The Outward Bound
by Vernard Eller

3. Success or Fidelity?

If, as we have proposed, it is the case that the original, fresh-wineskins church of the New Testament was a caravan constituted of barbershopping expediti, and if it is the case that the church has become, instead, a commissary performing as an avant-garde Royal Vienna String Quartet, what motivated that shift, why did the church decide to trade in the one set of models for the other? The church saw that the switch would ensure its success. It would rather switch than blight.

Our pair of terms this time is "success/fidelity." We use "success" in the way the word is regularly used--applying the measures that would be used in evaluating any organization. Success is determined by the statistics regarding such things as membership, attendance, giving, budget, staff, facilities, and activities. Success equals the number of participants multiplied by the degree of their satisfaction and support. Success, then, is directly dependent upon what might be called "technique-efficiency"--the shrewd calculation and application of sociological principles. "Fidelity," on the other hand, is faithfulness to the gospel, conformity to the mind of Christ, being what the biblical revelation calls the church to be.

Normally, I would guess, the church thinks of success as the product, the consequence, and the payoff of fidelity. Indeed, success is often taken as the proof of fidelity. "Look how we are succeeding; we must be doing right. Praise the Lord; see how he is blessing our efforts!"

But this is not the case--churchly success and churchly fidelity are two quite different things! Biblically and theologically the two do and must represent a choice rather than a correlation. A congregation must choose one as its goal. The two are not so nearly alike or so intimately connected that one choice can include both. No, if the congregation chooses success over fidelity, then that choice is itself infidelity, an act of unfaithfulness. If, on the other hand, the congregation chooses fidelity over success, success may follow or it may not--there is no guarantee, no promise, no assurance, and no connection. Success can and does come to churches that are completely unfaithful, and success can be created through factors that have nothing to do with fidelity.

Ours, we contend, is the biblical understanding, seen most clearly, perhaps, in the book of Revelation where the heavenly Christ evaluates the seven congregations of Asia Minor. What is plain throughout is that fidelity is Christ's one and only standard of measurement; no other factors even come into consideration. Of the seven churches, two receive "A's" (unqualified commendation), two receive "F's" (unqualified condemnation), and the rest are scattered between. Of four of the seven churches, we get at least some hint of the outward situation: two are poor, weak, and unsuccessful; and two are lively, rich, and reputable. And would you believe it, the two poor, weak ones receive the "A's" and the two rich, reputable ones receive the "F's"! Jesus apparently got things all backwards.

Clearly, something is going on here to which we need to give attention, for Jesus is speaking deliberately and not accidentally. To one of the "A" churches, Smyrna, he says:

I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich.... Do not fear what you are about to suffer.... Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. (Rev. 2:8-11)

In other words, your lack of "success" is beside the point; you are rich in fidelity, which is the only thing that counts. There is not even the promise that you will become successful; more suffering is all I can offer. But if you will be faithful unto death (some prospect that!), I will give you the crown of life.

To the other "A" church, Philadelphia, Jesus says:

Look, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.... Because you have kept my word of patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world. (Rev 3:7-13)

The open door is, of course, a door to life and witness; there is no suggestion that it is a door to success.

To the "F" church of Sardis, the word is:

You have a name of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is not on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God.... If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. (Rev. 3:1-6)

All the "success indicators" that we normally take as signs of a church's being alive may not indicate anything of the sort in the eyes of Jesus.

Finally, to the "F" church of Laodicea come the harshest words of all:

You are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. For you say, "I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing." You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.... I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. (Rev. 3:14-22)

A church's estimate of itself and its estimate in the eyes of the world (rich, prosperous, needing nothing) may be the exact opposite of Jesus' estimate (wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked).

Now we need to be careful not to push these passages too far and create a correlation that is simply the reverse of the usual one. It certainly cannot be taken that a congregation's being small and weak is proof of its fidelity. Obviously, a small, weak congregation can be wanting and seeking success just as much as a church that has attained it. No, to choose success, to value success, to take success as a measure of worth, are actions that bring Jesus' condemnation. But the fact that success happens to come or not to come to a church says nothing about its fidelity one way or the other. The measure of fidelity must be an entirely separate matter. Fidelity must be measured in terms of obedience to Jesus according to New Testament standards. So, in the letters to his churches, Paul never so much as inquires about their institutional success. Rather, as it is put in 2 Pet. 3:18, they are to "grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ."

