Volume 14, Number 2
How shall we communicate God's message? Does the medium matter?
"My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water. . . . Now why go to Egypt to drink water from the Shihor? And why go to Assyria to drink water from the River?" (Jer 2:13, 18, NIV).
Throughout Bible times, and ever since, the clear and persuasive proclamation of God's Word has been the most effective medium to communicate God's truth. The apostle Paul refers to the method as the foolishness of preaching (1 Cor 1:21).
Today, however, we seem to be moving away from simple Bible-based preaching to some rather ridiculous and sometimes bizarre gimmicks from the secular world. We may convince ourselves that there is nothing wrong with these gimmicks. But perceptive unbelievers, observing the way we are blindly mimicking worldly methods, may justifiably dismiss our message as the preaching of foolishness. Let me explain.
Recently I received an urgent e-mail from a Seventh-day Adventist graduate student at a public university in the United States. He urged me to share my views with him on "a troubling issue" that had arisen in one of the local churches of his conference. The issue relates to the plan by that local church to invite a "gospel magician" to be guest speaker for a week of prayer. The student expressed his concerns this way:
"I fear that in engaging in practices of magical tricks (that are also done by many secular magicians) we are blurring the line between what is good and what is not. Even though I do not necessarily believe that those engaged in sleight of hand are using any supernatural powers, I fear that the use of illusion to pass across some gospel truth is missing the point and only putting temptation before our children.
"The brethren in the church I referred to do not believe that this is a matter of black and white. They believe that those of us who are opposing this practice in the church (for children's story) and in the church school (for both entertainment and now week of prayer) are `ultra conservatives' and that we are looking for evil where there is none. I do not know if there is a very clear distinction between black and white in this case. For now (I am still hoping to do further study on this matter), I see it as `black' because of the potential for evil and because it blurs the line between the good and the bad (these brethren even argue that the Bible is really not opposed to `magic'). I feel that if the line we are dealing with is gray then we, as a church, need to keep away from it. We should shun all `appearance' of evil.
"I do not know therefore whether the church has a position on this. I have been challenged to show from the Spirit of prophecy or Bible where this practice is condemned. I have been reminded that the local conference has sponsored some of the church members to seminars and conferences for gospel magicians. I have also been reminded that there were Adventist gospel magicians (or gospel illusionists) performing during the Toronto GC Session. I am groping in the large sea of information and arguments out there to even get some principles I can apply in this matter. I have asked that this particular local church appoint brethren to study the matter and to get a forum to discuss it. I tried the same in the school board, but the overwhelming number of members of this school board `did not see' anything wrong with the practice. I am preparing to face the church board but cannot go with simple arguments without a biblical reason. Any ideas?"
Few would have thought that a Seventh-day Adventist congregation would one day even consider employing a so-called "gospel magician" to communicate spiritual truth at a church meeting. Yet this is one more evidence of a growing trend to introduce into the church some biblically-questionable styles of worship and evangelism. The surprising thing about this development is that an overwhelming number of members don't see anything wrong with it.
We have had gospel rock and praise dancing in worship services, gospel puppets, gospel clowns, gospel cafés/discos and gospel theatrics/dramas for our outreach to youth, young adults, and the "unchurched." Now, it seems, we must have gospel magicians for our church services and weeks of prayer. By resorting to these "gospel gimmicks," are we in danger of turning away from the foolishness of preaching to the preaching of foolishness?
In this article I will argue that in so far as gospel gimmicks accommodate the biblical religion to the tastes of unrenewed hearts, such contemporary methods evidence our welcoming of worldliness into the church. Even more, a reliance upon such worldly methods of communicating the gospel is misguided and contrary to the biblical teachings of the Seventh-day Adventist church.
Worldliness in the Church
The former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev reportedly told the following story to teach the need for vigilance.
At a time when there was a wave of petty theft in the USSR, the story goes, the Soviet authorities put guards at many of the state-owned factories. At one of the timber works in Leningrad the guard knew the workers well. The first evening, Pyotr Petrovich came out with a wheelbarrow and, on the wheelbarrow, a great bulky sack with a suspicious-looking object inside.
Guard: "Come on, Petrovich. What have you got there?"
Petrovich: "Just sawdust and shavings."
Guard: "Come on, I wasn't born yesterday. Tip it out."
Petrovich did, and out came nothing but sawdust and shavings. So he was allowed to put it all back again and go home. The same thing happened every night all week, and the guard was getting extremely frustrated. Finally his curiosity overcame his frustration.
Guard: "Petrovich, I know you. Tell me what you're smuggling out of here, and I'll let you go."
