Years ago I went to a church conference focused on bringing up the level of creativity and the production values of the Sunday morning worship gathering (or experience, as they preferred to call it). As the band turned their amps up to loud enough to make my ears bleed, and lead the group through 13 or 14 rounds of “whoa-oh-oh-oh, whoa-oh-oh-oh-ohs”, I decided it’d be a good time to hang out outside. Not too long after, I was joined by another attendee. We chatted for a while about what we’d been learning at the conference, and this person lamented, “It just seems like a show, not worship.” I agreed. This person was right: it was a show.
And I suspect that’s what’s going on far too often in churches all over North America.
People who know me well (and, let’s be honest, people who don’t know me all that well at all) know I’m not a fan of what’s called the “attractional” approach to church—the big show, felt-needs oriented style of church popularized in the 80s and 90s by the likes of Bill Hybels and Rick Warren. Why am I not a fan? It’s not because I’m grumpy and/or only like hymns. Though the aims of its practitioners are noble, this approach encourages people to act like consumers rather than grow as disciples. And that’s totally antithetical to everything the worship gathering is supposed to be about.
Jared Wilson gets this. He’s served in attractional churches, and seen the fruit of the model. Or, rather, the lack thereof. But rather than spend an entire book railing against everything that’s wrong with attractional churches (because, hey, who doesn’t like hearing how they’re doing everything wrong?), Wilson simply asks, are you sure about that? Are you sure the smoke machines, lasers, sermons on being a better whatchamacallit and skinny jeans are what the world needs? Maybe what we need to do is go back to the Bible, not to do away with innovation, but to recover a sense of wonder and awe at the glory of God—and build our lives and worship around that! That, in a nutshell, is The Prodigal Church: A Gentle Manifesto against the Status Quo.
And it’s quite spectacular.
The practice of preaching and the priority of people
What will surprise most readers of The Prodigal Church is its tone. Wilson strikes a delicate balance, simultaneously calling us out for acting like pragmatic knuckleheads while making us feel really good about it. There’s no sense of animosity toward practitioners, but great—and I believe warranted—hostility toward the practices themselves.
Take topical preaching, for example. While it isn’t wrong per se, what is questionable is the practice of putting together messages based around ideas I as a preacher might have (with biblical support), rather than preaching the text itself. And to preach in an expository fashion—that is through an entire book, verse by verse or passage by passage—is considered lazy or cheating by some, such as Andy Stanley. Wilson has some harsh words for this criticism, notably asking, what’s the fruit of the topical/applicational focus?
“What is the fruit of having treated the Bible like an instruction manual?” he asks.
[W]hen the church is run as a provider of spiritual goods and services, and slowly stops asking, first, “What glorifies God?” and begins asking more and more, “What do our customers want?” what the customer wants becomes more central to the life of the church. The functional ideologies of pragmatism and consumerism erode our theology, which becomes more flexible and less faithful. (73)
Or, more succinctly, “To teach and preach in this way is implicitly to say that the Bible can’t be trusted to set the agenda, and that my ideas are better than the Bible at driving change in my audience” (72).
This is what we need to understand: Pragmatism puts humans at the forefront, rather than God. They, functionally, become our gods. So you need to resort to more pomp and circumstance to keep them coming back. More programs, flashier gimmicks, bigger, better… whatever.
The only problem is it doesn’t work.
But faithful preaching does. The kind that puts the Bible at the forefront, puts Jesus in the place of greatest prominence, does this. And it isn’t cheating:
It is in fact hard work, at least spiritually, because it always necessitates dying to ourselves. The sermon prep may not take as long—thank God!—but the impulse to go first to Christ can be more difficult, and counterintuitive. We must have a stronger faith, to trust that a sermon mainly about Jesus will “help people grow” more than our set of tips will. (80)
Inviting prodigals home
In every chapter, readers will see Wilson avoiding cheap victories. He doesn’t go for the easy joke (usually). He doesn’t resort to nasty ad hominems, which are the weapon of choice of people with a weak argument. Instead he points out the issues with a deficient view of worship, a weakened approach to preaching, and offering programs as a substitute for shepherding congregations, and says, it doesn’t have to be this way. Things can be different, but it means giving up control:
Part of moving forward and away from the functional ideologies of the attractional church is also abandoning ourselves to the sovereign mercy of the Spirit, who cannot be measured or leveraged or synergized or whatever. (162)
And this is what we all hate, isn’t it? We like to think of ourselves as the masters of our own destiny. That when we hear “There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves,” it might actually be true. And this is where we need the gospel—not simply as an add on at the end of our message, but as part of what we live and breathe as Christians. We need to recognize that we don’t need to make our own fate, God’s got that handled very well, thank you very much. We don’t need to put on a big show to draw people in, Jesus has it covered.
The gospel is not made more powerful by a dynamic preacher or a rockin’ band: those things might adorn the gospel in an excellent way, but the gospel cannot be improved. The message of Christ’s sinless life, sacrificial death, and glorious resurrection is capital-S Spiritual power all unto itself. (163)
The best way to get it into the hands of others
Since I finished reading The Prodigal Church, I’ve been thinking about how to get it into the hands of those who really need it. And the truth is, we all probably need it, to greater or lesser degrees. Many of us attend churches that have embraced the attractional ethic, if only in part. It’s definitely true of my own church and the network we’re affiliated with since most of them have embraced the principles of corporate worship espoused in a not very good book. But how helpful would it be for me to hand it to my pastors and say, “Here you go, read this?”
Probably not very. Instead, here’s what I’d recommend: read it for yourself and see what God brings to mind about your own life and attitude. How do you express your worship privately? What does reading the Bible look like for you? How are you seeking to love and serve those around you, beginning with those in your local church? Don’t simply read it to try to determine everything that’s wrong in your church (or the one down the road). Let what you learn change you first. Then you’ll be in a better position to pass it along to others—and they may be more inclined to give its message serious consideration.
Title: The Prodigal Church: A Gentle Manifesto against the Status Quo
Author: Jared C. Wilson
Publisher: Crossway (2015)