Written by: John MacArthur
Entering a new decade started me thinking about all that has happened in the church over the past twenty years. The 1970s were an exciting time. We saw an unprecedented rise in conservative evangelicalism, the explosion of Christian broadcasting and publishing, a number of excellent new Bible translations and study aids, the proliferation of small-group Bible studies, and tremendous growth in Bible-believing congregations.
In the midst of it all, one sensed a sincere desire to exalt the Lord, a love for God’s Word, a hunger to understand it, and–within the church, at least–a renewed interest in holiness, combatting the steady moral decay that had gained such a foothold in the ’60s.
Those phenomena could have been harbingers of genuine spiritual revival.
But the ’80s were a decade of decline. Not numerical decline in most of our churches (though I’m concerned that this may happen yet), but a spiritual decline. The church has actually turned away from true revival and pursued instead the popularization of Christianity.
The pop church is everywhere. It is perhaps most evident on religious television, where the diet of celebrity variety shows and other forms of entertainment has decreased the taste for worship. It is quickly gaining a foothold in Christian radio, where phone-in talk shows and live psychotherapy are replacing Bible teaching as the staple. It has ravaged local churches, turning them into little more than social clubs and community centers where the focus is on the individual’s felt needs, not on the church’s function as the Body of Christ in the world.
The trends of pop Christianity pose dangers more subtle than the liberalism that threatened the church in the first half of the century. Instead of attacking orthodoxy head on, the pop church gives lip service to the truth while quietly undermining the foundations of doctrine. Instead of exalting God it denigrates the things that are precious to Him.
The pop church is not a single movement or visible organization. Tendencies toward popular religion can be found even in some of the finest churches and Christian organizations in evangelicalism.
Tragically, the church appears to be actually moving the opposite direction from true revival. As we enter the ’90s, the trends become more and more evident.
First, there is in vogue today a tendency to make the basis of faith something other than God’s Word. Experience, emotion, fashion, and popular opinion are often in reality more authoritative than the Bible in determining what many Christians believe.
The charismatic movement, of course, has led the way in this failure by claiming private, individual revelation is a valid and normal way God manifests Himself. Why should we carefully study the Bible when we can get personal messages and fresh prophecy from some charismatic experience?
But non-charismatics have not been exempt from teachings that undermine biblical authority. Secular psychology, for instance, has virtually superseded God’s Word at the core of curriculum in some of our conservative seminaries. Christian counseling reflects this drift, frequently offering no more than experimental and unscriptural self-help therapy instead of solid answers from the Bible.
Christian missionary work is often riddled with pragmatism and compromise, because too many in missions have evidently concluded that what gets results is more important than what God says.
That’s true among local churches as well. It has become quite fashionable to forego the proclamation and teaching of God’s Word in worship services. Instead, churches serve up a smorgasbord of drama, music, and other forms of entertainment.
All of this dethrones Scripture from its rightful place as the basis for our faith.
Second, pop Christianity has a tendency to move the focus of faith away from God’s Son. You’ve seen that repeatedly if you watch much religious television. Center stage belongs to the celebrity evangelist, the fund-raising campaign, or the miracles and healings–anything but the Lord Jesus.
Furthermore, the faith those programs ordinarily exemplify is surrealistic. The people we see are nearly always bubbly, giggly, and giddy. Instead of biblical faith, which rejoices in the midst of trials, what we usually see is a thin, and fragile emotionalism that talks of deliverance but seems merely to be a form of escapism.
The health-wealth-and-prosperity gospel advocated by so many televangelists is the ultimate example of this kind of fantasy-faith. Appealing unabashedly to the flesh, this false gospel corrupts all the promises of Scripture and encourages greed. It makes material blessing, not Jesus Christ, the object of the Christian’s desires.
Easy-believism handles the message differently, but the effect is the same. Here is the perfect message for pop Christianity. It is the promise of forgiveness minus the gospel’s hard demands. It has done much to popularize “believing” but little to provoke sincere faith.
Christ is no longer the focus of the message. We may hear His name mentioned from time to time, but the real focus seems is inward, not upward. People are urged to look within; to try to understand themselves; to come to grips with their problems, their hurts, their disappointments; to have their needs met, their desires granted, their wants fulfilled. Nearly all the popular versions of the message encourage and legitimize a self-centered perspective.
Such an emphasis cannot help but shift the focus away from Christ.
Third, today’s pop Christianity is infected with a tendency to view the result of faith as something less than God’s standard of holy living. I thought of this recently as one of the fallen televangelists was again in the news. Several of his loyalists were demonstrating against his conviction and imprisonment by carrying signs with the word “FORGIVEN!” in large red letters.
We must be forgiving, but forgiveness is not the end and the aim of the Christian faith; holiness unto the Lord is (2 Cor. 7:1; Eph. 1:4; 5:25-27).
By downplaying the importance of holy living–both by precept and by example–the pop church has undermined the biblical doctrine of conversion. A celebrity show-business personality professes faith in Christ but continues in an ungodly lifestyle. No one thinks anything of it–or worse, the pop church continues to herald that person as an example of a true believer.
That eats at the heart of the Christian faith. Think about it: What could Satan do to try to destroy the church that would be more effective than undermining God’s Word, shifting the focus off Christ, and minimizing holy living? All those things are happening slowly, steadily within the church right now. Tragically, most Christians seem oblivious to the problems, satisfied with a Christianity that is fashionable and highly visible.
The true church must not ignore these threats. If we fight to keep the church pure, we can conquer external attacks easily. But if we let error into the church, we will not be able to regain the purity without waging civil war.
I fear that may be happening even now. The church of the past decade has become so broad and inclusive that many otherwise sound Christians avoid speaking the truth for fear of being divisive. Recently, for example, a major Christian radio network wrote to ask me not to teach again on a certain passage of Scripture. “We agree with what you say,” the network executive told me, “but many of our constituents do not, and we’re committed to peace.”
We cannot have peace if it means we must avoid whole passages of Scripture! The unity Jesus prayed for is a unity based on common commitment to truth. It is a oneness made possible because we are sanctified in the truth (John 17:19-21), not a false unity borne of compromise.
May the church of the ’90s reverse these trends and pray instead for a fresh infusion of the Holy Spirit’s power.