The Shape of American Apostasy

We regularly do “field trips,” visiting churches to see whether we can find a man or a couple who would be interested in (1) serious Christian fellowship, and (2) teaming up with us to do 121 evangelism. I’ve decided to be “picky” in that both (1) and (2) are simultaneously necessary. I’m certainly interested in exploring opportunities for fellowship, but if over time our new Christian friends have no interest in reaching out to the lost, then the disconnect will be severe. How can you read the Bible and claim to love Jesus and love others and despise the obligation (and the opportunity!) to share the Gospel with others? When I talk about what I love to do I find that it just irritates the ice cold professing Christian who sees “following Jesus” as something far more aloof, superficial, and “tolerant.”

I would love to report a successful field trip to an evangelical church in which I find one or more fellow enthusiasts for evangelism, discipleship, and fellowship. If I ever do, I’ll let you know. At the time that I drafted this blog I had a couple of hopeful leads. But those evaporated. And so I plod onward.

We recently completed a 7-week field trip to The Grove, a soon-to-be megachurch in Arizona, with about 1500 people in attendance on Sunday. Yes, I’m actually naming the church in this blog . . . I might as well because I’m also critiquing the pastor’s signature book, Barefoot Tribe: Take off your shoes and dare to live the extraordinary life, by Palmer Chinchen, 2014. Now, if I had succeeded in finding a connection for fellowship and evangelism, I would not write this blog or, at least, I would write about my encouraging experiences with the Christians who teamed up with me to reach the lost in our community. Alas.

The Grove is a good example of an “emerging church,” the left wing of modern evangelicalism, the end result of the soft, seeker sensitive church growth movement. David Cloud has written an excellent book surveying this culture, entitled What is the Emerging Church? (, 2008) If you want to understand the emergent church, get Cloud’s book. What I wanted to do, besides my usual field trip objectives, is experience what an emergent church looks like from the inside. Would the people I meet be in lockstep with the speakers and authors driving their culture? Cloud details the movement’s diversity in doctrine, practice, and culture, pulling quotes from leaders such as Rob Bell and Brian McLaren that reveal deadly departures from Biblical doctrine. Bell and McLaren, for example, are universalists, denying a literal Hell.

But not all emergents go so far. The leaders at The Grove profess a sound doctrine on salvation. For example, from their website’s “What we believe,” we find that The Grove holds to such “essential truths” (as they properly put it) in the following two bullet points:

Jesus Christ: Jesus Christ is God’s one and only Son. He was miraculously born of a virgin, lived a sinless life, performed miracles and died for our sins on the cross. He was bodily resurrected, ascended into heaven, and now has continual intercession for His people, and will personally, visibly return to earth.

Salvation: The central purpose of God’s revelation in the Bible is to call all people into awareness of their sin, the availability of God’s marvelous grace, and the need for repentance and faith that results in complete fellowship with God.

I’m quite content with their stated position, which gave me some hope – initially – that I might find a connection. I asked one of the church’s leaders, however, whether the pastor was a universalist and denied the existence of Hell. He was surprised that I asked, but insisted that Palmer is definitely not a universalist and does believe that the lost are condemned to Hell. I explained that in seven weeks of listening closely to the teaching of the pastoral staff and reading Palmer’s book carefully, I saw no evidence that anyone believed that those who failed to repent and trust in Christ would be condemned. The fellow suggested that maybe I haven’t been around long enough. So I asked him whether he could remember anytime in the last several years whether the subject had come up explicitly or whether he knew of anyone in the church who had ever directly confronted a lost soul with the Judgment to come. He couldn’t.

Now this is a church that cares about people. The pastor was raised as a missionary kid in Africa, his poignant memories fueling his passion to reach out to the poor in Liberia, Malawi, Thailand, and other 3rd world areas. Here’s a revealing passage from his book:

”We’ve turned the gospel into a personal, intellectual transaction with God that never affects the world in which we live. But the way we live matters, because the way we live every day is a picture of our souls. You see, the gospel is not just about making it into heaven; it’s about filling this world with the beauty and love of God. Living out the gospel means you leave the comfort of your manicured suburb, your polished shopping mall, your neighborhood Starbucks, and your place in the pew to make heaven alive on earth.”

