Stranger Danger

(Originally printed in the Summer 2004 Issue of the MCOI Journal )

stranger danger graphicWhen our children started school, we were introduced to the “Stranger Danger” program. With a growing concern about strangers abducting school children, we, along with most other parents, spent time talking with our kids about Stranger Danger. “Don’t talk to strangers.” “Walk in a group.” “Never get into a stranger’s car, or go anywhere with him—even if he says he knows your parents or needs help finding his puppy.”

The reason we did this is obvious. Nobody wants to talk about these dark issues—no one wants to scare their innocent little ones, but we love our children too much to let them go out unprepared to meet the dangers of life. We are in authority and are responsible for their wellbeing. Part of that responsibility is to guard them from outsiders who would do them harm and to provide them with strategies to protect themselves when necessary. With that in mind, our area also adopted a “Blue Star” program. Certain homes in the area, where a trustworthy adult would likely be home during the day, placed a large Blue Star in the window. If a child felt threatened by a stranger, they could run to this home to find safety and protection. The Blue Star indicated that “this house is a safe place.” Ours was one of those designated homes. There was also a phone tree set up so that all the Blue Star homes could be alerted (so they could be especially vigilant and warn others) if a suspicious looking “stranger” was seen lurking about the schoolyard or the neighborhood parks.

Not just anyone could be a certified Blue Star parent. If one applied for a Blue Star, they were subjected to background checks and scrutiny to make sure that a Blue Star home was truly a “safe home.” We took our responsibility very seriously, and during our time, many perceived threats from “outsiders” were checked out by the police. A few times “a parent’s worst nightmare” was, indeed, prevented by this community watchfulness.

Unfortunately, as we all know, not all dangerous predators are “outsiders.” And not all of them appear suspicious or dangerous at all. Some predators are wolves in “sheep’s clothing.” They may be teachers, clergymen, village Jaycees, coaches, Scout leaders, or other seemingly “safe” people.

When such abuse comes to light and the allegations are proven, most people expect swift action to be taken against the perpetrators. We require that people who prey on children immediately be dismissed from their positions and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

We do not expect such criminals ever to be allowed to work in an environment where they have access to children; and we become incensed when we find that any such abuse has been covered over or hushed up—as in the recently exposed cases of pedophile Priests who have been “reassigned” to other parishes rather than publicly reproved and removed from their positions. We certainly don’t expect to find parents or community leaders excusing child abuse by saying things like, “Oh, but he/she is such a good math teacher. He really helps the kids grasp the subject and learn. He gives such great sermons on Sunday! He or she is very successful in their career, or very active in community functions and programs for the needy. They have so many good things to offer and they really only have a problem in this one little area of molesting children; in light of all the good that they do, we just should forgive this one little fault and move on. After all, we can’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”

The welfare of the children and their safety takes precedence over any other considerations. Parents, school and church officials, and community leaders have an obligation to guard children from predators—from strangers and outsiders and from predatory “insiders” as well. And we must be ever vigilant in order to do this.

 Guard the Flock

The Apostle Paul charged the Ephesian Elders with similar spiritual responsibilities toward the people who had been entrusted to their care. They were to guard the flock from spiritual dangers having eternal consequences. 

Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears.”1

The Apostle Paul was earnestly trying to alert these men to the danger of strangers. He had been faithfully protecting the flock from deceivers and spiritual predators. He claimed to have done so “night and day for a period of three years…with tears.” But now, of necessity, he was passing this burden to the elders of Ephesus, and Paul seemed very anxious for these men to understand the seriousness of the task set before them. At all costs, keep the wolves OUT! In addition, he warned them to keep a sharp eye out for spiritual charlatans “speaking perverse things” who would arise within the congregation—savage wolves in sheep’s clothing who would drag the unwary off with them to their destruction.

A little while later, Paul wrote to the young pastor of the church in Ephesus—Timothy. Like a concerned parent, who has entrusted the care and upbringing of his children to another, he reminds Timothy of his most important concerns: 

As I urged you upon my departure for Macedonia, remain on at Ephesus, in order that you may instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines . . .2

A study of First and Second Timothy reveals the things that were important to the Apostle Paul. He laid out the type of ministry he expected this young pastor and the Church elders to perform. It is discouraging to read these letters today and contemplate the state of the contemporary church. Sadly, many church members and even pastors become incensed if one dares even to question popular teachers or movements that have wormed their way into the church. A few years back, we exposed Diet Guru and anti-Trinitarian Gwen Shamblin as being a cult leader in sheep’s clothing; and before she was through, she had raked in excess of 100-million dollars from unsuspecting evangelicals and dragged many disciples out of the churches and into her cult group—Remnant Fellowship! Many people reacted with shock and consternation when faced with the truth about this very popular false teacher, but some others were downright angry – at us!

You can try this at home. Ask your Christian friend who is a Benny Hinn devotee if Hinn’s false prognostications—supposedly under the Holy Spirit’s direction, that did not come to pass—make him a false prophet, then stand back! Or ask him if there are truly nine persons in the Trinity—as Benny asserted that God told him. Alternatively, you can question the Word-Faith/Prosperity teachings of Kenneth Copeland, Joyce Meyers, the late Kenneth Hagin, Creflo Dollar, T.D. Jakes, Frederick K.C. Price, et al, and see what kind of reaction you get.

