Popular Christianity

Popular Christianity

A Biblical Perspective on "Spiritual Trends"

by Leslie Ludy | June 1, 2018

When the Church and the world can jog comfortably together, you may be sure there is something wrong.  The world has not altered.  Its spirit is exactly the same as it ever was, and if Christians were equally faithful and devoted to the Lord, and separated from the World, living so that their lives were a reproof to all ungodliness, the world would hate them as much as it ever did.
— Catherine Booth

On a foggy February day in London, 1905, an American evangelist named R.A. Torrey took an audacious step of faith.  He signed an agreement to rent the 11,000-seat Royal Albert Hall — the largest public venue in the city — for a series of revival meetings.  Torrey didn’t just rent the hall for one or two nights, but for two full months — a length of time that was completely unheard of!

The proprietor, as well as several local newspaper reporters, were incredulous. “Even the most famous opera singers and circus acts can’t fill this hall for more than a few nights,” they told him.  “How do you expect to fill it for two whole months?  Don’t you know what an embarrassment it will be if it sits empty night after night?”

Christian leaders heard of Torrey’s decision and added their doubtful sentiments. “Maybe you should hire some secular performers in order to draw a crowd,” they suggested. “Simply preaching the Gospel without any entertainment can’t possibly fill this hall with people for one night, let alone for two months!”

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But R.A. Torrey was undeterred. He responded to the dubious onlookers with Jesus’ words, “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to myself” (Jn. 12:32). He was confident that lifting high the name of Jesus — without any bells and whistles — would draw thousands of people to hear the undiluted truth of the Gospel.  Torrey and his colleagues prayed faithfully as they prepared for their revival meetings in the Royal Albert Hall.  They stood firmly in their belief that the Gospel of Christ needed no secular prop-ups in order to draw a crowd and influence hearts.

The London newspapers watched eagerly to see whether Torrey’s predictions would be correct, or whether the confident evangelist’s plan would miserably fail.

On the night of the first revival meeting it was pouring rain.  Surely, the doubters reasoned, this would discourage anyone from venturing out, and Torrey’s first meeting would be sparsely attended. 

But to everyone’s astonishment, the hall quickly filled to capacity — 11,000 people — with another several thousand people standing outside in the rain, waiting for the second service to begin.  As the meeting began, Christian and secular leaders alike were dismayed to realize that Torrey truly meant what he said about the Gospel needing no bells and whistles to prop it up.  There was no entertainment, no hype of any kind.  Just a plain-spoken speaker who shared the message of Christ without fanfare.

And yet, the response was amazing.  Thousands of people wept and repented of their sins.  Others freshly dedicated their lives to Jesus Christ in true consecration.  Though the presentation was simple, and even unimpressive by human standards, the result was supernatural. The powerful revival continued for a full two months, and each night the hall was filled to overflowing, with another crowd waiting outside — often in the rain — to get in to the second service.  It was estimated that over 17,000 people publicly gave their lives to Christ during those meetings — and thousands more heard the words of truth for the first time.

All because one man was bold enough to stake everything on the simple, life-changing power of the Gospel.

Where are the Torreys of Today?

Not long ago I received an email with the subject line “Top Trends in Orphan Ministry.”  The next day, there was another unrelated email in my inbox with the title “New Trends in Modern Missions.”  Both emails were from respected Christian organizations.  As I skimmed them, I recognized that they were both attempting to offer solutions to the question:  “How can we make Christianity more appealing, popular, and culturally relevant?”  The emails shared many new and innovative ways that Christians were attempting to reach the world with the Gospel.  However, most of these ministry trends were inspired by secular fads and pop-psychology.  

For example, one major trend in modern missions goes something like this: Preaching is out — low-pressure, conversational dialogues are in!  Sure, God may have said that He was pleased “through the foolishness of preaching to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21), but that was for a different era.  That approach simply doesn’t work anymore.  We need to look at what works in modern society, and adapt the Gospel accordingly. 

As Christian values become more and more socially distasteful in our culture, the pressure to “give Christianity a makeover” is growing by the day.  Believers like R.A. Torrey are rare indeed — those who are not ashamed of the Gospel and believe that the truth of Jesus Christ does not need cultural trends to prop it up.

In today’s socially-driven world, we, as believers, are far more drawn to “popular Christianity.” The idea is simple.  Look at the ideas and methods that are trending in the culture, and adapt those trends into our churches, our beliefs, and our spiritual lives.  That way, we can be appealing to the world and still maintain our Christianity.  When we adapt a “popular Christianity” mindset, we don’t need to be ashamed of what we believe anymore because it’s socially approved and in stride with the whims of the culture.

