It Is Baked Into The Cake

This morning I read an account of a NAPARC pastor who confessed to violating his vows, of abusing his congregation, of violating the sixth and ninth commandments.

Specifically he confessed to “unrighteous anger and a domineering spirit over those in his charge and of “lying, manipulation behavior and deceitful speech.” He was removed from ministry by his presbytery. Obviously this has caused confusion and hurt in the congregation. There is a  petition, posted to the church’s website in response to his removal.

There is a pattern here. Mark Driscoll, James MacDonald, and this case are all connected by a shared commitment to a “church growth” approach to ministry. The congregation’s “about” page on their site touts their rapid growth since their founding. That is their identity.  The church growth books and articles I read in the late 80s was focused around the pastor gaining control of the leadership of the church. Books and articles openly counseled emotional manipulation of the congregation and the elders to achieve the goal of numerical church growth. From where do you think that Mark Driscoll learned about “get on the bus or get run over?” It was in the church growth books he was consuming and following. In other words, the pastor who was removed from ministry was doing what the church growth experts told him to do. Manipulation and abuse is baked into the cake of the church growth methodology. It is all about pragmatism, controlling the process, and controlling the outcome. Rage is a natural outcome when the process and outcome are predicated upon control of the congregation and the outcome by the pastor.

Dear elder, here are some diagnostic questions to help you evaluate your congregation and its ministry:

  1. what model for ministry is your pastor following?
  2. Is he uncomfortable with the biblical metaphor of shepherd or does he use an alternative (e.g., CEO, rancher)?
  3. What is the identity of your congregation, e.g., does your congregation measure success by numerical growth?
  4. What role do the confessional standards play in the life of your congregation?

In the case at hand, the word “Westminster” (as in the Westminster Standards) occurs once on their website, in a PDF of a technical church government manual. Judging by the website, not a flawless method to sure, one could be forgiven for not knowing that the congregation is committed to the Westminster Standards. To all appearances this is just another fast-growing, successful, evangelical congregation in America.

Confessional Reformed congregations do not need the church growth movement and its ethos. “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36; ESV). Consider the Apostle Paul’s philosophy of ministry:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:3–11; ESV).

Come to think of it, how successful was Paul in Philippi? With whom did he start and where did it end? If the Apostle Paul could not pass the church growth tests perhaps they are not good tests?

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  1. I am neither a fan of Mark Driscoll nor the church growth movement literature, but I think the whole thing with Driscoll et al isn’t completely rooted in the CG literature. By the 90s young men were snickering at the CEO types in $500 shoes and Brooks Bros suits who preached how-to-be-happy sermons with happy-clappy worship. It was the era of grunge and rebellion and I think that it came more from a reaction to post-modern thought. They wanted depth, and thought this was the way to get it. Years ago, Keller used to talk about independent church plants who tried unsuccessfully to connect to historic traditions because they wanted depth. The use of icons etc. One thing that is not often talked about is the influence of John Piper on many of these guys. Have you ever listened to Piper preach? Years ago I read things by him and thought I’d give a listen to his messages. He’s a very loud and agressive preacher, like Driscoll and others. I think many were mimicking him. Plus he was the root of the so-called “reformed” influence which as we know was never the case no matter how much they believed in God’s sovereignty.

    • Keith,

      It’s both/and.

      Driscoll was deeply influenced by the church growth movement. Laughing at over-dressed boomers was part of his church growth strategy. He studied at Robert Schuller’s feet. He was featured on the Hour of Power! Driscoll’s schtick was all very calculated. His famous “How Dare You” sermon, in which he screamed at the congregation, which he claimed was spontaneous counseling from the pulpit, he screamed at exactly the same point in 5 successive sermons. Staffers said that it was calculated. Of course it was.

      Yes, Piper was a big influence on these guys too.

  2. I see you use the word “Shtick”==a good old Yiddishism for an entertainer’s routine (yes, I am partly ek peritome). Indeed, I fear that much of what passes for worship is just a kind of entertainment. I recall Robert Rayburn warning of it back in the 1970’s.

    Another thing: let’s pray that the flock is no longer decimated by the world, flesh, and devil, but that it feeds and, yes, grows. Or, better yet, if this is a season of testing, let us pray for God’s equipping of and provision for all his saints, whether clergy or laity.

  3. I see you use the word “Shtick”==a good old Yiddishism for an entertainer’s routine (yes, I am partly ek peritome). Indeed, I fear that much of what passes for worship is just a kind of entertainment. I recall Robert Rayburn warning of it back in the 1970’s.