Not only these two chapters of Revelation but also the remainder of the New Testament would point to such a conclusion. For instance, in writing to his congregations, Paul shows no concern as to how they are succeeding, gives them no counsel as to how they might become successful. Fidelity is his one and only interest.

In the previous chapter we started in on the church growth movement, and now we will resume that discussion by putting it up against the New Testament norms.

The movement itself, of course, is much broader than simply the Institute of American Church Growth and its director, Dr. Win Arn; yet those can and do stand as representative of the movement as a whole. At the outset, in unqualified approval and praise, I want to testify that this group has accomplished the best sociological analysis of church growth ever. Using solid scientific studies, they know what makes churches grow and can tell you how to go about achieving institutional success. It is only when they proceed to give theological significance to their sociological expertise that gross confusions arise.

At the heart of the matter is one of Arn's favorite formulas:

"If you will do this and this and this, then God will give the growth."

That, if I may say so, is not quite the equivalent of Jesus', "Upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it" (Mt. 16:18). Jesus is voicing God's promise that, through his own means, he will preserve a faithful remnant even when the church is in a bad way. Arn is speaking of something else--and trying to have it two ways at once.

If Arn's formula were even to come close to being Christian, the "this and this and this" would have to amount to "seeking first the kingdom of God." Yet even then, Matthew 6:33 should never be taken as a guarantee that if you seek first the kingdom, God will give you any specified item out of the "all the rest." That would reduce the God/man relationship to a business deal. If it is truly God's decision and grace that gives the growth, then our doing "this and this and this" has nothing to do with the matter--unless, of course, you are interested in developing a doctrine of works-righteousness. However, if it is the case (as obviously it is) that the "this and this and this" are well-calculated techniques, then the consequent growth is purely and simply the sociological resultant of technique-efficiency (which God may or may not approve; he didn't appear too happy with the success of the Laodicean church).

The giveaway is the fact that if Arn's "this and this and this" were slightly reworded, it would work as well for the Ku Klux Klan as for a church. Yet, if the church does it, God is providing the growth; if the Klan does it, the Klan is creating its own growth. In this way, the Klan comes off as the superior outfit, because it does not have to depend upon outside help for its success.

I once read a piece in which a very successful pastor told how his people had had the faith that God would fill the church if they would build an oversized church building. Sure enough, God filled it! But, baloney (if I may say so in a kindly way)! Where is the evidence that God cares a snap about what size churches people build? This congregation's "faith" is the same as that of the developers who decided that if they would build an oversized mall at a particular location with the right kind of shops, it would soon be filled with customers--which it was. This is not faith; it is just smart calculation. And the fact that the pastor who engineered it is the one who also volunteers to tell us how pleased God was with the whole venture gives the item a strong Blougramian flavor. Now for all I know, this congregation may indeed be one that is pleasing in God's sight. My point is that the evidence we have been given says nothing one way or another about its fidelity to Jesus Christ and his vision of the church. That a church is growing is, in itself, not necessarily an indication of God's approval.

It is time to go, then, to the underside of the church and look at the church growth movement from there. The Institute of American Church Growth categorizes one sort of congregation as "terminally ill." This means that there are congregations in which sociological factors are so aligned that no techniques can be calculated to turn the situation around and bring them growth. So be it; that is a sociological judgment, and the Institute is the best for making such judgments. But be careful--that category might very likely have fit the congregations of Smyrna and Philadelphia, the very ones to which Christ gave "A's." Do we really want to be in the position of diagnosing as ill what Christ diagnoses as well? I am not arguing at all with the accuracy of the Institute's sociological judgment. I am distressed at the evaluational implications that attend it.

Two observations:

  1. I am continually amazed at how long many terminally ill congregations are able to continue serving their people and making their faithful witness. The sociological judgment may be correct that they cannot grow, but they do manage to survive in defiance of all sociology. (Perhaps here, where sociological factors are opposing rather than helping, is where we should be the more ready to speak of God's preserving his church. It would seem so in the cases of Smyrna and Philadelphia, at any rate.) If all the terminally ill congregations in our land were suddenly to disappear, the body of Christ would be much the poorer.
  2. At least regarding churches, it seems plain that a congregation can die without ever having been ill in any Christian sense. "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends" (Jn. 15:13). As we noted earlier, the book of Revelation suggests that the coming of the kingdom involves the whole church "laying down its life" even as its Lord laid down his life It is this same Lord's will that some of his faithful congregations lay down their lives now. But it is sad when these congregations must also endure the judgment of their peers (which include the F-graded Sardises and Laodiceans) that they are terminally ill.