Of course, there is also the Neil Anderson/Bob Larsen school of demon chasers out there, looking to blame all of your problems and sins on generational curses and the underworld and to cast those demons of gluttony, greed, and lust right out of your soul. And then there is Mary K. Baxter who has been to hell and back with news you can use.

In explaining to Timothy what men and what strange doctrines” he was referring to, Paul writes: 

…wanting to be teachers of the Law, even though they do not understand either what they are saying or the matters about which they make confident assertions.3

Paul could just as well be writing about Bill Gothard and his Institute in Basic Life Principles. Through Gothard’s Scripture twisting and legalistic cause-and-effect teachings with some out-of-context Bible verses Scotch-taped to them, he manages to wreak havoc on churches and families. . .unchecked.

Where, in all of this, are the Church leaders—the Timothys, the Pauls, the elders of Ephesus? Part of the problem is, of course, that the Church—the body of Christ—is divided among different denominations, so there is no single personage (such as the Apostle Paul) or ecclesiastical body whose decisions on these matters would be honored by all. Indeed, if Evangelicals were to unify enough to set up some sort of Papal-like authority, the cure likely would be far worse than the disease. So, what we, in the Evangelical community, tend to do is to look to very popular national teachers, preachers, and radio and TV “personalities” to “show us the way”—to put their “stamp of approval” on what is good or, conversely, to publicly expose and warn us of the false and dangerous teachings and trends. If Mr. Big so-and-so accepts this man (or woman!) or that teaching, it must be okay for us to do likewise. Sadly, though, this course of action certainly is not working today—if it ever did. Our defacto Evangelical “College of Cardinals,” many of whom are good solid preachers and teachers in their own right, too often are silent about or even endorse false teachers and false teachings within the Church. Many other pastors then follow their lead and remain silent as well. After all, if “the big guys” don’t see a problem, there must not BE a problem. Evangelical leader, Pastor Adrian Rogers, has endorsed Bill Gothard and his teachings. Jerry Falwell has made alliances with the false Christ—Sun Myung Moon, and calls the false prophet and false teacher Benny Hinn his “good friend.”4 Oneness Pentecostal5 pastors—Phillips, Craig, and Dean—are played on Evangelical radio stations and sold in Evangelical bookstores. (Don’t even get us started on some of the spiritual humbug that is bought and sold on Christian radio or in so-called Christian bookstores.) These are only a handful of examples of so many that could be cited. It has gotten so bad in our “tolerant” age that discernment is disdained as being “divisive” or “mean-spirited.” We are admonished not to “throw the baby out with the bath water.” But what if the “baby” has horns and a tail? Should we then raise it to manhood?

Some will be alarmed or upset that we do speak out against false teachers and even name names, as if false prophets and teachers should have our protection. But we do so following the Apostle Paul’s example. He did not lie awake nights worrying about being “tolerant” or “politically correct” towards the false teachers of his day. In his warning to Timothy, he named two who:

 …suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith. Among these are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have delivered over to Satan, so that they may be taught not to blaspheme.6

Would that those who are troubling you would even mutilate themselves.7

Donald K. Campbell, President Emeritus of Dallas Theological Seminary, comments on this statement: 

Speaking out of deep concern for the Gospel of the grace of God, Paul uttered a strong expression. He wished that the Judaizers, who were so enthusiastic about circumcision, would go the whole way and castrate themselves, as did the pagan priests of the cult of Cybele in Asia Minor.8

Was the Apostle Paul just being meanspirited, intolerant, and/or divisive? No. Like a very concerned parent passing on his responsibilities to others, Paul was clear about the primary tasks of pastors and elders. Guard the flock from predators coming in from the outside. Guard the flock from predators on the inside. Teach sound doctrine in order to equip believers with the necessary tools to protect themselves by being able to distinguish between those who were watching out for their souls (Hebrews 13:17) and the wolves who would do them harm (Matthew 7:15). Counterfeit “unity” cannot be allowed to preempt truth. 

Spiritual A.I.D.S.

We really believe that most pastors and elders want to serve their churches well. Pastoring is a very difficult task. Pastors are often viewed as the paid professional Christian whose job it is to grow the church. They often labor for long hours doing individual counseling of various types. Moreover, they often have to “separate the children,” who are fighting over silly issues, and attempt to bring about some sense of unity within the body. They rarely go into the ministry with visions of national notoriety or aspirations of making big bucks. We suspect that the majority of pastors are faithful men who are underpaid, overworked, and under-appreciated.

If this is true, and we believe that it is, why is doctrinal anorexia flourishing virtually unchecked in the Church? According to George Barna, only nine percent of Evangelicals have a biblical worldview.9 Why is biblical literacy at such a low ebb? It may be because, according to Barna, nearly 50% of pastors do not have a biblical worldview.10 We would suggest there is a spiritual A.I.D.S in the Church—Acquired Ignorance of the Doctrines of Scripture. This came about as a result of a few things in the past which are now bearing fruit in the present. We won’t be able to fully develop this history in a Journal article such as this; however, we suggest there are at least two things which have influenced how the Church sees itself and its place in the world that has determined how the Church operates today.

 Market-Driven Philosophy

One of the first unfortunate changes occurred with a switch from theocentric (God-centered) theology to anthropocentric (human-centered) theology. 

