One would have to be living in a vacuum to be unaware of the HD frenzy flooding the entertainment market. Literally thousands of consumers are spending high dollar on consoles that produce a digitally superior picture quality intended to provide the highest resolution viewing experience possible. The difference in cost between the normal viewing experience and the high-definition experience is not a small matter. A conventional standard-definition television begins as low as $150.00 depending on the size of the screen while the price bracket for high-def television sets reaches is well over $1000.00. The motivating factor for the consumer? Style over substance.

You may be asking, “What does this have to do with the church?” In a small way I believe the choice of style over substance is characteristic of the Western church – particularly the church in America. I believe that the primary contributing factors to the Western Church’s adoration of style over substance are: 1) the pervasive influence of modern culture on the Church; 2) the rise and fall of modernity and the emergence of postmodern thought; and 3) the human folly of redefining the purpose of the Church.

Our Founding Fathers, though many were confessing believers, were weened intellectually during the age of Enlightenment. Her influence on our culure is undeniable, and the products, inventions and intellectual achievements of the Enlightenment have certainly contributed to the greatness and prosperity of our country. They have (products, inventions and intellectual achievements), over time, contributed equally to our spiritual degeneration.

J. Gresham Machen, who invested much of his life fighting against the numbing effects of modern culture in the Church, said: “Modern culture is a mighty force; it is either helpful to the gospel or else it is a deadly enemy of the gospel. For making it helpful neither wholesale denunciation nor wholesale acceptance is in place; careful discrimination is required, and such discrimination requires intellectual effort. Here lies the supreme duty of the modern church.”

I doubt anyone would downplay the influence of modern culture. But where the Church often fails is in her ability to discern (Machen uses the word “discriminate”) what is helpful and what is harmful. Some evangelical conservatives may bristle at this notion because, on the surface, it does appear that the Church is discriminating. For example, the recent resolution by the SBC against alcohol, on the surface, appears to be a discerning rejection of something (alcohol) that is widely accepted by modern culture. Or our more liberal “brothers” claim similar critical discernment with the vote of the Episcopal Church in America and the Presbyterian Church USA to allow for the ordination of homosexuals this past summer. This decision appears to be one where confessing (and I use that word loosely) followers of Jesus seemed to have been overwhelmed by the rising cultural tide of inclusive tolerance and acceptance of all “life-style” choices,. while failing to deal sufficiently with the Scriptures (one might even argue that the SBC did not wrestle thorougly with the Scriptures concerning some of their resolutions this summer either).

If Machen is right and the “supreme duty of the modern church” is cultivating the careful discrimination required to critically evaluate and withstand the influence of modern culture, and this ability hinges on “intellectual effort”, then there is certainly a crisis of catastrophic proportions in the Western church. Why do I say this? Because many churches in America are not structured around, nor are members taught to think, critically about our culture. For example, taking the examples mentioned in the previous paragraph regarding the resolutions in the SBC, EPA and PCUSA this summer, how many confessing believers in the Western church would be able to offer a biblical, rational critique of whether or not the resolutions were actually consistent with the message of Scripture? I suspect that the percentage of members of the mentioned denominations who would be able to speak intelligently and biblically towards these issues would be small.

Am I saying that the majority of church members in the West are dumb? No. I’m saying that many of them are ignorant and unable to discriminate biblically about what is helpful and what is harmful to the church about modern culture because we don’t often think intellectually in the Church. I’ve actually heard of pastors losing their jobs because their teaching challenged their people to think rather than spoon-feeding them biblical truth. If most Westerner’s don’t think intellectually, how do they think? I think the answer is one of the great influences and deceptions of modern culture. Western church members think like consumers. In other words, we think very little and respond only to what our appetites desire. While ignoring what Scripture says explicitly about the nature of the Church, we’ve embraced a mentality about the church that fits into the modern consumer-driven template by which we live life. This is what I mean when I say there is human folly in redefining the purpose of the Church.

Many people either choose a church or choose to leave a church based solely on whether or not the church offers or does not offer the kind of “product” desired (style of preaching, worship style, youth ministry, single adult ministry, senior adult ministry, children’s ministry, etc). In far too many cases, the substance being offered in ministry is irrelevant. What matters most is style (is the pastor cool; how long are the sermons; what kind of environment is offered; chairs or pews; do they utilize media; is there an organ; can I park close to the sanctuary; do they have a nursey for Wed night services; etc). In other words, people don’t often wonder if what is being taught at church is biblical (substance). They simply want it to be practical, easy, and require very little personal investment (time, resources, and physical/mental/relational engagement).

The purpose of the Church is not predominantly to meet the felt needs of the individual who, by faith in Jesus, has become a part of the body of Christ. The purpose of the Church is primarily about making and mobilizing disciples. It is true that we effectively make disciples by engaging the whole person, meeting them where they are and pointing them to Jesus by teaching them His Word in a way that they can understand. But sadly the Church has indiscriminantly carried this to an unhealthy degree, fostering a mentality that makes man the center of our ministry purposes rather than God. Yes, we make disciples; but we are called to do so using the biblical template, not a consumer-driven template. Unfortunately, while many pastors and leaders within the church know this to be true, they are frightened by the notion because biblically healthy churches are not often the largest churches. Churches that cater to the needs of the consumer often grow and grow big, while churches that try to honor the biblical template for the church often experience slow, though sometimes steady, growth. In a world where success is measured by size and Cheeburger Cheeburger tells us that “bigger is better”, it isn’t hard to see why so many churches are driven by a consumer mentality and approach to ministry.

This brings us to the final reason the Western church adores style over substance: the rise and fall of modernity and the emergence of postmodern thought. Modern culture hasn’t fallen literally(that is obvious), and modern thought, to some degree, is still prevalent. Before we engage the influence of postmodern thought on the church, let me define modern thought briefly: 1) because of technological advances the past is of little value; 2) truth is always critically evaluated by reason; 3) pragmatism rules the day. What is true is that which is most useful and productive; 4) denial of supernatural; 5) individualism is valued. With this definition in mind you can see the fingerprints of modern thought all over the Western church. While these values are still very much present in our world, they are slowly being re-shaped by postmodern thought and ideologies.

Postmodern thought, at the risk of oversimplification, holds no single universal worldview. One’s thinking, learning and beliefs are determined by their context. And there is no absolute truth because we can never be certain that what we believe to be true is true for all people, at all times, and in all places. It may be true for the one who believes it to be true, but that does not make it true for all. This is the worldview of the 21st century (though this is not to say that all modern thought is dead). One can easily see why the postmodern mind would be easily attracted to style over substance. Substance is often validated by concrete ideas or beliefs, but when one believes that truth is relative and ever-evolving, then substance no longer has any credence (at least not in terms of truth that is applicable to all people).

Without the “intellectual discrimination” wisely counseled by Machen, where does this leave the Western church? It leaves us with a High-Def experience. Church is sleek, cool, well-designed, attractive and suited to meet one’s own desires and preferences. But without the broadcast of that which is biblical, true for all people, and transforming, it is nothing more than an asthetically pleasing, yet spiritually unsatisfying, over-hyped experience. that will leave us longing for a newer, sleeker model down the road.

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