The Chronicles of a Christian Unplugging
by Chris Carmichael
We realized something was terribly wrong here, and our hearts dropped. Familiar feelings of dread swept over my wife and me, and we looked at each other, knowingly.
We had felt these feelings before, two years earlier, when my wife and I knew we had to leave our first church. We had been active members of a Mormon sect called the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS) church that founded its teachings on the false revelations of Joseph Smith and his counterfeit creation, The Book of Mormon. Through the grace of God, however, my wife and I left that false religion after diligently studying the Bible and discovering the truth of the pure gospel of Jesus Christ, outside of the lies of the RLDS canon of teachings.
It wasn't an easy thing to do, to leave the RLDS church; Sheri had grown up in the church her whole life, and her family was still actively involved in it. Yet we knew, by God's word and the leading of the Spirit, that it was full of falsehood and deceit that twisted the true Gospel and nullified the sovereign grace of God. So we left, even though it pained us emotionally.
Now, as we watched "theologian/actor" Tom Hanks set up our pastor's sermon theme for the day, that emotional pain we thought we had buried two years earlier by finding a new church home was returning to us. We thought we had joined a biblically-based church, but this latest worship activity was not biblically or spiritually sound. It wasn't worship anymore; it was entertainment. We knew right then, I think, that we would probably be leaving this church, too.
Of course, this wasn't the first and only incident that had disturbed us. We had been seeing warning signs the last six months or so. At the time, we didn't know it was a slow, systematic introduction of Church Growth principles into the church, but we certainly knew it didn't "jive" with Scripture.
Looking back, we thank God that He forced us to rely on His Word to lead us out of the RLDS church, because the residual effect of that experience was that we had learned to completely ground all our faith, actions and discernment on the authority and more importantly, the sufficiency of Scripture. Through the unyielding lense of sola Scriptura, then, we could clearly see that the recent events at our church were rife with doctrinal problems.
And that is what made us so "dangerous" to those who were carefully implementing the church's new wayward growth strategy towards seeker-sensitivity and consumer marketing techniques: we were going to ask them to support their position solely from Scripture.
Before "Apollo 13" ever appeared in our church's worship service, my wife and I had seen many warning signs that our church was quickly implementing the "seeker-sensitive" model to attract larger attendance, but we were slow to discern the error. Looking back on that time, we are very sorry that we were so intimately involved in some of this unbiblical activity. As part of the leadership of the church, we personally implemented some of the Willow Creek/Saddleback strategies to help "grow" our church. After all, isn't evangelism what the church is primarily for? Didn't we desperately want to bring more souls to Jesus?
The last six months of our attendance, however, showed us that all this pragmatic evangelism was all about numbers, and had little to do with maintaining biblical integrity or proclaiming the gospel. As with most Willow Creek-type churches, we were in the midst of a building campaign to raise enough money to build a bigger facility. During this time, the pulpit was constantly being used during Sunday morning worship to drum up financial support for the new building. Sad to say, my wife and I also were involved in this. As co-directors of the building campaign, Sheri and I were asked to speak to the congregation during (believe it or not) Easter Sunday services. Our responsibility was to explain how everyone in the congregation could budget their money better so they could make a bigger pledge to the campaign. On an Easter morning when our Christian fellowship should be remembering Christ alone, His finished work on the cross, and His triumphant resurrection, here we were telling people not to eat out so much so they could save more money to give to the church project. To this day, we are ashamed of what we did. The sad thing is we knew deep inside at the time that it was inappropriate to mingle a fundraising "infomercial" with worship, and yet we thought it was for the good of the church.
That, of course, is the problem with the pragmatism of the Church Growth Movement: the end justifies the means. Who cares what biblical principle we trample on if it gets more people in the church? This was the reason our church produced a video where Noah and Samson were portrayed as humorous buffoons in a skit to promote the pastor's next sermon series. This was why the official wording of our communion policy, which excluded nonbelievers from partaking, was suddenly changed to more "user-friendly" language that was ambivalent enough to make it sound like nonbelievers could participate. This pragmatism also made it easier for the church to happily accept that some longtime members would eventually leave the church because of the changes that were being made. Ultimately, the church leadership didn't care what they did as long as it brought in more people down the road.
