Our American culture really loves to elevate superstars. We grab what the star does, says, and believes and try to cut and paste that into our lives to generate the same result.
Pastors have their heroes too. I suppose that if we were to ask 10 evangelical pastors what pastor has been the most influential in their lives, perhaps 7-8 of them would say, “Rick Warren.” He is really unrivaled in his influence and reach today.
So when he talks or in this case tweets, people listen. I listen. I want to know what and how pastors think. In my experience they think a lot like Rick Warren. And frankly, I think this type of thinking is both unbiblical and unhelpful.
So here is a statement. Now, granted, you can only use 140 characters in a tweet. But it looks like this one has been carefully worded and even capitalized so as to make the point. And further, it is a tight summary of the type of thinking that has filled Rick Warren’s books. (so I don’t think I’m off base in writing this post–see also here).
Here’s the quote:
A church stays small when a pastor uses an outdated preaching STYLE.God called u for today’s hearers,not 500 or 50 yrs ago. (Rick Warren, permalink)
I really think this encapsulates the thinking of many in evangelicalism today. And if he is right, then we had better be careful with our style. After all, our impact depends on it.
We are Talking about Conversion (or Gospel) Growth
First, I assume that Warren is referring to growth related to conversion and sanctification rather than just drawing a crowd for numbers’ sake. Much of what he has said over the years relates to this type of growth so I think it is a safe bet.
My issue then with this type of thinking is that it emphasizes that a spiritual result can be achieved by a tweaking of a personal style. In other words you can achieve the spiritual end (conversion & sanctification–church growth) through the employment of a particular style. And conversely you will hamper conversion and growth if you employ a particular preaching style that may have worked in the past but is now out of date.
The emphasis here in this type of philosophy of ministry is on the delivery rather than the content. It assumes that the style of preaching can bring about the intended means. It also assumes that faithful preachers from previous centuries (Whitfield, Edwards, Spurgeon, Lloyd-Jones, or the Apostle Paul for that matter!) would not be able to preach effectively today (or at least that they would have to change their style to do so).
I completely reject this type of thinking. I reject it on a theological basis. The human heart is not awoken by style but by the gospel, the Word of God. Paul knew that the Corinthians wanted style but he gave them what they did not want in order that they might get what they needed (gospel). (1 Cor. 1.18-24) God calls people from within the various camps of people clamoring for style to love Christ (1 Cor. 1.24). In summary, God uses weak people to proclaim a powerful message and provides powerful results so that he gets the glory and we boast in him.
Furthermore, are we to assume that folks like Tom Carson experienced small church ministry because of his ‘style?’ Could it have been that the Roman Catholic opposition in French Canada could have been over come if Tom had just employed a more savvy style?
What about Jeremiah? Could his following and ministry have gone better if he would have had a more current style? Same for Ezekiel.
Not to mention Jesus. Remember he was betrayed by a intimate disciple, considered to be crazy by his family, abandoned by all but one of his 12, ultimately killed by the crowds that followed him, and had only a handful of friends and family there at his death. Was it style or substance here? John 8.44
Pragmatism is Pastorally Paralyzing
Instead, pastors must understand that true gospel growth in a church is a result of God’s sovereign grace working powerfully in the hearts and lives of people. It is not fundamentally his own style that builds the church but the word of Christ proclaimed.
Not only is this type of thinking biblically wrong but it is pastorally paralyzing. How do you think the pastor in the small country church feels when he reads or hears this after he has tried gimmick after gimmick and fad after fad? Will he not turn to the next trick or tweak of style to win these people? The only thing that transcends generations, zip-codes, and cultures is the gospel. It must be proclaimed. It is what Christ uses to build his church (Matt. 16.13). This type of emphasis upon style does far more damage than good. It turns us towards self-dependence rather than Spirit-dependence and it would yield boasting in man rather than Christ (1 Cor. 1.27, 31).
True gospel growth happens when God waters the seed of his word, giving the increase. When this has happened we sing and praise him, realizing that we are weak vessels that have been used by the King (1 Cor. 3.6)