When people ask “Does it work?” rather than “Is it true?” it’s a sure indicator that a cultural shift has occurred. This shift, brought to us by the pragmatism of William James, is not only evident in the broader culture, it’s now seen within the Christian community.
In a free-market economy, profitability is the leading indicator of success; for many churches today the leading indicator is growth. However, if church growth is the ultimate goal then truth will inevitably be sacrificed on the altar of success. The sacrifice of truth for the sake of cultural palatability is nothing new for liberal theologians, but it is new among conservative evangelicals. This compromise seems to have two components: the culture viewing the church primarily as a humanitarian organization designed to help solve problems and meet felt needs, and church leaders viewing church growth and evangelism primarily as a marketing problem.
Take for example how most Christians look for a church today. Steeped in consumerism, the typical Christian no longer looks for a church where the Bible is rightly preached and the ordinances (sacraments to my non-Baptist friends) rightly administered; they look for a church with a great children’s ministry, youth ministry, or a good music program (none of which is mandated by Scripture). They will look for a church that will meet their perceived needs, rather than look for a church that will tell them the truth about sin and the cross of Christ.
Churches that view church growth and evangelism as a marketing problem are reinforcing consumerism, and the desires of the consumer will untimely drive church practice. If the consumer wants short therapeutic sermons without all the business of sin and hell, then that’s what they’ll get. The Christian community needs to be reminded again and again that church is not about us; it’s about God, His truth, and His glory.
A couple of years ago, sociologist Christian Smith studied the religious beliefs of American teenagers. At the conclusion of the study, he and his fellow researchers coined the title “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” to describe the average teenager’s view of God and religion. They discovered that most teens believe in a God who wants us to be good, nice, and fair to each other. They also discovered the average teen believes that the central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself, that God does not need to be involved in one’s life except when there’s a problem, and that good people go to heaven when they die. When pressed to answer crucial questions of faith and belief, many teens responded with a shrug and an apathetic, “whatever.”
Where did they get such ideas? Most likely these ideas came from their parents, from their peers, from the media, and, quite possibly, from their church. When we understand that the average church attendee is beginning to grey, we should be concerned about the future of the church in America. What our youth and adults need is not more entertainment, therapy, or catering to felt needs; what they need is the truth. I just hope there will still be churches around who will give it to them.
Dr. Billy Elkins is the pastor of Trinity Church of Chickasha, OK. He is a graduate of Chickasha High School, has a B.A. in Fine Art from the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, a Master of Divinity with Biblical Languages from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, FT. Worth, TX, and a Ph.D. in Apologetics and Philosophy from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY. He and his wife Crystal have three sons and two daughters-in-law. Billy enjoys time with his family, gardening, and reading alongside his dog, Luther.