Book: Lord, What Should I Do?

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Research clearly shows that a huge factor in churchgoers deciding to leave church is mediocre teaching. Concerning this lack of relevant content from the pulpit, Duin says time-strapped pastors often download sermon material off the Internet. A tremendous number of pastors get their material off of Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church site (www.pastors.com) and Joel Osteen’s resources site (www.joelosteen.com). According to those who have studied this issue—such as Haddon Robinson of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary—online “borrowing” is “a national problem. If [pastors] do this regularly, [their] brain shrivels up” (p. 103). Patrick Reardon, theology professor at Ambridge, Pennsylvania, suggests the problem is much worse—that pastors are “intellectually lazy. The average evangelical pastor is not a man of the Scriptures. In fact, they are very weak on the Scriptures…” (Duin, p. 104; emphasis added). Reardon faults today’s churches for their overall lack of substance, noting that they appear to be more interested in novel programs and marketing schemes designed to attract new members. Meanwhile, the members they already have “are seriously famished. They have not had a serious [spiritual] meal in years.”

Research conducted in 2006 by LifeWay again pointed to a rapid decline in church attendance. For example, the number of Americans who identified themselves as Southern Baptists dropped from 10 percent in 1995 to just six percent in 2001. LifeWay’s Brad Waggoner wanted to know why. He found that many churches have done a poor job of grounding people in their faith and explaining what it really means to make a commitment to be Christian. According to Waggoner, the typical church is not educating people by teaching Scripture in an understandable and applicable way (Duin, p. 108). Writing in a 2006 column in Christianity Today, Chuck Colson reported that what is now being offered in church “is just getting dumbed down more and more.” He points to an overemphasis on worship music. “Music is important in the life of the church…. But it cannot take the place of solid teaching” (p. 108).

Other experts told Duin that churchgoers “are sick, mentally ill, furious, and angry with life. If the church wants to meet people’s needs, it needs to find a way of teaching people so they really [know how to] change their lives” (p. 106). Detroit Anglican priest Richard Kim told Duin that “the church [has become] irrelevant, boring and powerless. The gospel is not preached; or, where it is preached, it is usually in philosophical blah-blah language void of the power of God” (p. 109; emphasis added). The well-known New York-based evangelist David Wilkerson said, “The messages being brought forth from pulpits are comprised of motivational pep talks, jokes and entertainment. It’s all spiritual baby food….” He says repentance is not being taught in the churches, and wonders if pastors are afraid of offending their flocks and losing numbers (p. 110).

This is reminiscent of the prophet Isaiah’s warning concerning those “who say to the seers, ‘See not,’ [don’t tell us about God’s coming judgment] and to the prophets [teachers], ‘Do not prophesy to us right things [such as repentance from sin], speak to us smooth things, prophesy illusions’ ” (Isa. 30:10). Tell us things to make us feel good about ourselves; tell us God is pleased with us as Christians. But there is perhaps no greater illusion than to think that one “has it all together” as a Christian. In His corrective letter to the church of the Laodiceans, Jesus warned of this very attitude—of being self-satisfied, complacent, having “need of nothing” (Rev. 3:14-21).

In his 2007 book Loving God When You Don’t Love the Church, pastor Chris Jackson says he is running into a lot of people who are disillusioned. Their Christian experience is not the life-changing experience they thought it would be. “The hunger in people today is for a combination of practical truth they can apply and experience. People are looking for Jesus, period. If they found a place they felt embodied in a relationship with Him, far fewer people would leave the church” (Duin, p. 116; emphasis added). One disappointed dropout told Duin, “There is little or no teaching on how to die to ourselves [repentance] and what that might look like. Nor are we taught how to live by faith and what that looks like…. We are missing the power of the Holy Spirit…” (p. 112; emphasis added). Duin concludes that there is “much more to the Christian life than we are experiencing, but we do not know [are not being taught] how to find it or what it looks like.”