    Another thing: let’s pray that the flock is no longer decimated by the world, flesh, and devil, but that it feeds and, yes, grows. Or, better yet, if this is a season of testing, let us pray for God’s equipping of and provision for all his saints, whether clergy or laity.

  4. Sure, forcefulness attracts followers and numbers, but some forcefulness is attempted upon the mind, that is hardly noticed in the criticism of forcefulness of a personality. For example, Piper tries to define faith in Christ as a type of hedonism (pleasure-based: faith as a relishing of Christ), love of God as a type of hedonism (pleasure-based; love of God as a relishing of God that is a greater relishing than any other), and in general, nothing mattering or verifying except what is in the experiential present. To be called by God, is to be following this moment, etc. These are all part of a theory that is presented as supposedly exegetically correct. This is an aggressiveness toward a person’s mind, not just toward a person’s love of forcefulness.

  5. Hi Scott,

    The Reformed churches are explicitly given the marks of a true church—confessionally. We don’t need to guess at this. We also don’t need “strongman”-type or “celebrity” pastors. The Reformed aren’t impressed by big-Eva conferences (although these sometimes involve confessional Reformed), nor are they impressed with the marketing industry of ghostwritten books of the big-Eva world. At the same time, it seems to me that it is no virtue to fetishize “smallness”—or to have a NAPARC congregation which comes off as very self-satisfied with 60, 80, 100, etc. communicant members—for years and years on end. To never do community evangelism, or “street witnessing”, or outreaches like hospital or prison ministry (giving out free Bibles, pamphlets, and/or the like). There are NAPARC churches which still rent spaces in places like elementary schools for decades on end. They seem very content to be confessional, but small and insulated, too—and kind of “wandering in the wilderness”—remaining a church plant in seeming perpetuity.
    I don’t make apology for “megachurches”, and I also am confident that they are (in most cases) large due to very dubious (or, nefarious?) reasons. But speaking personally, there is a turn-off with the lack of vibrancy and feeling of “exclusivity” that can be the ethos of certain NAPARC congregations. Perhaps they run their churches like tyrants (I have no idea), but well-known pastors like MacArthur or Swindoll (dispensationalists) or D. James Kennedy (PCUS/PCA, now deceased) are and were very, very fine preachers, and whatever error they entertain…they are/were no Driscoll, Warren, or Schuller. Kennedy had a megachurch…did this do violence to his confessionalism? I think you understand. Perhaps it will be said that the three pastors I cited are simply, in themselves, personality cults. But I have visited each of these churches and found the vibrancy and enthusiasm there something that had undeniable appeal. I’m not shallow, but I wonder that some of the winsome ethos in those above-referenced places/pulpits might be instructive for Reformed congregations. If that ethos is only properly situated among dispensationalists or Anabaptists, then I’d appreciate knowing why that must be the case—

  6. Hi Bob—

    Not at all. But, neither should they do violence (of necessity) to confessional churches. It does not denote “spirituality” to lack this ethos, in my view-

    • The pursuit of vibrancy, enthusiasm, and winsomeness as hallmarks of the authenticity of our churches is distinctly pietistic and should never be our goal.

  7. Bob,
    You’re not hearing me. I did not call these things “hallmarks to authenticity”. I also did not appeal to “authenticity”. I also didn’t employ the word “hallmark”. The test(s) for true churches, as per the first couple of sentences of my original post, has admittedly already been established. I ask you: do not sell me short. I understand what we are wanting to caution against/prevent. I also agree to maintain a distinction between “piety” and “pietism”. But I do not see that the ethos I’m describing must be inimical to the Reformed Confession. It doesn’t make a church unorthodox to meet for a hour and a half each week and read through an OPC liturgy. If that is the basic extent of their affairs, then some of us might find this wanting. If you see THAT statement as hostile to confessionalism, then we are at a standstill. Thank you for replying, and kindest regards to you—

    • If anyone believes the Word (read, preached, prayed, and sung) and the sacraments are deemed too confining an agenda, then what they are seeking is an unregulated contact with the Divine which is pietism. Sadly, one can find ample pietism in nominally Reformed church fellowships which is to their detriment. So, if this is what you believe is lacking in Reformed churches then take heart. I can assure you it is alive and well.

