Over the last few weeks I’ve hammered home the reality that because Calvary316 is solely focused on being “church for Christians” we faithfully teach God’s Word knowing this is the only way you can grow in your faith and then in turn reach the lost world with the Gospel. We really do believe our outreach occurs when the church leaves and engages in ministry.
And yet, this morning I want to also explain that we are also dedicated to teaching God’s Word because we believe it’s the only effective mechanism for evangelism as well. Though I tend to rail on the “seeker-friendly” church model, we do desire to be seeker-friendly in the sense we’re convinced the most important thing we can provide a seeker is Truth!
In order to unpack this idea and in many ways contrast our ministry approach to some of the larger churches around us, I want to take our time together and look at a month long season of ministry the Apostle Paul had in the ancient city of Thessalonica.
Acts 17:1-4, “Now when they (Paul, Silas, and Timothy) had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul, as his custom was, went in to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus whom I preach to you is the Christ.’ And some of them were persuaded; and a great multitude of the devout Greeks, and not a few of the leading women, joined Paul and Silas.”
These four verses summarize Paul’s activities covering a period of three weeks or “three Sabbaths” (basically a month). It’s important to point out from the text that Paul’s audience included both religious Jews as well as “devout Greeks” (Gentile proselytes of Judaism).
This detail is significant for our purposes this morning for Paul’s audience may have very well come straight out of the Bible-belt. This group he’s seeking to win over to Christ was Biblically knowledgable and spiritually inclined, but tragically their entire religious structure was based in a faulty understanding as to the nature of salvation itself.
Paul’s crowd believed a person could be saved through intellectual belief, because of family heritage, or by their good deeds. Belief (I believe in God) - Heritage (I was born into a religious faith) - and Works (I’m a good person)… Sounds like a typical Southerner to me!
Also notice Paul’s specific goal… The text tells us his desire was to convince this group of religiously-minded Thessalonians that (1) “The Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead,” and (2) “This Jesus who he preached (literally heralded) was the Christ.”
Once again this detail is also important for while every legitimate church shares this fundamental objective (seeing people come into a saving faith in Jesus), not every church agrees on the most effective way to accomplish this particular goal.
For example… Most of the largest churches in the greater Atlanta area employ what’s known as a “seeker-friendly” model when it comes to evangelism. You might have also heard these ministries tout themselves as literally being “Church for the Unchurched” - which you should note is historically a rather new development within Christianity.
To this point it really is amazing that over the last decade or so a staple of the church itself has largely vanished. While it’s true there is no reference of a pulpit in Scripture, it’s interesting to consider the pulpits origins and evolution since the days of the reformation.
During the 1500 and 1600, as the Bible was being translated into common languages and being distributed for mass consumption, the “reformation led not only to a renewed emphasis upon the sermon, but to the repositioning of the pulpit as the center of the sanctuary.”
Church historians believe this took place for “the central position of a fixed pulpit suggested a theological prominence of the preaching of the Word of God” within the church. The pulpit grew to “symbolize the reformations emphasis upon the centrality of God’s Word.” Which explains why the reformers were known to have the pulpit perched up high above the audience elevating both the man and his message.
And while protestant churches have continued this longstanding tradition of having the pulpit as the central focal point of the sanctuary, there is no question the pulpit itself has undergone several reformations of its own over the years that followed.
Consider that it was during the 1800’s that the pulpit (while still remaining ornate) was moved from its high perch to eye level. Though this still maintaining the elevation of the message, this new position fostered the relatability of the man behind the pulpit. Over the next hundred years, in order to de-emphasize the decadence of the church and have greater appeal to the common man, pulpits grew in both there simplicity and functionality.
Then during the 1980’s and 1990’s, as the church facility modernized, so to did the pulpit. Instead of the traditional wooden-look, pulpits quickly took on all different shapes and sizes. Metals, glass, plastics and various technologies were incorporated into the design.
Finally, as the United States plunged into a new millennia and society continued to shift from modernism to post-modernism, the pulpit experienced it’s most dramatic transformation yet.
With the rise of the seeker-friendly models which produced corporate mega-churches, it was during the 2000’s that Christianity began to see the worship experience become the primary emphasis of the Sunday service over the teaching of God’s Word. Sadly, spiritual experience instead of the proclamation of truth was seen as more marketable to a post-modern culture.
And almost overnight something fascinating happened… The pulpit, the very thing that had been a staple within the church since roughly 300 AD, seemingly disappeared! In many churches today the pulpit has now been replaced with a hightop table and bar stool.
