The Church of Modernity
Modernity is not a word that we run into frequently in our reading or speaking. It is a word that can be as hard to pronounce as it is to understand. To simplify our use of the word, let’s place it into a more familiar context. First, pronounce the word modernity as you would eternity, exchanging “mod” for the “et” of eternity. That is easy enough.
Next, modernity is a noun that means concerning the present or nearest to the present as to development. As the word eternity has helped us in pronouncing modernity, it can help us in our understanding of modernity. Eternity conveys the idea of “continuity without end.” When we speak of God, we proclaim that He is eternal—He lives in the “eternal now.” For Him, no past or future exists, only an ever present now, from everlasting to everlasting (Nehemiah 9:5). On the other hand, modernity is focused on the immediate present.
One difficulty we have with the idea of eternity is that we can only go back in our own experience to a finite point. Our ability to engage our conscious thought-life falters at age five or four. Even then, our recall is usually limited to some dramatic incident or event. As to the future, we have no personal knowledge. That can only come through some form of revelation.
God, of course, does not function with those human limitations. We have difficulty in even understanding how that can be. It was His nature: God is eternal. However, there is a story from Moses’ life that can expand our perspective.
The “I AM” Of Eternity
You may remember that Moses had a unique experience in the desert beside a burning bush. God wanted Moses to lead His people Israel out of bondage from Egypt. To get his attention, God’s voice comes from the midst of a bush that was burning but not consumed: “Moses! Moses!” (Exodus 3:4)
Moses’ response expressed his humanity and the transitory nature of his being: “Here I am.” Unlike the God Who is revealing Himself, Moses can only be at one spot at once. “I am here,” shows the limited nature of all human existence. It is one day at a time, one event to another, one moment followed by another moment and only a single place at any given time. Both time and space restrict our vision. With that limitation, it is not surprising that Moses demurs when God tells him He has selected him to deliver Israel from slavery. He can’t see what God sees. So he asks, “What will I tell them when they ask who has sent me?” Exodus 3:11-13
In magnificent contrast to Moses’ own inadequacy, God announces, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM’ has sent me to you” (Exodus 3:14). God declares that He is the “forever present One,” the One who lives in the eternal now. “The I AM is sending you!”
God does not leave Moses with just a barren definition of Himself. He fleshes it out to enlarge his understanding by adding a historical perspective with which Moses is familiar. Having just informed Moses that He has seen the misery of “my people in Egypt” (3:7), He says: Tell the Israelites that I AM “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob!” God’s declaration to Moses is in the present tense. Whatever their time or place, “I AM.” Israel’s three great patriarchs may be dead but I AM! Furthermore, “This is my name forever, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation” (3:15).
The “I AM” in the New Testament
Centuries later, in an encounter with the Pharisees, Jesus used the same name which Moses heard in the desert. When Jesus claimed direct association with Abraham the Pharisees scoffed, “You are not yet fifty years old.” Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, before Abraham was born, I AM!”
The Pharisees knew about Moses’ experience with the “I AM” at the burning bush and understood what that meant to Moses. They also understood exactly what Jesus meant. He was claiming eternal existence not bound by either time or location. By His statement, He had made Himself equal with God. They immediately take up stones to kill Him (John 8:57-59).
The Apostle Peter writes that Jesus “was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake” (I Peter 1:20). In Revelation, the Apostle John writes about names of people, “written in the book of life belonging to the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world” (Revelation 13:8; 17:8). Even God’s plan for the redemption of fallen humanity was from eternity.
Because of Who God is, no external time or spacial reference restricts His thought, presence or perception. He is eternally present at all points of the universe. He has instant access and knowledge of all motion and events. So from God’s perspective Jesus’ sacrificial death was consummated in eternity and was effectual for all time.
That dimension of reality is difficult for us to grasp. It does not conform to human experience in any way. However, it does give a reliable background for the notion that has mesmerized our time, Modernity! When we consider God’s eternal nature and being, we can better recognize how impotent, narrow and shallow is the character of Modernity. In light of God’s Eternalness, it is perplexing to figure out the current obsession with Modernity by the evangelical church.
The primary basis or origin of Modernity thinking in the church today stems from an anemic and distorted perception of God’s nature and character. It rises out of a context that subordinates or excludes eternity from today’s thought and activity. It is the natural extension of mankind’s craving for control, here and now. It is the offspring of secular humanism overall and reflects contemporary thinking in particular.
