The Cost of Compromise
Some of these changes are perfectly acceptable. The Apostle Paul wrote that he became “all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (I Corinthians 9:22) But some of these changes are downright dangerous. Paul also wrote “If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!” (Galatians 1:9) Somewhere in there, somewhere between providing softer seats and a softer gospel is a line, a tipping point. But where exactly is it?
I want to be clear, I’m not condemning churches for offering coffee to parishioners or rearranging the seating in the sanctuary. Please don’t read that in this post. But I want to be similarly clear that I am condemning changing the gospel to make it more palatable. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of middle ground that gets confusing. I write this post not to tell you which shade of gray is whiter and which is blacker, but to get you to join me in asking the question.
As we do that, let me first offer this thought: The purpose of church (the traditional Sunday morning service) is not primarily evangelistic. After all, the church service is a gathering of Christ’s “church”—the body of believers. And a body of believers, by definition, doesn’t need to be evangelized. Now, admittedly, in almost any Sunday morning setting, there will be people in attendance who do not profess a faith in Christ—who don’t believe in Him. So I’m not saying that no “salvation message” should ever be preached. But, in my judgment, the primary purpose of the Sunday morning gathering of believers is to provide them a place to come together and worship through singing, giving, hearing testimonies, observing the sacrament of communion, and being taught from the Word of God, thus equipping them to go out and evangelize the world in the other 167 hours of their week. While the church should be instrumental in evangelism, both corporately and individually, I don’t believe that obligation should be the central thrust of the “worship service.” Therefore, if we significantly alter that time in order to appeal to non-believers, we are doing a disservice to believers. That’s my opinion, but one I believe is well supported. Consider the words of theologian J.I. Packer: “Doctrinal preaching certainly bores the hypocrites; but it is only doctrinal preaching that will save Christ’s sheep. The preacher’s job is to proclaim the faith, not to provide entertainment for unbelievers—in other words, to feed the sheep rather than amuse the goats.”1 More importantly, consider Scripture, where biblical references to a “church service” seem to be speaking about a group of—primarily—believers.
That being said, the gospel is more than just an altar call. The gospel should inspire us and impact us on a daily basis. The gospel should be at the core of every sermon. The gospel should be evident in the songs we sing, should compel us to give generously, and should be paramount in our interaction with one another. And yet, that gospel is constantly under assault, not only from without but also, I believe, from within. We are constantly, as individuals and as church bodies, seeking to convey that gospel to the world in a way that will appeal to them. We’re seeking to “be all things to all people.” And sometimes, in that effort, we unintentionally assault the gospel.
Let me offer a couple examples. Let’s say your church sings primarily old hymns. Slowly. With an organ. But since most young people don’t walk around with “And Can It Be That I Should Gain” streaming on their Bose headphones, your church figures they can better appeal to young people by singing more upbeat, contemporary songs. If nothing but the style of music changes, then—unless you happen to love old, slow, organ-accompanied hymns—no harm, no foul. But what happens when the rich theology prevalent in many of those hymns gives way to shallower, repetitive lyrics prevalent in many modern choruses? (As an aside, this is not a hymn lover bashing choruses. In a future post, I’ll touch on what constitutes good “worship music” in church and get into the “hymn-vs-chorus” debate a little then. For now, it’s just an illustration.) Then, hasn’t your church lost something to appeal to culture? Taking this example to the extreme, I once heard of a church having what they called a “U2Charist,” where the church gathered together to sing U2 songs. Now, while I’m a fan of U2 and I’ve heard reports that the lead singer, Bono, is a professing Christian, and while I would enjoy singing “Beautiful Day,” “Vertigo,” and “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” on a Sunday morning, I would question if we were maximizing the worship experience. (Plus, no offense to the worship team at my church, but none of them can play like The Edge.) I use this outlier to illustrate the point. There’s a line between singing songs that might appeal more to culture and singing songs that lessen the worship experience. But where is it? (Hint, just after the nearly two-minute intro to “Where the Streets Have No Name.”)
