[Editor's Note: "The Great Commission is not a marketing manifesto," wrote John MacArthur in "Ashamed of the Gospel." Seventeen years later, Crossway has re-issued this mostly unheeded prophetic book as an ever-relevant beacon to church leaders drowning in a quagmire of trends and fads. The following is adapted from the 2010 and 1993 prefaces of Ashamed of the Gospel, third edition.]
Sometime in the summer of 2007, I picked up a copy of Ashamed of the Gospel for the first time in fourteen years and started thumbing through it. Before I put the book down again, I had devoured eight chapters. I was pleased and amazed to see the enduring relevance of the book—especially since I wrote it to critique the notion that relevance is achieved by dragging the church from fad to fad in a vain effort to stay abreast of the times.
Of course, my passion for the message of this book has not diminished since I first proposed the idea to my publisher, but I was nevertheless surprised and encouraged to see how much of what I wrote in 1993 is expressed exactly as I would want to say it today. While I am disappointed by how accurately (and speedily) the predictions I made have been fulfilled, I am not disheartened, and I intend to keep sounding the warning as long as the Lord gives me breath. In fact, before putting the book down that day, I resolved to do my best to see it released again in a new, expanded edition.
Only rarely do I re-read my own books, especially those that were first published more than a decade ago. In this case, "more than a decade ago" was a different century! The world of 1993 was another time in many significant ways. That was a unique year, strikingly different from the rest of the twentieth century—but also nothing at all like the Internet era, which was just about to begin.
History will no doubt always remember the early 1990s as a pivotal time in human history. In 1992, conservative op-ed commentator George Will published a compilation of his newspaper columns written over the prior three years. He titled the anthology Suddenly, which perfectly captured the spirit of the day. Suddenly, confusingly, everything was in flux. Worldly fads and philosophies were changing faster than ever. The changes were global and profound, affecting everything from art to zoology. Ideological changes, societal changes, political changes, and moral changes were the order of the day. The shifting of so many opinions and boundaries all at once was both drastic and disorienting.
No wonder. Every important worldview built on "modern" thought was now utterly discredited. Some of the most basic presuppositions modern secular society had staked out as true and certain were left totally in tatters.
THE END OF THE COLD WAR
A major turning point had occurred on November 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell literally overnight, signaling the failure of European Communism. The end of Lenin's legacy came very quickly—and so did other monumental changes, all with stunning speed. Gorbachev, Glasnost, and the Gulf War dominated the news at the start of the 90s, but the Gulf War ended in early 1991, and the Soviet Union collapsed in August of that same year. Boris Yeltsin boldly defied an attempted coup, took the reins of Russian power, and began the formal dissolution of the Soviet empire.
By 1993, the world was emphatically renouncing the values of the Cold War. We were watching our parents' concept of "modernity" quickly fade in the rearview mirror. The word postmodernism was just starting to be used here and there in popular discourse—but the set of ideas it stands for were already evident everywhere. Before most people even realized we had witnessed the end of the modern era, postmodern values had completely altered the way the world thinks and talks about truth.
There was, of course, a positive side to the end of modernity. Many modern presuppositions needed to be debunked—starting with the notion that science and human reason are reliable arbiters of truth and falsehood. Modernity, nicknamed "The Age of Reason" by its earliest advocates, more or less began with a rejection of Scripture's authority and the elevation of the human mind in its place. The fall of every major modern ideology exposed the hubris of that way of thinking, and that was unequivocally a good development.
Besides that, the worldwide remapping of political alliances opened wonderful new opportunities for ministry. I was privileged to make numerous trips to the former Soviet Union, teaching groups of pastors and preaching in Russian and Ukrainian churches. I went at the behest of Soviet Baptists and formed relationships with them that endure strongly to this day. During my earliest visits to that part of the world, I was absolutely amazed to see the strength and vitality of evangelical churches there. Their worship services were the very picture of austere simplicity—just the preaching of the Word and the celebration of the ordinances, totally devoid of the flash and entertainment being touted as essential tools for the times by all the "experts" back home. That got me thinking more deeply than ever about how the Lord builds His church and what it means to be a wise master builder (1 Corinthians 3:10).
