- A group of speakers that is interdenominational (Reformed, Baptist, Charismatic) but all belong to a distinctive group are on the radio show run by one of them. I’ll call the group, off the cuff, Objectivist/Conceptual. They represent, they obviously believe, the best of ecumenical predestinarian soteriology, theology, and church practice, and they are discussing the “emergent church” movement. These targets of their criticism believe that we must “reinvent the way we do church.” But this is obviously nonsense. Each one of these few men pastors a church that could deservedly be called “mega,” and they see new people coming into their congregations. Obviously, everything is fine. The real key to healthy churching is for everyone to imitate them.
- An independent Reformed congregation in a small town grows from a few to almost a thousand, planting churches and being key to the start of a new denomination. They have a host of particulars that have worked for them which others are prone to emulate.
I’m sure I could go on, because nothing about what I am saying is limited to Reformed congregations. I’m sure it could be said of the “Emergent Church” success stories as well. Or anything else.
We live in a nation of hundreds of millions of people. If you look long enough you will find almost anything working. Be careful.
Let me put it this way. Say Joel Olsteen is as heretical as I hear he is. (I have no opinion since I haven’t read anything firsthand and since I refuse to publicly believe anything I read from any Reformed critic in our present hour.) Fine. Lets say Olsteen had been converted to the true faith in the past so that he is now preaching a message that is just as unattractive as yours is. His church would probably still be larger than yours. And if not, it might be due to a bunch of accidental factors having to do with the local economy or whether another mega-church blew up at just the time he was planting his own.
People have gifts and they do amazing things. The Spirit does not limit gifts to those with correct theology or method. Some church leaders are going to grow a church and others aren’t. There is nothing that says that we should be able to look across the vast data-pool that is the demographic of the United States, and produce a few examples that will show “what works.” Maybe nothing works. Maybe everything works. It depends more than we want to believe on personality and providence.
Four national church leaders in a room have no business assuring us that they represent anything about the future of the church. The only reason they are prominent is precisely because they and their churches stick out from the landscape as exceptional. If they weren’t anomalous, no one would take notice of them and they wouldn’t get their own radio show. That tells us nothing about whether they are the beginnings of a swelling wave or the pools left over from a receding tide (and this, either way, tells us nothing about what God thinks of their distinctive commitments).
And this applies in all sorts of directions. We all say we are just following “the truth,” but for better or worse (both usually) we find the truth embodied in communities. Reproducing that sort of community life becomes our vision (as it often should) and we assume that all the community’s principles are responsible for its existence (as they almost never are, at least not to the degree of importance ascribed to them).
Not sure what the implications of this are. Pray a lot. Look for demographic research that covers a great many more variables. Pray often. Make sure that all your principles are really found in the Word of God and aren’t simply extra credible because they were embodied somewhere successfully. Pray a great deal.
And there is more. A hope deferred, God assures us, will make a heart sick. Not, “might make a heart sick if he is not pious enough.” We meet pastors in horrible congregational situations and we meet pastors in wonderful congregational situations. We notice a difference in their personalities, in their stance, even in their postures. Take some advice from the atheist Hume: don’t pretend to understand cause and effect. You have no idea if the neurotic pastor caused a bad situation or if he bears the scars of being in a bad situation. And you have no idea what economic and demographic wave might have swelled up under the other. You simply can’t tell (though any number of search committees operate every year under the assumption that this is all self-evident).
And don’t adapt your theology to your circumstances as a result of disappointment. The Great Commission still stands and God’s work to Isaiah is that it is “too light a thing” for Him to merely save a remnant. Success stories may appeal to you for fleshly reasons, but rejecting success may be just a fleshly. Maybe it is God’s will that you live in frustration. Maybe being faithful in your situation means refusing to get comfortable with your situation.