Novelty and Idolatry

In another very busy stretch, writing has taken a back seat, so here are some “new-to-the-blog” musings from a few years back.

When Paul and Luke first came to Athens, Paul was moved to preach the Gospel there “as he was observing the city full of idols” (Acts 17:16). Luke, almost as an aside, succinctly captures the root problem: “Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new” (17:21). These two reflections go hand-in-glove; the Athenian obsession with novelty fed their idolatry. I fear this same lesson (though often missed) applies today in our popular practices of theology.

What hath Athens to do with today’s Church?

The city Paul and Luke described seems positively stable compared to the pace of change (in fashion, technology, politics, economics, entertainment, morality, etc.) we experience in today’s West. There are few pleasures we savor more than “something new” to “shake things up” and give us a “fresh perspective”. “What have you done for me lately” may as well be our credo; the accumulated wisdom of the ages is uncritically cast off as outmoded and old-fashioned.

As with so many other aspects of our culture, this proclivity seeps into the Church. To be sure, some “new blood” is helpful and necessary—refreshing our passion to reach the nations, shedding inefficiencies in how we manage our resources, etc.—but the temptation to go too far is always at hand. When we are fully caught up in the new-for-the-sake-of-new, it is easy to seek “original insights” into our faith, to discover “new readings” of Scripture, or to find “fresh applications” for God’s standards to life that may or may not reflect His design.

The pressure to continually improve and distinguish one’s methods and message is greatly intensified for all of us in the harried habitat of the information age. Pastors and teachers are not exempted from these “adapt or die” anxieties. Faithfulness to the Gospel, however, demands consistency rather than novelty. The most damning epithet that can be applied to any theology is “innovative” (to paraphrase R. C. Sproul).Paul

Paul greeted the morass of belief in Athens not by giving them yet another new idol, but by boldly proclaiming the ancient and unchanging truth of “the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 3). He pointed the men of Athens back to “the God who made the world and all things in it,” who “does not dwell in temples made with hands” (Acts. 17:24), and in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). In other words, Paul did not share something new, and certainly not of his own invention, but something old in a new place.

In the same way, the Gospel has spread across the globe and is still being carried into myriad hard-to-access corners still in darkness—faithful servants who heard the truth went to new places to speak the blessed old words. For nearly two thousand years this has gone on, the same message taking root in the nooks and crannies of the nations. For most of this time, if preachers heard of the work of others at all, it was by writing or listening to oral reports. There have been “innovators” across the ages, to be sure, but the pressure ran in the direction of orthodoxy and conformity rather than toward self-expression and differentiation.

Now, any given pastor can be influenced by any other (or host of others) through the Internet and mass media*. His congregation likewise no longer is limited to his teaching alone, but has access to thousands upon thousands of sermons from thousands of pastors (orthodox or not) from all over the world. Insofar as this ever-expanding web of influences steers believers to deeper understanding of Scripture and greater commitment to their local body, this is a development to thank God for.

Too often, however, what actually happens is that pastors see this network as competition for their own influence and (in the case of other local pastors with a large media footprint or satellite campuses of megachurches in nearby cities) for keeping their own church’s members. Many of these same members use the high-exposure preachers to critique their own local pastor’s style and substance, and some check out from the local church altogether, relying on screen time to effect a disembodied pseudofellowship that meets their felt needs at the expense of the self-sacrifice and sanctification that church membership demands.

In the face of this, some despair, some hold the line with a watchful eye for the health of their congregations, and many seek to regain footing for their ministry by building their own media “brand” that can establish their sway beyond the walls of their church (and perhaps recall members that previously left, or even pick off a few from the “competition”). Following that route requires breaking through the “noise”—either by being recognized for skill in preaching and teaching or by “innovating” their message.

Therein lies the problem. The solution is plain, but painful to our pride: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

*Recognizing the irony that a) this musing is posted on (gasp) the internet, b) that I indeed hope thereby to minister to those beyond my own local church, and c) that things posted out here in the ether tend to live forever and acquire a life of their own…I feel the need to point out that a) there are many, many fine pastors who are a blessing to many through media ministries undertaken in humility and a spirit of service, b) that I personally benefit tremendously from these men, and c) that name-recognition and broadcast reach do not inherently equal “celebrity” or “influence-peddling”. That is all.

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