By the early 90s American evangelicalism was shamelessly imitating virtually every worldly fad. Church leaders and church-growth strategists openly described the gospel as a commodity to be sold at market, and the predictable result was a frantic attempt to make the gospel into the kind of product most buyers wanted. The conventional wisdom was that sophisticated marketing strategies were far more effective than gospel proclamation for reaching the "unchurched" multitudes. No one, it seemed, wanted to challenge that notion, which was buttressed with countless opinion polls. And who could argue with the obvious "success" of several entertainment-oriented megachurches?
Western evangelicals had been gradually losing interest in biblical preaching and doctrinal instruction for decades. The church in America had become weak, worldly, and man-centered. Evangelical ears were itching for something more hip and entertaining than biblical preaching (cf. 2 Timothy 2:3), and business-savvy evangelical pundits declared that it was foolish not to give people what they demanded. Without pragmatic methodologies numerical growth would be virtually impossible, they insisted—even though such pragmatism was manifestly detrimental to spiritual growth.
Churches were starving spiritually while overdosing on entertainment. A few prosperous megachurches masked the tragedy with incredibly large attendance figures, but anyone who took time to examine the trajectory could see that Western evangelicalism was in serious trouble.
Those trends were exactly what prompted me to write this book in the first place.
By contrast, the beleaguered Iron-Curtain churches were hungry for biblical teaching, steadily gaining spiritual strength, and growing numerically on the strength of bold gospel ministry. After years of Communist oppression, they were finally free to preach Christ openly, and that is precisely what they did. They were flourishing as a result.
Most Russian pastors had no formal training, so they sought help from the West in the areas of biblical interpretation and doctrine. (That's how I got involved with them.) The most mature and discerning leaders in the Iron-Curtain churches were wary of influences from the West. Frankly, I shared their concern and appreciated their caution. I was convinced that even the weakest of their churches could teach evangelicals in America a lot about the biblical approach to church growth. They understood that no legitimate church-growth strategy should ever fail to recognize the truth of John 15:19: "If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours."
When the Iron Curtain fell, however, "missionaries" from the West flooded the former Soviet Union, not so much with gospel-based resources and Bible-study tools, but with highly questionable evangelistic strategies—and with the same poisonous philosophy of church growth that had made Western evangelicalism so superficial and worldly. Russian church leaders were appalled that so many tawdry trends came into their culture from the West under the pretense of evangelism. I was offended, too—and embarrassed. I remember watching glitzy American televangelists with comically big hair peddling their health-and-wealth message and other false gospels on Russian television during my earliest trips to Moscow. They probably had little effect on healthy Russian churches, but they injected a seriously false gospel into the public perception, totally confusing millions. Soviet people had been indoctrinated with atheism and shielded from the truth of Scripture. They therefore had no means of distinguishing truth from falsehood in religion. So much false Christianity on television no doubt inoculated multitudes against the real gospel.
I also remember seeing a parade of "student missionaries" from America putting on a variety show in a public square in Kiev, using every circus trick from jugglers to clowns and every wordless type of entertainment from mimes to interpretive dance, all claiming to communicate "the gospel"—or something spiritual-sounding—across the language barrier. I frankly could not be certain what the actual message was supposed to be. I have a fairly good grasp of the gospel as Scripture presents it, and that was not the message being pantomimed in Independence Square. Again, I was embarrassed for the church in the West.
Back in America, these performances were being reported as serious evangelistic work. Judging from the numbers of supposed converts claimed, we might have expected churches in the Iron-Curtain countries to be doubling and quadrupling on a monthly basis.
Russian and Ukrainian churches were indeed growing, but the evangelistic buskers and street artists from the West had nothing to do with that. Those churches grew because Russian Christians, now free to proclaim the gospel openly, preached repentance from sin and faith in Christ to their neighbors. The response was remarkable. I sat in many Russian worship services for hours at a time, hearing convert after convert publicly repent—renouncing former sins and declaring faith in Christ to the gathered church, always in standing-room-only crowds. It was the polar opposite of what American church growth gurus insisted was absolutely necessary. But it was just like watching the book of Acts unfold in real life.
As a matter of fact, most of the Westerners who rushed to the former Soviet Union when Communism collapsed missed the real signs of church growth in those years because they completely ignored the churches that were already there. They started parachurch organizations, opted for pure media ministry, sponsored Punch-and-Judy shows in the public square, or tried to start new churches modeled on Western worldly styles. Most of the visible results of that sort of "evangelistic" and church-planting activity proved to be blessedly short-lived.
