By Pastor Charlie Parish
“It is easy to get crowds together for what are called higher life or consecration meetings. Anyone knows that who has watched human nature and read descriptions of American camp meetings and studied the curious phenomena of the religious affections. Sensational and exciting addresses by strange preachers or by women, loudly singings, hot rooms, crowded tents, the constant sight of strong semi religious feelings in the faces of all around you for several days, late hours, long contracted meetings, public profession of experience; all this kind of thing is very interesting and at times seems to do good. But is the good real, deeply rooted, solid, lasting?” -J.C. Ryle
In the preface of his book Holiness, Ryle immediately addresses the issue at hand and the problem that prompted his writing the book. When I read the words quoted above, it was as if a veil was lifted, and great concern began to set in my soul. J.C Ryle was a 19th century author who lived in the United Kingdom, but his timeless words still speak volumes to the predominant state of the 21st century church in America.
How amazing and heart breaking it is that his words still ring true in our evangelical society. We live in a day and age where churches seem to be more and more concerned with drawing that crowd that Ryle speaks of. It is quite easy to draw a crowd in the ministry when pragmatism is the wind that blows our sail of ministry rather than Christ.
Ryle spoke to some of the “attractions” of his day. Sensational addresses that are more entertaining than Gospel saturated. Services geared towards feelings that target playing on an emotional response rather than a genuine work of God. Loud music that draws a crowd, but speaks little to the hearts of man about the praise of our Lord. The frightening thing about the pragmatic ministry tactics of Ryle’s day is that it could easily be a description of many churches in our own day.
Ryle said that all of these things seem to be good. But his following question prompts his readers to dig deeper.
“But is the good real, deeply rooted, solid, lasting?”
Ryle goes on to expound upon his proposed question. For those people who are attending a church for attractional reasons, are they growing in Holiness? As Ryle put it, could they enjoy a Sunday service that was simply focused on the means of grace and the scriptures without all of the added excitement?
Ryle closes out his preface with a call for us not to read his book with a judgmental heart towards others, but rather out of a heart of charity as areas of deep repentance may indeed be called for in our own lives.
The preface set the ground work for going deeper into this book. Ryle’s opening dilemma that he presented should prompt us as readers to ask questions of our own motivations for worship. Are we attending church in order to get something for ourselves, or with a heart to give praise back to God? Do we judge a church by how well we have been entertained and served each week, or by how high the name of Christ was lifted up?
Jesus was very aware of how our man centered hearts can be draw more to entertainment rather than having a true desire to know Him. Consider these verses;
“Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.” John 2:23-25.
Many people saw the miracles that Jesus performed at the Passover Feast, and they believed. But mere belief is something that James tells us even the demons have (James 2:19). Belief can be separate from a true relationship that desires to walk in obedience to the Lord. I find it amazing that although these people professed to believe in Christ, Jesus would not entrust Himself to them. Because He knew what was in man. Simply put, Jesus saw much deeper than the outward emotionalism and outward praise. He saw their wicked hearts that did not match up with their outward professions of belief. They did not want Jesus. They simply wanted to be entertained.
“‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me;” Matthew 15:8.
Jesus ran into this deception one again after He had performed the miracle of feeding the 5000. The crowds began to follow Jesus, and they catch up with Him at Capernaum. But Jesus knew the real reason they were following Him.
“Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” John 6:26.
From here, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about Himself and reveal the Gospel. In short, all the attraction was stripped away, and Jesus merely began to preach. The crowd that had once followed Him with song and praise respond to Jesus sermon by saying;
“When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” John 6:60.
The late Dr. Martyn Lloyd Jones once said, “The presentation of the Gospel is reason, it’s something to make us think. My dear friends the whole trouble in the world is due to the fact that people don’t know how to think.”
My fear, as was Ryle’s, is that many professing Christians bypass the pursuit of Holiness in exchange for ministerial self gratification. And they do this because the Gospel causes them to think about the reality of their own depravity in light of a Holy God. And seeing our true selves as morally bankrupt is not as appealing as having our ears tickled and our emotions stirred.
Therefore, in this attractional model of ministry, church becomes a golden calf that is molded into what best draws a crowd. To many ministers judge their success on the number of people in the seats rather than the hearts that are changed and true disciples that are made.
My prayer is that the opening to this great book causes us to delve into the scriptures, and to search our own hearts pertaining to our motives in following Jesus. May we be a people that desires to know Christ, and not follow Him merely for the attraction that is offered.