The Gates Are Open

September 2014

All Things to All Men–It doesn’t mean what you think it means

megachurchRecently, several preachers have challenged the couples in their churches to have sex every day for specified periods of time. One guy proposed a week, another a month and another 3 months.

Needless to say, their churches got a lot of press, had a ton of visitors and engendered a buzz of excitement. Men, in particular, were drawn to these churches.

In the past, I have commented on churches that take pop songs and put Christian lyrics to them. Now, I have heard from a number of you that some churches are actually singing pop songs by bands like U2 and Coldplay with the original words.

Most large churches have purposefully designed their sound systems and stages to resemble pop concerts. The sound boards have up to 50 channels, they routinely have bass boosters in the sanctuary and many churches employ smoke machines and multi-color mood changing lights. One church even boasted that their sanctuary was the best music venue in town.

There are hundreds of other gimmicks to bring people into church. One church does a car giveaway every Easter and another one shows first-run movies in their 8,000 seat sanctuary.

All of these are variations of a theme started by Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago several decades ago. Willow Creek called this approach “Seeker Sensitive” and taught the world why it was the greatest way to reach the lost. Since that time, it is now called “Contemporary” and “Relevant”. This approach seeks to appeal to thousands of people who no longer want to attend church. Saddleback Valley church took Willow Creek’s model and made it even more successful.

Unfortunately, Willow Creek determined several years ago that even though they were successful at getting a lot of people in church, they didn’t make many disciples. I contend that instead of doing good, they actually immunized these people by raising the expectation that church was not about content but style.

Today’s mega-churches are simply the logical outflow of that model: Loud, happy-clappy music, slick production designs, coffee and snack bars, and high-priced promotional materials. These churches are the equivalent of Walmart…low commitment and high volume.. This is the “successful” pattern of today’s large churches.

Every time I see someone laying down a theological basis of this approach, it always comes down to one passage of Scripture: 1 Corinthians 9:19-22.

19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.

Apologists for this style of church point to verse 22 as the Magna Carta of the Megachurch: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” But as with many Scriptures used as slogans and rationales for flesh-based behavior, this Scripture is so far out of context as to actually say the opposite of what today’s church wants it to say. Let me explain.

Chapter nine is Paul’s explanation of why he does church differently than other preachers and apostles. Some of the apostles were taking wives along with them. Others were staying in one place for a long time and receiving salaries. They claimed that these privileges were appropriate for preachers of the Gospel. Paul is not disagreeing with them. But he also recognized that it would be impossible for him to plant churches in certain communities if he didn’t work long hours. He also believed that the Gospel would be compromised in those same communities if he allowed them to pay him a salary.

This is simply the context of that chapter. Paul is willing to give up his rights as a preacher in order to not put a stumbling block in the way of potential believers. He refused to claim his rights. He would rather become a slave in order to win people who might otherwise be lost.

Here is his teaching in a nutshell. He was willing to give up anything in order to present Christ to other people. Instead of claiming his place, making his name big, making a huge public impact, he was willing to take the lowest place to minister to others.

Paul was not talking about methodologies of evangelism or church services. In fact, every time we read about church services with Paul we get the impression they were intimate gatherings of people led by competent and caring elders. We never see huge churches being formed. At the most, they were places where many people came to be taught how to live in a decaying world.

Evangelism was something that happened outside the walls of the church. Paul was more than willing to leave behind his comfortable church life and reach people who were dying without Christ.

Today’s church has turned this teaching on its head. Instead of “we will go to you, humble ourselves before you, wash your feet, mop your brow, work hard to take care of our needs so you don’t have to…now it is “come and see us and our great church and our entertaining service and hopefully you will come back next week. Buy our CD’s, our books, our coffee, and contribute online to our Cruise to the Holy Land.”

Today’s church does entertainment at least as well as Hollywood. Maybe better in some locations. At a time when large concerts are waning, the Christian music scene is more successful than ever. That may be why the secular music labels are buying up all the Christian labels.

The churches that have humble buildings (or no building), simple sound systems, who feed the poor, go to their neighbor’s aid and help them find their lost dogs, will never be large. They will be relatively nameless. But they will also be the ones who receive huge rewards on the day when the Lord rewards his servants.

Many of today’s large churches have received their reward in full.

Victoria Osteen and John Piper – Some Similarities

A few weeks ago, Victoria Osteen was discovered on a recording from their Texas church saying some things that have outraged people. Here is a clip from that recording:

What bothers people the most is she claims that God determined that our human happiness is His highest priority. This seems to smack up against what the church has taught for 2000 years. Namely, that we exist for God’s pleasure and not the other way around. One observation I have to make about it is this: This clip is consistent with what the Osteens and most other Word of Faith teachers have been selling for years. If people are angry at her comments now, then clearly they haven’t been paying attention.

But the other side of this coin relates to another famous pastor, John Piper. For years, Piper has put forward his concept of man and God in a theology he calls “Christian Hedonism“. Summarizing this belief, Piper defines it this way:

By Christian Hedonism, we do not mean that our happiness is the highest good. We mean that pursuing the highest good will always result in our greatest happiness in the end. We should pursue this happiness, and pursue it with all our might. The desire to be happy is a proper motive for every good deed, and if you abandon the pursuit of your own joy you cannot love man or please God.

Of course, you can see the differences between Osteen and Piper immediately. Piper believes we are happiest when we pursue the highest good. Osteen believes that the highest good is our happiness. So clearly they are saying something different. But it is the one point of true similarity I want to note.

Both of these teachings focus on the happiness of man as the greatest measure of our life. If we are happy–for Osteen this could result from anything, for Piper from pursuing the highest good–then we are fulfilling God’s purposes for our lives. But is happiness the goal of our lives?

The teachings of Jesus do not focus on happiness. They focus on obedience. And Jesus tells us quite clearly that there are times when we will be persecuted, treated badly, rejected and despised. If you do what is right, you will ULTIMATELY be blessed. But that does not necessarily mean you will be happy.

One implication of Piper and his neo-Calvinist theology is that our choices in life are fairly meaningless. Out of that pseudo-determinism (my description, not his)  that he teaches comes the idea that man is essentially a ‘robot’. God chooses certain people to be part of the kingdom, He chooses these ones to be righteous, and He chooses these ones to be happy. All those not chosen by God are miserable and will become an example of what it looks like not to be chosen by God.

Piper tries to mask this determinism by hinting that we can choose the highest good and therefore find happiness. But this is not true. According to neo-Calvinism, God does not allow us to make choices outside of God’s will. Therefore, there are no choices other than God’s choice.

At least Osteen’s teachings are honest. The Osteens have never claimed to be anything other than what they are: Prosperity teachers. Piper gives people the impression they can choose to do right or wrong, but then teaches that God has already determined and decided what choices we will make.

And that means there are no choices. In the end, God determines who will be happy and who will not.

It’s no more encouraging or any better teaching than what the Osteens are saying.


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