Sunday, March 29, 2015

Loving Our Neighbor, Neglecting Our God: Pleasing [Postmodern] People

Part I: When loving neighbor becomes pleasing [postmodern] people.

Sometimes, it's tempting to tell people what they want to hear. To make them feel better about themselves. To avoid potential conflict and to smooth things over. But seeking to please people isn't always to serve them—often, it is to serve ourselves. For its underlying motivation is to win their acceptance, affirmation, affection, or allegiance for our own self-gain. People-pleasing can attract an audience. Fill pews. Sell conference tickets. People-pleasing can keep the peace (albeit temporarily). It can result in popularity. It can lead to worldly status. But Jesus said, "If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you." (John 15:19). If a Christian finds widespread popularity and acceptance in a secular world that hates Christ, this begs the question, is he really fulfilling the first and greatest commandment?

Clearly, pleasing people in place of God violates the greatest commandment, as expedient or advantageous as it may be. People-pleasing is something the Apostle Paul vehemently rejected, as is reflected in his letter to the Thessalonians when he explained to them, "We are not trying to please people, but God, who tests our hearts." (1 Thess 2:4). Paul was acutely aware that people-pleasing perpetuates the human desire to remain in the flesh, gives rise to false teaching, and rejects the authority of God. Yet tragically, there is a people-pleasing epidemic spreading within the Christian community, which is producing more and more unbiblical behavior in our churches—behavior that's often misrepresented as "loving neighbor."

Nowadays, too many of our church communities are consumer-driven rather than servant-minded, catering to the needs, interests, and preferences of people rather than seeking to grow them as disciples of Jesus. In our commitment-phobic, consumeristic society, the problem of "convenience-store Christianity" in which our churches have become distributors of faith-based goods and services rather than manifestations of God's Kingdom, is on the rise. In this context, the focus is on what the church can do for us (good kids' programs, an accommodating facility, inspiring sermons, fun events, a social network), not what we can do for the church. When this happens, we're not thinking so much about serving and glorifying God as we are about Him meeting our own needs and desires. And when a particular church doesn't meet our expectations, we soon lose interest and go elsewhere.

A concerning example of this can be seen among Christians who often self-identify as post-evangelical or Emergent believers—a growing, broad, and typically quite vocal, group who have taken on the indomitable task of rescuing Christianity from the stagnated tenets of traditional evangelicalism into a more "loving," culturally relevant, and "accessible" church environment. Pioneers of this movement (although many of them dislike the term, "movement") long for what Sam Storms has called "'a kinder, gentler' version of evangelicalism that is devoid of the doctrinal dogmatism, moral certainty, and absolutist mindset that they are convinced is out of touch with so-called postmodern developments in our culture."[1] In other words, the primary concern is to cater to, and retain, a post-modern audience.

Indeed, Emergents place great emphasis on the evolution of Western culture from modern to post-modern in order to show how fundamental aspects of traditional evangelicalism have been outmoded. The traditional traits in question are not limited to stained-glass windows, pews, and a "stuffy" church atmosphere alone, but include other fundamentals such as absolute truth and sound doctrine, along with the importance of apologetics and biblical teaching. This bold move away from Christian "dogma" in the name of "loving neighbor" is in essence an unapologetic departure from the what the Bible teaches with a view to becoming accessible and relatable to a post-modern world.

Many of these churches publish vague or ambiguous statements of faith—if, indeed, they publish one at all. Instead, Emergents endeavor to meet the needs of the postmodern world, which demands touchy-feely faith: narrative rather than propositions (“tell me your story, don’t explain principles”); affections and feelings over and above rational, linear thought; experience over truth; inclusion rather than exclusion; the corporate over the individualistic, etc. In this context, "tolerance is the principal virtue, as nothing is more indicative of the mentality of modernism than telling someone they are wrong (either intellectually, doctrinally, or morally)," as Storms so aptly puts it.[2]

Emergents—keeping in step with a culture that touts "self-esteem" as the answer to the gamut of societal woes—focus on building up the self, through their trendy self-help teaching and an insipid form of quick-fix spirituality that demands no heart-change on part of their audience, and blatantly contradicts our biblical exhortation to die to self (Mark 8:35; Luke 9:23; Gal 2:20). The focus, then, remains squarely on the self, not on God. While the self-helpism of the Emergent Church may generate popular appeal for a time, it is hardly sustainable for the long haul, however, for a shinier, newer trend of thought will soon come along to take the limelight.

Undoubtedly, though, Emergents are responding to very real problems in the Church, which should not be ignored; the evangelical Church in the West has seen worrying decline over recent decades. And the rift between the Christian and secular communities is certainly widening. Many evangelicals have chosen to huddle together, remaining safely within their own conservative Christian comfort zone, cutting themselves off from an increasingly secularized and hostile society. This is the antithesis of going out into the world and making disciples (Matt 28:19), which could certainly be a major contributing factor to the diminishing numbers of evangelical Church-attendance in America. (In contrast, the Mormon Church—in which a two-year stint of missionary service is mandatory for all males—is growing with notable rapidity. Indeed, Mormonism has been dubbed the fastest growing religion in America[3]). This highlights an important deficiency within the Christian Church. And so, the Emergent effort to attract people to the Church by reaching out in love is understandable, while sorely misapplied.

The outreach-mindedness of the Emergent church certainly strikes a biblical cord; it is true that we're called to be salt and light in the world, not to shut ourselves off from it. Making disciples can't be achieved inside a Christian bubble. But the fact is, Christians, by all worldly accounts, are called to believe a foolish message and live a foolish lifestyle. We need to get to grips with the fact that being salt and light in the world won't always mean we will be liked by the world. In fact, it usually means the opposite. Jesus was clear about this when He warned us that we would be rejected by the world because of Him (John 15:19)Yet we can take courage because God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise (1 Cor 1:27).

But, Emergent concepts of cultural sensitivity and loving neighbor conform to worldly patterns rather than the counter-cultural Word of God. Emergent churches strive to be relevant in a rapidly evolving culture, but in doing so they attempt to surf the cultural tide, failing to go against it, as following a counter-cultural Christ necessitates. And so, rather than mirroring Christ, they end up mirroring worldly culture in an effort to draw people in and build bridges between secular and Christian communities. Essentially, these churches look to the world first (not the Bible first) for the answers on how to reach unbelievers in their attempt to tailor the church-experience to a post-modern audience. As a result, inconvenient truths are often brushed under the rug and the seriousness of sin is downplayed so as not to alienate anyone.

But as an old pastor of mine used to say, "we are in sales not management." In other words, it is the role of the Holy Spirit to convict hearts, not ours to finesse the gospel to make it more culturally appealing. We are to proclaim the gospel message, and let the gospel stand for itself. For seeking to ingratiate ourselves to, and merge ourselves with, a world that has rejected Christ is like trying to mix oil and water. Moreover, the truth of the gospel is often lost in the mix, with "tolerance" taking precedence over the Word of God.

In the following article, some concerning examples of this pattern of behavior among a growing number of leading evangelicals are discussed.

< Part II: Tolerance over Truth


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