Let Your Faith Build Up the Church
by Chuck DeVane, Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
CHAPTER TWO: THE GANTRIFICATION OF THE GOSPEL
Elmer Gantry is a work of fiction created by author Sinclair Lewis and portrayed on the silver screen by the great actor Burt Lancaster. Though the novel was published in the 1920’s and the film was released in the 1960’s, I did not meet Elmer myself until I watched the movie in the 1990’s. I recognized him immediately.
Though Gantry is a character of imagination, he is also an amalgamation of a number of actual persons and means through which the church can destroy your faith. He and some of the other characters in the story are the poster children of ineffectual revivalism, superficial evangelism, and blatant hypocrisy. I have met them many times in the church, including the first church I ever joined.
I mentioned in the first chapter how silence almost destroyed my faith before I ever found it. It is true that after my grandmother died when I was ten, no one in my family talked to me about Jesus nor encouraged me to attend church services for the next ten years. But another family butted in. I’m glad they did and I wish they hadn’t.
The first church I joined was an assembly line of buildings, buses, and baptisms. The pastor was a big, charismatic fellow. He had a big handshake, big hair, big teeth, and he sure could holler and sweat. What he lacked in education, he made up for in ambition. He had the church paint his only sermon on buses, “Hell’s Hot, Heaven’s Sweet, and Jesus Saves,” and sent out an army of so-called soul-winners.
I was picked up one summer by the buses and one of the families of this church. By the end of those dog days, not wanting to find out how hot Hell really is, I was cooled by the waters of baptism. If you’ve ever seen the scene where Delmar and Pete are baptized in O Brother, Where Art Thou, that was me at age thirteen, wet and dumber than a bag of hammers.
That year I was one of over a hundred people baptized by this relatively small church. That’s probably as much dunking in a year as Michael Jordan in his prime. I still didn’t know anything about repentance, the gospel, or the Christian life, but I sure had a peaceful, easy feeling once the pressure was off.
The pressure was something created by the pastor that you could palpably feel at the end of every service in this church. He would stand in the front, the people would sing about Jesus wringing His hands and waiting for you to come forward, and by God he’d stand there and they’d sing until someone did. The only way to escape the heat of Hell was to slide down the aisle during this so-called invitation, take the sweaty preacher by the hand, and ask Jesus into your heart.
I fought the good fight for a couple of months until I just couldn’t take the pressure anymore. The man whose family I attended with tried to help me before one of the services. He was a good man at heart, and shared with me what he had learned in the church. He told me I was a sinner, and I could not disagree, even though I didn’t feel too bad about it. He said if I would repeat a prayer, Jesus would come into my heart. My heart was filled with sadness over my parent’s divorce, anxiety over being a teenager, and grief over being an Atlanta sports fan, so I figured my heart wouldn’t be any worse the wear if Jesus came in.
So, I took their advice, the good man and the sweaty preacher. I walked the aisle and prayed the prayer on a Wednesday evening, and without any further instruction was baptized the following Sunday morning. I remained in the church for a few more months, mostly to enjoy fellowship with teenage girls, then dropped out when the family that brought me moved away. The good man who made the good faith effort to bring me to Christ eventually became a pastor himself, and I think he tried to be a good one. I ran into him thirty years after that fateful summer, and yes, the church had just about destroyed his faith, too.
My faith at the time, like the church I joined, was completely superficial. I did not repent, for my propensity to sin only grew more sophisticated. I did not believe, because I did not know exactly what to believe in, nor had I enough time to see someone genuinely model what it means to believe. I was just a dunked drop-out, like millions more in the world’s largest Protestant denomination to which I became a mere statistic.
Over the next several years, other friends and even strangers would occasionally approach me with the gospel. They would try to explain repentance, seem to model a genuine faith, but they were offering me something I felt I did not need. I had already been inoculated. The church I had joined at thirteen told me I was saved because I walked the aisle and prayed the prayer and was baptized. They wrote the date down for me and told me to never doubt it. “Once saved always saved,” they said, completely ignorant of the more sound doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. Though I soon quit attending worship, never read the Bible, only prayed when I wanted something, and developed the sexual morals of a pack of dogs, I was a Christian, dammit, so leave me alone.
Once again, if I had died during those early years, I fear I would have found out the real temperature of Hell. I would have only myself and my sin to blame. But the church, at least the kind of church I’ve described, sure did not help. As a matter of fact they hurt, a lot of people. For the second time in my life, the church had tried to destroy my faith, before I ever found it, this time by giving me a counterfeit copy.
This “Gantrification” of the church seemed to be the rule, not the exception, in my denomination and other evangelical circles in the twentieth century. At the beginning of the century, none of our churches would have employed such a worship order closed by some so-called invitation system. By the end of the century, you were considered a heretic if you did not. It is almost as if they took a page from Elmer Gantry and ran with it. Worship services turned into tent revivals. Uneducated clergy bullied from pulpits and bullied people, especially young people, into making “decisions.” Evangelism was reduced to a five-minute sales pitch that had to be closed at the end. Discipleship didn’t exist.
I got sucked into this vacuum before I ever became a Christian, and it almost kept me from coming to Christ. Even after my real conversion and into my early years as a pastor, this model was reinforced and difficult to break. The system of making decisions rather than disciples had become institutionalized and was principally responsible for the large number of inactive, unregenerate members in our churches. As a pastor, I found these people to be the hardest to reach, since they, too, had been inoculated with the “Gantrified” gospel. Even their relatives who attended regularly became disgruntled and offended when the real gospel was preached, for if it was true, their children’s conversions were not.