Even books on theology changed their order of things so that the theology of man took on greater and greater importance. Theologians previous to Friedrich Schleiermacher of Germany generally considered theology to be the study of God, and that from knowing God one could gain insight into His creation, including the nature of man. However, Schleiermacher included self-consciousness in his theology, whereby subjective experience gained a foothold alongside revelation.11

In this shift, preaching and teaching became less about truth and sound doctrine and more about “How do we get more people into our church?” This is not a new story. We all tend to think things were better in the “old days,” but it is not really so. Gary Gilley, author of This Little Church Went to Market, writes: 

…Americans simply did not go to church in great numbers in the nineteenth century. Many estimates place church membership at around seven percent at the dawn of the nineteenth century and only 15 percent by 1850, after the so-called Second Great Awakening.12 

Charles Finney

The hoped-for solution came in the form of a young attorney turned preacher by the name of Charles Finney: 

All that began to change in the 1740s at the time of the Great Awakening and the preaching of George Whitefield. When the embers of this time or revival died down, the church went into a drought. Church attendance began to dive, theology lost its appeal, the teachings of the Enlightenment began to catch on, and Deism became popular. By 1800 the American church was in a dismal state and ripe for anything that would offer some kind of spiritual sustenance. The Second Great Awakening, which began in 1801 in Cane Ridge, Kentucky, would fill that void and forever change Christianity in America. Sermons of substance were replaced with emotional appeals. Doctrine was replaced by stories, and the preacher’s performance became more important than what was taught. Music took on a central role as emotionalism became the order of the day. Ministers began to study “what worked” in order to draw a crowd. Charles Finney would perfect all of this, changing the heart and soul of the church. In other words, church services became a form of entertainment.13

Watching the seeming “success” of Finney, pastors began using his marketing principles and style. Story telling (using the Bible, of course) substituted for preaching and teaching. Preparing the environment for the consumer in order to make the final pitch of the Gospel with an altar call directed the product packaging. The ministry of the Church—worship, preaching, teaching and preparing the saints for the work of service (Eph 4:11-16), correcting false teachers (1 Timothy 1:3) and false teachings (1 Timothy 4:6) was replaced with the mission of the Church, which emphasized above all the proclamation of the Gospel. From a biblical perspective, Gospel presentation is not supposed to be the primary emphasis of the corporate meetings of the Church. The examples of intentional evangelism that we find in Scripture are that of Christians going outside the church doors where the unsaved live and gather. Please don’t misunderstand—we are not saying that at no time should the proclamation of the Gospel occur in church, but only that it is not the primary emphasis of the corporate meeting of believers. As the Apostle Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 14:23, unbelievers may come in. (Some churches should perhaps take note of Paul’s admonition that we not appear to be absolutely out of our minds to interested non-Christians ! In performing the ministry of the Church of teaching, edifying, training and equipping, the Gospel will come up in the natural course of sound exegetical preaching and teaching.

This major shift—of all but abandoning the ministry of the Church and replacing it with the mission of the Church—had far-reaching effects on how pastors understood and carried out their preaching task. The French Aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, after touring the United States wrote Democracy in America, saw this error working itself out during the full bloom of the movement’s “success:” 

Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s wrote an insightful analysis of American character and culture. De Tocqueville argued that Americans’ “self-interest” was an “irresistible force” and profoundly shaped how Christianity was presented. De Tocqueville reported that pastors had lost all hope of contradicting American’s basic self-interest. Picture Americans’ self-interest as a swiftly flowing river. Instead of trying to row upstream, pastors decided to guide the boat downstream. “They turn all their thoughts to the direction of it [self-interest]. They therefore do not deny that every man may follow his own interest, but they endeavor to prove that it is in the interest of every man to be virtuous.”14

What is little recognized today is that Finney, himself, ultimately saw his own attempt as a failure. 

Joseph Ives Foot, a Presbyterian minister, wrote in 1838: “During the ten years, hundreds, and perhaps thousands, were annually reported to be converted on all hands; but now it is admitted, that his [Finney’s] real converts are comparatively few. It is declared even by himself, that ‘the great body of them are a disgrace to religion’.”15

Nevertheless, Finney’s methods became part of the fabric of the Church—so firmly rooted that, today, some just assume it is the biblical way to conduct Church services. Christian doctrinal instruction went into steep decline along with personal evangelism as the Church increasingly tried to get unsaved people into the church through marketing and entertainment with the hope of proclaiming the Gospel message. Charles Spurgeon was very concerned about this trend and subsequently wrote Feeding Sheep or Amusing Goats? in an attempt to bring the Church back to sound biblical teaching. He wrote: 

An evil resides in the professed camp of the Lord so gross in its imprudence that the most shortsighted can hardly fail to notice it. During the past few years it has developed at an abnormal rate, even for evil. It has worked like leaven until the whole lump ferments. The devil has seldom done a cleverer thing than hinting to the Church that part of their mission is to provide entertainment for the people, with a view to winning them. From speaking out as the Puritans did, the Church has gradually toned down her testimony, then winked at and excused the frivolities of the day. Then she tolerated them in her borders. Now she has adopted them under the plea of reaching the masses.16

His next questions are as pertinent today as they were when he first penned them: 

