Recycling the Compromise of Liberalism

by

Christian history is a two thousand-year conversation between the church and the world. As Christians we are called to be in the world but not of it. Christians have lived out this tension in many ways. Some are neither of the world nor in it, and are therefore isolated. Others are both in the world and of it, and are therefore compromised.

Doubtless, few on either side would disagree with the ideals of the other, though cultural conservatives would stress the ideal of resistance to the world and cultural liberals would stress relevance in it. At the same time, almost no one would dispute that the biblical challenge is to be balanced. Everyone, however extreme in reality, would consider his or her own position the perfect model of balance. Beyond question, too, evangelicals have traditionally been toward the conservative pole, stressing cognitive defiance; whereas liberals have been on the progressive side, emphasizing cognitive bargaining with the cultured despisers of the Gospel.

But today we are confronted with a staggering change in the dynamic of this age-old dialogue. At the high noon of modernity, the world has become so powerful, pervasive, and appealing; that the traditional stance of cognitive defiance has become rare and almost unthinkable. For example, it is commonly said of contemporary evangelicals that we are “of the world while still not in it” because of our uncritical use of such everyday things as VCRs. Both in and of the world, many evangelicals are now outdoing liberals as the supreme religious modernizers—and compromisers—of today. Individual examples of compromise from the past are abundant. We may remember Rudolf Bultmann’s celebrated argument that modern people cannot use electric light and radio or call upon medicine in the case of illness and at the same time believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles. Without realizing it, Bultmann illustrated the shift from a description that is proper (“the scientific worldview has tended to increase secularity”) to a judgment that does not necessarily follow (“the scientific worldview makes the New Testament worldview incredible”). In the process he compromised.

Perhaps the most blatant example of this perverse bias toward compromise was the World Council of Churches’ dictum in 1966: “The world must set the agenda for the church.” Three decades later, it is hard to believe that such an advance warning of preemptive capitulation could have been trumpeted as a lofty and self-evident principle. But it is also worth checking to see whether there are similar inanities in the churchgrowth movement today.

Take, for example, the current church-growth infatuation with marketing the church. It echoes Bruce Barton’s 1920s best-seller The Man Nobody Knows, which portrayed Jesus as “the founder of modern business” and His parables as “the most powerful advertisements of all time.” Apparently, Jesus’ saying, “I must be about My Father’s business,” was taken with a literalistic seriousness worthy of a Muslim fundamentalist.

It still is. Consider the progression in the following sentences from a contemporary best-seller on the subject: “The church is a business.” “Marketing is essential for a business to operate successfully.” “The Bible is one of the world’s great marketing texts.” “The Bible does not warn against the evils of marketing.” “So it behooves us not to spend time bickering about techniques and processes.” “Think of your church not as a religious meeting place, but as a service agency—an entity that exists to satisfy people’s needs.” “The marketing plan is the Bible of the marketing game; everything happens in the life of the product because the plan wills it.”

This string of truths, half-truths, quarter-truths, and flat-out errors comes to a climax in a statement that is dead wrong, yet to much of the church-growth movement nothing short of canonical: “It is also critical,” the same author writes, “that we keep in mind a fundamental principle of Christian communication: the audience, not the message, is sovereign.”

Is this church-growth leader correct that the “sovereign audience” is “a fundamental principle of Christian communication”? Or is this a dangerously distorted half-truth and a recycling of the error of classical liberalism?

Like the Bereans in the New Testament, we have to examine such statements for ourselves and make our own biblical assessment. But while many people still appear moonstruck by the recent discovery of the sovereign audience, it is worth pondering a New Yorker lament about what is lost in the brave, new “audience-driven” preaching of the day: “The preacher, instead of looking out upon the world, looks out upon public opinion, trying to find out what the public would like to hear. Then he tries his best to duplicate that, and bring his finished product into a marketplace in which others are trying to do the same. The public, turning to our culture to find out about the world, discovers there is nothing but its own reflection. The unexamined world, meanwhile, drifts blindly into the future.”

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