While we may laugh at this story, we may also need to remember that in the arena of contemporary worship and outreach methods the laugh is on us as Bible-believing Adventist Christians. We have set up patrols to check for worldliness around us by developing our own schools, seminaries, radio and TV stations, publishing houses, book centers, etc. But the devil has wheeled worldliness and paganism right past our eyes into some of these institutions of our church. And many don't see it, let alone see anything wrong with it.
What is more, we are actually importing and actively promoting these questionable methods of worship and evangelism from both the secular world and from other religions and churches. In some instances Adventists have gone outside to study these methods at non-Adventist theological seminaries or have attended the training seminars on worship, soul-winning and leadership at Willow Creek and other inter-denominational, ecumenical, and charismatic organizations and churches. Yet we fail to recognize that when we fundamentally change our method of proclaiming spiritual truth, we change the message itself. And when we change the message of God, we change the God of the message.
Because these gimmicks compromise the credibility of our message, Adventists have been counseled against copying methods found in other churches.
Throughout our history, there has always been a temptation for our ministers to pattern our practices after other churches. Ellen G. White warned against this in her day: "A new order of things has come into the ministry. There is a desire to pattern after other churches" (Signs of the Times, Dec. 27, 1899). She expressed her concerns about the influence of other churches on our ministers: "Some ministers are adopting the customs of other churches, copying their habits and manner of labor" (ibid., May 25, 1882).
Warning of the dangers inherent in responding to other churches' invitations to learn from them and employ their methods of labor, Mrs. White wrote: "They may desire us to unite with them and accept their plans, and may make propositions in regard to our course of action which may give the enemy an advantage over us" (General Conference Bulletin, April 13, 1891).
In embracing Mrs. White's counsel, Seventh-day Adventists are not suggesting that they alone have the truth. The Word of God is clear that every human being in God's world has at least a little light (Jn 1:9; Jas 4:17) and that God has revealed Himself in nature, history, human experience, and in many other ways (Ps 19; Rom 1 & 2; Heb 1:1, 2). Consequently, Adventists hold that some divine truth can be found in the secular world (whether atheistic or materialistic), in pagan and non-Christian religions, as well as in all Christian denominations--Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, and Pentecostal. God is truth and the ultimate source of all truth. Wherever truth is found, we must embrace it.
Adventists, however, insist that whatever light can be found in other churches, they have also and much more besides. Believing that God has raised up their church as His end-time repository of truth, Adventists hold that they have the present truth, the everlasting gospel for these last days.
The issue, then, is not whether other faiths or churches have some truth. Instead, the question is whether our ministers ought to look to other churches for new light. Given our self-understanding as God's end-time depository of truth, is it necessary for us to go to churches that are still living in spiritual darkness to discover new light or additional truth from them? If those churches represent "Babylon," and if it is true that "Babylon is fallen," how can we call upon our brothers and sisters in "Babylon" to "Come out of her, My people" (Rev 18:4), when we ourselves are now returning to "Babylon" to receive instruction from her?
Centuries ago, the prophet Jeremiah spoke out against this tendency on the part of God's people to mimic the gimmicks found in other faiths: "My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water. . . . Now why go to Egypt to drink water from the Shihor? And why go to Assyria to drink water from the River?" (Jer 2:13, 18 NIV).
Ellen White explained why we must not drink from the broken cisterns: "We are in danger of making blunders in our missionary effort, in danger of failing to realize how essential is the work of the Holy Spirit upon the heart. A new order of things has come into the ministry. There is a desire to pattern after other churches, and simplicity and humility are almost unknown. Young ministers who desire to be original introduce new ideas and new plans for labor. They open revival meetings and call large numbers into the church. But when the excitement is over, where are the converted ones? Repentance for sin is not felt. The sinner is entreated to believe in Christ and accept Him, without any regard for his past life of sin and rebellion, and the heart is not broken. There is no contrition of soul. The professedly converted ones have not fallen upon the Rock Christ Jesus" (Signs of the Times, Dec. 27, 1889).
Earlier in our history, following the disappointment, Mrs. White warned our members not to seek "new light" even from denominations that had their roots in the Advent movement but had not accepted advancing truth: "The different parties of professed Advent believers have each a little truth, but God has given all these truths to His children who are being prepared for the day of God. He has also given them truths that none of these parties know, neither will they understand. Things which are sealed up to them, the Lord has opened to those who will see and are ready to understand. If God has any new light to communicate, He will let His chosen and beloved understand it, without their going to have their minds enlightened by hearing those who are in darkness and error" (Early Writings, p. 124, emphasis mine).
She continued: "I was shown the necessity of those who believe that we are having the last message of mercy, being separate from those who are daily imbibing new errors. I saw that neither young nor old should attend their meetings; for it is wrong to thus encourage them while they teach error that is a deadly poison to the soul and teach for doctrines the commandments of men. The influence of such gatherings is not good. If God has delivered us from such darkness and error, we should stand fast in the liberty wherewith He has set us free and rejoice in the truth. God is displeased with us when we go to listen to error, without being obliged to go" (ibid., pp. 124, 125, my emphasis).