As a youngster living in Africa with his missionary parents, Palmer was distressed to observe visiting evangelicals blow into town, make impassioned appeals to provoke lots of raised hands – indicating salvation, allegedly – and then blow back out of town. At a recent seminar he explained how he is convinced that “we” could end three of Africa’s most desperate problems — extreme poverty, pandemics, and the exploitation of women. He was challenged by a pastor, “How do you rank meeting the needs of people against the need to tell them they are sinners?” Palmer replied, “Jesus never ranked those things, so neither will I.” He writes, “If we do one without the other, we miss it.”

And so we start to see the shape of American apostasy. I get the dismay of someone like Palmer . . . and those on the pastoral staff and the other leaders and the multitudes “in the pews” . . . who want to rescue the starving child, and the young girl sold into sex slavery, and the diseased who could be healed with just a dollar’s worth of medicine. One might paraphrase his view on “balance” as: “Don’t put 100% of your efforts into saving their souls and 0% into filling their most desperate needs.”

The result, however, is that the Grove, along with the vast emergent church movement . . . AND most of modern evangelicalism . . . puts 100% of their outreach efforts into temporal needs and 0% into Gospel-preaching evangelism. Consider this: As heart-rending and pressing are the temporal needs of the world’s poor, is not their salvation the greatest need of all? ”For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” Mark 8:36-38

Hey, these guys profess that they believe in Heaven / Hell / sin / judgment / repentance . . . and faith in Jesus Christ for salvation. But they don’t practice what they profess. Are they ashamed of the Gospel? The HUGE thing is the eternal destiny of every man, woman, and child we have contact with. But even for this life . . . one thing they don’t realize is that when someone is truly born again, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, then as a child of God he can get prayers answered, and he can obtain wisdom from God’s word for everything in his life, including how to make a living and how to get along with neighbors or fellow tribe members. God is even bigger and more helpful than American church leaders!

At a small group meeting I gave my testimony, which includes coming out of Roman Catholicism with its works-based doctrine of salvation, grace by sacraments, Mary worship, etc. When I got saved I never “went back.” Yet I tried to reach Catholic relatives and friends who were lost in their false religion. So I was interested to hear that quite a number of Roman Catholics have become members of The Grove. I asked how they were integrated, transitioned, etc. The answer was that there was no such process at all. Wait a second! Wasn’t anyone worried about the fact that as Roman Catholics they did not understand repentance / faith / grace / the new birth, etc? And so they came into the church as lost people? The answer was that no one was worried . . . clearly, no one thought about the situation that way. I pointed out that what I’d heard on Sundays – if I were still a Catholic – would have been quite agreeable to me. I would never be challenged about my lost condition. I would enjoy the show while growing old and dying lost. One suggestion I heard was that as new people absorbed the church’s culture, they would see what “real Christianity” was about. But the church’s culture would lead one to believe that “real Christianity” is about meeting physical needs and doing other “good works.”

Most distressing are examples that I won’t detail for privacy concerns, but will mention in general. It is clear that there are lost people in this church . . . who expressly indicate no testimony of salvation at all . . . who are in close fellowship with older, apparently mature Christians who clearly (profess to) understand Heaven / Hell / lost / saved, etc. And yet there is no concern over the lost member’s soul and never an attempt to sit down with him and share the truth eyeball to eyeball.

What I have learned by experience over many years is that Christians who disdain the Great Commission not only neglect lost “strangers” in their area, they also neglect their lost relatives, friends, coworkers, and neighbors. Because they get no experience in 121 interactions in general, they are clueless about sharing the Gospel with those they care about most. Because of their cluelessness, they start to rationalize that somehow grandma or Aunt Jane or Uncle Joe aren’t really headed for Hell or maybe there will be a better chance to talk to them next Thanksgiving, etc. And so cluelessness is indistinguishable from heartlessness.

