On Sunday and Monday I read Os Guinness's book Dining with the Devil. This book is an assessment of the Megachurch movement in the United States. It might be considered a little out of date now, having been written in 1993. However, I thought it contained many useful insights that are relevant to the Tuesday lunchtime theology discussion I attend.
Now I have to begin by pointing out that I am not a traditionalist. While I am a theological conservative I do not want to be tied down to doing things a certain way simply because that is the way the church did them fifty years ago. We can have adaptable structures that don't compromise our message and we should be thinking how we can best relate the timeless truth of the gospel to our generation. However, I think that Guinness is helpful in pointing to the danger of being shaped by our culture.
Guinness suggests that:
'Compared with the past, faith today influences culture less. Compared to the past, culture today influences faith more.'
'The two most easily recognisable hallmarks of secularisation in America are the exaltation of numbers and technique.' The danger is that in our desire to build significant church communities we become so obsessed with counting figures that we forget that our primary aim is simply to be faithful to the call of God. '... church growth viewed in measurable terms, such as numbers, is trivial compared with growth in less measurable but more important terms, such as faith, character, and godliness.'
Guinness points to the church's obsession with being relevant. If we ask the world what makes us relevant it will simply demand that we seek to meet its felt needs and conform to a certain liberalising agenda. Many people simply don't recognise our central need as being reconciled to God in Christ.
This leads on to my next point. We need to depend on the convicting and enlightening work of God the Holy Spirit. We need to remember again that the battle belongs to the Lord. The question I want to consider is 'where is our confidence based?' Is our confidence centred on money; the dynamic communication ability of a 'lead pastor'; the programs and structures; or even the buildings? 'If Jesus Christ is the head of the church and hence the source and goal of its entire life, true growth is only possible in obedience to him.' Guinness differentiates between bottom-up causation and top-down causation. Bottom-up causation believes that the success ultimately depends on our efforts. Top-down causation recognises that success ultimately depends on God and is only measured by him.
A final thought relates to the pastors. There seems to be a emphasis on having pastors that are trendy. Do we really think that God is dependant on the pastors image? Then their is the role that we expect of pastors. Guinness quotes a Japanese business man who commented to a visiting Australian,
'Whenever I meet a Buddhist leader, I meet a holy man. Whenever I meet a Christian leader, I meet a manager.'
I have to be careful here because I am limited in management gifting and so maybe I have a bias against a dependence upon it. Certainly God has used people's organisational skills effectively in the past. Apparently when John Wesley was a part of the Holy Club at Oxford his nickname was 'the manager.' Nevertheless, I am wary of the idea that the pastor becomes a CEO. I am also wary of a church culture that fosters the notion of the celebrity pastor or when pastors are rated on their ability to deliver certain measurable results.
Perhaps the best quote in the book is from Simone Weil:
'To be always relevant, you have to say things which are eternal.'