Trendy Spiritual Beliefs

It’s one thing to “get out of the 80s” when it comes to your home decor, or to update your hairstyle and wardrobe to reflect a more modern style (as long as you can still reflect Christ while doing so).  However, if you allow modern trends to influence your spiritual beliefs, you will quickly find yourself on a very slippery slope.

Maybe you’ve noticed or been influenced by the “spiritual trends” that have been creeping into the Christian world; secular fads that have been adopted and spiritualized by modern believers.  Here are just a handful of examples:

Trendy Evangelism: Don’t be too aggressive in sharing your faith, don’t act like you have all the answers, and don’t make anyone feel badly about their sin.  Instead, engage in philosophical conversations where no one is right or wrong, but everyone can feel heard and understood.  

The Result:  A church that is impotent in boldly sharing their faith and winning souls for Christ, while unbelievers remain comfortable and un-convicted over their sin.

Trendy Worship: Don’t rely on simple, pure-hearted worship for church services and Christian gatherings. Instead, crank up the volume to deafening levels, put on an impressive show, and be sure to throw in a few popular secular songs for good measure. 

The Result:  A church that expects to be entertained instead of drawn into the holy presence of God — and maybe some long-term hearing loss as an added bonus.

Trendy Women’s Ministry: Don’t inhibit a woman from being whatever she wants, whenever she wants!  Jesus was a feminist, and if you are a progressive Christian, you’ll be one too!

The Result:  Christian women who are looking to the culture to define what real femininity is instead of to the One who created femininity in the first place.

Trendy Christian Relationships: Don’t be guarded and discreet with what you share — the more “raw and real” the better!  If you don’t express every negative thought or emotion you feel, you aren’t being authentic.

The Result:  Christians who exalt their emotional baggage under the banner of “honesty” and have forgotten how to be honorable or reverent in their communication.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Many of these spiritual trends in the church today are blended with just enough truth to make them confusing.  For example, there is a healthy balance between boldly sharing your faith and simply taking time to listen and converse with an unbeliever.  The problem is that many of us look at what is acceptable in the culture and then adapt our Christian beliefs accordingly.  It is not acceptable in today’s world to be strong in what you believe — it’s far more popular to take the “no one is right, we all have equally valid perspectives” approach.  And when that kind of thinking creeps into our evangelism methods, our ability to win souls for Christ falls apart.

If you’ve ever wondered why Christianity today often seems powerless or mediocre, it’s because Christianity and worldly thinking simply cannot mix.  And when Christians try to blend popular secular ideas into their faith, the church becomes little more than a spiritually-glossed-over social club.

Responding to Social Pressure

I believe there are two reasons that we, as believers, often fall for trendy revisions of God’s truth such as these.

The first and primary reason is because of social pressure. Once upon a time, it was normal and acceptable for the general public to live according to basic Christian values. But now, you can’t even pick up an IKEA catalog or walk into a Target store without seeing the opposite values being celebrated.  

In order to align our lives and our beliefs with God’s truth, we must make a decision to be set apart from the culture, even at the risk of being socially unacceptable.  This doesn’t mean we need to be rude or insensitive to those with different values than ours.  But it does mean we have to be willing to swim against the tide and not be swayed by popular opinion.  It means we need to build our lives according to God’s pattern, instead of trying to blend God’s pattern with pop-culture’s values.  As Christians, we should be the ones influencing the culture with truth — not the other way around.  Just like R.A. Torrey, we must be willing to let the Gospel stand on its own two feet rather than attempting to cloak it with worldly ideas.  

A few years ago I spoke at a women’s event on set-apartness, and many of the women were deeply stirred by the message of “coming away” from worldliness and being consecrated to Christ. But one of the leaders was uncomfortable. “What you are sharing is too extreme,” she told me during one of the breaks. “We teach women that in order to become the fragrance of Christ they cannot be fortressed in from the world. They must become part of the culture in order to reach it.”

But Jesus said something quite different: “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (Jn. 15:18-19). And, “Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for so did their fathers to the false prophets” (Luk. 6:26). 

Never forget — true Christianity will influence the world, but it will never be applauded by the world.  If you are trying to win the favor of the world in how you live, what you post online, and what you support, you cannot be a reflection of Jesus Christ.  When all is said and done, it will become clear that the world has had far more influence on you than you have had upon the world.

I encourage you to look at each area of your life, and ask God to show you whether you have allowed secular fads to influence what you believe and what you promote.  Are you falling into the trap of popular Christianity?  Are you blending trendy worldly thinking into your Christian beliefs?  

The social pressure to compromise or soften our stand for truth is growing by the day.  We can’t be passive and wishy-washy in such a time as this.  Now is the time to make a clear decision as to where our true loyalties lie.  Are you siding with the “god” of our culture’s invention — one who is soft toward sin, is always socially acceptable, and is never offensive to the world?  Or are you standing with the God of the Bible who is the same yesterday, today, and forever?

