I recently came across a powerful quote from an 18th century English pastor named Job Orton. Ironically, he wrote to the ministers of his day about doctrinal compromise. The struggles of churches nearly 300 years ago are the struggles of churches today. Read what he says:
“I have long since found (and every year that I live increases my conviction of it), that when ministers entertain their people with lively and pretty things, confine themselves to general harangues, insist principally on moral duties, without enforcing them warmly and affectionately by evangelical motives; while they neglect the peculiars of the gospel, never or seldom display the grace of God, and the love of Christ in our redemption; the necessity of regeneration and sanctification by a constant dependence on the Holy Spirit of God for assistance and strength in the duties of the Christian life, their congregations are in a wretched state; some are dwindling to nothing, as is the case with several in this neighbourhood, where there are now not as many scores as there were hundreds in their meeting-places, fifty years ago. . . . There is a fatal deadness spread over the congregation. They run in ‘the course of this world,’ follow every fashionable folly, and family and personal godliness seems in general to be lost among them. There is scarcely any appearance of life and zeal.”
It seems that Satan was neutralizing local churches three hundred years ago in the same way he is today. Notice the ways churches decline, according to Orton:
1. Create an Entertainment-Driven Ministry—Orton writes, “…when ministers entertain their people with lively and pretty things….” I’ve seen two extremes in entertainment-driven ministry. Both are simply different manifestations of the same false assumptions and bad values.
The first bad model I saw was a contest-driven, circus-style, promotion-based ministry model. It was a model that bribed people to attend church, entertained them once they came, and attempted to “sneak up” on them with the gospel. It worked to get people to church, but it was weak in producing devoted disciples and rooted believers.
The second bad model I’ve seen is a entertainment-style, party-atmosphere ministry complete with loud rock music, smoke machines, laser lights, and a lot of entertainment. Again, it works to get people to attend, but it lulls them into non-participation, non-worship, and lethargic, carnal Christianity.
Both models fail because of two false assumptions. The first false assumption is that Jesus and His Word are boring and unattractive. The second false assumption is that people won’t respond to simple, biblical love and grace.
These methods attempt to DISGUISE the gospel to “make it attractive.” The false assumption being, it’s not attractive unless we disguise it! This is really bad theology! Entertainment-driven ministry is a broken road.
2. Focus on “General Harangues”—Orton mentions leaders who “confine themselves to general harangues.” This is a church-family focused on issue debate (doubtful disputation as Romans 14 calls them) and theological inspection over Spirit-led obedience and unified practice. The Word of God is like a window, and some people prefer to spend more time looking at the window rather than looking through the window. Paul wrote to Titus, “But avoid foolish questions, and genealogies, and contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and vain.” (Titus 3:9)
An honest Bible student is comfortable accepting God’s Word where it is clear, and where it is unclear. An unhealthy church is content to “look at the window”—to inspect and debate foolish questions that generate strife and contention. A healthy church is content to practice what is clear in God’s Word.
Unbelievers rarely come to these churches, and when they do, they rarely come back. Focusing on pointless debates, personal disputes, petty divisive issues, and biblical conjecture is a broken road.
3. Teach Behaviorism Absent Love and Worship—Orton writes, “…insist principally on moral duties, without enforcing them warmly and affectionately by evangelical motives…”—external duty without internal love as a motive. External conformity or performance-based acceptance generates a church family that looks good, but that is not motivated by true love and worship of Jesus. Enough badgering from the pulpit will manipulate many Christians into a manmade mold. But eventually those same Christians become disillusioned and hurt by man-centered leadership tactics.
The only biblical, viable, sustainable motivation for doing anything as a Christian is the pure love of Jesus Christ. Being pushed into a set of standards, a weekly structure, or an outward appearance always leads to resentment of those who pushed or manipulated me. That Christianity eventually falls apart. Being led by the Spirit and motivated by love will produce a pure hearted, sustainable, joyful, non-oppressive Christian walk.
4. Neglect the Pure Gospel—Orton writes, “…while they neglect the peculiars of the gospel….” The gospel of Jesus Christ is not only how we are saved, it is also how we grow, how we live, how we endure, and how we enjoy our walk with Jesus. The more you study and examine the gospel, the bigger it becomes. It’s inexhaustible.
Healthy churches always keep the gospel front and center. Their message is hopeful. They magnify Jesus. They preach Christ crucified. They reveal Jesus to be more than a free ticket to Heaven, but in truth a Saviour in every aspect of life. If a church family KNOWS their unsaved guest will hear the gospel, and not just a “general harangue” on Sunday morning—they are EAGER, EXCITED, and HAPPY to invite their lost friends and family.
Something tells me, that’s exactly what happened in the books of Acts!
5. Neglect the Display of Love and Grace—Again Orton says, “…never or seldom display the grace of God, and the love of Christ in our redemption….” How do we miss this? How do churches become so “ungracious” and “unloving”? How do churches melt down into factious, divisive communities of self-focus? How do they become so inward and unwelcoming? They lost sight of the massive volume of New Testament teaching on love, unity, forgiveness, forbearance, and grace toward others.
If you’re gospel message is clear, but your dispositional display of the gospel is carnal, you are doing the gospel a grave disservice. Churches die because love and grace died in their midst. Ever more, in a darkened, hopeless secular America, a loving church stands in huge contrast to anything else in culture.
6. Neglect a Strong Emphasis on Dependence upon the Holy Spirit—Orton goes on, “…the necessity of regeneration and sanctification by a constant dependence on the Holy Spirit of God for assistance and strength in the duties of the Christian life….” Dying churches, somewhere along the way, began to subtly and perhaps imperceptibly quench, grieve, or usurp the Holy Spirit of God. They took matters into their own hands.
How often a pastor is tempted to usurp the work of God’s Spirit—we all want our church family to manifest spiritual maturity, so we attempt to manufacture a quick conformity to outward appearances, rather than patiently allowing God’s Spirit to cultivate an internal, organic growth.
It’s easy to set up outward, measurable standards of appearance and performance. We like to do this because it validates us, makes us feel successful as Christians and leaders. Yet the outward conformity could be merely a cover for the absence of inward dependence. Healthy churches emphasize the gradual, growing work of God’s Spirit within the believer, over the work of quick, manmade, external conformity.
Orton describes these six things as a “fatal deadness” that spreads over the entire congregation. I think he was hitting the target—for the 1700s and for today! The local church of Jesus Christ is designed to flourish with life, health, and joy. While dying or dead churches are a dime a dozen, may God stir up a new generation of churches that defy death and embrace the life and health that only His grace and His Spirit can produce!