What did last was by no means all good. Americans injected into that culture a style of worldly evangelicalism that is now gaining traction and causing confusion within the Russian-speaking churches. Those churches that had weathered decades of government harassment and public ridicule now have to contend with something much subtler but a thousand times worse: trendy methods from American evangelicals—gimmicks and novelties that diminish practically everything truly important in favor of things that appeal to people's baser instincts.
By far the most subtle and dangerous Western influences came in through church growth experts, missiologists, and professional pollsters. Unlike the televangelists and street performers, these academicians and marketers managed to gain a platform within Russian-speaking churches. They were trusted because they were writers, career missionaries, seminary professors with credentials, and pastors with huge churches. They brought loads of books and ideas, virtually all of them advocating a highly pragmatic approach to ministry that was foreign in every sense to a church that had lived under Communist persecution for the better part of a century.
One struggles to imagine anything more grossly inappropriate than the fad-chasing pragmatism that was deliberately injected into Russian and eastern European churches by Westerners tinkering with theories about contextualization. But the influx of shallow evangelicalism into Russia in the early 90s was barely the tip of the iceberg. Thanks to various means of instant, inexpensive mass communications, the stultifying influence of dysfunctional American religion soon inundated the entire world. The Internet in particular suddenly opened the floodgates so that it became impossible to contain and control such nonsense. Within just a few years, evangelical gimmickry became the most visible and influential expression of Western "spirituality" worldwide. The poison of religious pragmatism is now an enormous global problem.
THE DAWN OF THE INTERNET AGE
The World Wide Web had quietly been implemented less than a year after the Soviet Union broke up. Still, by 1993, when this book's first edition hit the shelves, no one but the earliest Internet insiders had even heard about the Web—much less seen it. Most people had no clue how quickly or how drastically the Web would alter the world as we knew it.
I remember being told at a strategic planning retreat in 1996 that the World Wide Web would eventually become the primary vehicle for the dissemination of our radio broadcast and recorded sermons. (At the time, radio and cassette tapes were still the only media we were using for audio content.) When the men at grace to you who stay abreast of new technologies predicted that within twenty years or so cassette tapes would be a totally dead technology, I thought they were exaggerating. "You can't access the Internet in a car," I pointed out. "Even if you could, who wants to carry a computer on the car seat, when it's so much more convenient to pop in a cassette tape?"
Technology is clearly not my forte.
The speed with which the world has caught on to the new media is mind-boggling. The convenience and velocity of Internet communications have changed almost every facet of how we live. The easy availability of so much information (and misinformation) has profoundly altered the way people learn and think and make decisions.
Meanwhile, the ease, immediacy, and affordability of Internet publishing has leveled the playing field between pundits and the proletariat. Anyone can start a blog, for free. Anyone with a computer (or cell phone) and an Internet connection can instantly broadcast his every opinion worldwide. Novices and scholarly authorities alike can employ the same media. Those who are most adept at gathering an audience are the ones who are being heard, not necessarily those most qualified to speak.
So many opinions and so much information all moving so quickly means a simple, off-the-cuff sound bite may be a thousand times more influential than a meticulously researched treatise. In fact, whether something is true or false is usually deemed less important than the way the idea is communicated. (Today's marketing strategies are based on that assumption.) Most people naturally prefer a punchy one-liner to a carefully written essay. So style takes precedence over content in almost every venue. Sound bites are simply easier to swallow than a serious discourse.
That reality is reflected in the way we digest the news, the way our politicians run their campaigns, and even the way people manage personal relationships. Text messages are probably the most common form of communication between individuals. Power dating has replaced courtship. Quality time is seen as a substitute for real parenting. The typical radio talk show invites listeners to call in, but the host invariably cuts callers off rudely if they can't make a cogent point in four seconds or less. Interviewers on network television do the same thing to guests they invite to participate in panel discussions, squandering the panelists' expertise in favor of keeping the show moving at a pace no one can really keep up with anyway. It's the show, not the substance, that matters. The quest for a bigger audience share trumps the truth. (And isn't that exactly like the philosophy that drives so many contemporary churches?)
I've participated in several of those televised panels, and sometimes the panelists are physically scattered across the continent, unable to see one another and barely able to make out the other speakers' sound bites in those discreet earpieces. Even that doesn't matter. As long as the camera gives the impression of bringing many points of view face-to-face, the goal has been met. So what if no one gets to say more than half a sentence at a time? Our culture has simply lost patience with reasoned discourse and careful exposition.