The Secular Dominates the Spiritual
A secondary cause of the invasion of the church by Modernity comes from the culture in which we live. Incredible changes, scientific breakthroughs and improvements in consumer goods have caught everyone’s eye, including evangelical leaders and church members. The constant stream of “new and improved” products in our society develops a resonance in all of us. We want the latest gadgets, CD players, cars or whatever it might be. Given a choice between new and improved, and old and proved we invariably select the former. That kind of desire for material “advances” is influencing the processes, programs and products of the church.
What is it that tempts the church to discard the Truth of Scripture for novel techniques from our secular culture? How could this happen? Perhaps a look at the power of Modernity in a non-Christian arena can reveal what is taking place.
The Power of Modernity in Education
For decades, California schools used phonics to teach children how to read. It was very effective. Literacy in the population was high. At some point along the way, however, a new, more up-to-date method to teach youngsters how to read was “discovered,” developed, promoted and enforced in school districts in Southern California. They called it the “Look-See” method.
The principal process of phonics is breaking words into syllables and letters. By learning to read each syllable, any word from “cat” to “catastrophe” can be read, pronounced, learned and understood. The Look-See method involved “looking” at a word and by seeing it, knowing what it said. It had nominal, short-term success, but only with familiar, short words most children were already using.
The problem with the Look-See method surfaced when readers began to encounter longer words that were unfamiliar. They could not figure them out. Longer words were unintelligible. They could not pronounce much less understand the words. The very method intended to teach them paralyzed their ability to learn how to read. Nevertheless, before there was a return to phonics, a generation of young people were passed through our schools with severe reading deficiencies. Many students just could not read. High school graduates were functional illiterates.
By the time the public school system formally dropped the Look-See reading method, the damage had been done. Fortunately for some students during that time, many tenured teachers saw the disaster that the Look-See method would unleash. They closed their classroom doors and continued to teach phonics. Perhaps you were among the fortunate few who had that kind of “visionary” teacher.
Have you heard the line from a joke teller, “Stop me if you have heard this one before?” The California school system has recently “discovered” a new, modern, creative method for teaching children how to read: They call it “Whole Language Experience.” It sounds really exciting, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t you want your children to “experience” this kind of teaching? Can you guess what it is?
Change a few phrases, add some new buzz words and you find Whole Language Experience is the same, old, disastrous, repudiated Look-See method. That is the power of Modernity! It’s new, novel and the latest in teaching techniques. Pray that your child is in the classroom of some old-fashioned teacher who has kept the phonic’s reading books, closed the door and is teaching your child how to read!
Modernity and God’s Word
Unfortunately, this sad story regarding education has an application to the church. Take some idea or concept that is clearly prohibited in Scripture and may previously have created havoc in the church. Rename it to associate it with some contemporary cultural practice, idea or standard. You may have a winner within the church despite what the Scriptures say.
As a well-known professor in an evangelical seminary remarked when he was challenged on something he was teaching: “I don’t care if my ideas are right or not; there are enough people that think I’m right to satisfy me.” That is the contemporary substitute for “Truly, truly I say unto you,” declared by Jesus. In its place are ideas and methods designed and developed to satisfy inflated egos puffed up in an era of Modernity.
Truth is no longer tested by the Word of God! Are they accepting it? Does it work? Is it creative? These have the ring of secular relevance that has infected the church, but the Apostle Paul’s penetrating questions still remain:
“Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.” I Corinthians 1:20, 21
Today, human need and acceptance by the secular world are defining the Gospel. Modernity has spawned a new truth. If I can convince enough people in the church—then it’s right. That perversion is as old as the Garden of Eden. Satan himself used it when he enticed the first couple with the words, “Did God really say?” (Genesis 3:1). The Serpent was saying, in effect, “Let’s talk about what God said. Perhaps He really didn’t mean what He said.” They began to listen.
Do you see this in Christian organizations? Is it creeping into today’s church? Dare we look?
Emotion Drives Out Conviction
Jesus tells a story to His disciples about four different kinds of soil in which a farmer planted seed.
“A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. He who has ears, let him hear.” Matthew 13:3-9
Why does Jesus tell this story? The disciples, too, were puzzled. Later, they asked about the parable. He explained that the story describes differing responses to the Gospel of the Kingdom. Only one kind of soil produced the kind of growth intended by the farmer. Only one soil yielded what was acceptable. In the other three, the development of the crop ends before it reached the intended purpose of the farmer. The farmer expects to see mature growth. He anticipates a harvest from his sowing. Sowing in three of the soils fails. Jesus said, “He who has ears, let him hear.”
