How bad is the downgrade in your evangelical church?

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By Spencer D Gear

‘I know you are aware of the contemporary nature of [our church], and this nature flows through all areas of our life, and most definitely home groups’.

A pastor’s response

What is a downgrade? Dictionary.com provides these definitions:

down·grade

[doun-greyd]Show IPA noun, adjective, adverb, verb, down·grad·ed, down·grad·ing.

noun

1. a downward slope, especially of a road.

adjective, adverb

2. downhill.

verb (used with object)

3. to assign to a lower status with a smaller salary.

4. to minimize the importance of; denigrate: She tried to downgrade the findings of the investigation.

5. to assign a lower security classification to (information, a document, etc.).

Idiom

6. on the downgrade, in a decline toward an inferior state or position: His career has been on the downgrade.

Downgrade in content at church

It has been particularly applied to the downgrade theological controversy, particularly in England. C H Spurgeon was particularly involved in what was happening in England. Erroll Hulse wrote in, “Charles Haddon Spurgeon and the Downgrade Controversy’, that

he last five years of Spurgeon’s life, 1887-1892 were troubled and saddened by the Downgrade Controversy. Spurgeon carried an enormous workload. He possessed neither the time nor the energy to pursue and remedy the widespread doctrinal decline in the B U (Baptist Union)….

The Downgrade controversy broke out when Spurgeon observed aggressive promotion of the ‘new thought’ and blatant denials of evangelical belief affecting the Baptist denomination. Calvinism, which had been the theology of both Congregationalists and Baptists, had faded away. It remained embedded in their confessional statements and in the trust deeds of hundreds of churches but not in the hearts and minds of the ministers and people. The old truths were not being attacked. They were simply ignored….

An essential part of orthodox doctrine is the truth that the impenitent will be subjected to the eternal punishment of God. With the lack of clarity this truth was undermined in three ways: 1. The teaching of conditional immortality, 2. The idea of a future probation, and 3. The universal salvation of all creation.

What is evangelical Christianity?

Here it is stated, accurately, that they are ‘the people of the Book: To know the only true God, honor and obey him, and to make him known’. It’s important to realise that ‘the original meaning of the word evangelical applied to Protestant true believers, distinguishing them from Protestant liberals and traditionalists. It had nothing to do with a specific denomination’. However, ‘it is sad to say that ‘today the word “evangelical” is losing its original meaning and does not necessarily refer to a true believer who holds to the inerrancy, authority and sufficiency of the Scriptures’.

However, I’m using the term ‘evangelical’ to mean born-again believers who are committed to the authority of Scriptures (inerrant in the originals) who who want to know the one and only Almighty God, honour Him, obey Him, and make Him known through proclamation of the Gospel and discipleship. These evangelicals will build Christ-honouring churches where the teaching of Scripture (preferably expositionally with illustration and application) is a central tenet of church practice.

I would consider that the following are core doctrines of the evangelical faith in which a born-again Christian should believe:[1]

The downgrade in Australia

This is a personal reflection. Here I reveal how pervasive this downgrade is within evangelical Christianity in Australia in 2011-2012. Even though I knew it was there when living in regional Queensland (visit one of the local seeker-sensitive churches and that becomes self-evident), I became acutely aware of it in mid 2011. My wife and I moved from a regional area to a northern Brisbane suburb to be nearer our children. Our married daughter has a significant disability and needs support and assistance as her husband works full time and I am now retired from employment.[2]

This is what we found when we went searching for an evangelical church that believed what I’ve briefly mentioned above.

Finding an evangelical church

Settling into a new area comes with its own challenges. We were praying that a church family would help us settle more easily into city life. However, finding an evangelical church in this region that does not preach and sing Bible-lite – Christianity on the downhill march – has been extremely difficult. We visited 8 churches before we came to one (North Pine Presbyterian Church, Petrie) that has Bible content in the hymns and preaching. However, the services are very conservative, tending towards dry traditionalism – but that’s another story. At least it is better than what we experienced elsewhere.

Highlighting this problem was a comment I received from a fellow who went to theological college with us in the early 1970s. We met up with him at a recent funeral of a dear friend. He asked where we went to church. When I mentioned a Presbyterian Church, his response was immediate, ‘You go to a church where at least they read the Bible’. What a statement about where the evangelical church is going in this region! He and his wife attend an evangelical church where the Bible is often not even opened in the service. My assessment is that it won’t remain evangelical for very long. Spurgeon’s experience is not new and the downgrade situation is happening right before our eyes. What can we do to stop it? I was hoping that I would become a voice for maturity in a local church’s house fellowship. But that won’t happen with the pastor’s refusal to give me the names of the two home group leaders and their contact details.

Please remember that these were churches whose reputation was that of being ‘evangelical’. These were not those who promote open theological liberalism.