To my mind, the greatest flaw in the church growth movement is its use of sociological fact as a thermometer for measuring Christian health. In the process, calculation is valued as faith and success is valued as fidelity, and the church is pointed more strongly toward the continuance of the world than toward its end.

But it is dangerous when congregations are encouraged to justify themselves on the grounds of being sociologically fortunate or having the sociological intelligence to achieve worldly success rather than being led to examine themselves according to Christ's standards. ("For you say, 'I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.' You do not realize that you are wretched...."

"But," you might say, "the fact that a church is growing surely indicates that it is meeting people's needs!" Granted--but just so the circulation figures of Playboy magazine prove that it is meeting people's needs. Churchly success is no proof that a congregation is meeting the particular needs for which the gospel is designed or upon which the church is called to concentrate. No, it must be obvious that an organization can be very successful while being spiritually anemic or downright heretical. The implication that fat and happy churches must be good churches reflects the same logic that makes Blougram a great man of faith because he is a bishop who professes to believe everything.

Also, it is too bad that small congregations are made to feel like failures simply because they lack the sociology that produces nice statistics. I confess that I did not respond positively to the IACG movie that starred a number of Southern California "superchurches" and their well-publicized pastors, showing and telling what good pastors and churches should look like. I resent the implication that their model is what we should all want and try to achieve. I know too many pastors and churches that are just as great and just as truly in the will of God that do not follow the Garden Grove Community or Hollywood Presbyterian model at all.

I think it is wrong to hype up congregations with the assurance that "if you do this and this and this, God will give the growth." Certainly that might move some (even many) congregations to do "this and this and this," and they might very well experience growth. But it also sets the stage for some rather traumatic comedowns and disillusionments--both for those congregations that do not have the resources to do "this and this and this," and those that do have the resources but run into sociological roadblocks that prevent the growth formula from working. For them, there is only one conclusion to be drawn: "God doesn't love us; he refused to come through."

Finally, it is not good if church growth is given such overriding priority that a congregation is led to compromise its understanding of the gospel, dilute its witness, or stoop to unworthy devices in the effort to make sales. And do not think that it cannot happen; cheap grace definitely has some marketing advantages over costly grace.

Now we need to look at some of the rationale behind church growth. Examining this will get us back to more specifically biblical considerations.

"Yes; but the church growth movement is derived directly from the New Testament experience and model."
Well, maybe.
"But the New Testament certainly shows an interest in the church growing. God wants his church to grow."
True, though the sort of growth the New Testament primari1y discusses is described in 2 Peter 3:18: "Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." All of the epistles addressed to congregations and congregational leaders (including the seven churches in Revelation) inquire and counsel constantly about this sort of growth; none shows any interest in the congregation's numerical status. The church growth movement shows its interest just as strongly the other way--and has to. Spiritual growth simply is not amenable to sociological statisticizing, scientific analysis, and technique-efficiency--though these are the very things that constitute the church growth movement's strong points. The error is in assuming that these two sorts of growth are necessary correlates. The New Testament puts spiritual growth on the "seek ye first" side of the equation and numerical growth on the "let all the rest come to you as well" side. The church growth movement tends to reverse those poles.
"But the New Testament church was growing numerically and obviously from working at it."
Yes, although it also needs to be said that there is no evidence that the strategy was to grow by creating large, professionalized, technique-effective congregations. The early church was using "caravan" methods for growing a caravan church; we are using "commissary" methods for growing a commissary church The New Testament certainly cannot be used as a charter for that!
"But the New Testament is full of commands to go, teach, preach, tell, proclaim, witness, make disciples, etc. (let's call the package 'evangelism' - sharing the good news), and all of these add up to grow.'"
You are right: the New Testament is overflowing with such commands. But I dispute that these add up to "grow." Sometimes, of course, they do, but in at least one notable example they added up to "getting yourself crucified and your disciples scattered," with the definite prediction that this could and would happen again and again and again. Paul knew: "I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth" (1 Cor. 3:5). The growth is God's business, not ours, and it is a gift according to his choosing, not a guaranteed result for our efforts.

