin. Al Mohler writes,
The larger culture has turned increasingly hostile to exclusivist truth claims such as the belief that faith in Christ is necessary for salvation. One megachurch pastor in Florida recently told me that the megachurches in his area were abandoning concern for biblical gender roles on a wholesale basis. As one pastor told him, you cannot grow a church and teach biblical complementarianism. Even greater pressure is now exerted by the sexual revolution in general, and, more particularly, the question of homosexuality.13
In fact, some very popular, otherwise conservative pastors have been known to speak with ambiguity concerning homosexuality or to overtly dodge the issue—even though in one instance other aspects of the sermon called for clarification and even though, in another, the Scripture forthrightly addressed the topic.14,15,16,17 Also, several years ago, a widely known megachurch pastor was called to task by a journalist for not exercising discernment with regard to Satan’s tactics. A committed Christian, the journalist demonstrated he had keener insight than the pastor.18
These are just a few examples that point to larger trends. Certainly not every evangelical pastor has watered down the biblical message, and not every church has failed to stand for the truth. However, menacing trends in evangelical churches do exist. Let’s briefly consider eight. These items overlap to some degree, but each also is distinctive.
- The church has focused on attracting people and keeping people, and it has failed to challenge them. Chuck Swindoll said, “Some time ago a group of church leaders decided that they didn’t want to be hated. They focused just on attracting more and more people.”19 He also said, Today, “many churches masquerade as entertainment centers, where the leadership primarily concerns itself with making people feel good.”20 Ironically, Islam is attracting people, particularly men, because it is unapologetically challenging them.21 Christ didn’t water down His message for anyone, and as Christ’s ambassadors, we in the church must not do so either.
- The church has equated loving people with not offending them. True compassion, however, compels us to convey the truth, even at the risk of offending people.22
- The church has emphasized God’s love to the point of effectively neglecting His holiness and wrath. Ironically, we esteem classic messages on God’s holiness and judgment, sermons such as Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”23 Even so, most of today’s evangelical preachers rarely address these themes. We must balance our presentations, giving people opportunities to hear about God’s holiness as well as His grace and love. Only against the backdrop of God’s holiness and wrath will the good news of His grace be most clearly understood.
- The church has endeavored to win converts and failed to make disciples. Only as we, with God’s help, make disciples will we be able to follow the command Paul gave Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:2: “And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” No wonder we are losing the next generation.24
- The church has upheld the benefits of salvation and avoided talking about its demands. Certainly salvation is free; we receive it by grace alone. However, it isn’t cheap. Consider these few verses, where Scripture makes clear that salvation commands of every believer unyielding allegiance to Jesus Christ: Matthew 7:21,24-27; 10:37-39; Luke 6:46; 9:23-26,57-62; 14:25-33.
- The church has presented Christianity in terms of its implications for individuals alone and overlooked its benefits for the culture. The church also has shunned its own responsibility to impact the culture. If it has sought to address social issues, it has in many instances spoken to those issues that the culture at large believes should be addressed. In other words, the church has avoided controversy in much of its cultural engagement. In his new book, A Compassionate Call to Counter Culture, David Platt, a former pastor and a bestselling author, challenges this approach: “In this day when social issues are creating clear dividing lines in society, moral and political neutrality is not an option for those who believe the gospel. It’s simply not enough to focus on only those issues that are most comfortable—and least costly—to us. But what if the main issue is not poverty or homosexuality or abortion? What if the main issue is God? What if the same God who moves us to war against sex trafficking also moves us to war against sexual immorality? What if the same gospel that compels us to combat poverty also compels us to defend marriage? What if all these cultural hot-button issues are connected to our understanding of who God is and how he relates to everything around us?”25,26,27 The modern evangelical church needs to hear and heed Dr. Platt on this important subject.
- While recognizing that Jesus was compassionate, loving, and kind, the church has largely ignored the fact that He was controversial. Being like Jesus will mean, at times, being controversial. We never should seek to stir up opposition or conflict, but we also shouldn’t avoid it when taking a stand for Christ requires it. Jesus said, “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also. But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know Him who sent Me” (John 15:18-21; see also Matt. 5:10-16).
- The church has failed to understand and acknowledge that the followers of Christ are at war with the forces of evil. Warfare, you see, isn’t a popular topic. Moreover, the church’s understanding of the true nature of spiritual warfare has been lacking. Effectively waging war requires offensive as well as defensive strategies and tactics. Largely, the church has played defense, and when it has trained believers, it has trained them to play defense also. When Jesus said the gates of hell would not be able to prevail against the church (see Matt. 16:18), He indicated that the church would, at least some of the time, be taking an offensive posture against evil forces. The modern evangelical church needs to regain a biblical perspective on spiritual warfare.
In 1 Peter 2:9-12, the apostle Peter wrote this to his persecuted brothers and sisters in the faith: “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy. Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation.” As Peter’s readers knew all too well, this process sometimes was difficult to endure. Yet hopefully, many who were currently treating them with hostility would be won over when they saw their unwavering faithfulness to Christ. Even in instances when their persecutors didn’t come to Christ, Peter’s readers still had a responsibility to stand strong. We as believers in the 21st century have that same responsibility.
In whatever ways He chooses, God will use our faithfulness to influence others’ lives. As D. Martyn Lloyd Jones astutely observed, “When the church is absolutely different from the world, she invariably attracts it. It is then that the world is made to listen to her message, though it may hate it at first.”28
Copyright © 2015 by B. Nathaniel Sullivan. All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture has been taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
2 “The New Tolerance” Part 1: http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=318151424410
“The New Tolerance” Part 2: http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=319151233599
16Chelsen Vicari, Distortion: How the New Christian Left is Twisting The Gospel and Damaging the Faith, (Lake Mary, FL: FrontLine, 2014), 58-59.
20Charles R. Swindoll, Hope for Our Troubled Times, (Plano, TX: Insight for Living, 2009), 8.
24Ken Ham and Britt Beemer, Already Gone: Why Your Kids Will Quit Church and What You Can Do to Stop It, (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2009).
25David Platt, A Compassionate Call to Counter Culture, (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2015), flyleaf of dust jacket.