When the church uses worldly means to attract visitors
“As I live, declares the Lord GOD, surely because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep, therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: Thus says the Lord GOD, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them.” (Ezekiel 34:8-10, ESV)
Holy Scripture reveals that the church of Jesus Christ is to be outward focused in the sense that one of its primary reasons for existing is to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to all the nations, making disciples, baptizing and teaching them to follow the way of Christ (Matthew 28:18-20; Luke 24:46-49; John 20:21-23; see also Mark 16:15-18, though scholars debate whether this passage was in the original version of Mark). The Book of Acts gives us numerous examples of how the early apostolic church carried out this mission to spread the gospel and to draw in new converts to Christ and into His church, including the methods that were used to carry forward this mission from God.
In the name of “reaching the unchurched”, and often with the noble intention of drawing people into a relationship with Jesus Christ and into the life of His church, the church growth movement has, for decades, championed new and “innovative” approaches to doing church. Its emphasis on being “seeker sensitive” has had some overall positive impact, I believe, in the sense that it has challenged more traditional churches to use less “churchy” jargon when seeking to reach the unchurched and to strive to be more welcoming and accommodating to visitors who may not be familiar with the often-insular culture and traditions of the church.
However, the movement as a whole seems to advocate a model for doing church which removes the emphasis of the pastoral office away from the biblical shepherding model (where the pastor is seen primarily as a spiritual shepherd who cares for and nurtures Christ’s “sheep” through the ministry of Word, sacrament, prayer and discipline) to a business model (where the pastor is basically expected to be an ecclesiastical CEO, “vision casting leader” and celebrity motivational speaker).
Furthermore, because of its emphasis on reaching the unchurched, combined with the strong emphasis on numerical growth which flows out of its business-model approach to doing church, churches which adopt the methods of the church growth movement often end up resorting to worldly means and gimmicks to attract visitors. “Worship” services often end up being primarily about entertaining the congregants with a rock concert followed by a brief motivational pep talk delivered by a “hip” pastor dressed in casual clothes (so as to be able to “relate” to an unchurched audience).
In the short term these innovative methods have proven to be very successful, for they have given birth to numerous “megachurches” with huge campuses, celebrity pastors, and incredibly large numbers in attendance at services. But are churches which adopt these methods actually being faithful to Christ’s commission to His church? Are a significant number of unchurched people actually experiencing genuine conversion to saving faith in Christ (and not merely making cheap “decisions for Christ”) through the ministries of such churches? And are such churches actually feeding Christ’s sheep with the law and gospel of God, or are they merely entertaining the goats?
Pastor Paul Washer offers a sobering reflection upon churches and pastors who use carnal means to attract visitors into the church: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2f6iVWVqugc
Certainly we at Lake OPC should strive to be a friendly church, one where visitors with minimal or even no church background can feel welcomed and accepted. Certainly we should strive to help visitors to be able to understand and participate in the worship service as much as possible, and should avoid unnecessary “Christianese” and church jargon which might erect a barrier to their feeling welcomed. (Or, at least we should seek to explain biblical and Christian terms to the uninitiated so that we won’t seem to them to be speaking a foreign language.) And certainly there is nothing wrong with seeking to make Lake OPC known to the community through attractive and professionally-done advertising and meaningful outreach events which warmly welcome inquirers to come and check us out on the Lord’s Day.
But at the same time, let us remember that the church’s mission is to make disciples for Christ, not to merely get decisions for Christ. (In any case, from a biblical standpoint a “decision” for Christ on the part of the unchurched which does not bear fruit in actual discipleship to Christ, which includes becoming a baptized, communing, worshiping and growing member of Christ’s Body, the church, is not really a genuine decision for Christ at all.)
Let us also remember that the pastor’s primary job within the church is to feed Christ’s sheep as one of Christ’s undershepherds, not to entertain the goats by catering to the carnal-minded. The Scriptures nowhere present the pastor as a “vision casting leader” or ecclessiastical CEO. His calling is not primarily an administrative one (namely, running the business of the church); rather, his primary calling is that of being a spiritual shepherd of God’s flock, and he will give an account before Christ on the Judgment Day regarding his shepherding activity (Hebrews 13:17; First Corinthians 3:10-15).
And finally, as Pastor Washer reminds us in the video clip above, let us keep in mind that if we use carnal methods to attract visitors, we will only attract carnal people. And once you fill a church with worldly-minded, carnal people, the only way you will be able to keep them is through worldly methods and circus-like gimmickry. Let us remember that the God-ordained ministry of Word and Sacraments will have the effect of attracting the “sheep” of Christ (namely, the elect), but it will repel the carnal-minded and “goats”. And that is ultimately God’s design, for by God’s sovereign decree the gospel is ultimately an aroma of life to those who are being saved, but an aroma of death to those who are perishing (Second Corinthians 2:14-17). Ultimately Christ has left His church in this world for the purpose of gathering in God’s elect from the four corners of the earth. The church universal exists to benefit the elect, and the elect only. Because we don’t know who the elect are (only God knows!) we seek to spread the gospel to all, and we seek to welcome all. But we do this all in the service of Christ’s sheep, not the devil’s goats.