Did I exercise due diligence in raising these issues at The Grove? Yes. Did I seek out several leaders asking whether they might help me find a sympatico soul for partnership? Yes, but to no avail. I also made an explicit offer to put on a small seminar for anyone who might be interested in learning how to do 121 evangelism. It’s not that the answer was, “No.” My offer was completely ignored. Now, that’s not even polite.

I made the point via this analogy several times . . . This church is like a powerful, well-coached football team that drives the ball 99 yards down to the opponent’s one-yard line. The 99 yard drive represents the efforts made to establish relationships, meet physical needs, and get a hearing for the Gospel. That last yard before the goal line represents a clear and direct presentation of the Gospel to a lost soul. The team looks around for a “fullback” to take the ball over the goal line. But there is no fullback. Nobody wants to play fullback. Isn’t a 99-yard drive good enough? I mean, look at all the passing and running statistics we’ve accumulated! And so the team never scores. The opponents – led by the Adversary himself – win the game again and again. I note that The Grove’s team doesn’t even care to have a fullback on the roster.

I volunteered to be “that fullback,” simply because I love to do that part of the job. Hey, I’m not objecting to all that relationship building, whether in Africa or in the poorer sections of Chandler or Phoenix. And I’m all for the physical help to supply the obvious temporal needs. In short, I’m willing to operate within their worldview – their professed worldview – in order to get the Gospel to a lost soul. So hey guys, I love to play fullback so can I get into the game? And would anyone else like to learn how to play fullback? The answers are no and no.

The shape of this apostasy is to profess with all apparent sincerity the truths of the Gospel, and then to despise obedience to the Great Commission. There is a “cloud of delusion” that provokes the leadership to imagine that everyone who shows up on Sunday must be “all right.” Every sermon seems to have the perspective that every listener is already a believer. It seems there is also a “cloud of malaise” that keeps anyone from getting around to telling the lost how to be saved.

What about their “missional” emphasis which is clearly 100% devoted to physical needs? Here is a fascinating excerpt from Palmer’s book:

”People used to wait for large organizations or national personalities to give leadership and initiate change. We expect large denominations to set the course, or massive nonprofits and global missions organizations to lead the way . . . But this generation has stopped waiting. They don’t have the patience for bureaucracy. They don’t want to fund the layers of organizational charts. They are not interested in policy and polity. They want direct trade . . . They want 100 percent of their resources to reach the person in need.”

Palmer sees “this generation” as a missional, goal oriented, efficient, and energetic segment of society that can change the world. I don’t agree. It looks to me like “Generation Z” is the most self-centered of any demographic in my life experience. But I’ll allow him the possible exceptions. Given that his book includes chapter after chapter of how to “reach the person in need,” and the statement above that modern folks want 100% of their charitable resources to reach that fellow, can they not see the hypocrisy in the mirror?

The Grove just finished building a new 3 million dollar auditorium, which allows them to go from three Sunday services to two, and hopefully expand to true megachurch status over the next few years. Their annual operating budget is about 1.5 million dollars. Based on the outreach projects they invest in each year, my estimate is that about 2% of their resources actually “reach the person in need.”

Yeah – two percent. (If I’m wrong, then maybe it’s either one or three percent.) 98% of the resources go into facilities and salaries . . . and some into overseas travel for the missional teams that bring the shoes, the mosquito nets, etc., to the field. I don’t think I need to expand on this point further. The emergents (and most of the evangelicals) trumpet the help-the-poor message loudly and then suck up all the money themselves. I (very politely) asked one of the leaders (on staff) how they reconciled the balance. He couldn’t answer, except to eventually mutter something about how they hoped they “could do more” in the future regarding getting resources to the field.