It is not without significance that the most popular form of communication on the Internet at the moment is Twitter—an application that lets users broadcast their thoughts to the entire world in pithy quips. Each "Tweet" has a 140-character limit, and millions of them are sent every week. It's the next logical step in the evolution of the new media. Blogs have already begun to fade from the limelight. (The average blog post is three paragraphs. Too wordy.)
Attention spans are getting shorter, literacy has suffered dramatically, and logic itself is frequently dismissed as unnecessarily pedantic. The Web is well-suited to a culture where what we feel is deemed more important than what we think. The Internet hosts millions of forums where people trade opinions and aphorisms, and these often become the electronic-data equivalent of acrimonious yelling matches. Internet forums are notorious for the profanity and hostility that dominate them. If you want vivid proof of human depravity in abundance, eavesdrop on practically any un-moderated Internet forum, including the ones devoted to discussing theology.
And in case you haven't noticed, our culture has lost the ability to distinguish between what's trivial and what's profound. Evidence of that is abundant in the online forums, too. The Internet has created an ideal environment for postmodernism to flourish and spread—not in spite of all those shortcomings but precisely because of them.
POSTMODERNISM: QUESTION EVERYTHING
I have examined and critiqued postmodernism elsewhere in the truth war (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007, pp. 10-26). It should be sufficient for our purposes in this context to summarize the postmodern mind-set by describing it as dubiousness about practically everything. As we noted, the starting point for modernity was a rejection of biblical authority (setting aside belief in the supernatural as an untenable or merely irrelevant opinion). Instead, science and human reason were foolishly treated as reliable and authoritative. In the end, the disastrous failure of so many modern ideologies utterly debunked modern rationalism and delivered a deathblow to modern certitude.
Postmodernism therefore subjects every idea and every authority to endless skepticism.
Modernity's most basic assumption was that the way to achieve unshakable certainty is through a rigorous application of the scientific method. (Whatever could be tested and proved in the laboratory—or logically deduced from scientific "facts"—was deemed true; everything else was written off as mere superstition.) Moderns were convinced that a basic foundation of settled scientific knowledge would easily provide a trustworthy authority by which all truth claims could be tested. That process in turn would eventually bring about a uniform consensus regarding all the fundamental realities of life and human existence.
When those expectations were finally extinguished by countless buckets of cold reality, modernism itself lay utterly discredited amid the smoldering ashes. Whereas the modern mind had sought uniformity, certainty, and order, postmodernism canonized the opposite values: diversity, doubt, and defiance. "Question everything" is the postmodern manifesto.
Combine those values with the ease of Internet communications, and what you get is what you see: the elimination of practically all distinctions between knowledge and ignorance, authority and incompetence, expertise and ineptitude.
Where did this notion of postmodernity come from, and how did it sneak up and take over the whole world (as it seems) so quickly?
The word postmodern is older than most people realize. It was commonly applied to artistic, literary, and architectural styles as early as the end of World War I. From the mid-1960s through the 1980s, the term was used with increasing frequency to describe a way of thinking about truth and interpreting language. Jacques Derrida (who coined the term deconstruction to describe postmodern hermeneutics) was writing his postmodern perspectives on the implications of language and philosophy in the 1960s. Michel Foucault and Jean-François Lyotard explored the political ramifications of oppressive language and meta-narratives in the 1970s. In the 1980s, spurred on by writers like Richard Rorty and Jean Beaudrillard, postmodernism's trademark contempt for rationalistic certitude dominated much of the academic world. By 1990 postmodernism had already become a familiar buzzword in most college literature and philosophy classes. Students resonated with this way of thinking about truth; their thoroughly modern parents were baffled by it.
YOUTH "MINISTRY" THAT NEVER GREW UP
By the late 1990s, young evangelicals began to discover postmodernism. Already more than a decade late to the party, they were determined not to be left behind. Coming from the age group then known as Generation X, these postmodernized youth were mostly products of a ministry style that had kept young people sequestered in the youth ministry, away from adults. They and their peers had learned to "do church" in settings where the focus was mostly on games and activities. Their music was a whole generation newer than the supposedly contemporary stylings their parents favored. They sported fashions that were even more cutting edge than the slickest seeker-sensitive church would ever think to feature. And the attitudes of youth and youth leader alike were shaped to fit the postmodern style: deeply cynical.