From this and other passages we understand that the seed is the message of the Kingdom—the Word of God (Matthew 13:19; Mark 4:14; Luke 8:11). The farmer’s purpose in planting grain is to produce mature growth that bears fruit or duplicates itself. While sowing in the good soil, there is the accidental sowing in other areas that the farmer tries to avoid.
In the application of the story, Jesus explains the things that prevent the sowing of God’s Word from becoming productive according to God’s design. As He interprets the parable, Jesus says the “evil one” is there to divert God’s work. Devout Christians today would agree that we are in a battle with Satan. He is certainly trying to destroy the effectiveness of God’s Word by taking it away. Today, they ban the reading of Scripture from most public gatherings. They frequently promote attacks on the historical validity of the Bible, even by “so-called” theological experts. We would agree that Satan is still at work.
We also understand that the “cares of this world” can choke out interest in the things of God. In this passage, when Jesus says the plant is choked out, it literally means other things are more important to the person than the Word of God. In the first case, Satan takes away the Word. Here, the worries of life and wealth and possessions have priority over what God has said. Our energies are applied to things of this present world rather than the world to come. The Word is choked out.
But what about that third soil, the response which was filled with “great joy?” Surely, that is a very desirable outcome to planting the seed! Notice how this soil produced an immediate surge of growth, “because the soil was shallow” (Mat-thew 13:5). Jesus describes the rapid growth response:
“The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once received it with joy. But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away.” Matthew 13:20, 21
What Jesus pictures in agricultural terms is the quick, easy, dramatic response to the Gospel based on emotional acceptance. However, Jesus says, “there is no root.” Lots of emotion but no true conviction—a superficial response with no depth. In our day, they sometimes call this a “hothouse” or “fair weather” Christian.
How does Jesus characterize this kind of soil? He declares it to be a response to the Gospel with no root of conviction or commitment. The picture is one of high emotional response that looks terrific in the early stages. Faith appears genuine until the time of trouble or persecution. When true conviction and commitment are required, Jesus says the person quickly falls away. Adversity reveals the truth. It was nothing more than an emotional response to the Word of God. There was no root. It was the heart of a pagan in the shell of a Christian.
God is looking for mature growth that counts for eternity, not immediate, spectacular emotional response that withers with the rising sun of testing. Jesus warns His hearers: “He who has ears, let him hear.”
Jesus’ warning is twofold: One concerns our response to the Gospel, the other is about the role of the church as farmer. We understand Jesus’ teaching regarding an incomplete or superficial response to the Gospel: It is unacceptable! It is a denial of the purpose of His life, death and resurrection. Jesus came to bring new life. The Word is planted to reach the goal of mature, reproducing spiritual life. All other responses, Jesus says, represent failure.
Accordingly, in the church we should avoid the cares of this world and strive to nullify the work of Satan in his attempt to take away the Word. Would you also agree that the church should follow our Lord’s teaching and discourage the emotional, superficial responses to the Gospel that never grow to maturity? Is that what you see the church doing today? Do you see agony over the lack of true spiritual growth and development of depth (roots) as Jesus said?
Nonetheless, despite Jesus’ teaching, virtually everything in the Church of Modernity, including the methods, the music and the message is programmed to stimulate and create an emotional response. The goal is not to promote spiritual growth. It is to improve the numbers. Many are not trying to hide or disguise their open, flagrant disregard of Jesus’ teaching in this issue. Others parade their programs in the language of Modernity: It’s a “new, modern, innovative” way to present the Gospel to our generation. We want people to “get to know us” and “like us.” The emotional appeal is working. Look how we are growing (numerically)!
The Attachment Is There—The Commitment Is Not
The primary product of the Church of Modernity is the response in the soil’s parable about which Jesus specifically warns. Its dividends are short-lived and temporary. Short-term, it’s great. The crop looks incredible. Pastors and leaders from all over come to see how terrific it all is. A new industry has been created to teach how to duplicate this kind of program in other churches. Books are written and various “church growth institutes” will show you how to do it!
