“When we sacrifice truth on the altar of relevance, our words are no longer relevant.”
This past Sunday my family and I had the opportunity to worship at Stonebriar Community Church in suburban Dallas, the megachurch started by Chuck Swindoll fifteen years ago. I have wanted to attend worship at the church since reading Swindoll’s recent book The Church Awakening: An Urgent Call for Renewal. At Stonebriar we were blessed by a joyful, Word-driven worship service that combined excellence and pertinence to modern people with a refreshingly biblically faithful, God-centered approach.
A 2009 poll asked pastors to list the most influential preacher in America, and Chuck Swindoll ranked second only to Billy Graham. So it was worth noting when, in The Church Awakening, Swindoll basically repented for allowing himself and his church to get caught up in the market-drivenness that characterizes large swaths of the evangelical church.
Ten years after he had planted Stonebriar Community Church, he says, he realized that the church was “eroding,” not in its faith—its doctrine—but in its practice. It was becoming more committed to trying to make the gospel relevant than shaping the church, its practice, and its people’s sensibilities according to Scripture. He came to realize, as he says in the book, that “when we sacrifice truth on the altar of relevance, our words are no longer relevant.”
A Call for Renewal
In The Church Awakening, Swindoll issues a call for the renewal of evangelical churches, urging pastors to:
- Stop worshipping at the “altar of relevance”
- Quit marketing the church, attempting to “sell” it to religious consumers by making it appealing to their consumer tastes and preferences
- Structure and lead the church according to biblical principles rather than corporate business techniques
- Make God and His Word, not the individual’s private religious experience and expression, the center of corporate worship
- Move away from a reliance on visual media and entertainment techniques in public worship that distract from the Word-centered worship that characterized the Reformation
- Avoid congregational segmentation/segregation based on generation or consumer preferences, which hinders the biblical ideal of unity of the body
“As Christians, we must demand a halt to superficial religion,” Swindoll says. “We should refuse to be entertained any longer. We must stop calling it ‘worship.’ It’s time we openly state that we expect deep teaching from the Word of God from our pastor, not a twelve-minute sermonette. ”
Not Just a Critic
One of the things that is refreshing about the book, even if one doesn’t agree with everything Swindoll says or does (which I don’t), is that Swindoll is writing not merely as a critic of the direction many evangelical churches are moving. He is writing as a minister who has felt himself gradually moving—as he says, like a frog in the kettle—toward a toleration for the very things he decries in the book.
So, in line with his emphasis on grace in his preaching and writing, he is far from “scolding” people from the outside. Rather, he iswith the churches he is critiquing. He is writing in a repentant sort of way, and he is hopeful to see other ministers transforming their churches in the direction of a more Word-driven, gospel-centered approach as he has done.
In a Leadership Journal interview with Skye Jethani (author of another, yet somewhat different, book with similar themes entitled The Divine Commodity: Discovering a Faith Beyond Consumer Christianity), Swindoll quoted the influential twentieth-century British evangelical Martyn Lloyd Jones as saying:
“When the church is absolutely different from the world, she invariably attracts it. It is then that the world is made to listen to her message, though it may hate it at first.”
This quotation gets to the heart of the concerns Swindoll discusses in his book and the Word-driven solutions he recommends.
In my next post, I’ll give some brief impressions from our visit to Stonebriar Community Church.