The evolution of the church’s focus (by Chris Roberts)

by Guest Blogger on May 22, 2012 · 6 comments

Chris Roberts blogs at “Seek the Holy” and is the pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Panama City, Fl.  

Or: how we get from the glory of God to the gratifying of man.

One thought frequently burdens me as I seek to pastor faithfully and raise my children biblically: how is it that we have seen a generation of young people who have been raised in solid, conservative Christian churches either plug into ministries and methods that take a decidedly postmodern, pragmatic turn or abandon the church outright? How is it that 21st century young people, and often their parents, have pursued the gospel of moralistic therapeutic deism when they have been raised in the teachings of an inspired, inerrant Bible?

It has not happened overnight.

Let me first note that I am writing a blog post, not a book. I will be oversimplifying some things and leaving other things unsaid in an attempt to stay semi short. I also apologize for my generalizations: I know they are present in this post, but they do not diminish my overall point, and they are, I believe, fairly minimal.

The Westminster Catechism includes the following question and answer: “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” In other words, our reason for being is found in God: to glorify him, to enjoy him. Men like Jonathan Edwards have been tireless in promoting this message, calling for Christians to glorify God and to find in God the root source of all enjoyment and delight. We are created for pleasure – not worldly pleasure, but those pleasures which find their source, their stream, in God himself.

All the activities of a church flow from its central focus. From its worship services to its evangelistic practices to its discipleship, how a church “does ministry” says something about what it believes to be most important. The church that is focused on God in his glory will have a worship service which highlights the mighty works of God, the holiness of his character, the perfection of his Word, the delight of his presence with his people, the mercy of his grace to his enemies. God is at the center. The evangelistic work of this church will flow from the two priorities given by Jesus: love God, love people. On the one hand, in evangelism we show love for God by spreading the gospel which points to the glory of God in Christ. On the other hand, in evangelism we show love for people by directing them to the only source of true satisfaction and rest. When it comes to discipleship, the God-focused church will seek to build believers who live their lives with a love for God and a desire to shine the light of his glory. Discipleship would not seek to address individual perceived needs but would pull the eyes of the believer off of self and onto God with the goal of seeing saints live in joyful, intentional submission to God’s sovereign authority. In such a setting, “I” am not the focus of discipleship – God is. It is said that when driving a car, one reason for being careful when looking around is that the hand naturally steers the direction the eye moves. In a church focused on the glory of God, discipleship would seek to fix the eye of the believer on God, his glory, his Word, his ways, his commands, so that the Christian naturally follows God in all things.

Early in the 20th century (if not before), the focus of the church began to shift. It was not a dramatic change, but over time a new answer was given to the question, “What is the chief end of man?” People began to say that the chief end of man is to bring souls to Christ, to evangelize, to be soul winners. Revivalism in the 1700’s-1800’s and the ministry of men like Charles Finney created a culture in which much of the focus went to the individual salvation experience. The purpose of the church was not so much to exalt God as it was to save the lost. This changed the nature and life of the church. Instead of magnifying the glory and splendor of God, attention shifted to the spiritual needs of the sinner. There was no active, intentional move away from God-centered church services, but God was no longer lifted up in the fullness of his being. Emphasis shifted to God’s love for sinners and his desire for sinners to be saved. In the church focused on God’s glory, God’s desire to save sinners was by no means ignored, but it was seen as part of the greater picture of the goodness of God. With the shift to emphasizing salvation, many changes came to church services and activities. Worship services did not so much teach who God is as call sinners to recognize their need for salvation. Many, if not most, of the ministries of the church became means of reaching out to lost people. Even when a church’s activities sought to build the saints, the purpose was often to help saints do a better job of sharing with the lost. Evangelism was not so much about spreading God’s glory as saving lost souls. Discipleship was not centered on a desire to grow believers in their knowledge of the glory of God and his intentions for his creation but emphasized equipping the saints to reach the lost. Where the former church focused upward on God, the church of the 20th century focused outward on the lost world. They did not forget about God, per se, but they did forget that there is more to God than just his desire to save the lost. They forgot that the greatest commandment is not “love your neighbors” but “love God”. Rather than seeing God in the fullness of his majesty, he was seen in his relation to sinners. In the former church, the end goal of salvation was bringing sinners to see the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. In the church of the 20th century, the end goal of salvation was keeping sinners out of Hell.