Now don’t get me wrong… I’m not saying all pastors whose pulpits now reside in church storage have done so because of the incursion of post-modern appeal and influence, but it’s undeniable the symbolism of seeing the pulpit removed from the church has historical significance and is representative of a larger trend taking place within the church at large.
I mean why should a church have as the focal point of their stage the very item that represented the “theological prominence of the preaching of God’s Word” when the preaching of God’s Word is no longer the preeminent mechanism for evangelism?
In his book “The Priority of Biblical Preaching” Steven Lawson summed up this new trend by commenting that, “A new way of doing church is emerging. In this radical paradigm shift, exposition is being replaced with entertainment, preaching with performances, doctrine with drama, and theology with theatrics. The pulpit, once the focal point of the church, is now being overshadowed by a variety of church-growth techniques, everything from trendy worship styles to glitzy presentations to vaudeville-like pageantries. In seeking to capture the upper-hand in church growth, a new wave of pastors is reinventing church and repackaging the gospel into a product to be sold to "consumers." Whatever reportedly works in one church is now being franchised out to various "markets" abroad.”
In discussing how he seeks to move a diverse group of people in a common direction, Andy Stanley (pastor of Northpoint Community Church) recently explained why his ministry does not emphasis the teaching of the Bible during their Sunday services.
He said, “It is often effective to leverage common experiences and emotions without assuming a common belief system… We don't begin with theology and beliefs… We begin with what we have in common - fears, joys, challenges, and a need for love - and that draws people in… We want to move people physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. We want to take them from where they are to the place where we think God wants them to be.”
It’s not an accident that most of the flyers churches mail out to the community rarely emphasize Biblical exposition. Folks are invited to come to church to learn about God through the movies, a four week study on parenting, 10-tips for financial freedom, etc.
Now I don’t question the desire of men like Stanley to reach the lost for Jesus (personally I think these churches are sincere in this pursuit); and yet, the fundamental problem with this approach is that not only will you be hard pressed to find an example where the church itself existed for such a purpose, but as a method of evangelism this model is completely and totally unBiblical.
Look again at our passage… Paul is seeking to reach a group of religious people - His purpose is that they might recognize Jesus as being the basis of their salvation and not religious beliefs, heritage, or works… But notice how Paul seeks to accomplish this aim - His methodology is entirely Scripture-centric! As with Jesus and the precedent established in the book of Acts, the Bible was Paul’s fundamental tool for evangelism!
According to our text, there were 3 ways Paul used Scripture in his evangelistic approach: First, Paul used Scripture to “reason with them!” In the Greek this word “reasoned” means to mingle thought with thought. It is from this word we get our English word “dialogue.” Note: Paul was not preaching at these Thessalonians, rather he’s engaging with them in a conversation concerning the Scriptures… Conversational Evangelism.
Secondly, Paul used Scripture to “explain” to them! In the Greek this word “explaining” would be better translated as “opening or enlightening.” This is an interesting word because we find it most often associated with Jesus’ ministry.
In recounting their experiences with the resurrected Christ on the road to Emmaus these two disciples said, (Luke 24:32) “Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?” Then a few verses later Jesus appears to the 11 Apostles for the purposes of (Luke 24:45) “opening their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures.” Jesus took time to explain the Scriptures to them, because it would then be their responsibility to explain the Scriptures to others.
What this tells us is that Paul did not base his arguments on personal opinions. He instead pointed to a much higher authority than himself… God’s Word. Paul’s evangelistic ministry emphasized the teaching or opening of God’s Word because he saw Scripture as being the most effective way to reveal Jesus. In John chapter 1 the Apostle declares, “In the beginning was the Word… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us!”
Finally, Paul used Scripture to “demonstrate” for them! In the Greek this word “demonstrating” means to place beside. This word indicates Paul’s Scriptural arguments presented persuasive evidence to substantiate his positions concerning Jesus.
I hope you understand the Christian faith is a reasonable faith! As Christians we don’t believe in the absence of evidence and reason, instead we believe there is enough evidence to make our beliefs reasonable. Hebrews 11:1 even goes so far as to define our faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
For three weeks Paul gathers with these Thessalonians where he uses Scripture to “reason, explain, and demonstrate” that Jesus was actually the long awaited Savior of the world. Which is interesting because Paul’s methodology for reaching this lost but religious culture ran counterintuitive to the modern, seeker-friendly approach.
