Monday, July 25, 2005

"Sharing the Eternal Truth with an Ever-Emerging Culture"--a response

Just the other week I received an email containing this article by Rick Warren, explaining his philosophy or method of outeach:
Sharing the Eternal Truth with an Ever-Emerging Culture. Here follows my response and attempt at offering a Lutheran critique of Warren's principles of evangelism.

First I want to say that I do admire Warren's passionate desire to spread the Gospel, and his enthusiasm for evangelism. But his whole premise in this letter is that the church should be changing as rapidly as the culture. A few examples:

--Warren says, "In other words, someone who prefers a choir and more traditional music can worship in that atmosphere, and then at the scheduled time, see the exact same sermon as those worshiping in our main auditorium. This is duplicated across our campus with an acoustic worship, another aimed at Gen-X, and so on. "

This is one of the biggest mistakes of 'church growth' in my opinion. He openly admits that they are trying to make worship that will appeal to specific ages, music-styles, and tastes. This is NOT what is meant by being all things to all people. I think that Dad gave a good explanation of how Paul gave up his rights to work as a missionary among the Jews and Gentiles. He gave up Christian freedoms that he had, in order to reach others. He didn't go out and get a Greek drama troupe together and put on skits, or try to make other culturally-conditioned appeals to the people. I've heard it wisely stated that "The Church that seeks relevance has already made itself irrelevant." You simply cannot create worship styles to appeal to every different person. What if I prefer to worship with Jazz music? Country? Bag-pipe music? American Folk? Heavy metal? Will the church provide a new service for every worshipper who isn't satisfied with the worship style? The practical consideration is also this: that only in a church the size of Warren's, or with at least several hundred to a thousand people could you actually even begin to meet such a goal. But the underlying flaw in my opinion is the premise that worship should be catered to the desires and tastes of the worshipper. In fact Warren even takes it a step further and caters worship to the unbeliever/non-church goer! It's beyond me why he goes to the unbeliever for advice on how to design his church and worship. Paul told us "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind" (Rom. 12:2). Warren's variety of church deliberately seeks to imitate or conform to the world and its culture to attract more people. He even goes so far as to say, "And I think that means if you're in California, you should have a California culture church. If you're in Ohio, you should have an Ohio culture church. If you're in Mississippi, you should have a Mississippi culture church." Contrary to this, I believe that worship, rightly understood, does not begin with US, but begins with God. Worship begins with God's gracious outpouring of His gifts to us through Christ Jesus. These gifts are wrapped and delivered to us through the Word and through Baptism and Communion. The wondrous gift of the Gospel of Jesus' forgiveness of us can't help but evoke a RESPONSE from us of praise and thanksgiving. So worship understood this way has no interest in appealing to the worshipper, but rather it flows from and is shaped by the Word of God that reveals and delivers salvation from Christ Jesus to us. The Christian church has worshipped with the historic liturgy for nearly 2,000 years, and it has in itself been relevant to people of all cultures, beginning in the Mediterranean Basin, including Greece, Rome, Northern Africa, and West and South of Israel the church spread to Ethiopia and India. And the church never saw fit to abandon the liturgy to create a culturally specific worship service de novo in every new land. The liturgy did grow and slowly evolve everywhere Christianity spread, but it can hardly be claimed that it is just the 'white-European' or even 'Germanic' worship service. Its much older than that. The contrast is sharp between this and Warren's philosophy of worship, because his idea of worship intends to try to appeal to specific age groups, music styles, etc; whereas the historic liturgy never has the intention of trying to make itself appealing. This relates to the other main premise of Warren's that I think is flawed: that to reach out to people in the culture today, with all its technology and media, we have to wrap the Gospel up in a clever, attractive, almost specifically targeted marketing scheme.

For example, Warren says:
--"In other words, our message of transformation must never change but the transformation of our presentation should be continual, adapting to the new languages of our culture. Consider this: the word contemporary literally means "with temporariness." By nature, nothing contemporary is meant to last forever! It is only effective for a while and only relevant in that particular moment -- that's what makes it contemporary."