The church is commanded to teach, preach, and proclaim the gospel; it is never commanded to "grow." All these other things lie within our range of choice; "growth" does not--it is too much at the mercy of factors beyond our control. Jesus did not chastise any of the Revelation churches for their smallness. The goal and end of our action lies simply in performing our evangelistic tasks faithfully. Are we going where God wants us to go? Are we truly preaching the gospel with which we have been entrusted? In making disciples, do we share Jesus' understanding of discipleship? The church is only responsible for these things; any results are up to God.

But if the command becomes simply, "Grow!" our responsibility likewise shifts over to the doing of evangelism efficiently rather than faithfully. We become concerned only with making things work, with results. We go where we have the best chance of winning converts. We preach only that which people find attractive. We adapt our definition of "disciple" to what people are most willing to be made into. We have to act by calculation, because unless we achieve success, we are being unfaithful. But that is a bind God has never put us into: forcing us to desert fidelity with a demand that we produce success. The one and only test, then, is whether we are doing our evangelistic tasks faithfully. That a congregation is in fact growing is no proof that it is doing its tasks faithfully; we have already implied that doing them unfaithfully might increase the chance of success. Likewise, the fact that a congregation is not growing is no proof that it is not doing its tasks faithfully; there are any number of outside factors that could be prohibiting results. But, by moving the focus away from the New Testament's theological category (i.e., our faithfulness in evangelistic endeavors) to a sociological one (i.e., the effectiveness of this sort of endeavor), the church growth movement has confused the biblical understanding of church growth in the very process of appropriating it.

My personal conclusion regarding the church growth movement brings us back to the qualifier that closed our previous chapter. If sociology can be kept in its place and not be allowed to pose as theology, then there definitely is a place in the church for the movement's competent sociology. But this means that growth cannot be a measure of Christian health, calculation cannot pose as faith, and success cannot be an indicator of fidelity. Above all, growth cannot move from "let come to you" to "seek ye first," nor our eyes from the end of the world to its continuance.

We have not said very many positive things about success, but what's wrong with it? Why must it be seen in opposition to fidelity? Why is it a threat to fidelity?

Before we tackle these questions, there is a prior one that must be addressed: What is it that makes a church successful? What does a successful church have that a less successful one does not? I've struggled with this question; and the best way I can think of putting it is that the successful church attracts people and support because it has "class." The term is necessarily vague; but it involves such things as social prestige, taste, and a flair that catches attention. It involves being chic and up-to-date--making people feel that membership enhances their own social standing.

Now it is important to realize that class inevitably will mean different things for different constituencies. For example, many people would deny that class is a concept that can apply to country music in any sense. And yet those who appreciate country music would have very strong convictions about which country music has class and which does not. Class cannot be specified until the constituency itself is specified. This is what I understand the Institute of American Church Growth to be saying in its observation that a growing church customarily is homogenous namely, that it has its constituency defined and knows what it takes to cater to it.

I am familiar with a situation in which there exist, in one town, two congregations of the same denomination, each of which is in equally good standing with the denomination. The first of these is large, professional, and successful. The second is amateurish and struggling. Because there are certain church institutions in the area, many leading families of the denomination (including at least twenty ordained ministers) have moved into town during the decade that the two congregations have existed side by side. One hundred percent of these have joined the large church--almost all of them without even having visited the other congregation before making their choice. Why? The one factor that completely swings the balance is that the large church has class, and the small one does not.

My observations, of course, have not been confined to just this one situation where the matter seems so clear, but my conclusions are a follows. Most people probably find themselves in the congregation they do because it is the local representative of the denomination in which they were reared, although denominational loyalty is no longer as strong a factor as it used to be. But where it is a matter of open choice, is it or is it not the case that class (according to what class means for the respective individual) is the deciding factor?

Perhaps by using the word "class," I am simply trying to capture the mood that pervades our earlier three concepts of commissary, avant-garde, and Royal Vienna String Quartet. In any case, class is the key to success. This is not to say that success never comes to a church without class. Neither is it to say that class is the only factor ever involved in success. Nevertheless, for a church to have class is its best assurance of success. Look around you; identify those congregations that would have to be rated most successful, and see whether, in the eyes of their own constituencies, they do not display class.