Instead of as Stanley “leveraging common experiences and emotions without assuming a common belief system” or seeking to “draw in” his audience by appealing to “common - fears, joys, challenges, and a need for love” Paul specifically focuses on Christian theology and Biblical doctrine believing that by first correcting their misguided belief systems the framework would be established by which they would reject the religious basis for salvation and accept Jesus! It’s been said, “The best way to contrast a lie is to present the truth!”
While the text is clear Paul’s arguments were hard to discredit, we should point out there was a mixed reaction… Though only “some of the Jews were persuaded… A great multitude of Greeks joined Paul and Silas.” Which leads to another important point we can’t overlook… Teaching the Bible in a religious culture polarized Paul’s audience.
Luke says a “great multitude of the Greeks joined” them - which subsequently implies a great multitude of the Jews chose not to join them. Please understand… A Bible-centric ministry model will not appeal to everyone! As a matter of fact, in this instance, the Word of God only served to parse the crowd revealing each groups inner intentions.
Based upon their reaction to God’s Word, the Greeks were revealed to be “Genuine Seekers” with the Jews being nothing more than “Religious Pretenders.”
You see this reality is one of the main reasons “seeker-friendly” churches avoid teaching the Bible. As we see illustrated in this passage teaching the Bible yields one of two reactions. It either forces a person out of their religious comfort or it forces that person out of your church! Hebrews 4:12 describes “the word of God as living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”
The reason this is the case is that the Bible’s message for the “seeker” or the “unchurched” is brutally honest and in many ways demanding. Apart from a saving relationship with Jesus you’re lost in your sins, alienated from God, and condemned to hell as a consequence. The presentation of the truth will very likely offend a person comfortable in their sin.
You see the Bible doesn’t ease people in - It calls people out. The Bible doesn’t placate to your situation - It calls you to account. The Bible condemns both religious moralism and worldly relativism alike! Sure, the Bible tells the seeker “God loves you just the way you are,” but the Bible is also radically honest that “His plan is not to leave you that way!”
God’s desire is that you repent of your rebellious lifestyle, die to whatever you presently are, and allow Him to transform you more into the image and likeness of His Son Jesus! You are not ok. His love doesn’t accept your brokenness, but seeks to provide healing.
The reality is that the Bible does not present a populist message. It can’t be packaged for the masses because the truth really is offensive and divisive. In many ways the message of the Bible is not friendly. Instead it forces a seeker to either respond and accept Jesus or gives them the justification to get upset, call you names, and leave. This is why the “seeker-friendly” model avoids difficult truths in order to successfully appeal to a larger audience.
Under the “What To Expect” section of a seeker-friendly church’s website in our community this is what you’ll find… “We believe God calls us to pursue him just as we are, inside and out, so we nurture a casual, fun and inviting atmosphere. As our guest, you can check out our services without intrusion and begin your spiritual journey at your own pace - no pressure - just encouragement.” What is completely overlooked by this statement is that by definition one can never pursue God without the initial act of repentance.
You see while these churches find themselves overflowing on Sunday morning I’m convinced there is an unintended consequence to this particular model of ministry:
In the South there is a huge segment of the population who want church to satisfy a compulsion to feel spiritual without the actual challenge to be spiritual. Because most Southerners are religiously-inclined like these Thessalonians but pagans in practice (Sunday Christians), attending a church that targets the “unbeliever” has the perfect appeal.
Church designed for the unchurched fosters the perfect environment for the lukewarm Christian (Christian in name only) to thrive unchallenged. This church allows a person to satisfy this cultural compulsion to feel like a good Christian (stimulating worship, entertaining programming, helpful antidotes, service opportunities, etc.) while never forcing that person to face the weightier matters of what it really means to be a Christian (Biblical sermons that tackle topics like sin, repentance, judgment, persecution, what it means to be holy, etc.).
Because the primary focus of our Sunday service at Calvary316 is not on creating a comfortable environment for the unchurched to not feel threatened, but is instead focused on the development of healthy Christians living genuine lives transformed by Jesus through the faithful teaching of God’s Word, the person who gravitates to the seeker church experience is simply not going to find Calvary316 very appealing! And I’m ok with that.
Here’s the reality… I’m not fearful of the seeker church moving in next door for one basic reason… We’re not going to appeal to the same crowd! While the people who gravitate their direction wouldn’t find our pews very comfortable for long, it’s also a reality the people our church appeals to see right through this particular charade.