The emergents have transformed the everlasting Gospel of salvation . . . salvation from the power and penalty of sin and bought with the shed blood of the Son of God . . . into a small thing, a modern “gospel” of refurbishing homes, cleaning local public school yards, weeding community gardens, landscaping for widows, repairing plumbing, and painting houses . . . these are some of the 82 projects The Grove has launched in recent times. Hey, go ahead and paint that widow’s house! Just make sure she knows what she must do to be saved!! How can you claim to care and not go that one last yard?

We were there for a sermon Palmer preached on Isaiah 53. You would think this would be a great passage to make salvation clear, but he camped only on verses 4, 5, and 6 and made a very “modern” application. He used an object lesson, inspired by Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, in which a backpack full of rocks is laid at the foot of a cross. So far so good. But the emphasis was on the shame and the guilt of sin – the bad feelings that we might carry around. The presumption was that the auditorium was filled with believers, but that many had, perhaps, one particular burden of guilt to be laid aside. The big problem to be solved was the feeling of guilt. The ideas of sin, wickedness, offending God, and condemnation were not explicit at all.

One of the study questions for small group discussion coming out of this sermon went like this:

”When we truly want to be free, what is it that causes us to pick back up the ‘rocks / weight’ of sin and put them back in our backpacks? How can we get past feeling like we can’t really be free?”

So it’s all about feelings. But guilt is a good thing! It’s like the pain when you touch a hot stove. The pain says, “Don’t do that!” Guilt is the sign of a healthy conscience, useful in provoking repentance (2 Cor 7:10). If you focus on avoiding or getting rid of the bad feelings from guilt, without repenting from the sin itself, you are in danger of hardening your conscience and your heart.

From the book . . . ”The gospel, then, is this: God’s kingdom has come to a broken world, and God is reshaping the world with the help of his people.” I don’t know for sure whether The Grove is postmillennial in its eschatology, but I would suppose so. Clearly, they see that it’s our job to fix the world physically, politically, economically, medically, and educationally before Jesus comes back. This is in stark contrast to a pre-trib rapture position in which God’s saints will be pulled off an increasingly corrupt and apostate Earth before a 7-year tribulation hits. As a pre-trib fellow myself, I take the same view that D. L. Moody took: God gave me a lifeboat (the Gospel message) and so I work to save anyone I can . . . but the ship is going down!

From a pre-trib perspective I am for helping anyone I can, but especially to share the Gospel of salvation with him, hopefully bringing him into the family of God, and making him a lifelong friend and co-laborer in reaching out to others. It is clear that the emergents get completely focused on the temporal and grossly neglect the eternal. Multitudes join their “churches,” engage in various social projects, and go to Hell without a warning.

The emergent must warp Scripture continually. In addition to Isaiah 53 conveying a means to feel more comfortable about sin, the feeding of the 5,000 becomes the main point of John 6, rather than the message that Jesus is the Bread of Life. The only “hell” ever described is the “hell on Earth” of poverty and disease. The Grove put on a huge outdoor banquet, inviting everyone they could to come and partake. The inspiration was the parable of the great supper in Luke 14. The church’s objective was to provide meals. But Jesus’ objective in the parable was to motivate His followers to bring the lost to salvation. Emergents open the Bible and make it so small.

The Kingdom of God must be “made tangible,” as Palmer writes, and so is relegated to what we can do on this Earth right now with 2% of the total charitable giving . . . charitable giving which amounts to typically far less than 10% of members’ income. (Most church members don’t tithe.) I’ll assume 500 ‘family giving units’ at The Grove, giving an (optimistic) 3% of income on average . . . and an average income of $100,000. (Southeast Chandler is quite upper middle class.) So since the average church family gives about $3000 per year on an income of maybe $100,000, and 2% of that $1,000 gets to the field, then approximately six-hundredths of one percent of income gets to the actual need. Impressive!