But, Jesus said, “the harvest from this rocky, shallow soil will be a disaster. There is no root!” It is all show and no growth when it comes to eternity. He warned that this type of emotional response drives out conviction and commitment. He announced there is no maturity; that it will “quickly fall away.” “He who has ears, let him hear.”
Whatever happened to the Gospel of the Resurrection! Whatever happened to the power that raised up Jesus from the grave! Has the Good News of God become so anemic that we have to prop it up with emotional devices chiseled from our secular culture? Whatever happened to the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world?
Don’t we insult the everlasting Creator of the universe when we sit around devising puny little methods and programs to entice people into become Christians? Whose job is it, anyway, to grow the church? (Acts 2:47; I Corinthians 3:5-9; II Corinthians 3:4-6) Has the Holy Spirit lost His ability to convict the world of sin and righteousness and judgment to come? (John 16:7-11)
Why do church leaders, then, continue to grope in the bag of tricks stolen from our secular culture in attempts to generate a response that is superficial and emotional? Isn’t that precisely what Jesus warned against? Yet, this is being done in the name of “creative church growth” on television and in the “mega-churches” of our land.
The falling away is not yet apparent to the outside observer. Internally, it is. Attendance turnover is epidemic as “mini-Christians” migrate from one church to another to get in on the hottest action. Another question, however, will bring out the truth: How is the financial giving? Does it reflect commitment? Yes, there is plenty of evidence of the falling away but the beat goes on!
Something worse is yet to take place. Our land is going to see persecution that will empty the high profile edifices packed with the superficial products of Modernity. We are seeing the very conditions that Paul warned Timothy were to come: People “will not put up with sound doctrine” (II Timothy 4:3, 4). Jesus says that persecution will cause these “quick growth” church members to fall away because they have no root! “He who has ears, let him hear.”
The appeal of the Gospel is always to the mind and heart and will—the volitional part of our being, not the emotional. The Apostle Paul, in surveying God’s redemptive work for us notified us about that fact:
“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is.” Romans 12:1-3
Emotions are a by-product of relationship, not the cause. You cannot generate growth and commitment through emotional hype. The constant manipulation of the emotional part of our persons is the “pattern of this world” of which Paul spoke. It prevents the Gospel from ever bringing true conviction of soul. This has nothing to do with conditions of the soil. It has everything to do with the pagan competition we see going on in the church for big buildings, big numbers and big staffs to satisfy “A type” egos (I Corinthians 1:26-31).
Modernity has invaded the church. The sell out crowd, the big-numbers syndrome fascinates the church. By definition, those are the hallmarks of success in our American culture. Nothing wrong with large crowds. John the Baptist had them (Matthew 3:5-10). But what we now see is a pandering after crowds that has eliminated the message of the cross in the life of the individual and the church, as well.
When Jesus revealed the dynamic nature of relationship with Him, the Scriptures say,
“From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” John 6:60-66 (see Luke 14:25-27)
The Church of Modernity has “discovered” high-powered public relations promotions to produce satisfying and entertaining programs. All are designed to appeal to the immediate felt need and emotion of the moment. But Jesus said, “There is no root.” “He who has ears, let him hear.”
Emotionalism has another feature we cannot overlook: It produces psychological addiction. A relationship or life based on emotional response requires higher and higher emotional “jags” to satisfy the individual and maintain the attachment. It is similar to the theater and television entertainment of our current culture. We are seeing more nudity, perversion, profanity, violence, etc., everywhere we turn. Entertainment, you see, delivers an emotional appeal. Consequently, the level of emotional impact has to be continually increased to retain the audience. It’s like the hardening of the human conscience to sin as is outlined in Romans. Ingratitude eventually ends in gross sexual perversion (Romans 1:21-27).
Jesus said that nearing the “end of the age” there would be “false prophets” who would “do great signs and miracles.” His warning was to prepare us for some things we are seeing today (Matthew 24:24, 25). The Apostle Paul penned a similar warning: “They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved” (II Thessalonians 2:9-12).
Church leaders may have each other’s support in propagating a “quick growth” gospel designed to make people feel comfortable without changing their lives. It can and does increase church attendance. In contrast, we find a very disturbing Gospel in the New Testament.
Many New Testament church leaders died violent deaths for the sake of their Gospel. In the modern world, however, we see a gospel of emotional content that avoids authentic conviction. Such is the influence of Modernity on the church. But what kind of gospel has it spawned? What will it be worth in eternity? (I Corinthians 3:10-15)