My first contention is that providing amusement for the people is nowhere spoken of in the Scriptures as a function of the Church. If it is a Christian work why did not Christ speak of it? “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature.” That is clear enough. So it would have been if He had added, “and provide amusement for those who do not relish the Gospel.” No such words, however, are to be found. It did not seem to occur to Him. Then again, “He gave some apostles, some prophets, some pastors and teachers, for the work of the ministry.” Where do entertainers come in? The Holy Spirit is silent concerning them. Were the prophets persecuted because they amused the people or because they refused?17

Nevertheless, his warnings went unheeded, and by the dawn of the twentieth century, the Church had become so doctrinally and intellectually weakened that it had no real defense against the onslaught of Darwinism and liberalism. As a result, by 1930 the Church largely abandoned culture and created their own subculture to protect themselves from the heathen. We can certainly understand this. The world is a scary place, and Christians hoped that, by “circling the wagons,” they could protect their children and families from the influence of the Pagans round about, not realizing that a good doctrinal education is the best protection there is from the deceitful and empty philosophies of the world!

As popular as Finney’s method had become, though, over time it proved to be less and less effective. New ways of creating a market demand would eventually be sought after. Inevitably, not only did Christian instruction decline, but the Gospel, itself, had to be “softened up” and “repackaged” to appeal to the sensibilities of the unsaved. 

Skinner and Maslow

The second major change would come from even less likely sources—B.F. Skinner and Abraham Maslow. Skinner worked in the field of Behavioral Psychology: 

Skinner received his PhD in 1931. In 1936 he took an academic position at the University of Minnesota where he wrote The Behavior of Organisms and began his novel Walden II, about a commune where behaviorist principles created a new kind of Utopia. He also began development of his controversial “baby box,” a controlled-environment chamber for infants (his second daughter spent much of her babyhood in one). Pigeons roosted outside his office window at the University of Minnesota, which gave him the idea to use them as experimental subjects — they became his favorite.

With pigeons, he developed the ideas of “operant conditioning” and “shaping behavior.” Unlike Pavlov’s “classical conditioning,” where an existing behavior (salivating for food) is shaped by associating it with a new stimulus (ringing of a metronome), operant conditioning is the rewarding of a partial behavior or a random act that approaches the desired behavior. Operant conditioning can be used to shape behavior. If the goal is to have a pigeon turn in a circle to the left, a reward is given for any small movement to the left. When the pigeon catches on to that, the reward is given for larger movements to the left, and so on, until the pigeon has turned a complete circle before getting the reward. Skinner compared this learning with the way children learn to talk—they are rewarded for making a sound that is sort of like a word until in fact they can say the word. Skinner believed other complicated tasks could be broken down in this way and taught. He even developed teaching machines so students could learn bit by bit, uncovering answers for an immediate “reward.”18

Skinner believed that, by following a particular set of steps and principles, humans could be programmed to live certain ways which would bring about rewards as a result of their “good”behavior.

Like Skinner, Abraham Maslow had gained national notoriety by the 1950s. Since then, psychiatry and psychology have managed to establish themselves in the Church and have been baptized as “Christian.” This, in turn, impacted how most pastors were trained to perform their tasks: 

…many pastors assumed therapeutic roles and provided acceptance and understanding in place of confronting the sinner and guiding him to repentance.

By the middle of the century most seminaries offered classes in psychology. These included seminaries of conservative, as well as liberal, denominations.19

Maslow, like Skinner, had developed ideas that would not only be embraced by and baptized into the Church, but they would become THE way of understanding and teaching Scripture as well as “how to do church.” After all, if the primary function of the church meeting is evangelism, and there are very few unbelievers in the church to be evangelized, we need to figure out how to get them in so we can reach them with the Gospel. Maslow’s system provided the basis for this new approach: 

An inborn “instinctoid drive” will lead them to grow into loving, unselfish adults provided they are first able to satisfy four basic levels of needs 1) physiological needs, such as food and shelter; 2) security needs; 3) belonging needs, for love and acceptance; and 4) self-esteem, which implies both actual accomplishment and recognition from others. Only after the “defiency needs” have been satisfied are human beings free to begin the potential process of self-actualization and the maximization of creative potential – “to become everything one is capable of becoming.” Of that group, he estimated that perhaps two percent of the population achieve the ultimate goal and become fully self-actualized – or, as he sometimes preferred to put it, “fully human.” Though Maslow never expressed it in quite those terms, fully actualized men and women were the living equivalent of religious Scripture.20

By 1960, Abraham Maslow’s views had become largely mainstream in psychology, culture, and increasingly so in the Church as well. Self-esteem, hierarchy of need, peak experiences, and self-actualization would take slightly different manifestations inside and outside the church; but they would become the guiding principles for how we understand ourselves and, as Christians, how we understand and interpret Scripture. 

Crossroads in the Church

The views of these two Secular Humanists would be embraced by different segments of the Church. In the early 1960s, a young Bill Gothard embraced the idea of behaviorism. He was concerned about holy living and created a behavioristic system of steps and principles which, if followed mechanistically, would result in rewards from God. The core of his system is his “seven non-optional principles of life,” which constitutes his “umbrella of protection.” If one gets under the umbrella and carefully follows the step-by-step mechanistic approach, the promised reward is that one will not experience sickness, financial loss, difficult relationships, rebellious teenagers, etc. According to Gothard’s behavioristic model, a veritable Utopia could be achieved in this life by those who unquestioningly follow his method.