During this time, I was asked by leadership to contribute some visual art to be projected on the overhead screen during the sermon. Knowing that I was a cartoonist, they wanted me to draw a cartoon of John the Baptist to be displayed during the pastor's message, "John the Baptist: Fulfilling God's Call." In a letter to me, the Creative Arts leader invited me to contribute this cartoon because "John was such a flamboyant, weird character, we could just see a great funny drawing of him." Of course, I declined. How the congregation would be edified by portraying John as a "weird" cartoon character, I will never know. But this is pragmatic thinking at its best: people love cartoons, so let's use cartoons to amuse the congregation. Who cares if it denigrates one of God's great servants?
The final straw for me came while I was in charge of the church's advertising and promotion team. One of my leadership duties during that time was to create a questionnaire to send out to the membership to find out what their "unchurched" neighbors were like. The survey was designed to define a target audience for the church to attract. What are their interests? What kind of music do they like? What about church do they hate? Obviously, the church was looking at how they could change in a way that would be more appealing to the world around them. I instantly saw tremendous problems with this approach: the church leadership now saw the "unchurched" as sovereign, instead of the gospel message.
In the end, the survey was a total waste of time. Very few questionnaires were returned, and the ones that were returned made one thing very clear to me: it doesn't matter what unchurched people like or dislike: they need to hear the gospel, plain and simple. A church can appeal to their worldly interests all they want, but if the unchurched don't see their sinfulness and their need for Christ, then the church cannot help them by fulfilling their worldly wants. In fact, the danger is that this approach will make the unchurched enjoy a worldly church without truly converting them.
It wasn't long after this that it dawned on me that all these "seeker-sensitive" innovations were coming into the church because of our recent association with CGM churches like Willow Creek and Saddleback. In fact, after some investigation I realized that official Willow Creek and Saddleback materials, instead of the Bible, were being prominently used to change the biblical dynamics of our church. We had borrowed ideas from Saddleback on how to conduct a successful building campaign; we had borrowed creative worship ideas from another CGM church in Texas to interest nonbelievers. And with our membership to the Willow Creek Association, we were becoming more and more like a Willow Creek church, complete with drama, rock band, and audio/visual presentations to appeal to the masses. Even our leadership was being encouraged to take seminars at Willow Creek to learn how to implement all these CGM ideas.
Realizing that the philosophy behind these contemporary church innovations was biblically flawed, I began to do research on Willow Creek and the Church Growth Movement, and what I found out made me sick. I truly believed that if the overseers of the church knew the inside scoop about the unscriptural foundation of the CGM philosophy, they would want to disassociate with Willow Creek immediately. But alas, this did not happen. I prepared several papers with relevant information about some of my specific concerns for a subcommittee of overseers to study. Their basic conclusion was that my facts were prejudiced by a theological bias that was not held by the church. Specifically, they said that most critics of Willow Creek and the CGM were Calvinists, and that their church was primarily Arminian. Therefore, they simply rejected the criticism on those grounds alone.
The problem is that I never couched my argument in terms of Calvinist theology vs. Arminian theology. All I did was point them to the Bible. The Bible, I said, should be our guide, not Willow Creek. I showed them verse after verse of scripture that plainly condemned some the practices they were starting to implement through their association with Willow Creek, and I asked them for an explanation. Needless to say, not once did the overseers ever defend their Willow Creek methods with a sincere examination of Scripture. I wish they had; I would have loved to hear them.
As I wrote at the end of my Willow Creek report to the overseers:
"I stand by my conviction that God’s Word is wholly sufficient to guide His people in ALL things (2 Timothy 3:16), and until I am shown compelling Biblical evidence to the contrary, I will diligently contend for the faith and be wary of any outside worldly influence upon (our church). It is my fervent hope that the leadership of (our church) comes to the same conclusion and deems our official Willow Creek association to be wholly unnecessary and ultimately, a drawback to the proper edification of our membership."
Ultimately, my family and I left this church and were led by God to join a small congregation at Heritage Baptist Church. At Heritage, I have found a Christian fellowship founded on the sovereignty of God and the sufficiency of Scripture, and unscathed by modern philosophy and worldly wisdom. As the old hymn goes, we rest our hope on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness.
I thank God for leading me and my family out of the error of the Church Growth Movement. I pray that the testimony and documentation of my past experiences might be edifying to those who find themselves in similar circumstances. For a more detailed investigation into my experiences, please read my other reports found on this website.