What Will Really Impact the World

Another key reason that we are prone to falling for “trendy thinking” in our Christian lives is because we are often duped into believing it will help us be a better witness for Christ.  I once heard someone say that Christians often act like God is a little old lady who needs help crossing the street.

There can be such a temptation to “help God out” by toning down the social awkwardness of what the Bible says.  We often feel we have to apologize for His truth, instead of giving our lives to defend it.

Many churches and Christian organizations assume that we are not influencing the world for Christ because we aren’t enough like the culture. So they hire marketing companies or study pop-culture fads in order to help the church become more culturally relevant. 

But the world isn’t rejecting Christianity because we aren’t enough like the culture. Rather, it’s because we are too much like it.  All too often, there is nothing different about our lives, nothing that proves we have found something bigger to live for than temporary pleasure, and certainly nothing that says we have found something worth dying for. We are sheepish about what we believe and pining after the approval of the world, trying to prove that we are in touch with the culture, trendy, and en vogue — just like everyone else. Why should they want what we have when our lives are no different from theirs, except for a few moral boundaries here and there?

It won’t be ear-deafening concerts, hip coffee bars in our church lobbies, or trendy blogs that blend Christianity with secular ideas that will draw non-believers to Christ. It won’t be the example of lukewarm believers trying to “be in touch with the culture” and somehow making Christianity trendy and popular. Non-believers will only be drawn when they see something real, something powerful, something far beyond what pop-culture could ever hope to offer. 

R.A. Torrey proved Christ’s words true: “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself” (Jn. 12:32). When Jesus Christ and His Cross are truly lifted up among us, our numbers will increase exponentially without us needing to imitate the world in order to get them there. (See Acts 2:47.)

When we stop being enamored by the world and start being captivated by our King, the world will stand back in wonder. Yes, non-believers may mock and revile us, but in the end they will be unable to deny the unshakable, unstoppable power of true Christianity, and they will be forever changed by what they see in our lives.

Coming Away from Trendy Thinking

If you have been confused or influenced by the popular Christian trends that seem to be everywhere today, I encourage you to get back to the timeless, unchanging truth of God’s Word. Instead of reading trendy blogs and applauding every popular hashtag on social media, get back to the Bible. Make it your lifeline. Learn how to explore God’s Word and study it in an in-depth way.*

Turn down the noise of the culture.  Quiet the clamor of the Internet, social media, texts, and tweets. Set aside secular magazines and books and movies and reality TV shows.  Then, tune in to God’s still small voice.  Spend time in His presence.  Ask Him to speak truth to your heart.  Don’t base your beliefs on how you feel, but upon what He says in His Holy Word.

Take some time to study the lives of men and women throughout Christian history who walked the “old paths” of simple, uncomplicated, powerful Christianity; men like Hudson Taylor, George Müller, D.L. Moody, R.A. Torrey, C.T. Studd, and Jim Elliot — and women like Catherine Booth, Elizabeth Fry, Amy Carmichael, Esther Ahn Kim, Corrie ten Boom, and Gladys Aylward. Their examples will inspire you toward one singular aim in your Christian walk: not to be culturally relevant or socially acceptable, but simply to love and honor your worthy King.

As R.A. Torrey reminds us, when Christ is lifted high, the world is turned upside down. And that same principle applies to our individual lives as well.

For some additional encouragement, there are two movies being released in 2018 that have had a huge impact on Eric, myself, and our entire church in freshly resolving to take an uncompromising stand for truth, no matter the cost.  The first is called The Fool by Ray Comfort and Living Waters.  And the second is Tortured for Christ by Voice of the Martyrs. Each of these films will challenge you to come away from popular, comfortable, secularized Christianity and choose this day whom you will serve! (See Joshua 24:15.) 

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Voice of the Martyrs tells a powerful true story that took place in a persecuted nation, when a group of young believers was confronted by angry law officials. They rounded up all the Christians, and one by one they pointed a gun to each person’s head, threatening to kill him or her unless the person spit on the Bible. With heavy hearts, each member of the group took turns spitting on the cover of the Bible in order to preserve their lives. But one 16-year-old girl, with tears streaming down her face, tenderly wiped the spittle from the Bible with the corner of her dress. A few seconds later, she was dead.  

Throughout history, men and women have given up their lives to protect the unchanging truth of the Gospel.  In this day and age where “truth is fallen in the street” (Is. 59:14) God is looking for courageous, set apart Christians who are willing to wipe the spit from His precious Word and to stand for Him no matter what it may cost them. Will you and I be counted among them?