Additional inferences and extrapolations . . . Evangelicalism, including its rapid embrace of emergent philosophy, is still coasting on an old fundamentalist heritage. Much of the financial support comes from older evangelicals who actually believe the Bible and such necessities as repentance, faith, and the new birth. When they hear emergent preaching, they interpret words like “Gospel,” “salvation,” “Hell,” etc., in historic terms. This keeps them comfortable as they “rock” along with the worship team. They may also enjoy the “new applications” preached about kingdom building – now! – through charitable projects. But the young people don’t have any basic Bible knowledge. The new “social gospel” is all they hear. No one around them ever challenges them or anyone else to repent and be saved, and so they never get the impression that Christianity has anything to do with spiritual warfare, a final Judgment, and the Great Commission. Discipleship is nonexistent because no one studies the Bible for themselves. If they do, emergents will use perversions like “The Message,” which will simply reflects the New Age culture we live in.

Here are some more quotes:

”I’ve been wondering why all the palaver lately about hell in the afterlife when hell already rages on planet earth.”

“The problem is, if we make hell in the afterlife, the only demon we can remain anesthetized to is the hell right here, right now.”

“Yes, I believe in a real heaven and a real hell after we die, but Jesus’ point in the story (Luke 16) is that the most religious people often miss the fact that there is a hell burning on earth.”

“When we spend more time talking about the hell after we die and ignore the hell of six-year-old girls in Thailand being sold for sex, hell wins – and heaven loses.”

He pays lip service to Hell and Heaven in the afterlife, but just in zipping by toward the more pressing temporal issues. And so both Hell and Heaven are reduced to the problems and opportunities of earthly life. No, Palmer, the real Hell is far worse than anything on this Earth. And the real Heaven – and the New Heaven and New Earth – far more wonderful. You want to rescue girls from slavery and feed a starving child? Yes, go do that! But you don’t care about a far greater danger – Hell – and don’t care enough about offering them the inheritance of Heaven for eternity? Your compassion is small stuff.

If you read the book for yourself, you’ll see lots of left-wing political causes, like unilateral disarmament and radical environmentalism. I’ll mention a couple of his environmental points. He advocates turning the church thermostat down in winter and up in the summer. He also encourages Christ-followers to “set the conservation standard,” by making our towns famous for bike trails . . . “even biking to church.”

I would go much further. Don’t build $3 million auditoriums that are used just a few hours per week . . . in competition with other evangelical megachurches right down the road! And if you actually follow the New Testament method – God’s plan for His churches – you won’t need auditoriums at all. A city-wide house church network would certainly reduce driving time and distance and make walking or biking to church practical!

How can the emerging evangelicals get it all so wrong? Palmer writes of his own experiences . . . he “prayed the prayer” to “accept Christ” at age six. In the years to follow, especially under Heaven vs. Hell preaching, he “asked God into my heart another ten times.” From his own testimony it is clear that he doesn’t understand the basis of conversion. Like most evangelicals the leadership at The Grove sees anyone as a born again Christian who has “prayed the prayer,” and merely professes some facts about Jesus as Savior. Thus sermons are delivered with no concern about the lost condition of any visiting Catholics or Mormons or skeptics. Such a misunderstanding reflects corrupt knowledge of the Scriptures and the absence of a conscience indwelt by the Holy Spirit. The blind lead the blind. If the rapture hits during a Sunday morning service, no one will notice. The show will go on.

My encouragement for the true believer who is willing to face up to the evangelical disaster is this: Don’t assume that your evangelical friends and relatives are actually born again. Do they manifest the fruit of the Spirit? Do they love the world or do they love God? Do they care about lost souls? Can they discern between lost and saved when the evidence is crystal clear? Can they and do they share the Gospel in a Biblical and compassionate manner? If not, they need to meet the Savior for themselves. If you’re wrong and they are actually born again, but cold and apparently lifeless, then they need such a challenge anyway. Care about them enough to try.

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