As he marketed his concept to the Church, he saw an overwhelmingly positive response from Christians who were quite fearful about the chaotic and rebellious world in which they found themselves in the 1960s and 1970s. A far better approach would have been a return to the biblical mandate to diligently educate young (and old!) believers in Christian thought to equip them to deal with the onslaught of a decadent and militantly secular culture; but sadly, that did not happen, and the avant-garde 1960’s philosophy destroyed many lives and continues to flourish even today.

Whereas Gothard and some segments of the Church were influenced by Skinner, another individual went in the direction of Maslow. Robert Schuller, in starting his church, seemed to have had a heart to reach the lost, and he looked for a way to get nonbelievers to attend. In light of the by-then “traditional” idea that evangelism is the primary function of the corporate meeting, this makes perfect sense. The route Schuller took through Maslow’s psychology had a particular focus on self-esteem—the idea being that with good self-esteem, one can become all they can be (self-actualized), know God (peak experience) and, thus, have their needs met. All four elements of Maslow’s view operate in Schuller’s theology and teachings. Over time, this influence shaped Schuller’s view of sin as well: 

Sin is any act or thought that robs myself or another human being of his or her loss of self-esteem.21

With these new tools in hand, Schuller went out and posed a series of questions to non-Christians. The answers to these would help him design a church in which they would feel comfortable. Maslow’s system fit the bill well: Promote self-esteem, minimize biblical doctrine, and use Bible verses to give the teaching an air of credibility—then market, market, market! Was any of this done with evil intentions? We cannot judge motives. But to us, it seems to be the natural progression of things—the result of beliefs which had been previously accepted into the Church fabric and brought to their logical conclusions. Schuller was arguably one of the most successful church pastors of the 1960s and 1970s. With that success, he eventually called for a “New Reformation” which would further make theology anthropocentric and minimize biblical doctrine (which was supposedly “too divisive”). He wrote Self Esteem: The New Reformation where he reveals his disdain for having God at the center rather than ourselves: 

For decades now we have watched the church in Western Europe and in America decline in power, membership, and influence. I believe that this decline is the result of our placing Theo-centric communication above the meeting of the deeper emotional and spiritual needs of humanity. We have been a church first and a mission second.22

We have to say it is probably best to be a Christian first and a minister second. 

The Advent of the Church Growth Movement

In the mid-1970s, a new movement began called the Church Growth Movement (CGM). One of the more notable leaders of this movement was a young pastor by the name of Bill Hybels. Hybels had a real heart and passion for reaching the lost. He gained a vision (largely from one of his professors by the name of Gilbert Bilezkian) of being part of a vibrant church that would make a difference in his community. 

Dr. B. would say, “I don’t see many churches like this in America in the ‘70s. I mean, I see buildings and I see programs, I see budgets and I see a lot of activity.” He said, “I just don’t see the life of what the Scriptures is [sic] talking about. I don’t see that kind of life being breathed out in a vital way in the fellowship called a church.”

And he would look off into the distance, and he would say, “Someday, someday the mold will be broken. Somebody will get serious about doing church God’s way and they’re gonna take all the risks and endure all the attacks. Someday, somebody will start a church, and it will be a lot like this; it will rock the world.”23

Accepting Dr. B’s challenge, the young pastor/evangelist had a strong desire to break the mold—to radically alter the way of “doing church.” With the already-accepted idea that the mission of the Church—evangelism—is supposed to be done primarily within the church, he, like others before him, needed to figure out a way to get non-believers to attend. But how would that be accomplished? After all, it was a rarity for a non-Christian to attend a church where the unvarnished Gospel was preached and an altar call was given each week. While in the process of sorting this out, Hybels attended a conference which was hosted by the individual who claims to be the founder of the CGM—Robert Schuller: 

Schuller claims that his shift in methodology has started a significant trend in Christianity: “An undisputed historical fact is that I am the founder, really, of the church-growth movement in this country.” The central core of his shift in method is the application of marketing ideas for the church. He claims, “I advocated and launched what has become known as the marketing approach in Christianity.”24

Since psychology, by this time, had been fully accepted and baptized into the Church, there would seem to be no reason for Bill Hybels to question Schuller’s thinking and approach. We can see the impact of Maslow on Schuller, which would in turn influence how Hybels and his team would set out to “do church.” Item number three of Schuller’s six principles is: 

Inventory. “You have to have what they want….Find what their needs are. You have to study psychology to know what the deep emotional needs of human beings are before you open your mouth and start talking to them….There enters self-esteem psychology and theology.”25

With a desire to reach unbelievers, draw them to Christ—the enculturation of the idea that evangelism is to be done in the church rather than equipping believers to carry out this mission outside the church—and armed with the tools of psychology, Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC) was founded. There is nothing that Bill Hybels and Willow Creek Community Church have done that is really new in a historical sense. They just have been very intentional and effective in the implementation of their plan. Rather than focusing on Maslow’s self-esteem element, Bill Hybels drew from the “hierarchy-of-needs” idea, which transformed his Gospel presentation. 