At one of the churches we visited in our suburb, the songs and preaching (not by the pastor) were so contemporary-lite that I mentioned it to a person in a discussion we had as we were leaving the service. Since then I have emailed the pastor to see if we could join a home group in our suburb as we live in this suburb but worship in another. Here is most of the response I received (23 August 2012) in an email:

“I do remember you attending, and so I know you are aware of the contemporary nature of [our church], and this nature flows through all areas of our life, and most definitely home groups. And so if our Sunday worship service was not helpful to you in your journey with Christ, to be honest I don’t imagine our home groups would be either. Its great to see you proactively seeking fellowship outside of a Sunday and I encourage you to find yourself a group in which both yourself and [your wife] are comfortable

Blessings and peace!!”.

I did not speak to the pastor so how could he remember our attending? Somebody has blown the whistle to him about the content of our conversation at the close of the service. But this is an evangelical church in a denomination with a national reputation but the downgrade of biblical Christianity is so pervasive that it is invading the whole church milieu, including the home groups. It was rock music (I’m a former rock DJ) and the music was unsingable for me, a very average singer. The content of the lyrics could be described as nothing more than trite. They were unmemorable and, difficult to sing, and the biblical content was minimal.

However, this is the kind of church content we were exposed to, in 7 different churches in a row. They represent 2 evangelical denominations in and surrounding our suburb in northern Brisbane.

The sadness in the response of the local pastor is that his contemporary philosophy seems to have blinded him from seeing the reality of the content of the songs, the remainder of the service, and the content of the sermon. In that church service, which had music and songs that were akin to a rock concert, the songs were so unmemorable and unsingable that I can’t remember one of them. But I do remember that the Scriptures were not read in that service, not even to go with the sermon.

I expect A. W. Tozer would have a biblical heartache

Could you imagine what a person like A. W. Tozer would think of what is happening in churches of today? He died in 1963 and in his prophetic message he addressed the issues of his day, but it is just as applicable today.

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Photo of A. W. Tozer, courtesy Wikipedia

In his introduction to The Best of A. W. Tozer, Warren W. Wiersbe (The Moody Church, Chicago, Illinois) wrote:

I once heard Dr. Tozer at an Evangelical Press Association conference taking to task editors who practiced what he called “super-market journalism-two columns of advertising and one aisle of reading material.” He was an exacting writer and was as hard on himself as he was on others….

What is there about A. W. Tozer’s writings that gets hold of us and will not let us go? Tozer did not enjoy the privilege of a university or seminary training, or even a Bible School education for that matter; yet he has left us a shelf of books that will be mined for their spiritual wealth until the Lord returns.

For one thing, A. W. Tozer wrote with conviction. He was not interested in tickling the ears of the shallow Athenian Christians who were looking for some new thing. Tozer redug the old wells and called us back to the old paths, and he passionately believed and practiced the truths that he taught. He once told a friend of mine, “I have preached myself off of every Bible Conference platform in the country!” The popular crowds do not rush to hear a man whose convictions make them uncomfortable.

Tozer was a mystic-an evangelical mystic-in an age that is pragmatic and materialistic. He still calls us to see that real world of the spiritual that lies beyond the physical world that so ensnares us. He begs us to please God and forget the crowd. He implores us to worship God that we might become more like Him. How desperately we need that message today!

A. W. Tozer had the gift of taking a spiritual truth and holding it up to the light so that, like a diamond, every facet was seen and admired. He was not lost in homiletical swamps; the wind of the Spirit blew and dead bones came to life. His essays are like fine cameos whose value is not determined by their size. His preaching was characterized by an intensity-spiritual intensity-that penetrated one’s heart and helped him to see God. Happy is the Christian who has a Tozer book handy when his soul is parched and he feeIs God is far away.

This leads to what I think is the greatest contribution A. W. Tozer makes in his writings: he so excites you about truth that you forget Tozer and reach for your Bible. He himself often said that the best book is the one that makes you want to put it down and think for yourself. Rarely do I read Tozer without reaching for my notebook to jot down some truth that later can be developed into a message. Tozer is like a prism that gathers the light and then reveals its beauty.[3]

What can be done?

These biblical teachings apply to today’s church:

1. Jesus warned us, ‘At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, 11 and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people’ (Matt 24:10-11 NIV). Some will want to make this apply only to the time of the Fall of Jerusalem, but it has broader application, as he was teaching his disciples on the Mount of Olives in this context: ‘Watch out that no one deceives you’ (24:4 NIV). We have similar warnings in 1 Tim 4:1; 2 Tim 4:3-4 and Titus 1:10-16 (see an article HERE).

2. We must speak up against false teachers, as 1 Tim. 4:6 states, ‘If you point these things out to the brothers and sisters, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed’ (NIV).