According to research by the Barna Group, there is a “huge gap between the perception of pastors and the reality of the people’s devotion to God. Pastors evaluate spiritual health from an institutional perspective—that is, are people involved in keeping the system going—while [only] people [themselves] are aware of their unmet need to have a deeper and more meaningful relationship with God” (Duin, p. 128). Churchgoers need to hear preaching on child rearing, marriage, divorce, chastity, godliness, unanswered prayer—the real issues people are facing. But there seems to be an avoidance of such key issues. Why? Are pastors simply incompetent, out of touch, in over their heads—or are they afraid of offending their congregations?

Compounding this “pablum for substance” problem is the fact that churchgoers are not being taught how to study their Bibles. A survey conducted by the Willow Creek Church of South Barrington, Illinois, led researchers to the conclusion that much of Christianity has failed to teach believers how to become “self-feeders”—how to read and study their Bibles on their own (Duin, p. 172).

On the flip side of all this are those who are quite satisfied with the pablum coming from today’s pulpits. For them, church is nothing more than a social club. They have embraced what Duin calls a “costless Christianity that’s easily maintained” (p. 116). Jesus corrected the religious hobbyists of His day for this very same approach: “Hypocrites! Isaiah has prophesied well concerning you, saying, ‘These people have drawn near to Me [God] with their mouths, and with their lips they honor Me’ ”—they say all the right things, sing praises to God every Sunday morning, etc.—“ ‘but their hearts are far away from Me. For they worship Me in vain, teaching for doctrine the commandments of men’ ” (Matt. 15:7-9). They teach what men want to hear— “smooth things.”

Likewise, the prophet Jeremiah wrote: “An astounding and horrible thing has happened in the land. The prophets [pastors] prophesy [teach] falsely, and the priests bear rule by their means; and My people love to have it so…” (Jer. 5:30-31). They love to hear “soft doctrine”—but nothing that will prick their consciences. And their “pastors” willingly oblige—they preach only what the people want to hear, for fear of offending their congregations and losing their income or lofty positions.

Ezekiel also wrote of such “churchgoers”: “[The] children of your people are … speaking to one another, each man to his brother, saying, ‘I pray you, come and hear what is the word [preached] which comes forth from the LORD.’ And they come to you [pastors] as the people [have traditionally] come, and they sit before you as My people [on Sunday mornings], and they hear your words. But they will not do them.” Why? They have not been taught true repentance of sin or to reverence God’s commandments. “For with their mouth they show much love [again, they say all the right things; they sound like Christians], but their heart goes after their covetousness” (Ezek. 33:30-31). Such “love” is only a counterfeit, as opposed to the genuine love of God instilled by the Holy Spirit into the lives of true believers (Rom. 5:5).

They “talk the talk,” but do not “walk the walk.” They love to look and sound like good Christians, but they do not want to do the works of a real Christian—do not want to give up their way of life: adultery, fornication, divorce, alcohol abuse, materialism, etc. They have bought into the lie of “costless Christianity”—a “Christianity” void of godly works, void of overcoming the pulls and weaknesses of the flesh; a religion in name only, in which adherents profess the name of Christ, but practice sin as a way of life.

In ignorance, many nominal Christians are practicing a form of “grace turned to license.” In II Thessalonians two, the apostle Paul warned of what he called the “mystery of lawlessness” (verse 7)—the very spirit or mindset behind “costless Christianity.” Paul wrote that this “mystery” was already at work in his time as nominal Christians were embracing “grace” without corresponding good works or obedience to the commandments of God.

Like the Laodiceans of the apostle John’s day, such churchgoers are blind to their true spiritual condition. To them Jesus says: “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot; I would that you be either cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and are neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of My mouth. For you say, ‘I am [spiritually] rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’; and you do not understand that you are wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.

“I counsel you to buy from Me gold purified by fire so that you may be rich; and white garments [righteousness—obedience to God’s laws] so that you may be clothed, and the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and to anoint your eyes with eye salve, so that you may see. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore, be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me” (Rev. 3:15-20). Notice that no true relationship exists between God and such nominal Christians; God is in fact on the outside—at the door, urging repentance.

Indeed, Satan—a true master of seduction—is skillfully and subtly using powerful spiritual weapons to render the church impotent. As we have seen, incompetence, ignorance and negligence on the part of too many pastors have been key factors in the overall failure of American “churchanity.” And while church pastors typically have the best of intentions, many are, by biblical standards, nothing more than false ministers.

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