Seen from this perspective, Hybel’s communication makes perfect sense as a modern update of what De Tocqueville observed pastors doing. Americans are still committed to their own self-interest. In the present context, this self-interest involves a search for fulfillment and satisfying their felt needs. If Hybels can convince [unchurched] Harry that Christianity is the best means to do this, he will get on board. Hybels has not sought to redirect the river of self-interest, but like preachers of deTocueville’s era, argued that he has the fastest boat.26

This is somewhat reminiscent of Augustine in his early writings and views: 

In one of his first books, The Happy Life, Augustine argued that happiness consists in true learning and religion: “What else is it to live happily but to possess an eternal object through knowing it?” Since Augustine understood the source of happiness as knowing an eternal object, he concluded that happiness came from a perfect knowledge of God.

Two years later, Augustine said that people can be happy only when they are good. He believed that adoption of the classical virtues would help him achieve happiness: “The function of this virtue is to restrain and still the passions which cause us to crave things that turn us away from the laws of God and of His goodness, that is to say, from the happy life.” Augustine believed that as individuals could grow in virtue, they would restrain their passions and thus become fulfilled.27

Sadly, this elevated view of self-fulfillment and meeting our needs tends to discourage sound doctrinal teaching. That is not to say that Hybels and Willow Creek do not affirm sound theological doctrine if questioned. In fact, they subscribe to a very historically orthodox statement of faith. However, is this the grid through which they carry out or understand their mission? In fact, theology does not appear to be highly regarded within the CGM in general: 

At a crowded seminar I once heard C. Peter Wagner [Chancellor of Wagner Leadership Institute, President of Global Harvest Ministries, and one of the key leaders and spokesman for CGM] confess that he was not a theologian, adding, only half in jest, “That is a Church Growth principle!” How sad it is that his lack of theology leads people away from the very Gospel which alone can feed the multitudes.28

This is not to say that Hybels and Willow Creek do not understand or articulate the Gospel. Bill Hybels has the ability to powerfully present the Gospel, and he does so. Having heard quite a few of Hybel’s evangelistic messages, we believe many people have been converted through the ministry of Willow Creek Community Church, which is, of course, a very good thing. We love to give credit where credit is due. There is a downside, however, to this overarching emphasis on reaching unchurched Harry and Mary. Harry and Mary need serious and intentional teaching as well. And they need, as Paul asserts, to be guarded—protected from the ravenous wolves—within and without the Church. This is particularly where we feel that robust remedial adjustment is needed. In much of American Christianity, some of the most popular preachers are also the most ravenous wolves. The temptation will always exist to identify with the most popular preachers, regardless of their lack of commitment to biblical truth.

For example, we cite the most recent conference promotion: The WCCC Leadership Summit 2004, to be held August 12-14, 2004, simultaneously at 80 locations with an expected attendance of 40,000 pastors, elders, and volunteer leaders. Included on its list of speakers is the popular Word-Faith teacher and Oneness Pentecostal (anti-Trinitarian), T.D. Jakes.

Oneness Pentecostals hold on to one of the oldest heresies (Sabellianism)29 in church history, which was tackled and refuted by the early church fathers. The Doctrine of the Trinity to Oneness teachers is a doctrine of Pagan origin. Word-Faith theology is another egregious, more latter-day heresy—involving the idea that you and I have the same ability to create reality as does God, Himself. We simply need to name it, and claim it, and the subservient god is obligated to deliver. And, of course, Jesus died to make you rich. Jakes clearly has been exposed as a false teacher,30 and should not be allowed access to the pulpit of a Christian church or pastor’s conference. Period.

Wishing to give Willow Creek the benefit of the doubt, some might suppose that Jakes’ inclusion was an oversight—done without realizing that he is a false teacher. Sadly, however, that excuse cannot be afforded to the WCCC leadership, since they have invited Jakes in the past and then uninvited him when several Willow Creek staff and church members brought to the attention of the leadership the facts about Jakes’ spurious beliefs and teachings. If they recognized the problem then, why would they invite him again now?

The next logical question is: Why would the leadership of Willow Creek want to be responsible for promoting and endorsing a false teacher? After all, in this case there are potentially 40,000 pastors and church leaders, many of whom will not know that Jakes is a charlatan, who easily could be influenced to accept or endorse the man and thus, his false teachings, themselves. Make no mistake: Willow Creek is a very influential church. If they are comfortable inviting Jakes, why would the attendees have their discernment antennae up? … No danger here … They likely will feel quite comfortable to purchase and promote his materials for use in their respective congregations. In addition to giving Jakes credibility among Evangelical churches, association with Willow Creek gives Jakes additional credibility among the members of his own church, his followers in the Word-Faith heresy, and those who buy his books in Christian bookstores. 

False Prophets in Sheep’s Clothing

The Scriptures are clear on the issue of Church leadership’s grave responsibility to protect the flock. Jesus Christ was clear in Matthew 7:15-23 to “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing…” What is a false prophet, anyway? It seems as if it is another valuable word which has been dropped for political reasons from our collective vocabulary. The Bible gives us two clear-cut tests by which we are able to examine the prophets or leaders who might present themselves to us “in sheep’s clothing.”

A false prophet, according to Deuteronomy 18:20-22, is someone who gives even one false prediction in the name of God. Right there, we can disqualify not only such non-Christian cults as the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (Jehovah’s Witnesses) and the Latter Day Saints (Mormons), but allegedly “Christian” Benny Hinn as well, who assured his audiences that God was going to wipe out all homosexuals with fire no later than the summer of 1995.31 Did it happen? No? Then what has Hinn proven himself to be?

