A few weeks ago my wife listened to a preacher on the radio who was criticizing his listeners for their motives for coming to church. "I know why most of you are here," he said. "Some are here to find a spouse. Others are here to find business partners or investors. Or reliable employees. Or a job. Some are hoping to get some financial help. Few are here for the right reason."
This statement is important, for it is characteristic of the attitude of many pastors in this nation. And since attitudes are always created by deeply held beliefs, it gives some very important insight into the theology of the modern church.
We need to start with the observation that, indeed, the motives of many modern church-goers are far from deep devotion to Christ and His gospel. Selfishness reigns in the modern churches, and most church members do expect the church to cater to their personal needs, problems, and desires, without any sacrifice on their part, any service to others, any greater vision or value scale than their own well-being and self-fulfillment. It is not something new, and not something unknown or unusual. That pastor's church is not an exception to the rule. And yes, if his target is really the obvious selfishness of his listeners, he does have a point.
Small Theology Equals Small Faith
But not a complete point. For the rule that the roots determine the fruits is valid here, and therefore a preacher needs to understand that he always gets what he preaches. If selfishness reigns in his church, it is because selfishness reigns in his preaching, and in the theology that preaching conveys to his listeners. Those who are selfish must be quite comfortable with his preaching if they are still in his church. And their selfishness is most probably encouraged by the fact that most of our modern preaching is based on the theology of individual salvation as the ultimate good. The gospel is stripped of its Kingdom message and reduced to a gospel of individual salvation. Thus, God is reduced to a small deity concerned only with the salvation-and the well-being-of its followers. God doesn't have a greater objective on earth than the salvation of individual souls, which makes Him entirely subservient to man and man's needs and objectives.
How would such theology purge selfishness from the hearts of that pastor's listeners, if it's actually making God subservient to their needs? If God is ultimately concerned with man and man's needs, then why shouldn't men be concerned with man and man's needs? The difference between a focus on man's eternal well-being and man's temporal well-being is a difference in emphasis, not in principle, therefore the excuse that it's about salvation, not about prosperity, is irrelevant here. Man is still the center. Only a focus on the sovereignty of God and on Christ's Kingdom can give a difference in principle; but such focus is lacking in the preaching of modern churches. If the pastor presents a God who is focused on man, it's only natural that he'll get men who are focused on themselves.
All this being said, we need to acknowledge that despite the truncated gospel he is delivering to his listeners, a gospel focused on man and not on God and His Kingdom, this pastor's church is still achieving a certain success. That success is obvious in the fact that the church still has some "power of attraction," to use J. H. Bavinck's phrase from his An Introduction to the Science of Missions.1 Even in its most truncated form, when all references to the Kingdom and the comprehensive authority of Jesus Christ over all life (1 Cor. 15:25-28) are removed from the preaching, the name of Jesus Christ still produces some cultural change in the life of the church, even if it's not complete. Those who are baptized and members of the church have a better practical and work ethic than those in the world; they are more reliable as partners and employees; they are more faithful as spouses and friends. They are also more likely, compared to the rest of the population, to spend less of their income and therefore have more savings to invest. And as investors, they are less likely to be driven by greed and more likely to respect the needs of their debtors.
Faith has consequences, and even the least informed faith in Christ produces a culture superior to the surrounding pagan culture. This has been the reason why in predominantly Muslim nations like Syria, Egypt, or Lebanon, Christian minorities are disproportionally represented in the business and intellectual leadership of their countries.
It is this superior culture that drives those outside the church to join the church. Jesus said in John 13:35 that the world would know that we are His disciples by the fact that we love each other. However, such love is not hidden, immaterial, invisible. It does produce visible fruit, for from John 15:8 we prove to be His disciples by bearing fruit, that is, by the visible manifestation of God's love in us.
What is the visible manifestation of that love? It is the fulfillment of the law (Rom. 13:10). That is, our fulfillment of the law in every area of our lives, from our personal conduct to our economic and political endeavors, will show the world that we are Christ's disciples, and thus will draw the unbelievers to Him. Deuteronomy 4:5-8 confirms this conclusion: it is the law of God with its justice and righteousness that brings the nations to God. A culture built on the precepts of the law, a culture exhibiting God's love and justice, will always attract people, even when they dislike its religious foundations.
A Theology of Covenant
It is, of course, normal and understandable if people come to Christ and His church because they have certain needs that they believe Christ and the church can meet. The Sovereign God shows His grace to His elect by choosing His relationship with them to be formed not as a slaveholder's power over them-the way the Gentiles form their relationships with socially or physically inferior people-but as a covenant, that is, a set of obligations and promises. He doesn't have to give any promises, for He is God; but He still promises blessings for obedience, and the blessings He promises are that man's legitimate needs will be met abundantly.
