Recently, I have been reading Carl Trueman’s excellent newest book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (Crossway, 2020), and listening to Christianity Today’s fascinating podcast about Mark Driscoll’s ministry, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. One thing that stood out to me, which I think captures an ongoing pastoral issue throughout the church, is the predominance of preferences.
How does this theme appear in these seemingly very unrelated sources? Trueman wrote,
In the hands of Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin, the world loses its innate teleology. These three effectively strip away the metaphysical foundations for both human identity and for morality, leaving the latter, as Nietzsche is happy to point out, a matter of mere taste and manipulative power games. The Romantics grounded ethics in aesthetics, in the cultivation of empathy and sympathy, confident that a universal, shared human nature provided a firm foundation for such. (pg. 27; emphasis added)
Within a lot of detail, the point lands that when we lose sight of God’s purpose for the created order, life and morality become a matter of insisting on what we like and finding leverage over others to get it. Nature, rhetoric, and appeal are all simply matters of justifying our preferences.
Before moving on to the podcast, this point itself warrants serious reflection. I considered this passage with a group of other pastors who are reading Trueman’s book together, and the insistence upon preference as characteristic of modern morality registered with us all as a massive, if latent or dormant, threat for churches across the board. Regardless of whether church members want to change worship styles or keep them exactly as they were, often the defense completely omits exegetical and theological grounds on both sides. So-called “traditionalists” and so-called “revisionists” (neither term really suits my purpose here and probably suggests more intention and intensity than I intend, but I trust the reader knows what I mean) likewise often both assume that their preferences must be God’s.
So, we come to The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. I have no mind here to discuss Mark Driscoll himself, his ministry, or how the podcast presents him. That is beside my present purpose. The series’ second episode, however, discusses the background to Driscoll’s approach at Mars Hill, which was largely shaped by the mega-church movement’s strategies. The recurring theme I heard was that a new generation wanted church “for them.” The older leaders of this movement validated that desire, acknowledging that they had organized church designed for a previous generation, which leaves the need to design church afresh for the next generation.
Now, apart from all the various applications of that strategy, which were and are widely diverse, the principle remained that church should be tailored to the people. Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin lurch from the sea again now to help the church, rather than the pagan world at large, insist upon our preferences. Church should be for me. Church should change across time because one generation does not like the same things that the previous one did.
I realize that some things must change, and that does not infringe upon every moral issue. Shag carpet on the chancel is out of date no matter your theological stance. It may not be detrimental. But certainly that is adiaphora and can be changed. Even within a highly conservative viewpoint, things can change. On the premise of exclusive psalmody, we can update our tunes. Perhaps exclusive psalmody might even find greater reception if we could sing God’s Word with tunes that are more manageably singable for modern voices. So, circumstantial things can change according to practical warrant and the light of nature.
Still, how do we consider change? Are the questions we ask about worship grounded on what we like? Even more probing, do we base our preferences for church is like on what moves me most? Ultimately, church is not for me. God is the primary “audience,” so his preferences should come first. Even then, church still does concern me, specifically my sanctification. Is the road to sanctification paved with insistence upon my own way or learning to submit to God’s?
John 6:66–68 has become my favorite passage about sanctification is recent years.
After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (ESV)
After Christ’s hard teaching about election and repentance, many left his teaching, so he asked the twelve – with Peter as spokesman – if they too would leave. Peter’s response is thunderingly profound. He does not say, “Of course not!” He does not say, “I buy everything you said,” nor “This teaching is easy and I don’t know what their problem is.”
Rather, Peter concedes “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Peter knew what he heard was hard. He also knew that he had no other place to go besides the Lord Jesus. He knew that, even when difficult to hear and apply, Christ’s words are the words of life.
Perhaps Peter’s mindset needs to mark us – certainly me included – more. Perhaps Christians can be most countercultural by setting aside all of our preferences and certainly our insistence upon them and taking our starting point as submission to God’s Word. Salvation is by grace alone. As Westminster Shorter Catechism 26 reminds us though, Christ executes his office as king “in subduing us to himself, in ruling and defending us, and in restraining and conquering all of his and our enemies.” We need not learn full submission in order to be justified, but the Christian life is one of repentance, one of learning increasing although always imperfect submission to God.
So, inasmuch as we hope to learn sanctification through Lord’s Day worship, perhaps we should stop using our preferences as any factor in how we evaluate church. Perhaps not liking or preferring something that happens in worship is exactly good for us, if we can see its biblical warrant and grow to love it because its what God has revealed for us to do.
Church is then not about our preferences but about listening to God. Christ has the words of life, after all, so where would we go? Church should not be for me or for you. It should be for God. Does that mean we can obtain some truly timeless model of church and worship that will never change? No, absolutely not. But does it mean that church might be able to include some less fluctuating practices and features? Yes, I think so. When we take our lead from Scripture rather than the culture, generational characteristics, or personal preferences, our worship becomes something less of this world and something more of God’s kingdom intruding into the present evil age for our redemption (Gal. 1:3–5).
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