3. When churches reduce or downplay the content of Scripture in sermons and songs, they are engaging in a downgrade of biblical content. While this may not be specifically promoting false teaching, it is like calling a diseased pineapple a true, genuine pineapple that is suitable for human consumption. Diseased pineapples are sick pineapples. Thus, sick, Bible-lite churches are diseased churches and they need to be called back to their biblical base in all of life.

4. Bill Hybels has admitted what his seeker-sensitive approach has done to the churches that have adopted his philosophy. Hybels stated in 2007 that his experiment had become a failure:

We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become ‘self feeders.’ We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their bible between services, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.[4]

Michael Craven’s comment on the Willow Creek survey of its people was:

The shortcoming of this approach is made apparent in the fact that the “most dissatisfied” group within the church, according to the survey, was those considered to be the most spiritually mature. Their chief complaints? “They desire much more challenge and depth from the services” and “60 percent would like to see more in-depth Bible teaching”—the very things that the seeker-sensitive model diminishes.[5]

But, has this confession made any difference to Bill Hybels? Is he repentant of his past seeker-sensitive mistakes? Not at all! This report stated:

It is no new thing that Willow Creek wishes to “transform the planet.” They are part of the emerging spirituality that includes Rick Warren and many other major Christian leaders who believe the church will usher in the kingdom of God on earth before Christ returns. This dominionist, kingdom-now theology is literally permeating the lecture halls of many Christian seminaries and churches, and mysticism is the propeller that keeps its momentum. If Willow Creek hopes to transform the planet, they won’t be able to get rid of the focus on the mystical (i.e., contemplative). Their new Fall 2007 Catalog gives a clear picture of where their heart lies, with resources offered by New Age proponent Rob Bell, contemplative author Keri Wyatt Kent, and the Ancient Future Conference with emerging leaders Scot McKnight and Alan Hirsch as well as resources by Ruth Haley Barton and John Ortberg. Time will tell what Willow Creek intends to do about strengthening its focus on “spiritual practices” and “transform[ing] the planet.”[6]

Southern Baptist, James T Draper wrote in 2006,

The desire to be overly seeker-sensitive is pulling us away from proclaiming the hard truth of the Gospel. The Gospel is an offense! A righteous man was nailed to a cross. There was a beating involved, and blood shed. We must not water that down. We cannot compromise the reality of the Gospel under the guise of relevancy. Relevancy is earned when churches – Christians – acting as the hands of Christ, touch the wounded hearts and souls of those around them. When Christians act like Jesus, bear the burdens of others like Jesus, suffer with others like Jesus, then we will be more effective in verbally sharing the pointed truths of the Gospel with them like Jesus. What’s more, the lost will drink in the message like a thirsty man wandering in a desert drinks in cool, clean water.[7]

5. The key is that concerned Christians cannot continue to sit silent in the pews and let the dumbing down of biblical Christianity to continue in their churches. You need to speak up, based on 1 Timothy 4:6. To be able to do this in a strong, courteous way and remain strong in your Christian walk, you need at least one other Christian to pray with you before, during and after this action. You will become a target of the enemy of your soul, so be prepared: Ephesians 6:10-20 (NIV)

Notes:


[1] Some of these were suggested on the ‘People of the Book’ website, available at: http://www.thepeopleofthebook.org/MeaningOfEvangelical.html (Accessed 24 August 2012). However, I’ve reframed the points – mainly!

[2] I became a full-time student, working on a PhD in New Testament, in 2011 as a means to sharpen the ‘iron’ of my mind and to be of help in a local church or teaching institution.

[3] The Best of A. W. Tozer (online). Available at: http://www.churchinmarlboro.org/christdigest/Classical%20Writings/A-W-Tozer-Best-of-a-W-Tozer.pdf (Accessed 24 August 2012). It was not stated which edition of ‘The Best of A. W. Tozer’ is intended. However, the Wikipedia article on Tozer stated that three volumes of ‘The Best of….’ Series have been published. These were in 1979, 1991 and 1995. Amazon.com’s online edition of the book indicates this quote is from Vol. 1 of the ‘Best of’ Series.

[4] Bob Burney 2007. A shocking “confession” from Willow Creek Community Church, Crosswalk.com, 30 October. Available at: http://www.crosswalk.com/11558438/ (Accessed 24 August 2012).

[5] S. Michael Craven 2007, Willow Creek’s confession, Christian Foundations, available at: http://www.christianity.com/11560219/ (Accessed 24 August 2012).

[6] Willow Creek and the new contemplative/emerging spirituality, Lighthouse Trails Research Project, available at: http://www.lighthousetrailsresearch.com/willowcreek.htm (Accessed 24 August 2012).

[7] James T. Draper Jr. 2006. Will Southern Baptists keep their eyes on the ball? Baptist Banner, 19(3), March. Available at: http://www.baptistbanner.org/Subarchive_3/306%20Will%20Southern%20Baptists%20keep%20their%20eyes%20on%20the%20ball.htm (Accessed 24 August 2012).
Copyright © 2012 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 29 October 2015.