We’ve all heard the horror stories. First there was the church that offered visitors a free oil change during the “service” if you would come. Then we heard of simple cash rewards. More recently a church raffled off a new Harley Davidson motorcycle. You couldn’t buy raffle tickets; you could only earn them either by visiting or bringing visitors in. Tetzel is spinning in his grave, but only because he is appalled that he never got this sophisticated.
We have our standard ways of measuring the worldliness of the church. We can note that the divorce rate within the evangelical church is roughly equal to the rate among the lost. In one mammoth evangelical denomination, the rate is actually higher. We can look at it ideologically and note that over half those polled who consider themselves evangelical also affirm that there is no such thing as objective truth. Or, we can see the fruit of that affirmation.
In a time of philosophical crisis in ancient Greece, when two competing schools of thought found themselves in a Mexican standoff, a new school arose. The Sophists did not take a side in the titanic struggle between Heraclitus and Parmenides, between the many and the one. Instead they argued that arguing was a waste of time. This school was interested in persuasion, not proof. In fact, like modern relativists, they believed that proof was impossible.
In the modern, or perhaps postmodern West, we are sophists once again. We have added this Western twist — pragmatism. Now persuasion is no longer in the pursuit of rhetorical laurels, but is in the service of selling things. Indeed we live in such a sophisticated age that we are told that the key to success is selling even ourselves. And once again the church has fallen prey to the wisdom of the world. We think that our pathway to success lies in selling ourselves, in presenting ourselves not just as a product, but as a superior product. What was once the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church has become now Oakmont Family Worship Center. The trouble is that there are no oaks, no mountains, few families (that is, the families all split and go their separate ways as soon as they enter), no worship, and precious little center.
What Oakmont Family Worship Center offers instead is a series of bulletpoint benefits that fit the demographics of the area. They have a gym, a wide array of twelve-step programs, youth groups, women’s groups, men’s groups, singles groups, and, of course, their own coffee bar right in the narthex, I mean, the “greeting center.” Which in turn means that not only are there no oaks, mountains, families, worship or center, but neither is it one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.
It is not one because, unlike the true church, its being isn’t centered on the work of Christ. It spits on the liturgy, on the music, even on the convictions of our fathers. It is the first church of what’s happening now, and thus is untethered from the church in history.
Neither, of course, is the church holy. It not only is not set apart, but labors diligently to mimic the world. It is unholy on purpose, because its reason for being is pleasing the lost, rather than the One who finds the lost. It moves from embracing the wisdom of this world in embracing a sophist agenda, which, in turn, leads it into embracing the wisdom of the world, because that’s what attracts the world. The church begins with the assumption that it can be whatever it wishes and concludes by wishing to be just like the world.
The prototypical Oakmont is not catholic either. Not only does it begin with a marketing strategy, but that marketing strategy is to reach a particular niche (virtually always yuppies, not coincidentally). “Oakmont” is focused on bringing in upwardly mobile professionals. Its vision of the church extends only as broadly as the demographic it is seeking. When we affirm the catholicity of the church we are not only affirming that the church encompasses every tongue and tribe, but that it unites every tongue and tribe. And, as noted above, it transcends time, uniting this century and the last, and the one before that, all the way back to the Garden.
Worst of all, Oakmont is not apostolic. It rejects not only the faith once delivered unto the saints, but likewise it rejects the messengers who delivered that faith. It takes its cues from modern-day church growth gurus, who, in turn, take their cues from the madmen of Madison Avenue. Oakmont isn’t concerned with what the apostles said because they make their decisions based on what the market says. And one thing the market cannot bear is sound, old, demanding doctrine. When demographics divide, that’s good marketing. But when doctrine divides, that’s bad marketing.
Sophistry in the church, then, not only guts the church of her defining marks but gives her a new identity. Now she is no longer the bride of Christ, but a painted lady. When the church hustles the world, it becomes a worldly hustler. In short, like Israel before her, when the church cavorts with the world, she finds her lamp stand removed, she finds herself divorced and alone. The world is a cruel lover, but more important, God is a jealous God. When the church plays to consumers, she will find herself consumed by the One who is a consuming fire. Praise God, however, that the church itself, the true church, will never fall. For her Groom has promised, despite her wandering eye, to remove every blot and blemish. And all His promises are yea and amen.
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