MacArthur: The End of Frivolous Religion?

All the trouble and inconvenience that came with 2020’s string of calamities could actually have one surprising benefit: it might deal a death blow to America’s obsession with flippant, man-centered, self-serving, and fraudulent religion.

I’m thinking of trends like so-called “seeker-driven Christianity,” the irreverent brand of entertainment-as-religion that has dominated evangelical megachurches for three decades or longer. Some of the best-known seeker churches boast massive congregations, but they haven’t actually met in person for almost a full year. Their leaders say they have no plans to resume public meetings until fears about the coronavirus are gone from the talking points of secular society. That makes perfect sense — for them. They have followed and imitated the culture for so long, how could they credibly resist the current drift?

There is also a long list of famous charismatic televangelists and self-styled “prophets” who have obliterated whatever small shred of believability they might once have had. A year ago they were assuring their viewers that they had already declared and decreed the end of COVID-19. And then, even as the virus continued to dominate the news, they boldly announced that the Lord had told them Donald Trump would be re-elected. After the votes were counted and certified, most of the best-known charismatic soothsayers still insisted Trump would be inaugurated for a second term in January. Such a string of highly publicized embarrassments should make it hard from now on to find gullible people willing to buy their preposterous claims. And that’s a good thing.

It’s also frankly not going to be easy to keep selling the lie of “Your Best Life Now” to people who for the past year have endured various degrees of isolation, deprivation, persecution, job loss, and political strife — with wars and rumors of war in the streets of American cities.

All such brands of quasi-Christianity are frivolous substitutes for legitimate religion anyway. They lack the solemnity, stability, and sobriety that should characterize authentic devotion to God.

Full disclosure: I write as an evangelical. But let’s face it: shallow superficiality has been the bane of American evangelicalism for decades now. One of the distinguishing characteristics of the contemporary evangelical movement has been a pathological craving for entertainment rather than edification. For many, this is the only flavor of religion they have ever known.

In his 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman lamented the passing of what he called “the Age of Exposition,” and he observed that the current era might aptly be named “the Age of Show Business.” Knowledge, understanding, and real wisdom have declined rapidly and measurably — mostly owing to our culture’s addiction to amusement. The rise of postmodernism since the 1980s has only magnified (exponentially) the problems Postman was pointing out.

He was warning about trends in the culture at large. But those same evil tendencies have wreaked havoc across the spectrum of American religion. Evangelicals have not been exempt, because of their determination to follow (rather than confront and correct) the destructive tendencies of secular society. As a matter of fact, over the past few decades, popular evangelicalism has become perhaps the most glaring and garish — and inappropriate — manifestation of society’s self-destructive craving for amusement.

In the Age of Exposition, evangelicals made the pulpit the centerpiece of the church. Both the seating arrangement and the order of service stressed this. The preacher was expected to open the Word of God and teach from it. Church services had a sense of gravitas and dignity. The goal was not to be carefree and casual, but practically the polar opposite. The point of the worship service was to meet with a transcendent God and reverently pay homage — not to pretend we have a superhero-style friend in heaven whose whole reason for being is to affirm us and make us happy.

Today’s churches are purposely designed to look and feel like theaters. Instead of a pulpit, the centerpiece is a stage. Churches employ full-time media specialists, programming consultants, directors, drama coaches, special-effects experts, choreographers, and promoters. Light shows and smoke machines are widely considered essential liturgical implements for a properly postmodernized Sunday church service.

In sharp contrast, the church meetings described in the New Testament had just four essentials: the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer (Acts 2:42). But anyone raised in evangelical circles over the past half century probably considers that a lame agenda.

Jesus’ Great Commission was, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15). That is not a marketing manifesto. The church is not a business whose task is to promote a product to consumers. Worship is not a spectator sport where the size of the crowd is a key measure of success. The church is supposed to be a gathering of the faithful to exalt the glory of God. “Sin and righteousness and judgment” are essential themes of the message Christians are supposed to convey to the world (John 16:8). But those topics are deliberately omitted from most of the sermons preached in evangelical churches nowadays.

Instead, it seems American religion has wholeheartedly embraced a kind of lighthearted culture-driven pragmatism, where the central goal is to be cool and stylish; gain attention, admiration, and applause from people steeped in secular culture; and attract massive crowds by giving people what they want (“meeting their felt needs,” in the parlance of seeker-sensitivity).

Scripture says it is a mark of apostasy when preachers cater to people who will not tolerate sound biblical teaching but demand to have their ears tickled with half-truths and fables.

Nevertheless, church leaders in recent years have seemingly put no limits on how far they will go in pursuit of mass appeal. The ultimate fruit of that philosophy has ranged from beat poetry to crass slapstick. Churches have literally put on every kind of spectacle from rodeos to wrestling matches in their Sunday services. Preachers are purposely glib. They talk about the gospel — some of them mention it a lot. But they don’t actually proclaim it.

Again, I’m describing a style of religion that has been spreading like leaven through the evangelical movement for decades. And when a worldwide health crisis brought all of society to a screeching halt last year, churches whose driving purpose had been to convene the largest possible crowds were left with no achievable goal, no legitimate function, and no answers for their anxious and apprehensive neighbors.

The gospel Christians are commissioned by their Lord to proclaim includes the good news that God, in the Person of Jesus Christ, became a flesh-and-blood human Himself, “[so] that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.” (Hebrews 2:14-15).

Who could possibly miss the fact that “fear of death” has literally been the controlling factor in government policies, news reports, economic trends, and almost every level of human activity worldwide for the past year? Scripture gives us a clear and effectual remedy for that fear. And the church’s chief duty with regard to society at large is the proclamation of that message.

Christians: let’s devote our energies to that task.

Dr. John MacArthur is the pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California. He is the author of more than 400 books, a featured teacher with the Grace to You media ministry (gty.org), and is chancellor of The Master’s University and Seminary.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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