At one point early on the Christian church was fighting for its very life. As such, it had absolutely no time for peripherals, for externalities, for superficialities, and for secondary issues. It had to stick to that which was essential. In Acts 2 we read about these four essentials:
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). And what does it then say just a few verses later? “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (v. 47).
The early church grew, multiplied, prevailed, triumphed and conquered because they concentrated on these basics. The early Christians did not rely on marketing techniques, advertising campaigns, celebrities, entertainment, specialised youth workers, international speakers, video nights, pizza parties, or weight loss seminars.
They relied simply on the Holy Spirit and they concentrated on teaching the Word of God and prayer. A pretty simple formula really. But it wasn’t even a formula – it was a way of life. They did not need gimmicks and famous entertainers and all kinds of razzmatazz.
How far have contemporary churches moved away from all of this? In his new book The Church Awakening, Charles Swindoll says this: “Our world has lost its way. So it’s no surprise when the church takes its cues from the world, the church begins to go astray as well. But must we resort to gimmicks for people to come to church? Is biblical reinterpretation the new essential for church growth? Must we dumb down historic Christianity into shallow entertainment in order to pamper consumers? May it never be!”
He continues, “I am convinced that the church doesn’t need marketing devices, worldly strategies, live entertainment, or a corporate mentality to be contagious. Not if the glory of God is the goal. Not if the growth of God’s people is in view. Rather, the church needs biblical truth taught correctly and clearly . . . and lived out in authenticity.”
Quite right. In a recent interview Swindoll continued to speak about this theme: “We live in a time with a lot of technology and media. We can create things virtually that look real. We have high-tech gadgets that were not available to previous generations. And we learned that we could attract a lot of people to church if we used those things. I began to see that happening about 20 years ago. It troubled me then, and it’s enormously troubling to me now because the result is an entertainment mentality that leads to biblical ignorance.
“And alongside that is a corporate mentality. We’re tempted to think of the church as a business with a cross stuck on top (if it has a cross at all). ‘We really shouldn’t look like a church.’ I’ve heard that so much I want to vomit. ‘Why?’ I ask. ‘Do you want your bank to look like a bank? Do you want your doctor’s office to look like a doctor’s office, or would you prefer your doctor to dress like a clown? Would you be comfortable if your attorney dressed like a surfer and showed movies in his office? Then why do you want your church’s worship center to look like a talk show set?’…
“Some time ago a group of church leaders decided that they didn’t want to be hated. They focused just on attracting more and more people. But if we’re here to offer something the world can’t provide, why would I want to copy the world? There is plenty of television. There are plenty of talk shows. There are plenty of comedians. But there is not plenty of worship of the true and living God.”
When asked about the place of innovation in our churches he replied, “Innovation doesn’t have to be loud or a gimmick. How about silence? Most people get no silence in their world. Imagine three or four minutes of silence. No music. No background distractions.
“Or change the order of worship. Start the service with an invitation rather than ending with it. Nothing in the Bible says to walk down an aisle. So be innovative. I’m not against screens, or new songs, or innovation. I just don’t like the gimmicks. I want to know when worship is over that that leader’s sole purpose was to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ. He’s not important to himself, and I’m not.
“Here’s what troubles me: I don’t know why leaders younger than me aren’t saying this. I’m not talking about novices, but the leaders in their forties and fifties. Why aren’t they raising questions and showing some concern for where the church is heading with its focus on media and headcount and passive spectating? I know one church that has 17 people on their media staff and only 12 on the pastoral staff.
“When a church is spending more of its budget on media than shepherding, something is out of whack. We have gotten things twisted around. My book is simply saying come back, folks. I’m not against innovation. But we need more wisdom.”
He concludes by reminding us where to keep our focus: “I tell them, ‘Keep me off the pedestal. You’re heading for a real disappointment if you put me on that pedestal. I am a sinner just like you are. Yeah, I’ve got gifts. I can’t help it. That’s the way God made me. But don’t think I’m better than I am.’
“One of the best pieces of counsel I got was from a staffer with The Navigators named Jim Petersen. He had ministered in Sao Paulo, Brazil, for years with great effectiveness. I said, ‘How did you do it, Jim?’ He said, ‘Oh, I let them see the cracks in my life.’ I love that answer.
“So I blow it from time to time. I lose my place in my sermon. The other Sunday I read from the wrong passage of Scripture – I was a full book away from where I was supposed to be. We all had a good laugh about it. I let people see the cracks in my life. We can’t be phony. We’ve got to keep it real.”
Indeed, it’s all about Spirit-empowered reality versus showmanship, gimmicks, and the celebrity culture. All the great men and women of God said as much. As but one example, E.M Bounds, the 19th century pastor, put it this way:
“The Church is looking for better methods; God is looking for better men. The Holy Ghost does not flow through methods, but through men. He does not come on machinery, but on men. He does not anoint plans, but men…Men of prayer.”
We so very much need to seriously heed those words today.