In spite of these warnings, a growing number of our members and leaders "don't see anything wrong" with today's gospel gimmicks. We are adopting and actively promoting these worldly entertainment methods for our own worship and evangelistic services. Regrettably, those who raise concerns are mislabeled "ultra-conservatives." Why is this so?
Why We "Don't See Anything Wrong"
Granted, many within our ranks who are resorting to the various types of gospel gimmicks--gospel rock, gospel clowns, gospel cafés, gospel magicians, etc.--sincerely desire to see spiritual renewal in the church and want to attract new souls to Christ. Many who advocate such things are persuaded that God will use these modified forms of entertainment from other churches to win and retain young people in our own church. Without judging their motives and sincerity, I'd like to suggest a few other reasons why some of us don't see anything wrong with these contemporary innovations.
There are those of us whose witness and example as parents and teachers have been unconvincing to our young people. The youth have observed that while we rightly affirm "the Bible and the Bible only," many of us do not have a living experience with the Bible's divine Author. Baptism seems more a graduation ceremony than the start of a new life in Christ. Our identity as God's "remnant" church makes us complacent instead of inspiring us to fulfill our divine mission to the world. We assert repeatedly that "we have the truth," but very often the truth does not have us. Our preaching, teaching and evangelism may cram the mind with information without bringing about the deep soul searching and humility of heart that results in transforming the character. Our ethical positions on social issues reflect pragmatic concerns rather than fidelity to Scripture. And instead of our worship being reverently vibrant, it tends to be either dull and sterile or emotional and superficial.
Having observed the above inconsistencies and hypocrisies, many of our young people are restless to sever all links with what they perceive as hypocritical faith. Their parents and teachers, in sheer desperation to hold them in the fold, encourage every worldly fad, even if it means importing "gospel rock," "gospel clowns," or "gospel magicians" into the church.
Although some of us who fit this description may sense that these new forms of worship and outreach are incompatible with biblical Christianity, we find ourselves unable to oppose the methods because, in fact, we share the same worldly values and do practically nothing for the Lord. On the other hand, our children and students want to be active in the church. But the only way they know how is through different forms of worldly idolatry.
2. Weak Church Leaders.
Unfortunately, some of us pastors and church leaders are sometimes to blame for the introduction of gospel gimmicks into church. We appear to put popularity, job security, position, and the illusion of outward success above our duty to the Chief Shepherd. We seem to fear that if we were to take a stand against these forms of worldliness in our churches, we would create enemies and threaten our support among our constituencies.
In some instances, we have done less than we might have to lead our congregations in the direction of revival and meaningful evangelism. We seldom preach Bible-based messages. With hazy preaching and teachings paralyzed by uncertainty, our churches are dying. Consequently, when something wrong comes along in the name of evangelism and worship innovation, we have already forfeited our moral right to challenge it. We find it easier to jump on the bandwagon of what is new instead of courageously holding on to what is true.
3. Denial of Faith.
Another reason why we may not see anything wrong with gospel gimmicks is that some of us have embraced liberal higher criticism. Consequently we do not really believe in the efficacy of God's Word to draw souls to Christ and keep them in the faith. We also do not believe that ours is the end-time church of Bible prophecy to which other faiths should come for truth. To those of us with this view, our church is not the remnant, but only "part of the remnant." Although we may accept some aspects of our faith, such as the Sabbath and our health principles, in the honesty of our hearts we do not see the uniqueness of our message, the distinctiveness of our identity, the end-time dimension of our hope, and the urgency of our mission.
Ethical integrity suggests that if we have lost the faith and certainties of our pioneers and cannot regain them, we should resign from our denominational employment. But not all of us have the courage to do so. (Some announce their views only after retirement.) So, in our desire to shed the "cult" and "sectarian" labels that have often been used to characterize Seventh-day Adventists, we actively import gospel gimmicks from both the secular world and other religions and churches.
4. Lack of Conversion.
There is another reason why some of us who advocate gospel gimmicks don't see anything wrong with them. Perhaps, unknown even to ourselves, we have never been fully converted. Our tastes and affections are still in the world. We are honest when we say that we see nothing wrong with these biblically-questionable innovations. This is because spiritual things are spiritually discerned.
Thus when the sanctuaries which were dedicated to the worship of a holy God are transformed into auditoriums to worship the god of entertainment, we do not see anything wrong. We may congratulate ourselves for finally coming up with "a contemporary church program that meets the needs of our generation." We don't realize that the god of this world has blinded us (see 2 Cor 4:4). Without a true conversion, there is no hope of changing our minds against the use of worldly methods in worship or evangelism.