Or take the casual vibe you get in many churches these days. I’m not saying everyone has to dress to the nines on Sunday morning or sit with rigid posture and unblinking attention. But I do have to ask, when people show up to church on Sunday in the same clothes they would wear to do work around the house—or to go to the beach—on Saturday; when they load up with coffee, hot chocolate, herbal tea, donuts, and cookies on their way in; or when they are texting and updating Facebook statuses during the sermon, it almost feels like they’re showing up to a show instead of coming to worship their Creator. Lest I get bucked off my high horse here, let me point out I’ve “schlepped” to church in jeans before. I am the first to admit that I often trudge into the sanctuary as much out of duty as a burgeoning desire to worship. I’m pointing the thumb as much as the finger. And I’m not condemning you if you don’t wear a suit and tie or if you bring coffee into the sanctuary. But I ask, is there a line we cross in making church so comfortable that we lose a little of the reverence and sacredness? And, if so, where is that line?
One last example, one that is far more pernicious. What about the pastor who spends all his time preaching on God’s love and grace but neglects to mention God’s mercy, who promotes certain virtues but won’t rebuke certain vices, who calls people to receive God’s blessings in their life but not to recognize their sin and need for God’s forgiveness? Because a gospel that doesn’t address the problem of sin and God’s remedy for it—the blood of Jesus Christ—isn’t a gospel at all. It is a pile of hot, stinking crap. And the pastor who preaches it or the teacher who teaches it isn’t doing God’s work but the devil’s. That’s harsh language, I realize, but it is the same message Jesus delivered to the Pharisees (Matthew 23:15 and following) and Paul, as mentioned earlier, preached to the church in Galatia (Galatians 1:6-10). If we water down or change the gospel to make it more comfortable or welcoming, it is useless for its intended purpose. Winning people over is pointless if, in doing so, we compromise to the point that what we’ve won them to isn’t worth winning.
So where’s the line?
Lest you think I’m attacking modern songs (I’m not) or coffee (I’m definitely not) or change in general (only maybe a little) let me offer a final anecdote. A couple of years ago, the church of which I’m a member hired a new pastor. In these last couple years, I can’t recall a time when I saw him hold a Bible as he preached. Instead, he holds a tablet. I have to admit, when I first saw him do so, I found it a little unconventional. But, as he pointed out, prophets and rabbis used to teach from scrolls. Should he unfurl one of those each Sunday? The medium is not important; what is important is the message, whether it be delivered from a gold-leafed, onion-skinned print Bible or a smartphone app. Admittedly, I believe he does this because carrying a tablet is easier than carrying a heavy Bible prone to page-flipping, not because he’s trying to win the youth vote. But the point is the same. Becoming “all things to all people” needs to be balanced with a steadfast adherence to the truth of Scripture. In theory, that should be easy. But life is not lived in theory. And, as is so often the case in Christianity, the lines seem to be blurred. And we as Christians like to imitate the lead-off batter in a baseball game, digging into the sand in the batter’s box, kicking it over the freshly chalked outline.
Where’s the line? I don’t know. If I did, I’d tell you. “Sing this but not that song, coffee but no donuts (and no cream, drink it like a man) in the sanctuary, and at least once a month preach against one of the seven deadly sins.” But my purpose isn’t to tell you what to think, but to inspire you to think. If you and I do that, I suggest we’ll be quite a ways down the right track.
- Nathan Birr is the author of The Douglas Files series and God, Girls, Golf & the Gridiron (Not Always in That Order) . . . A Love Story. (It’s as crazy as it sounds.) He can be found at his local church drinking black coffee in the foyer or sound room, but never ever in the sanctuary.
(Unless otherwise noted, Scripture taken from New International Version, © 2011.)
 Packer, J.I. A Quest for Godliness. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1990. Print