In the early nineties, a movement was born in the Evangelical world which has grown beyond the expectations of even those who started it. A pastor in Chicago, Bill Hybels, is credited with being the genesis of the contemporary movement and even he has seen the destructive side of it and has stated so. When I concluded my first eight year term on the Executive Committee of the SBC, I delivered a short devotional to the subcommittee on which I was serving. In that devotional, I stated that there were two things which were going to have to be confronted and solved in the coming years and that they both begin with a “C”.
The two things to which I was referring are Contemporary worship and Calvinism. Concerning the Contemporary worship style, I said that it would finally result in our losing our denominational identity as people, by their nature, would always be looking for something new and fresh and that they would ultimately seek things which have, traditionally, been outside of who we are as Southern Baptists. I stated that we would, ourselves, finally become confused as to who we are and if we become confused about it, the society around us will see nothing distinctive about us at all. The result will be that we will blend into the surrounding spiritual landscape to the point that we will no longer be recognized as the Southern Baptist Convention we have known. This is in the process of happening to us and it is happening at warp speed.
The second thing I mentioned beginning with a “C” was Calvinism. At that time in the SBC, hardly anyone could see that, ultimately this would be a problem. We have always had Calvinists in our midst and we have coexisted with no problems. Even a cursory reading of history will show one that, while seventeenth and eighteenth preachers in our developing country disagreed on this issue, they respected each other and worked together. After the formation of the SBC in 1845 we might have disagreed with each other but we never sought to bring the SBC to a unified position on the issue. Everyone could believe as he wished as long as salvation through the blood of Jesus was the unifying factor. The thing I was already feeling in 1994 was that the Calvinists had an agenda to identify the SBC as a “reformed” convention. While no one will deny that many of our prominent founders were Calvinists, there were others who were not. Whatever the case, the SBC began to turn away from that position near the middle of the nineteenth century. This has resulted in Calvinism being in the vast minority among our people and churches.
While Calvinism is in the minority in the SBC, it enjoys influence far beyond its numbers. As certain leaders have committed themselves to the “reformed” position for the SBC, they have affected this effort by intentionally raising up an “army” of Calvinists through the educational system that the people of the SBC have paid for with their Cooperative Program dollars. This army is dedicated to the task of seeing that Calvinism is the major theological position of the Southern Baptist Convention. These leaders have known that the young people who have been indoctrinated with the five point Calvinistic model will be just as dedicated to seeing it succeed as those of us were who fought the Battle for the Bible and dedicated ourselves to the task of dealing with the issue of inerrancy.
While I have said this on other occasions, I feel it is necessary to reiterate it here: I have no problem with one holding the “reformed” or Calvinistic theological stance. They are free to believe as they wish and, even though I feel they are wrong, I have never let this disagreement hinder my fellowship with that person. Let it also be stated that I do not seek to “convert” a person to my viewpoint. Many lively discussions have been held but that was the end of it when the discussion was finished. The fact that I have had noted Calvinists lead revivals in my church are proof of the fact that I harbor no ill feelings toward someone who follows that theological model. However, I do not feel friendly toward the effort to “reform” the SBC especially through a planned, orchestrated process which has that end as its goal.
Anyone who has followed the situation closely knows that one of our theological seminaries in particular is leading the way with this agenda. A second seminary has joined the effort in recent years after they employed a new president who is in the process of taking that school into the same camp. That Calvinism was taught at our seminaries in the past was not a big deal to most Southern Baptists, but to intentionally transform those schools for the intended purpose of installing Calvinism in the SBC to the point that the SBC could be touted as a “reformed” convention is too much for me to tolerate. I also feel that I hold the predominant position in the SBC on the issue.
Competition for members between churches in a given geographical area has resulted in those churches taking the contemporary movement to the extreme in order to attract the largest crowd. When one church goes to a certain level of the contemporary, casual model, others feel they must do the same things or either invent some new twist which will attract more people than their “competition.” One noted pastor said that he wanted his music to get more “edgy” because he was tired of losing members to another certain church in town. This approach is dangerous because of the nature of human beings. When people are being entertained they always want something more “fantastic” than they had the first time. Human nature is never satisfied with its experience and is always seeking something new in order to keep itself entertained. Just ask Disney about this. Why are they always adding new attractions? Once people have been there, done that and have the tee shirt, they want something new in order for the entertainment factor to always be there. Churches are experiencing the same thing.