The main problem for those young people was that their parents' churches were indeed pathologically shallow and worldly. The students had grown up being entertained far more than they were spiritually fed. When they began to move out of the youth group into the adult world, they were turned off by churches that simply could not keep up with changing styles. In reality, even the trendiest seeker-sensitive churches were still wedded to the tastes and convictions of a modern, not a postmodern, generation.
That is what inevitably happens when churches abandon biblical ministry in favor of worldly trends. "He who marries the spirit of the age soon finds himself a widower." I don't know who first coined that saying, but it perfectly describes what has happened again and again to churches and denominations that chase fads. By the early 1990s, most mainstream evangelicals had completely bought into the idea that stylishness is paramount. But they were finding it extremely hard to keep up with the times. Even the most culturally obsessed churches were still trying to come to grips with the fads and worldly values of the 80s (or earlier). That became a major source of embarrassment and frustration to young evangelicals who had been taught that cultural relevance was everything. They understood better than their parents did how the world was changing, and they could see very clearly that the church was not keeping in step.
Since their parents' own example had taught them to embrace worldly trends and to leverage pop culture for church growth, they followed the same pragmatic pattern, with even more zeal than their parents had shown. Their concept of "relevance" was just as superficial and culture-bound as their parents' had been. But the culture they were determined to blend with their religion was worse by magnitudes, because it was hostile to the very ideas of truth and assurance. Of course, the experts and strategists who had originally championed market-driven strategies nevertheless continued to feed and encourage the pragmatism.
All those developments were already discernible in the early 1990s, and that is precisely what prompted me to write this book in the first place. Evangelicalism's growing superficiality, a spiraling loss of confidence in the power of Scripture, the relentless pursuit of worldly fads, and a steady drift away from historic evangelical convictions were already widespread and serious problems. Those trends were all driven by evangelicals' obsession with pleasing the world. It was obvious (to anyone with eyes to see) that the market-driven approach to evangelism and church growth was headed for disaster.
THE SHORT LIFE OF THE EMERGING CHURCH MOVEMENT
The discovery of postmodernism by Gen-Xers in seeker-sensitive youth groups culminated in precisely the kind of disaster this book foretold. It was a recipe for the perfect apostasy: thousands of young people had been indoctrinated with pragmatism as a way of life, raised with the idea that worship must be tailored to please "Unchurched Harry" in order to be relevant, and taught to regard truth as unattainable. Now they were embracing all those errors at once and attempting to blend them all into A New Kind of Christianity.
The earliest conscientiously postmodern evangelicals soon found one another and formed a network. Zondervan signed some of the network's most provocative voices as authors and started an imprint specifically for their books. The result was the Emerging Church movement. Prominent figures in the movement soon discarded the terms church and movement and began referring to themselves as participants in "the Emerging Conversation." It was a typically postmodern, Internet-era "conversation"—sound bites without substance, passions devoid of principle, and zeal without knowledge. It was a movement full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Emerging mainly from the shallow end of the evangelical movement, the new post-evangelical subculture simply lacked any solid doctrinal moorings. It's hard to think of a tenet of historic Christianity that has not been questioned or openly attacked by people who are currently leading the Conversation. That goes for truths as basic as the doctrine of the Trinity, as important as the authority of Scripture, and as precious as the doctrine of substitutionary atonement.
Predictably, the Emerging movement fragmented within its first decade.
The most prolific authors and leading figures in the network seemed to take their ideas and arguments straight from the original modernist playbook—despite all their talk about being postmodern. A handful of early participants who were theological conservatives recognized the dangers of such neo-liberal theology and eventually repudiated the movement completely. Several of the moderates in the original Emerging network still seem to be trying to work out where to go from here.
All those developments have followed the very same pattern of doctrinal and spiritual erosion that Charles Spurgeon described more than a hundred years ago and labeled "the down-grade." It is the same broad path to destruction I warned about in this book's first edition. The church still desperately needs to hear and heed the same plea. (Perhaps today more than ever.) That fact alone explodes the typical evangelical notion about what makes a message "relevant."
There's a clear line of philosophical continuity that ties the modernists of Spurgeon's era to the champions of seeker-sensitivity in the twentieth century and the scions of postmodernity in the current generation. As Spurgeon and his colleagues pointed out in the articles that launched the Down-Grade Controversy, the patterns of such thinking extend backward in history, too. In one way or another, the same underlying doctrinal paradigm and pragmatic rationale has greased the slide for every season of apostasy the church has ever known.
