You’re So Depraved, You Probably Think This Church Is About You: How Total Depravity Upends Attractionalism

Article
02.05.2019

The last time I wept during a church service I wasn’t even there. I was watching online.

One Sunday night while scrolling through Facebook, I stumbled across an invitation to a church’s live-stream. I’d often wondered, Hm, what do they do on Sundays? And so, sufficiently curious, I clicked and tuned in.

Thirty minutes later, I sat on my couch, weeping.

If this were a movie, the director would insert a *record-scratch* at this moment, and the protagonist would look into the camera and say something like, I bet you’re wondering how I got here.

Well, let me explain.

*****

This particular Sunday was Father’s Day, and a father-and-son duo preached a big-hearted sermon that exhorted dads to a higher standard.

As the service concluded, the church sought to honor several dads in the congregation who had witnessed the Lord redeem irredeemable situations. To do this, they ushered a train of families across the stage. Once they arrived center-stage, each member stopped and stared into the camera as one person—sometimes a child, sometimes a father—held up a poster-board that briefly described the background of brokenness: I was asleep at the wheel as a dad; our dad grew up in a home of abuse and divorce; I never had a spiritual conversation with my dad .

For a few lingering seconds, everyone’s eyes were riveted to the camera. Then, at precisely the right moment, the poster-board would flip around and the brokenness would yield to wholeness: I finally woke up and was baptized a few years ago; by adopting us through foster care, God has shown our dad how to be a father to the fatherless; I finally called to talk to my dad about Jesus…when he died a few months later, I know he went to heaven.

Story after story after story, this string of saints retold triumphs of God’s grace. I thought of David’s words in Psalm 30:

You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;
you have loosed my sackcloth
and clothed me with gladness,
that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever!

And so I sat there—on my couch, watching the service on Facebook—and I was weeping.

*****

We’ll return to this in a bit, but I mention it now as an example of what I want this piece to address: how total depravity ought to focus our philosophy of ministry; how it ought to upend the guiding tenets of attractionalism; and how it ought to confound the well-meaning practices of attractional churches.

That’s the roadmap. Let’s get going.

*****

1. A belief in total depravity ought to focus our philosophy of ministry.

I suppose I should be clear about what I mean by “total depravity.” Simply put, total depravity refers to the natural, post-Fall state of all humanity, in particular our innate inability to save ourselves. Apart from God’s supernatural and regenerating work of grace, we’re all spiritually dead God-haters—curved in on ourselves and insatiably satisfied with sin (Eph. 2:3–5).

This depravity is “total” not insofar as we are as bad as we can be, but insofar as our badness is all-encompassing. Adolf Hitler sinned both more often and more egregiously than Mother Teresa, but he was not more spiritually dead—and she was not in any less need of God’s resurrecting grace.

Put still more simply, total depravity means:

  1. We cannot save ourselves because we’re dead in sin.
  2. We don’t want to save ourselves because we love our sin.
  3. We will be held responsible for this.

Unbelievers’ most essential problem is not that they’re ignorant, apathetic, or rudderless, but that they’ve personally, willfully, and happily rebelled against the God who made them. Their most inexorable enemy is not intellectual finitude or the ennui of life in the modern world, but what stares back at them in the mirror as they wordlessly brush their teeth. If this is true—and the Scriptures say that it is—then what unbelievers must concern themselves with is nothing less than escaping the just judgment of God.

These truths ought to focus every church’s philosophy of ministry. How so? Well, most prominently, such a church would talk clearly and regularly about man’s sin and God’s wrath.

I’ve heard some pastors talk about sin as if it’s little more than the emotionally unhealthy labels we give ourselves: broken, unlovable, hopeless, etc. While these labels articulate some of the alienating effects of sin, they obscure its essence and undermine a person’s agency and culpability before the Lord. It’s the language of pop psychology more than biblical anthropology.

Of course, sin is something done to us—sadly, some have much more experience with this than others. But if we stop there, we’ve evacuated the Bible’s teaching on the topic. Why? Because no one disagrees with this. Blame-shifting and finger-pointing come so easily to us. It’s our natural, post-Fall state: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.”

It doesn’t require a work of God to convince someone they’re a victim of others’ sin. It also doesn’t require a work of God to convince someone they’ve been materially affected by others’ sin. But it’s quite difficult, certainly so apart from God’s grace, to convince someone that they themselves are a high-handed perpetrator of sin against both God and others.