First, there was the addition of screens with graphics for an audience which was raised on television and video games. Then there was the abandonment of hymn books and those old, musty hymns for the new, bright, entertaining choruses. Of course they were tailor made for the video screen and could be flashed up there and besides one did not have to hold the hymn book….that heavy old thing. Along with that came the idea that everyone, no matter their physical condition, should stand for thirty minutes or so while they look at the video screen, read the words and sing the choruses. This has its roots in the rock concert scene where young people stand for hours and listen to a rock band. So let’s copy it in our church. Surely, it will work here too. Then, lo and behold, in order to further emulate what the world does, let’s bring more entertainment and excitement by adding strobe lights and smoke framed up in a black background. Don’t forget to make it so loud that one can hardly stand the decibel levels. That is what one gets with the secular rock bands. I believe this: the medium becomes the message if one cannot understand the words. And, in most cases, a person would be hard pressed to understand the words as performed by most praise bands. While we are doing all of this, we must do away with that old choir. Too many older people in it and the young people won’t come to our church if they see that. We can replace it with about six people and a music man with microphones in order to lead our people in the choruses they are going to read off the screen. This writer is not trying to be sarcastic but when the truth sounds sarcastic, so be it.
This casual approach is also affecting the preachers and staff people. Many preachers and music men stand before their church each Sunday dressed in a way that my school teachers would not have tolerated and would have sent me home to change. My mother used to make me get new jeans if a hole came in the knee. “Boy, you can’t wear those jeans to school, they look terrible”, she would say. But, the casual, contemporary philosophy is that one cannot “reach” the people unless they are like them. Quite frankly, from what I have witnessed, those church leaders who hold that philosophy are insulting their members. Are they saying that they dress sloppily because their church members dress the same way? Sounds to me like they are. The people of the world are looking for an example, not for someone like them. Unsaved sinners are sick of who and what they are and they are looking for something different….something to change their lives both spiritually and socially. They are made comfortable with who and what they are when they see pastors, staff and church people who don’t seem to be concerned with what they are projecting. I am weary of being expected to condone the idea that the casual model is setting the right example and is acceptable. What does the lost person who is looking for an elevation of his life think when he sees a preacher on the platform looking like he just washed his dog, put on a sloppy coat, left his long shirt tale hanging below his coat hem and rushed to the church to preach? When the preacher and staff project the casual approach to Christianity that is what the people will adopt. Everything rises or falls on leadership and that is why a leader must make sure that he does not project the wrong thing.
The way people dress to attend church these days is downright dishonoring to God. When the pastor bites the bait of casual dress, it results in casual actions which breed a casual approach to God. Of course many in the contemporary movement will say, “God is interested in what’s on the inside more than He is interested on the outside” Oh, really? Does one mean to say that because God cares about what’s on the inside that He does not care about the outside and how we come before Him? If one were called and asked to be in the Oval Office within two days what do you think they would do? If they did not have a suit and tie they would go to the expense of buying one so that they could go into the presence of the President of the United States properly attired. But these same people think it is permissible to come before the God of the universe in worship looking like they would not go before the President. I think we should wear the best we have to come before God. I told the people of our church that if a tee shirt and jeans are the best they have, wash them, iron them and wear them to church. That is just fine. But if the best thing one has is a fine tailored suit then don’t wear the tee shirt and jeans. How can the pastor be a proper spiritual role model for others unless he sets the proper example himself?
In the Old Testament God was very particular as to how the people constructed the Tabernacle. He outlined it specifically and the people followed his instructions. When it came time to give the instructions on how the Priest should be clothed, he designed the wardrobe very specifically. He told them how the head piece should be made. He designed the breastplate very intricately as well. The garment of the Priest was designed a certain way because that is the way God wanted the Priest to come before him. Now, why is that? It is because He is God and He can require anything of us that He desires. When He speaks, that settles it. The same God is on the same throne and He has not changed His mind about how we come before Him. Of course, if the object of the worship experience is the people and how they feel about things then the dress down code is just fine. Whatever makes one comfortable is the order of the day. But, if the object of the worship experience is focused on God then we are faced with a different set of expectations. And, we must admit, that if He is not the focus then it is only an event and not true worship.
What Jesus did on the cross was not casual and it should be honored for what it was and is: the act of God whereby it was made possible for us to be taken from darkness to Light; from being lost to being saved. It is the most profound thing ever performed on planet earth and should be honored as such. This does not mean that our people should attend worship wringing their hands, bowed over with faces depicting grief; somber in all we do. But it does mean that we should give the worship of our Lord far more honor than we are giving it today.
William F. Harrell