"OK, you're right," you might reply, "but what's wrong with that?
What difference does it make what attracts people, or what means are used to get people interested and into church, as long as we give them the gospel after getting them there? We even can find Scripture on the matter: Paul's seeking to please all men in all things that they may be saved (1 Cor. 10:33), and his taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5)."
Yes, there are those Scriptures--although we must give full weight to the phrase "that they may be saved" and full consideration to the thought's being made captive to Christ rather than Christ being made captive to the thought. And this brings us to the heart of our argument. It has to do with the issue of means, an issue almost totally ignored by the church. The common assumption is that if one's goal is good and if the chosen goal means success, then everything is as it should be. Yet this is to overlook all the truth of Marshall McLuhan's dictum that the medium is the message. We assume, rather, that means are in themselves neutral. So our wisdom dictates that we look around and find a means, a technique of organization, programming, advertising, and public relations that the world has shown to be effective.
"We're going to score a lot of touchdowns, we're on a winning team....
This is the Lord's picture, and he does not sponsor any flops," as the executive producer of the Charles Colson Born Again movie was quoted. If smart, classy Christians undertake a project, they can claim the Lord's sponsorship, and that is a sure guarantee of success. Does this movie producer not recall the people God sponsored in history--Israel, a born loser among the nations? Does the producer not know that the high point of the Old Testament is the picture of the Suffering Servant who was "despised and rejected by men"? Does this producer think that Jesus' being deserted by his followers and executed as a criminal indicates that he was a success in the world? Has he not heard that Paul called himself and his fellow Christians "the scum of the world, the dregs of all things"? Does the producer not know which of the churches of Asia Minor Jesus admitted to sponsoring? Does he actually think that God is committed to ensuring the box office success of his or any other movie?
No, in our lust for success we overlook the fact that it takes two different conditions to make techniques right. Not only must the technique be an effective one in and of itself, it must also be appropriate to the content it is intended to promote. It is when the medium and the message are consonant with one another--and only then--that things are as they should be. The medium and the message must be right for each other.
What so often happens in the church's experience is that a technique of worldly effectiveness looks good and is adopted. And then, because success is the only consideration (techniques have no other purpose), the gospel message is subtly pruned, shaped, and contorted until it fits the technique. "Please all men in all things," yes; but if the gospel is falsified in the process, men will not be saved. It is quite possible for Christ to be taken captive by a technique rather than the technique being taken captive for Christ.

Now we shall turn to some examples.

Example 1

If the gospel is proclaimed in a setting and by media that all communicate gentility, graciousness, and sedate propriety (luxurious appointments, sonorous music, cultured rhetoric, dignified behavior), will that gospel be heard as the scandal, the offense, the folly, the humility, and the stumb1ing~stone of which the Scripture speaks? Can the Suffering Servant of God, the Son of Man who had no place to lay his head, the humble preacher of Galilee, truly be made present by such means in such a setting? Can one speak of nonconformity to the world in a setting that radiates worldly respectability?

Example 2

Or consider the popular, contemporary phenomenon of gospel rock. The assumption clearly is that rock music itself, as a medium, is neutral, the message lying entirely in the lyrics. Thus, if one takes either the actual music or the style of secular rock and gives it Christian lyrics, the performance becomes a Christian activity, that is, worship and the proclamation of the gospel.

However, that assumption must be strongly questioned. And the success of the technique in its satisfying the customers ought not to be taken as a proof of Christian validity; success is not the guarantee of fidelity. The music of rock is just as much a cultural expression as are its lyrics. And what is (or was) the nature of the culture that created the rock idiom as its expression? Most conspicuously, it was oriented around alcohol, drugs, and sex. The lyrics themselves testify to this. Woodstock was the most graphic demonstration of rock's home and context. Is it correct, then, that the musical idiom itself bears no touch of all this, or is it the case that the music itself was meant as an expression of the same orgasmic "high" for which alcohol, drugs, and sex have been valued?

Furthermore, the rock generation was also very much disillusioned, without faith in society's traditional values, without any sense of order or structure in life. And does not its musical idiom express the same chaos, absurdity, and lostness? And does this, then, become an appropriate vehicle for affirming a gospel that centers upon the loving lordship, purpose, and plan of God?