As the years progressed some principles dawned on me that need to be recaptured in order to keep the church from destroying people’s faith. The church needs to have a wholesale return to public worship as a sacred experience between God and His people, not some evangelistic crusade or seeker-sensitive service for lost people. We must insist on higher standards for pastors and preachers in our churches. Furthermore, we must abolish these quickie evangelistic methods and pressure tactics and simply trust in the word of God and the Spirit of God to seek conversions.
From my first encounter with church until through my first seminary experience, it was pointed out to me that the focal point of any worship service was the “invitation,” the end of the service when people walked the aisle to get saved. Pastors and churches were ranked by counting the number of people who came forward. The songs could spout heresy and the sermon could be from the Book of Mormon, but if someone “made a decision for Christ” it was a good service. Contrarily, you could follow the regulative principle to a tee and have no one “join the church” that day and be a complete failure in the eyes of your peers. I was once even fired by a church (yes, another church that tried to destroy my faith which I will talk about in another chapter), even thought we had experienced four years of good development and growth, principally because I refused to offer such a pressure-packed invitation at the end of our services.
Heaven help us. Worship should be a touch of Heaven experienced on earth through the interaction of God and His people. Prayers, songs, and offerings should be given by God’s people to God. Pastors should preach God’s word to God’s people to equip them to better love and serve God, one another, and others. The regular observance of Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper and the happy occasions for baptism should picture the gospel in such a way that Christians can commemorate and celebrate. Non-Christians should not be pampered nor picked on in any way, but simply welcomed and loved. When lost people see God’s people experiencing God through word and sacrament, God’s Spirit can bring them to repentance and faith, without any other kind of pressure from us. This is the way it should be.
Pastors have the responsibility to make it so. But most pastors are simply not equipped. The “Gantryesque” figure that I met in my first church had absolutely no theological education or training before becoming a pastor. He eventually drifted off into the laughing revival movement, no joke. When I returned to that church years later, the new pastor had no education, either, and virtually no books in his office. I found out later that he was plagiarizing all of his sermons.
These men were not heretics, per se, and in spite of their ignorance there were some good things and genuine conversions which occurred in the church. They were simply part of a generation that put feelings over facts, personality over substance, personal affirmation over corporate accountability, and excitement over spirituality. They were inspired by Charles Finney, who had a legal, not a theological background. They admired evangelists like Billy Sunday, a baseball player turned buffoon preacher, simply because he knew how to draw a crowd. They allowed the fictional Gantry, who in the novel was totally disqualified for ministry yet became a megachurch pastor, become the model in too many churches.
We wouldn’t dare see a doctor who had not passed medical school, couldn’t be represented by a lawyer who had not passed the bar, but we will let any yahoo pass for a pastor who claims some subjective call to preach, if he has enough charisma and guile. I’m not trying to be erudite in regard to Bible college and seminary graduates. Many men, especially in ages past, became great pastors without formal theological education, but not without serious study, mentorship, accountability, and training overseen by their elders. We must demand no less from our pastors today.
What about evangelism, invitations, and the fulfillment of the Great Commission? Soul winning is absolutely important. The church must bear the responsibility, indeed. But, as pointed out in chapter one, Christians must take personal responsibility to share Christ with others — family, friends, colleagues, and oftentimes strangers — then bring them into the church. The church must equip them to do so, following the most excellent example of Jesus Christ. And we must do it without pressure, pedantic programs, and preying on children who are too young to understand life and death, virginity and the virgin birth, and the holistic concepts of repentance and faith.
Consider an evangelistic encounter between the Lord Jesus Christ and a certain scribe found in Scripture. After discussing the word of God and the way of salvation, the scribe responded with interest to some of Jesus’ teaching. Then, much to the chagrin of today’s churchmen and contrary to the close-the-deal method of modern evangelism, this is what happened:
And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34, ESV).
Jesus would have flunked most modern evangelism classes. Even though the Lord had shared the word of God with this scribe, even though Jesus clearly modeled what it meant to be a child of God, even though His mission in life was to bring people to Himself, and even though this scribe seemed eager to enter into Christ’s concept of the kingdom of God, Jesus did not strike up the choir, stand in front of the folks, and invite this scribe to pray some sinner’s prayer and ask Him to come into his heart. Jesus simply shared Himself, shared the word of God, walked away, and left the man to wrestle with the word and Spirit of God.
You cannot find a single, simplistic, cookie-cutter approach to sharing the gospel in the Gospels. Jesus, the supreme evangelist, approached different people in different ways. He never asked a person to walk forward and pray a prayer. “Follow Me,” is the essence of His complete and all-consuming invitation to repent and believe. We would do well to do it Jesus’ way today: model the gospel, make the gospel very plain and totally demanding, then allow people to make decisions for themselves, not with our prodding but by the power of the word and Spirit of God.
I wish the pastor and family that first brought me into church membership had been more patient and wise. I wish they hadn’t tried for force the gospel down my throat. In doing so, they almost destroyed my faith before I ever really found it.
In spite of our ignorance and even through it, God is sovereign and gracious. Some of the Scriptures the good man shared with me, and perhaps a few from my grandmother, lodged themselves in the back of my mind. Bits and pieces of the hymns and sermons I had heard in church during those childhood and adolescence were incubated in my heart and fanned to flame during my college years. After two decades of the church nearly destroying my faith with silence and silliness, the day came when I walked into a church where saving faith was served up plain. Elmer Gantry was no where in sight.
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