Which is fine because it’s exactly what teaching the Bible is supposed to do… Divide a religious culture into those who are genuine Christ-followers and those who are simply playing Christian! Honestly, I’m ok with the fact that our philosophy of Biblical teaching yields such a result because it means Calvary316 is filled every Sunday with 3 groups of people:
Ironically, many of these seeker churches hail from what’s known as the “Willow Creek” style of ministry. What makes this ironic is that a few years ago “Willow Creek Community Church” conducted a three-year study to “find a way to measure spiritual growth. And to see whether the church was accomplishing its mission of facilitating that growth.”
What’s interesting is that the report they published (titled, “REVEAL”) challenged their entire “seeker-friendly” model of ministry. The report states, “We learned that the most effective strategy for moving people forward in their journey of faith is Biblical engagement… Our study revealed that churches that are successful in producing genuine spiritual growth in the lives of their people… Embed the Bible in everything. These churches breathe Scripture. Hands down. No contest. When it comes to spiritual growth, nothing beats the Bible.”
Acts 17:5-9, “But the Jews who were not persuaded, becoming envious, took some of the evil men from the marketplace, and gathering a mob, set all the city in an uproar and attacked the house of Jason, and sought to bring them out to the people.
But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some brethren to the rulers of the city, crying out, ‘These who have turned the world upside down have come here too. Jason has harbored them, and these are all acting contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another king - Jesus.’ And they troubled the crowd and the rulers of the city when they heard these things. So when they had taken security from Jason and the rest, they let them go.”
I am afraid one of the reasons todays American church is failing to influence our society is that in our attempts to “appeal to culture” we’ve forgotten that Jesus instituted the church to be “set apart from culture.” Now don’t get me wrong… There is a huge difference between a church seeking to “appeal” to culture as opposed to a church wanting to remain “relevant.”
Modernizing facilities, creating a contemporary esthetic, employing creative graphics and multi-media, or even incorporating new styles of worship music to remain relevant with culture is not a bad thing. The church should never seem antiquated - we’re heavenly.
However, the problem is that all to often in order to “appeal to culture” the “seeker-church” ends up employing techniques aimed at “appeasing culture!” “Appeasement” is defined as the “diplomatic policy of making concessions to an enemy power in order to avoid conflict.”
Instead of letting truth speak for itself by faithfully teaching the Bible, in the pursuit of being “friendly” with the lost world around them, many pastors neuter the message itself hoping to make the Gospel more “attractive, pleasing, interesting, and enjoyable” in the process.
Here the problem… Not only does appeasement by definition fail to enact any type of lasting change, but history has little respect for appeasers! It’s true that there are few apologists for the way Neville Chamberlain approached the growing threat of Nazism.
The church would be wise to remember that rebellion not appeasement is the only way to actively change culture. Whether or not you agree with their impact you can’t escape the reality that revolutionaries are remembered specifically because their actions against the status quo were paramount in changing the status quo.
You see Paul had no interest in appeal and was far from an appeaser. Paul was a revolutionary publicly known to be “turning the world upside down.” Paul contrasted the lie with the truth. He shinned the Light into the eye of darkness. He was bold, brazen, unafraid, tenacious. Paul spoke the Word of God with conviction and was polarizing as a result!
Paul’s actions were directly responsible for dividing communities. He “raged against the machine,” created enemies everywhere he went, ticked off the religious establishment, was on a first name basis with the local authorities, even spent nights in jail. Paul came, spoke truth, and so impacted society that people were saved from the clutches of hell, gave their lives to Jesus, a church was birthed in the community, and a violent mob was spawned.
In conclusion… Life is about submission and rebellion. Because the two are central to the human spirit, what you rebel against determines what you’ll live in submission too!
If you rebel against God, you’ll live as a servant to this world; but if you submit to God, rebelling against this world is simply the natural and unavoidable outcome and some people will be offended! As I’ve mentioned before the church of Jesus Christ should be seen as the most dangerous institution on the planet. A Rebel Church is what we are!
Shock-rocker Alice Cooper, who most interestedly became a follower of Jesus after making a name for himself, made this radicle observation, “Drinking beer is easy. Trashing your hotel room is easy. But being a Christian, that's a tough call. That's real rebellion.” I agree!
There are two things I want you to consider as you head home this morning: (1) Figure out who you want to serve then rebel against the other, and (2) Once you’ve figured that out may I suggest you pick your church community accordingly.
Do you want to be part of a church of rebels who unashamedly proclaim the truth of God’s Word without fear of reprisal or whether or not it will draw large crowds… Or would you rather support a culture of appeasement because it allows you to feel good without the challenge to be holy? I don’t know about you but may the accusation be made of Calvary316 that we are a Rebel Church filled with men and women more interested in “turning the world upside down” than being found comfortable, safe, and complacent.
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