Deuteronomy 13 disqualifies even those who make true predictions concerning the future, but who lead others away from the worship of the true God of the Bible. Again, we can easily illustrate this concept using Benny Hinn, who said that God told him there are truly nine persons in the Godhead! Is Hinn’s god the God of the Bible? No! Why does this man remain so popular?

Why would anyone invite him into their living room to teach his false doctrine? The same is true for Jakes—he is leading people away from the worship of the true God. Should we listen to him for any reason? Should we subject others to his falsehoods?

Not only are we to “Beware of the false prophets” and to “guard…all the flock” by exposing false teachers, but also the Apostle John unequivocally states: 

If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, [which had to do with sound doctrine on essential elements of the faith] do not receive them into your house, and do not give them a greeting; for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds. (2 John 10-11).

Churches in the first century met in private homes. In other words, according to John, we are not to turn over the pulpit nor in any way endorse false teachers. That is for the sake of guarding the flock from being confused and deceived by them.

Willow Creek has attempted to address these questions in what might be called the “fine print” of the contract. Unfortunately, we all know that hardly anyone reads the “fine print.” Willow Creek’s “fine print” disclaimer is not even found in the printed literature, but is located on their web site under the title “The WCA Speaker Policy Statement”32 which contains four paragraphs which we paraphrase below:

1)  WCCC holds to an orthodox statement of faith, which they expect that all who attend the conference to likewise affirm.

2)  They (WCCC) are open to inviting and learning from those who do not adhere to the statement of faith. (This includes agnostics and false teachers.)

3)  Even though they will have false teachers in the pulpit, that does not mean that they endorse them or their teaching. (Does WCCC feel no obligation even to point out who they consider to be the false teachers?)

4) WCCC acknowledges that there is risk and possible danger to the attendees as a result of the foregoing policy, but they expect that attending pastors and elders should be mature enough to straighten everything out.

What could be more important than protecting those in our care? What is the supreme value that trumps truth? Is that “value” success—as defined by the world’s standards? Do we need “successful” leaders and “successful” programs to build “successful” churches; with the result that whatever helps that process is good, even if it is demonstrably bad? The printed registration brochure for the conference carries the challenge to “Develop all your team leaders as you promote a leadership culture in your church.” The preeminent desire to create “successful” churches through marketing and psychology with very little, if any, emphasis on doctrine and sound teaching naturally leads to turning to successful false teachers. “Success” is not about truth or faithfulness to our calling, but about nickels and noses. Our desire for success—as defined by the world’s standards—may be the largest present day idol in the American Church.

We might suggest that it would be far better to “develop all your team leaders as you promote a biblically literate culture in your church.” After all, the Willow Creek Association states that they have 9,500 member churches and had over “100,000 local church leaders, staff, and volunteers” attend their conferences and training events last year alone.33 With such high visibility goes an even greater responsibility to practice discernment and to guard the flock. How would we react if our school system knowingly decided to employ identified pedophiles because of some perceived benefit greater than the safety of our children? They would immediately have charges brought against them and their judgment would no longer be trusted. Should the spiritual welfare of those who may be adversely influenced by popular false teachers be any less important? 

Where Are We Headed?

If large numbers of pastors continue to function more as corporate CEOs seeking “success” at the expense of sound doctrine and protecting the flock, the Church will continue its trend away from a biblical worldview. As a Church, we need to take a step back, reevaluate, and repent as Augustine did: 

As Augustine matured as a believer, he began recognizing that his previous preoccupation with fulfillment was not biblically grounded. As he became aware of the distortions of the platonic concepts in his earlier writings, he was willing to discard these ideas. One of these misguided ideas was his portrayal of the Christian life as the path to fulfillment. 34

If Robert Schuller is the father of the CGM as he claims, then Charles Finney would be its grandfather. Finney, however, saw the futility of what he had started; and in his Letters on Revival (1845) Finney was very straightforward about its failings and records his thoughts which are as appropriate today as when they were first penned: 

Efforts to promote revivals of religion have become so mechanical, there is so much policy and machinery in them, so much dependence upon means and measures, so much of man and so little of God, that the character of revivals has greatly changed within the last few years, and the true spirit of revivals seems to be fast giving way before this legal, mechanical method of promoting them.35

He also challenged the Church that “a greater teaching content was needed in preaching.”36 There is nothing inherently wrong with designing a service to attract (or, at least, not to unnecessarily repel) non-Christians, provided that such an appeal does not water down the truth. Unfortunately, watering down the truth to make it more “acceptable” is what too often happens when we try to tailor the Gospel to fit the times. Why is that? Because, as Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 1:18: 

…the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. (NIV)

Furthermore, God intended it to be so! Paul goes on to say in 1 Corinthians 1:20-25: 

Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know Him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength. (NIV)

If God was pleased to present the Gospel as foolishess to the unsaved world, we cannot hope to make the Gospel message sound less foolish and more appealing to the flesh unless we incorporate the wisdom of the world into our presentation. And that is precisely what God does not want us to do. 