So he suggests that our 'presentation' needs to be as 'temporary' as our changing culture. That 'it is only effective for a while, and only relevant in that particular moment.' The first problem I have with this is that it suggests we need to 'clothe the Gospel' in something else, to make it attractive, appealing, or relevant. If this is the case, why in the world would we clothe the eternal unchanging message of the Gospel in something less? Why dress the Gospel in admittedly 'trendy clothes' that are acknowledged to be short-lived or faddish? Shouldn't our presentation of the Gospel rather reflect its stark foolishness in the face of the world (1 Cor. 1)? The message of the cross that was so central to the early apostles' preaching (1 Cor. 2:2) is radically 'a-cultural'. It is eternal and unchanging, relevant to all ages, races, social classes in and of itself, because it addresses our universal common need--forgiveness from our sins and deliverance from death! A message that is so entirely cross-cultural and eternal, shouldn't be packaged into something that tries to fit the Gospel into something that is so narrow and specific and temporary that its driven to appeal only to a specific slice of American culture. This leads to the second main problem I have with this premise: namely that the Gospel message needs such 'packaging' to be effective! The Gospel doesn't become effective, or even 'more effective' by the trappings that we might add to it, rather it goes out from God's mouth and accomplishes the purpose for which He directs it (Isaiah 55:10-11). The Gospel is effective on its own, and it alone will produce the change in men's hearts that brings people to believe in the Gospel. That is why the Gospel message, of Christ crucified must be put forward in all boldness and at all times! When all of this 'packaging' and marketing takes front seat instead, you end up with the situation Warren himself describes, having to reinvent yourself constantly, because "What is considered contemporary and relevant in the next ten years will inevitably appear dated and tired in 20 years." If it is the Gospel itself which is in focus, not the 'trappings' of culturally-conditioned worship practices, then there is no fear of 'appearing dated and tired'--because the Gospel is eternally relevant! Thus I favor the liturgy (in my Christian freedom) as the best medium for presenting the Gospel in worship. The liturgy is not focused on itself or it's own relevance, but rather is literally 'full' of the Word of God itself, as nearly all the songs and responses of the historic liturgy are drawn directly from Scripture or are paraphrased. When the Gospel of Christ is central and in focus, then the message is automatically relevant!

Warren emphasizes:
--"The only way to stay relevant is to anchor your ministry to unchanging truths and eternal purposes but be willing to continually adapt how you communicate those truths and purposes."
But what does it convey about your message of 'unchanging truths and eternal purposes' if you are "constantly adapting; we've changed styles of worship, programming, and outreach many, many times in the last 25 years, and we'll continue to do so because the world keeps changing." Should an elderly person (let's say an unbeliever) who finds Warren's "Gen-X" worship unappealing therefore conclude that the message is irrelevant to them? Or vice-versa? Perhaps part of the problem of trying to run the treadmill of relevance is that the very attempt to 'be relevant' is getting in the way of the message that already is relevant on its own!

With that said, I do certainly agree with Warren that there are methods of outreach that are probably not the most helpful--like for example 'door-knocking.' But even here, it is not the method itself that does or doesn't make the Gospel effective. It is the Gospel message itself that is 'effective' to convert lost souls. And it can do so effectively wherever the Gospel is proclaimed--at a stranger's doorstep, to a friend or family member, from the pulpit of the church, or in a prison. But the question of 'Where am I most likely to find a person who will at least listen to me tell the Good News about Jesus?' is the question to be asked instead, I believe. The reason that telling a friend, family member or co-worker about the Gospel is more likely to see results than 'door-knocking', is because the people that you actually know are more likely to listen to you in the first place. Warren rightly points out that most people don't want to be bothered by a stranger at the door.

At another point Warren says,
-- "In almost every single sermon I preach every point has a verb in it -- something to do. What are you going to do now that you know this godly truth?" and then describes the reason for this as follows: "our entire purpose driven process at Saddleback is designed to move people, not only into intimacy with God, but also into service for him, where they'll experience a deep and broader faith in the midst of community and ministry."

The problem that I have with this is that his message of preaching seems to center around 'giving you a purpose' which he seems to equate with giving you 'something to do.' This message is the LAW, not the Gospel. What the Law instructs us to do in our Christian lives, regarding good works is certainly a necessary element in preaching--but it must never become the 'purpose' or central feature of preaching. The reason is that the Christian message is NOT centered around what WE are to do, but what Christ did for us (1 Cor. 2:2). Preaching that centers in the Gospel of Jesus Christ is ultimately the only thing that will generate both faith and obedience in the Christian. Its interesting that Warren gives the message of 'what you are to do' such a prominent place in his preaching when he just a paragraph earlier criticized churches that provide a 'list of rules' for living. Isn't that exactly what Warren is doing by focusing his preaching on 'our purpose' and what we must now do? From my friend Wildboar's review of the "Purpose Driven Life" (here: Lutheran-critique of Purpose Driven Life ) I know that Warren provides 164 'steps' to finding your purpose driven life. What a 'list of rules' to follow! I certainly affirm the need to preach about the good works that are commanded for the life of the Christian, but when this supplants the message of the Gospel as central in the sermon, you no longer have a message that saves (Rom. 8:3-4), but a message that brings wrath (Rom. 4:15, 5:20, 7:7-25). And neither is the Gospel message of Christ and the cross just an introductory doctrine that we grow out of once we've become Christians. The message of Christ and the Gospel can never be absent from preaching. You never know whether an unbeliever is out in the congregation, who might be visiting, and this could be the only time he or she will ever get a chance to hear the Gospel. But even more importantly, the message of Christ and Him crucified must always remain front and center because this is the very message that forgives our sins and regenerates us to lead a life of good works (Eph. 2:10).

There is much more that could be said, as Warren's article spans such a broad range of topics, but I hope that this was enough to cover the main points. The Gospel, not the message of what we are to do, must be central, and that Gospel is in itself relevant to all ages, races, cultures, etc--and doesn't need our packaging to become more relevant or effective. Please let me know if there's anything you think was unclear, or if you found my critique of Warren to be unfair in any way. There is a drastically different frame of thinking behind all of this, and I think it shows how true it is that doctrine (teaching) and practice are so closely connected.

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