WHAT IS PRAGMATISM …AND IS IT ALL BAD?
Pragmatism is the notion that meaning or worth is determined by practical consequences. It is closely akin to utilitarianism, the belief that usefulness is the standard of what is good. To a pragmatist/utilitarian, if a technique or course of action has the desired effect, it is good. If it doesn't seem to work, it must be wrong.
What's wrong with pragmatism? After all, common sense involves a measure of legitimate pragmatism, doesn't it? If a dripping faucet works fine after you replace the washers, it is reasonable to assume that bad washers were the problem. If the medicine your doctor prescribes produces harmful side effects or has no effect at all, you need to ask if there's a remedy that works. Such simple pragmatic realities are generally self-evident.
But when pragmatism is used to make judgments about right and wrong, or when it becomes a guiding philosophy of life, theology, or ministry, it inevitably clashes with Scripture. Spiritual and biblical truth is not determined by testing what "works" and what doesn't. We know from Scripture, for example, that the gospel often does not produce a positive response (1 Corinthians 1:22; 1 Corinthians 1:14). On the other hand, Satanic lies and deception can be quite effective (Matthew 24:23; 2 Corinthians 4:3). Majority reaction is no test of validity (cf. Matthew 7:13), and prosperity is no measure of truthfulness (cf. Job 12:6). Pragmatism as a guiding philosophy of ministry is inherently flawed. Pragmatism as a test of truth is nothing short of satanic.
Some church leaders evidently think the four priorities of the early church—the apostles' teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer (Acts 2:42)—make a lame agenda for the church in this day and age. Churches are allowing drama, recreation, entertainment, self-help programs, sex-education seminars, and similar enterprises to eclipse the importance of God-centered, Bible-based Sunday worship and fellowship. In fact, everything seems to be in fashion in the church today except biblical preaching. The new pragmatism sees preaching—particularly expository preaching—as passé. Plainly declaring the truth of God's Word is regarded as unsophisticated, offensive, and utterly ineffective. We're now told we can get better results by first amusing people, giving them pop psychology or impressing them with a high-tech, special-effects smoke-and-light show—thus wooing them into the fold. Once they know we are cool and feel they are comfortable, they'll be ready to receive biblical truth in small, diluted doses.
Pastors have drawn their ministry philosophies from books on marketing methods. Many young ministers devour such resources in search of new techniques to help their churches grow. Major seminaries have shifted their pastoral training emphasis from Bible curriculum and theology to counseling technique and church-growth theory. All these trends reflect the church's growing commitment to pragmatism.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones saw this coming and responded to it a generation ago. He pointed out that the ideas driving these trends are not really innovative at all. It's been done before, always with disastrous results:
These proposals that we should preach less, and do various other things more, are of course not new at all. People seem to think that all this is quite new, and that it is the hallmark of modernity to decry or to depreciate preaching, and to put your emphasis on these other things. The simple answer to that is that there is nothing new about it. The actual form may be new, but the principle is certainly not a new one at all; indeed it has been the particular emphasis of this present century. preaching and preachers (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1971), 33.
If church history teaches us anything, it teaches us that the most devastating assaults on the faith have always begun as subtle errors arising from within.
Living in an unstable age, the church cannot afford to be vacillating. We minister to people desperate for answers, and we cannot soft-pedal the truth or extenuate the gospel. If we make friends with the world, we set ourselves at enmity with God. If we trust worldly devices, we automatically relinquish the power of the Holy Spirit.
IS WORLDLINESS STILL A SIN?
These truths are repeatedly affirmed in Scripture: "Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God" (James 4:4). "Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him" (1 John 1:15).
"The king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength. The war horse is a false hope for salvation, and by its great might it cannot rescue" (Psalms 33:16). "Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the Lord!" (Isaiah 31:1). "Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts" (Zechariah 4:6).
The whole point about Israel's being a light to the world (Isaiah 42:6; Isaiah 49:6) is that they were supposed to be different. They were explicitly forbidden to imitate the Gentiles' manner of dress, grooming, foods, religion, and other aspects of the culture. God told them, "You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes" (Leviticus 18:3). And as Martyn Lloyd-Jones pointed out,
"Our Lord attracted sinners because He was different. They drew near to Him because they felt that there was something different about Him. . . . And the world always expects us to be different. This idea that you are going to win people to the Christian faith by showing them that after all you are remarkably like them, is theologically and psychologically a profound blunder." (preaching and preachers, 140.)