Again, the rock generation was very self-centered. By that I mean the horizon of one's sense of reality and significance was constricted pretty much to that of personal experience - what I am feeling, what is happening to me, what is going on within me--that is about as far as my concern and interest go. Listen to the rock lyrics and see if this is not the philosophy they reflect. Then check out the lyrics of gospel rock and see if they do not have the same orientation. Is not "my personal experience of Jesus," or "what Jesus has done for me," the dominating focus of gospel rock lyrics? And can that be an adequate statement of a gospel which, in its biblical setting, speaks so strongly of discipleship and of God's plan for humanity at large?

Finally, I would suggest that the greatest appeal and effect of rock music lies in its emotionalism--emotionalism of such power that the appropriate physical response is sensual, bodily gyration. There is a distinction between emotion and emotionalism. Emotion is entirely proper and appropriate as the response to a word, a message, or a situation that is poignant. Emotionalism, on the other hand, is emotion that is artificially generated through studied techniques (loud sound, frenzy, very strong beat) for the sake of the emotion itself and not for the sake of communicating any particular message. It may very well be that the emotionalism of rock was valued primarily as a means of blotting out the sense of life's lostness and absurdity that we commented upon earlier.

Perhaps the closest thing the Bible gives us to a description of a rock concert is from 1 Kings:

Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, "Choose for yourself one bull and prepare it first, for you are many; then call on the name of your god, but put no fire to it.." So they took the bull that was given them, prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, crying, "O Baal, answer us!"; but there was voice, and no answer. They limped about the altar that they had made. At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, "Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened." Then they cried aloud and, as was their custom, they cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them. As midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice, no answer, and no response. (1 Ki. 18:25-29)

When it was Elijah's turn to call upon the true God, how shortsighted and faithless he would have been if he had adopted the same methods of worship as the Baal prophets. Such methods would have suggested that Yahweh was little more than a superior Baal. And do we want to suggest that the message of rock is close enough to that of the gospel that the only change required is some mention of the name Jesus? Certainly, the gospel, with its abundance of the extraordinary, warrants an appropriately extraordinary medium to accentuate the extraordinariness of its message. Does rock music qualify as this medium?

I am not at all arguing that it is wrong for those who do to listen to rock music and enjoy it. I am denying that a mere change in lyrics immediately "Christianizes" that enjoyment, transforming it into an experience of worship and a hearing of the gospel.

Also, I am not averse to having someone convince me of an instance where rock music has been sufficiently transformed and redeemed to be a true communicator of the full gospel message. Of course, I will not agree that simply because the music attracted people and that some of them "accepted Christ" amounts to an instance of true communication, but I can see the theoretical possibility of a rock production being the vehicle for a faithful rendition of the gospel. Yet this would not at all change the one point I want to make. My objection is to the easy assumption that our choice of means or media has no effect on the gospel to which we witness. I object to the assumption that, if the means works, that in itself is proof enough that our action has been a faithful one. Thus, wherever you come out regarding rock music, at least admit that there are issues involved that call for careful consideration and profound discernment.

Example 3

Our final example is from the recent Here's-Life-America ("I Found It") campaign. This was conceived by an advertising man, and, in a television interview, he cited the biblical account of the day of Pentecost (the Holy Spirit doing a media blitz on the city of Jerusalem) as his inspiration and precedent.

I have two difficulties with this.

  1. In the process of latching on to one very exceptional instance of mass conversion (which the New Testament itself accentuates as being exceptional if not absolutely unique), he has deliberately overlooked the countless instances and evidences that establish normative New Testament evangelism as being very much of a personalized, face-to-face approach. Such picking and choosing is not a good way to let the Bible speak.
  2. The parallel between his campaign and Pentecost holds only to the extent that both were efforts that resulted in mass conversions in the name of Jesus. But the man totally overlooks the complete discrepancy of the means employed. I do not know whether the Holy Spirit even ought to be called a means, but it is quite evident that nothing remotely resembling modern advertising methods was involved at Pentecost. Again, his is a way of saying that the medium has nothing to do with the message, that there is no reason to raise the question of means, and that the only consideration is whether one achieves success.