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human traditions and the basic principles of this world, rather than on Christ. (Colossians 2:8 NIV)

Christians, as we all know, are not immune to the sin of vanity. We want to appear to be wise, sophisticated, and intellectual. Therefore, one of the most effective weapons that the world hurls at us is the charge of being foolish, unsophisticated, and insignificant. It attacks our “self-esteem,” which we all have been told for decades now to cherish and protect above all. But we cannot be true to our God if our most imperative desire is to be true to our “self.”

If our aim is to be faithful to God and His Word more than to be “successful” and “wise” in the eyes of the world, we must be firmly rooted in a biblical worldview, informed by sound doctrinal teaching, based on God-centered theology, and led by pastors and elders who seriously regard their assigned job to guard the flock from predators both outside and inside the Church.

To those many truly successful pastors who are serving God and teaching His Word to the flock, perhaps without the public accolades or great monetary compensation, please don’t burn out or give up. We need you more than ever! If you are attending a church with such a pastor, show them your appreciation and encourage them and their wives. They may never pastor an 18,000 member church, but they are doing something far greater—fulfilling the responsibilities which God gave them—and they will receive their praise from the Lord at His return: Well done, good and faithful servant.

  1. Acts 20:28-31, NASB
  2. 1 Timothy 1:3, NASB
  3. 1 Timothy 1:7, NASB
  4. Video tape on file.
  5. Oneness Pentecostals deny the doctrine of theTrinity.
  6. 1 Timothy 1:19b-20, NASB
  7. Gal 5:12; Bill Gothard teaches that circumcision is a moral requirement. See our book A Matter of Basic Principles: Bill Gothard and the Christian Life (Lombard, IL: Midwest Christian Outreach, Inc., 2003), pp.120-135.
  8. John F. Walvoord & Roy B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures by Dallas Seminary Faculty: New Testament, Victor Book, A Division of Scripture Press Publications Inc., 1983; 606. (This section written by Donald K. Campbell) Emphasis in original.
  9. Church Doesn’t Think Like Jesus: Survey shows only 9% of Christians have a biblical worldview; WorldNet Daily December 3, 2003
  10. Only Half of Protestant Pastors Have A Biblical Worldview: http://www.barna.org/cgi-bin/PagePressRelease.asp?PressReleaseID=156&Reference=A
  11. Martin and Deidre Bobgan, Against “Biblical Counseling” For the Bible, EastGate Publishers, (Santa Barbara, CA; 1994) 34-35.
  12. Gary E. Gilley, This Little Church Went to Market: The Church in the Age of Entertainment; Xulon Press, (Fairfax, VA; 2002) 31-32.
  13. Gary E. Gilley, This Little Church Went to Market: The Church in the Age of Entertainment; Xulon Press, (Fairfax, VA; 2002), 32.
  14. G.A. Pritchard, Willow Creek Seeker Services:Evaluating a New Way of Doing Church, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI, 1996: 251.
  15. Iain H. Murray, Revival and Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism; The Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, England 1994; 289.
  16. “Feeding Sheep or Amusing Goats,” Charles H. Spurgeon; http://christianunplugged.com/amuse_goats.htm
  17. “Feeding Sheep or Amusing Goats,” Charles H. Spurgeon; http://christianunplugged.com/amuse_goats.htm
  18. A Science Odyssey: People and Discoveries, B.F., 1904-1990; http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aso/databank/entries/bhskin.html
  19. Op. Cit., Martin and Deidre Bobgan, 42.
  20. Joyce Milton, The Road to Malpsychia: Humanistic Psychology and our Discontents, Encounter Books (San, Francisco, CA; 2002) 49
  21. Robert H. Schuller, Self Esteem: The New Reformation, Word Books, Waco, TX, 1982; 14.
  22. Robert H. Schuller, Self Esteem: The New Reformation, Word Books, Waco, TX, 1982, 12.
  23. Op. Cit., G. A. Prichard, 44-45.
  24. Op. Cit., G. A. Prichard., 51.
  25. Op. Cit., G. A. Prichard, 51
  26. Op. Cit., G. A. Prichard, 252.
  27. Op. Cit., G. A. Prichard, 253.
  28. Curtis A. Peterson, “A Second and Third Look at Church Growth Principles,” paper delivered at the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod’s Metro South Pastors Conference, February 3, 1993, Mishicot, Wisconsin, 13.
  29. The idea that God manifests Himself in different modes was first proposed by Noetus of Smyrna in the late second century and was popularized by Sabellius and Praxius in the early third century. Early Church Father Tertullian responded to this heresy in his work Against Praxeas.
  30. See Dr. Jerry Buckner’s article, “The Man, His Ministry, And His Movement
  31. “The Lord also tells me to tell you in the mid 90’s about ‘94 or ‘95 no later than that, God will destroy the homosexual community of America” Benny Hinn as quoted by M. Kurt Godelman, G. Richard Fisher, in The Confusing World of Benny Hinn (1995: St. Louis, MO: Personal Freedom Outreach, Seventh edition, 2002), 199.
  32. http://www.willowcreek.com/events/speaker_policy.asp
  33. http://www.willowcreek.com/wca_info/
  34. Op. Cit., G. A. Prichard, 253.
  35. Op. Cit., Iain H. Murray quotes Finney, 294
  36. Op. Cit., Iain H. Murray quotes Finney, 294.

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