This is why the Biblical covenants are defined as "the covenants of promise" (Eph. 2:12). Deuteronomy 28:1-15 exhorts Israel to obey God, and a number of cultural, economic, material, health, and other blessings are promised. This is why Jesus could call the weary and the burdened to come to Him and receive His rest (Matt. 11:28). And He also promises those who have left their earthly possessions to follow Him, that they will receive back a hundredfold in this world (cultural blessings), plus eternal life in the world to come. God takes us back as sons, not as slaves, even when we deserve nothing more than being slaves without any promise for any blessings.
The legitimacy of seeking cultural blessings when coming to Christ is then established by Biblical teaching. It is part of the covenantal and comprehensive nature of God's salvation. These blessings are not unconditional, of course. But they are real: material, relational, economic, political, judicial. God's covenant is not a spiritualized gnostic reality where the rubber never meets the road, and where spiritual truths never produce visible fruit. A church with even a little knowledge or understanding, faithful only to a certain extent to the requirements of the gospel according to the measure of its knowledge, will still exhibit a small measure of those blessings. And thus it will become a center of attraction for the local community. This is true evangelism, as opposed to the gnostic evangelism of only words and no visible transformation of lives and culture.
The above-mentioned pastor's church, then, is on the right track, at least marginally, if it has become such a center of attraction. If a person comes to the church to find a spouse, business partners, or employees or employers, such person is acknowledging that the spiritual principles of the gospel taught at that church have produced some cultural fruit. That should be an encouragement to a pastor who understands the covenant of God and its operation through ethical rules and judicial sanctions in history. "The Word become flesh" is the operational paradigm of Christ's redemption; "obedience produces cultural fruit" is the application of that paradigm in the life of the individual, of the church, and of a Christian society in general. Our faith is spiritual, but it only proves itself to be true faith by the fruit it produces (James 2:14-26).
Faith Without Body
The pastor's criticism to his listeners, therefore, is not Biblical, as far as their motives to join the church are concerned. He is driven in his criticism by a Gnostic view of the gospel. He wants his listeners to come to church driven by some Gnostic, naked, body-less faith that is either unable to recognize the fruit of the gospel in the flesh or unwilling to recognize it and give glory to God for it. He wants the members of his flock to strip themselves of all material and cultural concerns and goals-even those that are Biblically legitimate-and become some kind of fleshless beings.
Even if he doesn't say it openly, he has adopted the heretical dualistic view of reality where the spiritual aspect of man is good by default and the material aspect of man is bad by default, and therefore material concerns necessarily follow from an evil heart. (The Biblical doctrine is that man is depraved in both his body and spirit, and therefore redeemed in both his body and spirit.) Criticizing his people for coming to church because they were attracted by the superior culture in the church is denigrating the effect and the fruit of the gospel, because it is "too materialistic." But the gospel does have material effects, it leads to "all things being subject to Christ" (1 Cor. 15:1-28). And therefore, this pastor is driven by a theology that bars him from seeing that comprehensive nature of the gospel in the life of his church; he wants mystical spirituality to replace the legitimate needs and wants of man as creature.
Now, granted, if the people who come to Christ in his church stay in their selfishness and always keep their material concerns above their commitment to Jesus Christ and His Kingdom, this admittedly is a problem. But then again, that problem is at least partially, if not completely, created by the same Gnostic worldview of that same pastor. When the comprehensive nature of Christ's gospel is not preached, the focus remains entirely on man and his needs. If his listeners have nothing more than their personal salvation in view, if they are not recruited to build the civilization of the Kingdom of God, they will never have a cause more worthy than themselves.
Toward a Kingdom Theology
The solution to his problem, then, and to the problems of the church in general, must be found in abandoning the Gnostic worldview that plagues our pulpits today, and in adopting the comprehensive, Kingdom-oriented, culture-changing worldview of the gospel. The problem of our churches is not that people come to Christ driven by material concerns: this is not a problem, this is a blessing, and a sign of our success, however small it is.
The problem of our churches today is a theology, and preaching that follows from it, that is not strong enough on building the culture of the Kingdom of God to draw even more people to Christ. Those who are drawn, and remain, are made idle by the simple expectation to be taken to heaven, for there is nothing more that they can do on earth besides attending church every Sunday. We want to make our churches to be even better centers of attraction, exhibiting an even more superior civilization than the world, offering Biblical solutions to all the problems the modern world faces, and outperforming the non-Christian cultures in everything, as a testimony of the superiority of our faith. When our theology and our preaching is changed to Christian Reconstruction, we'll see more people coming to the church, and we'll see more of those remaining change from self-fulfillment to service to God, for now they will have a cause bigger than themselves. This is where that pastor's problems can find their solutions.
In other words, faith has consequences. And changing our faith from Gnosticism to Biblical covenantalism and Christian Reconstruction will inevitably have consequences.
A Reformed missionary to his native Bulgaria for over 10 years, Bojidar preaches and teaches the doctrines of the Reformation and a comprehensive Biblical worldview. He and his team have translated over 30,000 pages of Christian literature about the application of the Law of God in every area of man's life and society, and published those translations online for free. He currently lives in Houston with his wife Maggie and his three children.
1. J.H. Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Missions (Philadelphia, PA: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1960), 28.