How consonant were the means of the Here's-Life-America campaign with the message it was to serve? The heart of the campaign centered on mass telephoning, a technique that has proved very successful in certain types of merchandising. But what particular types of merchandising? When my phone rings and I find myself getting a stock line from someone I do not know and who does not know me--or when, on the basis of some sort of vague promise of a prize, I am inveigled into phoning a number where I get a stock line from someone I do not know and who does not know me--I can draw a fairly accurate conclusion about what is being sold. It is usually some flashy but tawdry bit of junk, the profit on which must be made by convincing masses of people that they can get something pretty nice without much cash outlay.

Quality merchandise is not sold in this manner (it doesn't have to be). If it is really good and represents a major investment, the seller will simply offer it and let the interest of the buyer bring him to examine it. Both the buyer and the seller will want to meet each other and learn enough about each other to judge whether the product is right for the buyer's needs. Both buyer and seller are interested in the buyer's knowing the full truth about the product before he buys. And what, inevitably, does it say about Jesus when he is made the object of the first, rather than the second, method of salesmanship?

Further, "I Found It" is an example of the sales gimmick (undoubtedly of proven effectiveness) that seeks to engage the customer and catch his interest while declining to tell him what is being so1d. It is like the encyclopedia salesman who gets into the house by insisting that he is conducting a survey, and hiding, for as long as possible, the fact that he also is selling books. Such an approach betrays a lack of respect for the customer (the truth is withheld from him), and a lack of faith in the product (the salesman is fearful that the customer will lose interest once he finds out what he is selling). Again, quality merchandise is not so1d in this manner; the product is introduced at the outset, in the conviction that it is its own best selling point.

Finally, there is the sales ploy of refusing to name the price until the very end of the pitch, getting the buyer to guess a price higher than the actual price, starting with a high price and then offering the buyer discounts, and so forth. It is all too evident that Here's-Life-America (along with most of our evangelism programs) showed no urgency in getting around to talk about the cost of being a Christian, the price of following Jesus. In fact, we are dishonest enough to allow and even encourage people to accept Jesus with the impression that no cost is involved. It was not so when Jesus himself was recruiting disciples. Evidence indicates that his approach did not begin with or center upon promises of blessings for those who accepted him. He simply said, "Come, follow me" (a rather demanding challenge in itself), with no holding back on what that would likely involve. He even told the parable about counting the cost before undertaking a venture (Lk. 14:25-33). Of course, it can be argued that this approach will not bring many sales, but perhaps it is the case that Jesus is not as caught up in the eagerness for making sales as Here's-Life-America.

It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who developed the crucial distinction between cheap grace and costly grace:

Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our church. We are fighting today for costly grace.... The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing....
  • Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth....
  • Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before.... Instead of following Christ, let the Christian enjoy the consolations of his grace! ...
  • Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.
  • Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession.
  • Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Costly grace is the gospel that must be sought again and again, the gift that must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.2

What we have been discussing in this chapter simply carries Bonhoeffer's thought one step further. It is altogether right and even necessary that the church find and use different media (means) for expressing and communicating the gospel, for without a medium there is no way of proclaiming any message. Nothing we have said is in opposition to the use of means; we have opposed only the indiscriminate, unexamined selection of means.

As long as a church's sole focus and priority is fidelity, there is no problem. The test, then, is always this:

  • Is this means consonant with the gospel of costly grace that it would serve?
  • Is the medium speaking with the message or against it?

Congruence, here, is fidelity; and whether or not success attends the effort is entirely in the hands of God, the God who has never shown a great deal of interest in success one way or the other.

But once success is allowed to become a church's goal and interest, watch out! For one thing, there will be the attempt to imitate the world's ways of achieving class. After all, the world is the admitted expert at devising techniques that spell success. Further, the worldly media inevitably operate from the premise that the way to success is to pander to people's fancies and desires (what they call their needs), at bargain rates, at as little cost to and demand upon them as possible. None of these means, then--the social advantages of gentility and culture, the tremendous popularity of rock, or the proven efficiency of modern advertising methods--is particularly suited to the message of costly grace that calls us to follow, costs us our lives, condemns sin, and required the life of God's own Son. However, these means will work very well--do work very well--in relation to cheap grace. And the church finds itself blessed with success in promoting cheap grace.

It is left for you to decide how much this analysis applies to your own congregation--how dedicated that congregation is to success, how eager it is to display class, how given it is to the use of inappropriate and unworthy means, and the extent to which it has become satisfied with believing in and promoting cheap grace.

Copyright (c) 1980