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Throughout history, non-Christians have pressured the church to conform to the practices of the culture. In our day, the church in the Western world faces a particular kind of pressure as Western culture moves from centuries of pro-Christian expressions to hostility to biblical viewpoints. While it may seem that the most significant hostility to the church is in areas of morality, we must understand that cultural compromise has come to the core purpose of the church in the world—worship and discipleship. Christians can miss this danger because of the nature of the compromise in this area that the world demands.

Underlying the cultural challenges of our day is a change in technology and how we live. People in the modern world have a mobility that has never been seen before. People can travel great (or short) distances much more quickly and easily than they could in the past. The internet has made information available at the touch of a key. Audio, video, and live connections with people far away from us have changed the way we buy things, learn, and even communicate. All this has exacerbated an already dangerous trend from the twentieth century—consumerism. For the church, this means that people don’t even have to attend corporate worship anymore. It used to be that churches competed with each other within thirty minutes’ driving distance. Today, a church can lose attendees to a live stream from a thousand miles away. Consumerism is a greater pressure than ever for the church.

In the West, the church has responded to cultural consumerism not by challenging it but by pandering to consumers’ preferences. Churches no longer shape worship liturgies in accordance with God’s commands as they are found in the Bible. Even tradition has been jettisoned in favor of a focus on the preferences of potential attendees. Churches do not ask whether worship practices please the Lord or are found in the Bible; the overriding concern is whether they will draw in and retain new attendees. Far too many churches have decided that success is primarily determined by the number of attendees at their services.

Christians have always faced the problem of being influenced by the culture, and the solution remains the same—to stay close to the Lord and to His Word.

Historically, churches have established the elements of worship in accordance with God’s express commands. The center of the worship service was the preached Word, surrounded by readings from Scripture, the singing of praise that was rich in theological content (while allowing for variance in instruments and tunes), and a variety of prayers (adoration, confession, petition, and thanksgiving). Such an approach has been termed the “regulative principle of worship,” and the overarching idea is that God is the One who gets to determine how He is worshiped. The priority of worship is God, not man. But as cultural compromise takes hold, the consumer becomes the focus of attention in worship. Churches strive to make sure that preaching covers subjects that the attendee wants to hear about rather than the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). The change in singing is evident, not so much in the beat or tune but in the content of the lyrics. Entertainment has become a key component in many worship services. The congregation does not actively participate but observes performers on a stage or video clips. In a manner similar to watching Netflix or a movie, the congregation expects to be entertained by their favorite songs or spectacular displays.

A similar pattern can be observed in the discipleship ministries of churches. The historical use of the ordinary means of grace—Word, prayer, and sacrament—has been displaced by programs designed to meet the felt needs of people. After all, the thought goes, if you want people to come to church events, you need to give them what they want. Instead of concentrating on God’s appointed means for believers to grow in grace, churches seek to fill up the week with programs designed to keep people busy. Church programs have become increasingly particular, dividing up the congregation into smaller and smaller slices in order to meet the demands of consumers.

Identifying the ways that modern culture and consumerism have infiltrated the church is only the first step in resisting compromise. If we stop after recognizing the problem, we have failed. The purpose of understanding compromise in the church is to call believers away from trying to adapt to the culture and instead to follow the Lord Jesus Christ and His commands. The first and most important way to resist compromise is to have an emphasis and focus on God. That may sound basic and self-evident, but crucial and foundational elements often do. Worship should be about God and not us because He is the One we are called to worship (e.g., Ex. 34:14; Ps. 95:6; Isa. 66:23; Matt. 4:10). We must remember that when we come to worship, we are coming into the presence of the true and living God (Ps. 100:2). He is the One whom we serve. He is the One we are to please. That should guide every aspect of our worship and will provide a deterrent to seeking our preferences and adopting cultural compromise.

Another way to resist compromise is to strive to be as “Bible-filled” as we can in our worship. By this, I mean that our worship should be saturated with the Bible. The Bible sets the agenda and the content of our worship. This frees us up from having to appease the preferences of the audience.

Finally, our worship and our discipleship must be focused on the gospel. After all, the gospel is what brings us to the Lord in the first place. It is only when we experience the forgiveness of sins through the grace of God that we come into God’s family, the church. As wonderful as the gospel surely is, we must remember that it is not attractive to all “consumers.” Paul reminds us that the gospel and Christian witness is “to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life” (2 Cor. 2:16). Perhaps the best example of this is in John 6, where our Lord preached the gospel to the crowd that had been attracted to Him because He met their felt needs. What was the result? “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (v. 66). We cannot judge our ministry solely by numbers.

As we keep in mind the necessity of resisting compromise with the culture around us, we can be encouraged that this challenge is not unique to our day. Christians have always faced the problem of being influenced by the culture, and the solution remains the same—to stay close to the Lord and to His Word.

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From the June 2023 Issue
Jun 2023 Issue