Cue the Mission Impossible theme track because John Piper went undercover. Well, not really. No disguises were used. Pastor John, you recently attended a mainline church service here in the Twin Cities. I’m curious, and I’m sure many others are curious, to get a debrief of your experience and what you saw. Tell us about it, and what circumstances led you there in the first place.
Since our church has a Saturday night service and my wife was out of town, I was feeling perhaps especially venturesome a couple of weeks ago and decided to go to our church on Saturday night, and then go to a mainline Protestant church in downtown Minneapolis.
Partly, I went with the goal of education. That is, I wanted to know firsthand what those in the progressive — that’s the word they would use: progressive, inclusive, open — mainline churches actually do in their services.
“The hymn we sang was intended to communicate that there is no uniqueness to Jesus Christ and his way of salvation.”
I also went partly out of curiosity, because Noël and I had visited this church years ago and heard the pastor talk about Jesus walking on the water and feeding the five thousand. He said flat out in the pulpit, “Of course, we know that those are early, childlike, pre-scientific days. We have grown beyond that and understand that what was understood to be miracles once upon a time, now, from a more mature and progressive standpoint, are seen as symbols and pointers to God’s love and power, not something that actually happened in history.”
I wanted to see if he still talks that way, and I wanted to see how they do service. Let me give you six snapshots. The reason I have this here in my mind is because I wrote it up in my journal when I got home. Six snapshots are not at all the whole experience, but the ones that stuck out to me.
1. First, and least important, I think 90 percent of the people in this comfortably full, magnificently beautiful sanctuary were more or less like me. That is, they were probably over 60. They were white, and they were well-dressed.
2. The first hymn we sang was titled “Source and Sovereign, Rock and Cloud.” The refrain, which we sung four times, went like this: “May the church at prayer recall, that no single holy name, but the truth behind them all, is the God whom we proclaim.”
3. In spite of the invisibility of young families, they had a children’s message with the children gathered at the front. In the story to the children, the woman who was telling the story said that God has hopes like we have hopes. She said that sometimes our hopes are frustrated and they don’t come true, and sometimes God’s hopes are frustrated and they don’t come true. “But you, children, can” — I wrote this down — “put the pieces of God’s heart back together.” Then she said they can do that if they will share with each other and be good.
4. Before the Old Testament and New Testament reading, the pastor said, “Listen for the word of God.”
5. During the pastoral prayer, one of the first lines of his prayer was something like, “We bless you, O God, for the beautiful diversity of the gender spectrum.”
“The children’s lesson pointed to a view of God that minimizes his transcendence and maximizes his likeness to us.”
6. There was no sermon. Rather, the senior pastor and a Muslim leader of a mosque in north Minneapolis — although they don’t use the word mosque anymore — stood up and had a 25-minute conversation. The pastor was on one side of the pulpit. The imam was on the other side of the pulpit. They called it a conversation on hope. There was no mention of any substantive differences between Christ and Muhammad, or any differences between the way of salvation in Christianity and Islam. They didn’t discuss differences between Allah and the God and Father of Jesus, nor the differences between the Qur’an and the Bible. How it stirred hope in the face of sin and suffering and death, I couldn’t see.
Those are my six observations.
Now, it seems to me that each one of those six features points to a serious problem in what they themselves would call progressive or inclusive or open. I don’t mean to say that these problems are unique to such churches, since some of them characterize other kinds of churches, even ones that fly sometimes under the banner of evangelical.
Let me just tick off the six problems that correspond to those six observations as I saw it and thought about it.
1. It seems to me that the refrain of the hymn we sang in the context of this service was intended to communicate that there is no uniqueness to Jesus Christ and his way of salvation, in the sense that if you don’t know it and follow it, you will perish. In other words, that’s not believed. I think this church would deny that all those who reject Jesus as God and as the only way to God are forever lost. Whatever Jesus is, knowing him and trusting him and his saving work is not essential or necessary for eternal life. He’s just one possible way for sincere seekers to get to God. That’s the first observation, which I think was expressed in that refrain.
2. The children’s lesson pointed to a view of God that minimizes his transcendence and maximizes his likeness to us. The primary issue that this church feels does not seem to be the massive chasm between us and God, a chasm that needs to be overcome by saving mediation and substitution through the work of Jesus, but rather the warmth and acceptance of a God who’s not so different from us.
3. The view of the Bible from the words introduced at the beginning of the readings, “listen for the word of God,” probably reflects the view that used to be called Neo-orthodoxy. It is the view that the Bible contains the word of God rather than being the word of God. Everyone in the congregation is allowed to decide for themselves what parts of the Bible reading are in fact God’s word. In other words, that pastor was saying, “Listen for it. You might spot some word of God in this religious reading that I’m about to give from the Bible.”
“The primary issue that this church feels does not seem to be the massive chasm between us and God.”
4. Praising God for the beautiful diversity of the gender spectrum in the context of twenty-first century America suggests that in this church, sexual identity, who we are as male and female, has been cut loose from God’s revelation in nature and in Scripture. Just like they treat the Bible, sexuality is whatever you make it out to be. Wherever you choose to be on the whole spectrum is fine — it’s beautiful.
5. The emptiness of the conversation with the Muslim leader points to the fact that in the view of this church, contemporary Christianity does not have to do mainly with ultimate reality. It just doesn’t. It’s not a metaphysical issue. It’s not an ultimate reality issue. The nature of God, the nature of Christ, the nature of salvation, the path of holiness, the nature of eternal destinies — that is simply not the issue in contemporary mainline Protestantism. Instead, the dynamics that define relationships between social groups is front and center. That’s really the issue, not ultimate reality.
6. Finally, the fact that this church is made up mainly of old people suggests at least at the present that many younger people doubt the validity of traditional religious forms that no longer embody the claim to offer ultimate truth and ultimate reality and ultimate salvation. I think that they are absolutely right to try to maintain the forms. If you walk into that church, and you didn’t know any better, you’d say this looks like a church from forever ago — this is what church is. Big stained-glass windows, and pastors at the front, a big organ, lots of music, singing about Jesus — what could be more churchy than this? Except there’s nothing there of any ultimate reality.
There’s so much more that we could say, but perhaps that will suffice for a glimpse into what has become of the once dominant and now fading mainline Protestant tradition in America.
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, and most recently Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching as Worship.