Moreover, many in the church believe this is the only way we will ever reach the world. We're told that if the unchurched multitudes don't want classic hymns, serious doctrine, and biblical preaching, we must give them what they want. Hundreds of churches have followed precisely that theory, actually surveying unbelievers to learn what it would take to get them to attend.
Acceptability in the culture and increased church attendance have subtly but steadily usurped holiness and true worship as the primary objectives of our church gatherings. Preaching the Word and boldly confronting sin are seen as archaic, ineffectual means of winning the world. After all, those things actually drive most people away. Why not entice people into the fold by offering what they want, creating a friendly, comfortable environment, and catering to the very desires that drive their strongest urges? As if we might get unconverted worldlings to accept Jesus by somehow making Him more likable or making His message less offensive.
That kind of thinking badly skews the mission of the church. The Great Commission is not a marketing manifesto. True evangelism does not require salesmen but prophets. It is the Word of God, not any earthly enticement, that plants the seed for the new birth (1 Peter 1:23). We gain nothing but God's displeasure if we seek to remove the offense of the cross (cf. Galatians 5:11).
IS ALL INNOVATION WRONG?
I am not in favor of a stagnant church. And I am not bound to any particular musical or liturgical style. Those things in and of themselves are not issues Scripture even addresses. Nor do I think my own personal preferences in such matters are necessarily superior to the tastes of others. I have no desire to manufacture some arbitrary rules that govern what is acceptable or not in church services. To do so would be the essence of legalism.
My complaint is with a philosophy that relegates God and His Word to a subordinate role in the church. I believe it is unbiblical to elevate entertainment over preaching and to put public relations ahead of worship in our church services. And I stand in opposition to those who believe salesmanship can bring people into the kingdom more effectively than a sovereign God. That philosophy has opened the door wide for worldliness to infiltrate the church.
"I am not ashamed of the gospel," the apostle Paul wrote (Romans 1:16). Unfortunately, "ashamed of the gospel" seems more and more apt as a description of some of the most visible and influential churches of our age.
"SEE IF THESE THINGS ARE SO…"
In all candor, controversy is immensely distasteful to me. Those who know me personally will affirm that I do not enjoy any kind of dispute. Yet there is a fire in my bones that constrains me to speak plainly regarding my biblical convictions. I cannot keep silent when so much is at stake.
It is in that spirit that I offer this book. I hope no one will perceive it as an attack on any person or ministry in particular. It is not. It is a plea to the whole church regarding matters of principle, not personalities. And while I expect there will be widespread disagreement with much of what I say, I have tried to write without being disagreeable.
These are issues about which many people have deep convictions. When such matters are broached—particularly when contrary opinions are stated forthrightly—people sometimes become angry. I do not write in anger, and I would ask readers to receive what I write with the spirit in which it is offered.
My prayer is that this book will challenge your thinking in a way that will drive you to the Scriptures "to see if these things [are] so" (cf. Acts 17:11). And I pray that the Lord will deliver His church from the same kind of downhill slide into worldliness and unbelief that devoured the church and exhausted her spiritual stamina exactly a hundred years ago.
~ John MacArthur
Widely known for his thorough, candid approach to teaching God's Word, John MacArthur is a fifth-generation pastor, a popular author and conference speaker, and has served as pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California since 1969. John and his wife, Patricia, have four grown children and fourteen grandchildren.
John's pulpit ministry has been extended around the globe through his media ministry, grace to you, and its satellite offices in Canada, Europe, India, New Zealand, and Singapore. In addition to producing daily radio programs for nearly 2,000 English and Spanish radio outlets worldwide, Grace to You distributes books, software, audiotapes, and CDs by John MacArthur. In thirty-six years of ministry, Grace to You has distributed more than thirteen million CDs and audiotapes.
John is the president of the master's college and the master's seminary, and he has written hundreds of books and study guides (see here), each one thoroughly biblical and practical. best-selling titles include The Gospel According to Jesus, The Second Coming, Ashamed of the Gospel, Twelve Ordinary Men, and The MacArthur Study Bible.
Adapted from the 2010 and 1993 prefaces of Ashamed of the Gospel, third edition by John MacArthur, © 2010 Crossway Books. Reprinted by permission.