      • Bob,

        You’re still not hearing me. You’re talking about the “regulative principle” in worship. This is a Reformed distinctive, and I do not seek to overturn it. I have been talking about ethos; you are talking about potential practices/actions which I have up my proverbial sleeve to corrupt the churches. Stop being so defensive. I don’t seek to Trojan horse late modern pietistic sentimentalities into your local worship services. As near as I can tell (if you are in a NAPARC congregation) you have far more pernicious ideological spectres knocking at your gates. Vibrancy, warmth, and enthusiasm might be the least of your worries.
        If you will care to reread my original post, you will see that what I was suggesting had probably far more to do with extracurricular or parachurch type ministries. Things more related to community outreach—such as street evangelism, handing out tracts, prison and hospital visitations, and the like. Things which help serve the mandate of the Great Commission. Ministries that help a town even understand that a local Reformed church even exists.
        I never said that the worship in Reformed churches was deficient. I simply posed the rhetorical question: is there something that the Reformed might glean from some well known evangelical or dispensational churches WITHOUT corrupting Reformed piety and practice. That’s all. Instead of reading my question in the best light, you have chosen to read it as though I seek to disturb the churches. I take exception to this.
        We can all agree that R..C. Sproul was winsome, can we not? Many of us miss him terribly. While I never visited the large church he pastored, are we to believe that his winsome, infectious personality was not present there? Did this do violence to Sproul’s confessionalism? Was the service at St. Andrews out of keeping with the piety commonly associated with Reformed churches? If Sproul needed to eschew vibrancy and enthusiasm to fit a more rigorous ideal, then perhaps he remained uninformed about this. I had originally also cited D. James Kennedy—whose Coral Ridge church I was pleased to visit many years ago—when the Coral Ridge Hour was still relevant on prime time television.
        I politely ask that you not seek to engage me in a heresy court, just yet. I also ask that you not try to compete in this well-intentioned space in some sort of a contest over Reformed bona fides. When I seek to mount an attack on the Reformed churches, you will know it. Until that time, some Christian charity and forbearance might be a sound idea—

        • Greg and Bob,

          I think you two fellows are in different contexts and facing different challenges. We don’t have to agree on everything and it seems likely that you’re not going to agree on the usefulness of trying to incorporate extracurricular activities into the life of the church or how or even whether to affect the ethos of the church.

          We should be able to agree that we can be solidly confessional and winsome or warm. There is no reason why people coming into a confessional Reformed congregation have to be made to feel unwanted or ignored. On the other hand, it is also possible so to desire that newcomers, even unbelievers feel comfortable in church that we sacrifice our concern for the holiness and righteousness of God and reverence in worship. This happens.

          Our different contexts and challenges in being confessionally Reformed are going to lead to some variety in the way we work out our faith and seek to articulate it to others in a given place. We should be prepared to live with one another graciously and patiently.

          It would help your dialogue if, when you’re uncomfortable with what you just read if you ask some clarifying questions: “When you say X, what do you mean? Can you explain?” Let’s find out if there is a real disagreement before we proceed.

          It’s easy to jump to conclusions. I’ve done it far too many times.

          Grace and peace to brothers.

          • Hi Scott,

            Yes, I think that’s right—what you say. Thank you for adding your two cents. We all of us find ourselves in uncomfortable, outrageous times. We are suspicious, we are on edge, we are raw. Seems like the perfect time to demonstrate the fruit(s) of the Spirit, yes? But the first thing to do is lower the proverbial thermostat. It’s hard! Mea culpa—

  8. Please forgive my suspicious nature. I am in a denomination (PCA) that for years has been influenced by those who are transforming it from confessional to broadly evangelical. When I hear words used that sound familiar I have learned to assume a defensive posture. I will endeavor to not assume the worst of others motives.

  9. Interesting post & comments. When I first became a believer many years ago, I loved the environment of the happy-clappy entertainment churches, but gradually saw they were quite shallow. Upon moving to Birmingham, I visited many churches. When I first went to Briarwood (PCA actually began there when Dr Barker & others met to plan their withdrawal from the PCUS), it seemed too big & “traditional.” But the worship … was real.

    At that time (1999) Frank Barker had just retired (well, he is ‘sort of retired’!) & Harry Reeder has become Senior Pastor. Frank was the last guy you would ever “pick out of a police lineup” as a ‘Megachurch Pastor’ and yet, God used him to found & grow an amazing church. Harry has more of the voice & presence associated with megachurches. Why is Briarwood large & growing?

    Both men have preached the Word clearly, have sought to serve God for His sake, & have encouraged others in growth & service… and they love the flock they shepherd. The feel of the church itself is not of a large church, it’s more like a small town!

    In the face of all the turmoil within the PCA as has been discussed extensively, I am grateful to God for giving me such a place as my church home.

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