Today, things are shifting (and have shifted) again. From the church that emphasized God’s glory with an upward focus, to the church that emphasized the salvation of sinners with an outward focus, we have the church of the 21st century which emphasizes the satisfaction of the individual with an inward focus. Highly influenced by the skepticism of the modern world, educated in a culture that puts a premium on self-esteem and psychological well-being, and raised in a church culture that often seemed to speak more about the personal experience of individuals than about the Word of God, today’s church focuses on the feelings and experiences of individuals. God has completed his transition from the center of creation to the means to an end. Worship services are not meant to highlight either the glory of God or the individual need for salvation but are crafted to generate a euphoric emotional experience which leaves the individual feeling recharged and ready for more. God has become someone who helps us find personal satisfaction and accomplishment in our own lives. Christian Smith’s term for America’s #1 religion finds its meaning here: moralistic therapeutic deism. Moralistic in that some things continue to be held to be right and wrong (though morality is not so much determined by what the sovereign God has said as by what we determine to be best for ourselves). Therapeutic in a heavy emphasis on helping people overcome psychological struggles (anger, depression, anxiety, etc). Deistic from a view of God which minimizes him to the role of a distant helper: he is out there somewhere, but largely separate from us. When the rubber meets the road, the emphasis is on what we have to do to create satisfying life experiences for ourselves. The motivation for evangelism is not so much to help lost sinners find salvation, avoid Hell, and have eternal life and a relationship with God (the 20th century purpose) nor to guide fallen creatures to see the glory and worth of the eternal God, but to help hurting people find peace and healing in their lives. Satisfaction is not found in the knowledge of God’s goodness and grace but in community where we join with others to affirm our mutual brokenness and help one another achieve our individual goals in order to find fulfillment. In such a church, God becomes a garnish, a cosmic genie who adds a bit of color and helps us do what we want with our lives.

The condition of the modern church is a natural evolution from the 20th century church. Once the church turned its eyes away from the fullness of God and onto the need of individual sinners, it sent a message that the individual experience is of greater importance than God, that God exists to do us good rather than us existing to bring God glory.

The 20th century church was right to desire the salvation of the lost. The Bible overflows with the message of God calling sinners to his mercy and grace. Our own lives should reflect God’s desire to save the lost. But this desire comes as one part of our greater passion: our love for God, our marvel at his glory, our rejoicing in his grace, our wonder at his holiness, our fear of his wrath and power, our love for his creation, our desire to desire what he desires. While God clearly desires the salvation of sinners, this is not his greatest desire. God’s chief end is to glorify God. We see this in Isaiah 48:11 when God says his motivation to save his people is for my own sake and that he does it because my glory I will not give to another. Again in Ezekiel 20:9when God says he showed mercy to the Israelites in the wilderness for the sake of my name. Again in Psalm 25:11 when David seeks God’s mercy for your name’s sake. We see it in the ten commandments when we are told to have no gods before God – that nothing should take God’s place as the central focus of our lives. We see it in Jesus who in John 12:27-28 prays for his Father to be glorified in his suffering. We see it 1 Corinthians 10:31 when Paul instructs the church So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Every atom in creation exists for the glory of God. When we lose that focus, we slide into moralistic therapeutic deism, finding ourselves in the 21st century where God’s existence is reduced to a kindly gentleman who wants each person to feel good about himself.

The remedy for the dilemma of the modern church is to move our focus back to the vision and task God has given us: the pursuit of God’s glory. To do this we must cling firmly to his Word. We must not see the Bible as a collection of anecdotes useful to lead sinners to salvation, nor as a self-help book with some parts more useful than others at helping me build a better life. We must take the fullness of Scripture, learn it, know it, and live by it, knowing that in this Word we have what God wanted us to know about himself. We must return to a church culture where God reigns supreme, where all is given in submission to Christ, where all our words, all our teachings, all our prayers, all our songs resound with the light of the glory of God.

As long as today’s church continues to emphasize individual, subjective, psychological experiences, today’s church will continue in sickness and decadence. We will not see sinners become saints, we will not see the church speaking prophetically to the world, we will not see God’s glory magnified. Quite the opposite! We will continue to find ways to justify lifestyles contrary to Scripture (homosexuality justified because surely God wants all people to be happy in their life choices!), the church will look more and more like the world, and true, faithful, biblical Christianity will find itself increasingly marginalized and even persecuted within western society. It has already started and we are already far along this road. May God have mercy on his church, reviving us and returning us to our first love.

