First, check out this two-minute video of Mark Driscoll talking about theology and pragmatism in the modern church:
He has touched on what begins the problem and what perpetuates the problem. When the church runs like a provider of goods and services it slowly stops asking "What glorifies God?" and starts asking more and more "What do our customers want?", and as the pragmatic business model subsumes biblically formulated community, the dictum "The Customer is Always Right" becomes more of a guiding principle than a motivating God-centeredness.
In other words, as "What People Want" becomes more central in the life of the church, our theology becomes more flexible and less faithful.
The Church is suffering terribly from theological bankruptcy, and we desperately need to recover the roots of orthodoxy before those who care are too few and before those who care are too few to do anything about it.
In this entry in the series I want to survey the problem(s) and offer some solutions.
First, a list of factors contributing to the problem:
1. Pastors increasingly hired for their management skills rather than their wisdom. Pastors increasingly hired for their "dynamic speaking" rather than their commitment to and exposition of the Scriptures. Pastors who are hired to increase numbers rather than proclaim the Gospel.
Now, of course, none of those contrasted qualities are mutually exclusive. Pastors can be both skillful managers and biblically wise, they can be both great speakers and great students of Scripture, and they can both attract crowds and proclaim the Gospel. The problem is that, while they are not mutually exclusive, the latter qualities in each contrast have lost priority and consequently have lost favor.
2. The equation of "worship" with an entertainment-driven portion of a weekly worship service. The dilution of the understanding of worship is a direct result of the dilution of theology in the church.
3. The prevalent eisogesis in classes and small groups. Leaders either don't have the spiritual gift of teaching or teachers haven't received training, and the result is that most of our Bible studies are predicated on "What does this mean to you?" as opposed to "What does this mean?" Application supplants interpretation. Disagreement is feared and therefore theological accommodation occurs.
4. The vast gulf between the theological academy and the church. We have this notion that theology is something that takes place somewhere "out there" while we're doing the real work of the Christian faith with our church programs. (I have highlighted some examples of where bridging this gulf will be more and more necessary in Hot Potatoes the Church Must Handle.)
5. Biblical illiteracy. Our people don't know their Bibles very well, and this is the fault of a generation of wimpy preaching and teaching (in the church and in the home).
Connected to this factor is the church's accommodation and assimilation of the culture's rapid shifting from text-based knowledge to image-based knowledge.
6. A lackadaisical approach to the sacraments.
That's just a few. There are more.
Now, some ways to reverse the trend and recover churchly God-centeredness:
1. Pastors must study and read, and read and study. Then do it some more. This is partly the congregation's fault for both assuming that reading and studying aren't real work and therefore don't deserve to be compensated and for demanding short, motivational messages that don't interfere with our physical and intellectual comfort. But a pastor must protect his flock from theological compromise (see the laundry list of Scriptures warning against influencing heresies) and this assumes a pastor rigorously protecting himself from theological compromise.
2. Pastors must preach the Bible with their thoughts thrown in. "As opposed to what?" you may ask. As opposed to preaching their thoughts with some Bible thrown in. There is nothing wrong with substantive topical preaching, but the common exercise of this homiletic form involves too little Scripture, and Scripture handled too casually. The Bible is not a quotable quotes sourcebook. It is your primary text. Preach passages. In context. Expound on them. Explain them. Be passionate about them more than your own words. Be passionate about what the Scriptures say about God and about us, no matter how uncomfortable or unsexy the message may be. Be driven by Scripture, not your points.
3. Pastors must bridge that gulf between the theological academy and the church. Ponder the theological issues of the time, read texts and wrestle with their implications, and communicate biblical responses to your congregations in interesting, understandable ways. This isn't about Truth Wars, so urging your folks to boycott The Golden Compass won't suffice. This is about safeguarding the theological heritage of the church and the academy can't do that for us. Pastors tending to people must.
Read theology and commentaries more than you read self-help and business model books. Listen to this message by Gregg Heinsch: Pastor as Resident Theologian.
Pastors, you are the resident theologians of your church, whether you think you are or not. Whether you want to be or not.
4. Churches should identify those with the spiritual gifts of teaching and leadership and make sure they are both discipled and discipling, mentored and mentoring. Establish them in sound, basic doctrine and then turn them around and let them teach/lead simple classes in sound, basic doctrine for the congregation.
5. Impress upon every minister of the church the need for doctrinal soundness, especially those planning and leading "worship." If need be, pastors should act as theological gatekeepers for what songs are featured in a worship gathering, at least until a worship leader learns how to be that gatekeeper him or herself. The preaching time is, ideally, when we hear God's Word to us. The praising time is, ideally, when God hears our words to him. It is a shame and a sin that too often our words are self-involved and self-congratulatory, and frequently, even when they do reference God, they do so flippantly and superficially. We are guilty of taking God's name in vain with our church music. We must recover the glory and wonder and drama of God-centered worship.
6. Don't miss the forest for the trees. Recovering theological pursuit in the church can go off the rails if it becomes about:
a) dull, dry, decontextualized doctrine
b) warring against one side in the Church's ongoing philosophical skirmishes (eg. Calvinism vs. Arminianism, pretrib/posttrib/midtrib/premil/postmil/amil, etc.)
c) the elevation of non-essentials
Don't miss the forest for the trees. Theology (theos = God, logos = words, knowledge) is about knowing God. The subject of the pursuit may be knowledge, but the object of the pursuit must be deeper relationship with God.
Theology cannot be mere intellectual exercise, but it must exercise the intellect in ways that stir the heart and soul. Practice biblical theology within the thematic context of devotional theology (by which I mean teaching the theological meat of Scripture in ways that don't just provide information but inspire transformation and deeper devotion to God). Practice systematic theology within the practical context of pastoral theology (eg. showing someone doubting their salvation the Scriptural teaching on assurance, showing someone tempted to abandon the faith for another religion from Scripture the "reasonableness" of Christianity).
7. Recover the centrality of the Gospel.
That last one will do it. The simplicity of the Gospel message (sin, grace) belies the infinite treasures within. Focus on it, thrive on it. Put in the front and back and center of all you do. Beat it like a drum (or, as Driscoll says, like a band that plays the same song over and over).
If we are sufficiently scandalized by grace and sufficiently scandalize others with grace, we will be so in awe of and so in love with God, that knowing more and more about him and plunging deeper and deeper into his revealed word will not seem boring or impractical or irrelevant.
And a Church that is on fire with the awesome power of the Gospel is a Church that is on fire with a theology that will shine a light to nations and cultures that cannot be ignored.
The Formation of Reformation is a weekly series surveying the overarching theme of this blog -- namely, "reformation of the discipleship culture of the American church." New posts in the series appear each Wednesday.
The Formation of Reformation, Part 1: Pastoral Culture
The Formation of Reformation, Part 2: Experiencing Community
The Formation of Reformation, Part 3: Worship Culture