I wonder how many young men would choose to enter the ministry if they knew, from the very beginning, that their churches would never exceed a few dozen people, their salary would always be meager, their church budgets would always be tight, and all their labors would be scarcely noticed by anyone outside of their faithful few?
Carl Trueman writes along these lines at his reformation21 blog in a recent post. In a world that is driven by larger than life celebrity personalities, it is no surprise that the church has a few of its own, leading large churches, writing books, and posting podcasts for listeners around the world.
Trueman notes that these celebrity churches are led by celebrity pastors who have one-in-a-million type gifts and it is unreasonable to try to replicate this into other churches.
Enter new Calvinism. Time Magazine recently pegged new Calvinism as the third most influential idea that is changing the world right now. And many of the celebrity pastors are staunchly Calvinistic, leading very large and influential churches in unlikely places, such as Seattle, NYC, or Minneapolis.
Here is the concern: new Calvinism’s ‘success’ can turn it into a church growth fad. As more and more people become disillusioned with the spiritual fluff and high-tech frills of seeker driven ministry, new Calvinism offers depth and Bible meat to chew on.
Much has rightly been made by Reformed people of the problem of an understanding of Christianity that is driven by pragmatism as exemplified by the Joel Osteen `be a Christian and be a better you’ mentality; much criticism has also been lodged against the church growth movement because of its tendency…to find out what they like, and how they like it, and let them have it just that way. But the dangerous thing about pragmatism is that it does not necessarily reject the truth; it merely renders it subordinate to the desired end.
To be precise, pragmatism evaluates means in terms of impact and results; and the implication of this is that even means that are intrinsically true can still be co-opted by pragmatism simply because they seem to be achieving the desired results at some particular point in time.
Now the gospel has always been true, in the good years and the lean; and we need to be certain that the current enthusiasm for Reformed theology is rooted in an acknowledgement of its intrinsic truth, and not simply in the fact that, at this point in time, Calvinism is cool enough to pull in the punters.
Who in the world would have ever thought, in our pluralistic time, that Calvinism would actually become hip enough to be reduced to a church growth strategy? What lies behind its popularity, however, is the power of the gospel which remains hidden in many other church growth strategies that promote self-help and feel good fluff.
There is a disillusioning danger for pastors here. On the surface, it appears that people are just flocking to churches because of the gospel, and to preach it hard and bold only swells the masses. But if Trueman’s observations are true, people may actually be flocking to Christian celebrity personalities who are on the forefront of new Calvinism, while other faithful men who are preaching the gospel faithfully, but lack the star appeal of these celebrities, cannot reproduce the same results.
What we need to pray for and prepare young ministers for is this sobering fact:
In the real world, many, perhaps most, of us worship and work in churches of 100 people or less; life is not loud and exciting; each Lord’s Day we go through the same routines of worship services, of hearing the gospel proclaimed, of taking the Lord’s Supper, of teaching Sunday School… [We] keep going, giving, and praying as we can; we try to be faithful in the little entrusted to us. It’s boring, it’s routine, and it’s the same, year in, year out.
Therefore, in a world where excitement, celebrity, and cultural power are the ideal, it is tempting amidst the circumstances of ordinary church life to forget that this, the routine of the ordinary, the boring, the plodding, is actually the norm for church life and has been so throughout most places for most of the history of the church; that mega-whatevers are the exception, not the rule; and that the church has survived throughout the ages not just – or even primarily – because of the high profile firework displays of the great and the good, but because of the day to day faithfulness of the mundane, anonymous, non-descript people who constitute most of the church, and who do the grunt work and the tedious jobs that need to be done. History does not generally record their names; but the likelihood is that you worship in a church which owes everything, humanly speaking, to such people.
Amen. Humbling words, these.
My prayer is to be willing to toil away in obscurity, and to be faithful to the end.