1 Dave Miller May 22, 2012 at 3:34 pm

The upward focus to the outward focus to the inward focus. Something to chew on. Good thoughts, Chris.

2 dr. james willingham May 22, 2012 at 4:00 pm

The answer to your question in your first paragraph about why young people abandon church is found in our school systems, our entertainment media, and the whole general ethos of our society. The school systems start with grade one as a noted creationist put it, “Millions and Millions of years ago….” Evolution is taught without critical evaluation or exposure to a counter view (in this case creation). Our people are willing to have it so, because it would require a lot of work, education, research, etc., to mount an adequate refutation. We tossed our our position of leadership in Western Civilization, when we turned our backs on the mind and adopted feely, feely, feely, feel goods as the way to go. Now we are going to have to claw our way back, and it is going to be costly in lost souls, agonizing effort, and extreme commitments. Consider how I have two volumes of works on logic written by one of the most noted hymn writers in our Baptist Hymn Book, Isaac Watts. Wow! A hymn writer who presents works to help us develop our powers of reason. They had a more synthetical approach back then, whereas, today, we know primarily and essentially only the analytical method, the present day scientific method which has serious flaws in it, not the least of which is what does one do when not only the hypothesis is testable for verification and corroboration, but also the null hypothesis is open to the same. In which case both are true. How in the world does one process that? And then there is the entertainment media which is focused upon the here and the now, upon what appeals in and to the flesh, pride, and lust. Not much in the way of godly, biblical principles and precepts, if any. The ethos, the whole moral attitude of the our civilization is rather narrowly focused, like on self. Government, news, business, altruistic endeavors/charitable efforts, industry, education, all are man-centered concerns. God is only allowed, if He or religion fits the agenda of man…not God. What will overcome such malaise? Only the knowledge of God, and that by prayer is not overcome but transforms the individual and society under the Divine blessing of the Presence.

3 Chris Roberts May 22, 2012 at 4:06 pm

James,

I think the factors you mention – the kinds of things kids learn in school, and the message we convey through our entertainment – certainly play a role, but one of my assumptions is that children being raised in the church will (should) receive a solid enough foundation in the faith that they would be equipped to resist the bad while holding to the good. That has clearly not happened.

One thing I’ll note is that my entry above is certainly incomplete. I do not consider all the factors involved – the message we receive from society, from our homes, from other information sources we take in, etc – in part due to length and in part because I want to consider where the church has fallen short in building saints who can stand firm in the face of a depraved society. It can certainly be done – one needs only look at the 1st century to see that – but we are not doing it.

4 dr. james willingham May 22, 2012 at 4:30 pm

Chris, my reply was not meant as a criticism, but, rather, as an assessment on what we all have faced, are facing, or will face. I don’t think we realize that the school, entertainment, and society have so much more time in which to focus their means of persuasion upon our children and upon ourselves in some cases. They also have refined and sophisticated methods with which to counter our usually feeble presentations of the truth. Only with the past 30-40 years have Christians begun to awaken to the great hostility present in our world, a hostility focused on believers and all that they stand for. When I started to college, very little was said about apologetics or about answering the critics and their criticisms. Today, doctorates are offered in those fields, and we are still facing a drain (like the brain drain of years ago) upon our churches exerted by the overwhelming dominance of a this worldly ethos. Our response will be effective as it is bathed in prayer and becomes dynamic, dramatic, and drastic in the sense that it comes to grips with the essence of the opposition’s case against us.

5 Christiane May 22, 2012 at 10:27 pm

CHRIS,

Christ, Himself, taught us to pray ‘in community’

‘OUR Father’
‘give US this day OUR daily bread’
‘lead US not into temptation’
‘deliver US from evil’

somehow the ‘biblical gospel’ needs to go back to the Holy Gospels to touch again the Words of The Holy

6 Chris Roberts May 23, 2012 at 11:04 am

Christiane,

I’m not real sure how your comment relates, no dispute that we are called to fellowship with one another, to build up one another, to disciple one another, to hold one another accountable, to even discipline one another – but all of this is with the goal of growing us in the grace and knowledge of Christ that we might be more faithful to God and better reveal him to the world.

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