So, churches should speak about sin primarily (though not exclusively) as our personal and willful rebellion against God, and not as a social and indirect label given to us by others or ourselves. They should be clear that Jesus died on the cross as a substitute for sinners, not as a rudder for the rudderless (Rom. 3:25; 1 Jn. 2:2, 4:10).

I don’t mean to deny the comprehensive nature of Christ’s work—he does indeed restore the broken, love the unlovely, and give hope to the hopeless; yes, and amen!—but precisely none of that is accessible apart from Christ absorbing God’s wrath for sinners.

*****

2. A belief in total depravity ought to upend the tenets of attractionalism.

Again, it would be helpful to define our terms, especially since I’ve somewhat tipped my hand by attaching the spooky suffix “-ism” to the relatively nonthreatening adjective “attractional.” What are the “tenets” of this so-called ideology?

A few come to mind:

  • Churches committed to attractionalism tend to not push people away. The goal is to keep the fence around the church low, to keep the door to the church open and unlocked, so that all people can come in to enjoy the fellowship of the church without the requirements of membership.
  • Churches committed to attractionalism seek to curry favor among outsiders by highlighting how similar their members are to the world, whereas the Bible ties the church’s attractiveness to its distinctness from the world (Mt. 5:16, 1 Pet. 2:12). This commitment to similarity is why so much modern worship music resembles a run-of-the-mill arena show. It’s why so many churches do sermon series on movies or parenting or marriage or money management—such interests are universal. It’s why a cottage industry of programs often flourish in attractional churches, turning them into a kind a religious service provider, built to meet certain needs of prospective members in the surrounding community. Such programs—food pantries, recovery groups for addicts, small groups for divorcees, ESL classes—are certainly not “bad” in a vacuum, but when tethered to an attractional philosophy of ministry that sloppifies the line between the church and the world, they obscure the primary purpose of the church and in the process tend to do more spiritual harm than material good.
  • Churches committed to attractionalism feature preaching that tends to focus on the benefits of the gospel—happiness, improved marriages and parenting, a clean conscience, peace of mind, etc.—at the expense of clear teaching on the gospel itself. If you go to a church for a month, and you never once hear the pastor talk about sin, the wrath of God, and Christ’s substitutionary death, then you’re likely sitting in a church swayed by the commitments of attractionalism. If you hear the pastor call people to “trust in Jesus” but never to “repent of sin,” then you’re likely sitting in a church swayed by the tenets of attractionalism.

Attractionalism is bad. Attracting unbelievers is good.

Every church should want to attract unbelievers. In fact, 1 Corinthians 11–14 assumes their presence in our gatherings. Every time a church gathers, unbelievers should not only be welcomed but directly addressed; it should be a “safe place” for them, where their lifestyles will be challenged, not disrespected, where they’ll face confrontation, not prejudice.

Every church should desire to be attractive to the unsaved. We seek to be attractive by planning our gatherings with a concern for clarity and intelligibility (1 Cor. 11–14). We seek to be attractive by preaching sermons that offer connections to their worldview (Acts 17). We seek to be attractive by being hospitable (Heb. 13:2) and meeting needs (Matt. 25:35). We seek to be attractive by being men of sincerity, commissioned by God to speak of Christ with confidence that the knowledge of him will be a fragrance of life to some, and death to others (2 Cor. 2:14–17).

But attractionalism takes these fairly obvious and benign desires and turns them into the raison d’être of the local church. Attractionalism shrinks the commands of Scripture. Attractionalism inverts the Great Commission, turning it into a command to get people to come to us—and then lops off the parts that require patience and longsuffering. Attractionalism indulgently prioritizes one biblical command—evangelism—at the expense of others—meaningful church membership and discipline.

But how is it that total depravity upends these tenets of attractionalism? Simply put, because “no one understands; no one seeks for God” (Rom. 3:11). Again, man’s biggest problem isn’t boredom, but rebellion; it isn’t their family’s relational strife, but their own spiritual tyranny; it isn’t financial mismanagement, but spiritual bankruptcy; it isn’t their addiction to drugs, but their abnegation of God.

Attractionalism buries the lede. To be sure, it does so with the best of intentions, under a calendar full of kindness. But a pastor swept away by its assumptions is like a doctor who approaches an open-heart surgery with a plastic spork. No matter how well trained he’s been, no matter how deeply he wants this person’s suffering to end, his tools and strategies simply aren’t good enough to fix the problem.

*****

3. A belief in total depravity ought to confound the well-meaning practices of attractional churches.

Do you remember that time I cried watching church online? Well, what made me cry is an example of what I’m referring to when I say “the well-meaning practices of attractional churches.” The moment was moving; it crescendoed perfectly with the theme of the sermon, using flesh-and-blood illustrations to drive the point home.

