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FIRST-PERSON: When the bubble bursts

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–In the past decade we have seen many highs and lows in several sectors of our society.

At the turn of the century, the dot-com phenomenon simultaneously amazed and befuddled investors. Any investment seemed to return a good profit; some even made millions. Yet the traditional economists and financial planners warned against the “irrational exuberance” expressed toward these unproven, highly capitalized Internet companies. The warnings proved to be true when the bubble burst and greedy investors lost hundreds of millions of dollars.

The housing market experienced the same kind of frenzy. In certain areas of the country, particularly on the West Coast in California and the East Coast in Florida, housing prices began to appreciate at an accelerated pace. This appreciation was fueled by easy credit from the government and financial institutions. People no longer had to wait for their “dream home.” They could have it now and worry about how to pay for it later. After all, the experts said housing prices would just keep going up. That is, until the bubble burst with the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac fiasco which resulted in bank failures and clogged credit markets.

We also witnessed the price of oil skyrocket over a four-to six-month period to a record high of $145 a barrel in 2008. This bubble creation became very painful for the average consumer trying to fill up a vehicle with a tank of gasoline that was two to three times his weekly budget allocation. The price of a gallon of gasoline was elevated long enough to have a significant impact on the transportation industry and change the way Americans thought about the cars they drove and the trips they would make. People sold their larger cars at a loss to buy smaller, more fuel efficient vehicles at a higher than normal price. When the bubble burst and the price of oil fell, consumers and manufacturers were “upside down” once again with their vehicles.

This bubble phenomenon can also be observed in churches throughout our land. Desiring to build a large church, many pastors are taking the advice of experts who have created “church growth associations” to market their growth ideas to the masses. These associations sell the latest and greatest creative ideas to pastors who endeavor to make the church relevant and to create a desire from the unchurched to attend their service. The mantra is to do “whatever it takes” to build a crowd to reach others for Jesus.

The desire to win others to Christ and be on mission with God to fulfill the Great Commission is laudable and biblically mandated by our Lord. Obedience to the Great Commission is not optional but essential for the believer. It is absolutely necessary that we fulfill the Great Commission. After all, God has called every believer to be “salt and light” in this world and to be a witness of the Gospel that has transformed their lives. We are to take that life-changing message to every person on planet Earth.

The mission is something in which most, if not all, of us would agree. The unanimity of agreement begins to disintegrate when discussion centers upon appropriate methods to be used in this evangelistic task. Generally, the standard answer given is, “methods may change but the message does not.” Theoretically, at face value that rationale appears to be true. However, upon closer examination, the message all too often changes to conform to the method.

When the format of the worship service is designed to appeal to the desires of the lost and unchurched, the message would logically parallel the method. The lost and unchurched admittedly confess they don’t attend church because the environment is “too churchy and boring” and the preacher “talks too much about things like sin and commitment.” When their expectation is to be made to “feel good,” how can the message not conform to those expectations without driving the target audience away?

Many established churches throughout our denomination are experiencing a crisis because this faulty methodology is being foisted upon them by their congregational leaders. This “irrational exuberance” by their leaders in an effort to make the church relevant to culture is creating an identity bubble that will ultimately burst. The church’s search for significance is actually having the opposite effect and causing her to become insignificant in the culture. The turmoil in the housing and financial markets was created by the experts because timeless business principles were abandoned. Even so, experts in church growth are contributing to ecclesial commotion by discarding timeless biblical principles.

What, then, is the answer to this paradox? I believe we should return to the demands of biblical Christianity. The church has never been more spiritually vibrant and influential to society than when she was counter-cultural. Old fashioned preaching (don’t stone me just yet) on topics like sin, repentance and holiness need to be sounded again. True — that type of biblical preaching is not culturally acceptable. But when was the biblical Gospel ever culturally acceptable?

Where will we turn when the bubble bursts? Whatever sort of bubble it may be, I pray we will turn back to God’s Word for direction to order our lives and our worship God’s way.
Bob Pearle is the pastor of Birchman Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, president of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, and the author of “The Vanishing Church: Searching for Significance in the 21st Century.”

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  • Bob Pearle