As each family crossed the stage, it was as if the preacher said, See! It can be done! See! It can be done. See! It can be done.

Now, I hesitate to be a naysayer about publicly and even riotously celebrating the work of God in the lives of his people. But—if I may, for just a moment—I realized upon reflection that what made me cry could have made anybody cry, whether Jew or Greek, male or female, Democrat or Republican, God-hater or God-lover, Christian or Sikh or secular humanist.

You see, in the sermon that set up this moment, I’d heard a lot of stuff. I’d heard, Be a good dad because dads are vital for the spiritual health of their kids. I’d heard, God is powerful and you need him to help you be a good dad. I’d heard, No situation is beyond redemption. Yes, and amen; yes, and amen; yes, and amen.

But do you know what I didn’t hear? I didn’t hear that my own failure as a dad and my own failure as a son is proof-positive of my own sinfulness, for which I will one day be judged by God, the Creator of all things. I didn’t hear that this Creator who owns my life and to whom I am accountable is also a Father, one who has in love and before the foundation of the world predestined a people for adoption as sons through his Son, Jesus Christ. I didn’t hear that through this Son’s blood, sons of disobedience could become sons of inheritance, and children of wrath could become children of promise—because of love and by grace, so that no one may boast. I didn’t hear that the best is yet to come for these newly adopted sons, that their Father’s inheritance in all of its riches and kindness await them in glory, kept safe for them under their older Brother’s watchful eye.

In short, I didn’t hear the gospel.

I realized that what I’d seen had been engineered, like a midday infomercial’s before-and-after photo, to depict life change without an entirely straightforward explanation for how it happened. It was impressive, even moving, but it was gospel-less.

I want to be clear about what I’m not saying: I’m not saying these particular families and their stories are gospel-less. I trust every single one of them would attribute every shred of grace in their lives to the loving-kindness of God their Father and their Lord Jesus Christ. I trust every single one of these fathers loves Jesus and knows the gospel. But in this particular church service, these otherwise “real” stories became, in a sense, un-real. At the risk of speaking crassly, let me explain what I mean: these stories became a product, placed in a particular time and place and date to prove a concept, the one just articulated by the preachers on the stage.

Stories of God’s grace changing people’s lives are beautiful. They attractively advertise to the world, and they motivate Christians to joy and obedience. For example, at my church, before someone gets baptized they stand center-stage and read their testimony—not unlike what happened at this Father’s Day gathering. But this is always done in connection to a crystal-clear and extended articulation of the gospel—both in the sermon and the testimonies themselves—so that there is no confusion.

*****

What I fear happened on this particular Father’s Day, and what I fear happens in attractional churches across the globe every Sunday, is that people sit in these services and respond precisely the ways these churches are praying for them respond. What I fear is that people cry—or laugh, or manage their money better, or stop drinking, or stop yelling at their wives—for insufficient reasons and with insufficient motivations because they have an insufficient understanding of who Jesus is and what the Christian life is.

Generally speaking, totally depraved people want to be better parents. They want to be better people. They want to manage their money better and stop drinking and stop looking at pornography and feel less hate in their heart toward their estranged sibling and work out 3–5 times a week and rise up the food-chain at work through their industry and integrity.

And so sermons about these things, or about other generic benefits of following Christ, will “work.” They’ll make a dent. But like a thumbprint on a thousand-dollar mattress, you’ll see it and then it’s gone.

*****

I realize I’ve spent over 2500 words now to make a simple point: because total depravity is real, the attractional—some might call it “seeker-sensitive” or “pragmatic”—model of church simply doesn’t work. It’s weighed down by good intentions, and its “success” in producing converts—both genuine and apparent—should not let us ignore the scourge of people that it leaves unsaved yet self-deceived, relaxed yet unregenerate.

It’s like putting a magnet in a jar full of gummy bears. It’s like raising your voice while talking to someone who doesn’t speak your language. Again, it simply doesn’t work.

Humanity’s problem is too great to be solved by relatable sermons and niche programs for broken people. And God’s solution is too great to exhaust itself with redeemed families and balanced budgets.

So, what do we do? We trust the means God has promised to bless in his Word, which is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

By:
Alex Duke

Alex Duke is the editorial manager of 9Marks. He lives in Flushing, New York, and is one of the pastors of North Shore Baptist Church. You can find him on Twitter at @_alexduke_.