Getting Off the Gospel Blimp: A Plea to Believe God’s Gospel Method

Somewhere in seminary I was introduced to The Gospel Blimp (1967), a made-for-television adaptation of Joseph Bayly’s book by the same name (circa 1950s). For those who do not know Joseph Bayly, he was a Christian editor, author, and satirist that would make the brothers at the Babylon Bee proud. And I lead with his classic film, not because it possessed the best acting or cinematography, but because of its important warning: The works man cannot accomplish the works of God. 

More specifically, the book lampoons the way Christians, especially evangelicals, employ all kinds of gimmicks in order to preach the gospel. Yet, such gimmicks, Jesus junk, and revivalist tactics actual deny the power of the gospel and the wisdom of God that they claim to believe.

What is the wisdom of God? What is a demonstration of God’s power? How should we herald God’s truth?

According to Paul the wisdom of God is found in the preaching of the gospel (1 Corinthians 1-2) and the gathering of the church (Ephesians 3). In other words, the most effective ways for evangelism are not the schemes and strategies of men, nor are they the “God showed me” ideas of eager Christians. Instead, God’s strategy is laid down in Scripture. God’s plan is simple: disciples making disciples, by means of the regular preaching of the Word, the sharing of the gospel, prayer, and suffering.

Historically, this approach to limiting ministry to the regular means of grace has been referred to as the regulative principle. The regulative principle of worship affirms the all-sufficient wisdom of God’s Word and seeks to practice only what is commanded in Scripture. By contrast, the normative principle of worship has granted more freedom of expression, whatever Scripture does not forbid is thereby permitted.

Obviously, these are principles for church worship are derived from Scripture; they are not absolute mandates found in Scripture. That said, they provide a helpful rubric for thinking about what we do in church and what we don’t. So to help understand these principles, let me offer a few definitions and then return to the main point—that we should avoid gospel gimmicks and stick to the simple wisdom proclaiming the Word and gathering the people.

The Regulative Principle

In his Dictionary of Theological Terms (377–78), Alan Cairns defines the regulative principle in this way, “The theory of church government and worship that stipulates that not only church doctrine but also church practice, must be based on clear scriptural warrant.” That is his one-sentence definition, and it helps us to see that the regulative principle is one that stands on the whole counsel of God and calls the church to avoid creativity in worship or ministry. 

Historically, this is the approach of the Reformed tradition as set out in the Westminster Confession, which Cairns cites as he gives a brief history of the regulative principle

[The regulative principle] is the position laid down in the Westminster Confession of Faith and is the opposite of the normative principle espoused by Lutherans and Anglicans.

In its statement on the Holy Scriptures the Confession says, “The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or, by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge … that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed” (chap. 1, sec. 6).

In its chapter on “Religious Worship and the Sabbath” the Confession applies these general principles to the particulars of worship and practice: “The acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture” (chap. 21, sec. 1).

These balanced statements avoid the extreme of allowing into the church’s worship and government whatever is not expressly forbidden in the Word and the opposite extreme of demanding that every detail of our practice should have an explicit command of Scripture before it is allowable. Many things—e.g., the time and frequency of church services, the particular order of service in public worship, the length of services and sermons, the taking of minutes in session meetings, etc.—are not given us in Scripture.

As Cairns notes, the regulative principle provides a wise boundary to the fallible creations of men. Made in the image of God, humanity is by nature creative. Yet, fallen in heart and mind, true worshipers must follow the good, loving, and life-giving dictates of God’s Word, without adding to it. This is what the regulative principle outlines.

The Normative Principle

In contrast to the regulative principle, Cairns defines the normative principle in this way: “what is not forbidden in Scripture is admissible in the practice, worship, and government of the church” (310). Going further, he gives a brief historical pedigree of this view, identifying it with Lutherans and Anglicans (pp. 310–11). Speaking of Luther himself, he says,

Martin Luther, while holding tenaciously to the principle of sola Scriptura, “by Scripture alone,” in matters of doctrine, nonetheless condemned no ceremony unless it was opposed to the gospel. If a form or practice was not forbidden by the Word, he allowed it to remain. In this way he conformed the worship of the new Lutheran churches to what the people were used to in the old papal church.

This is an interesting and telling observation. As many outsiders to Lutheranism may recognize, the Lutheran Church retains a liturgy that is very Roman Catholic. And here, we see why. Luther did not intend to upset the inherited forms of worship, and therefore, he did not go as far as Calvin and the Reformed tradition to ground the order of service in Scripture.

Similarly, Cairns notes, “The Church of England agreed with the Lutherans, not with the Calvinists.” As he quotes from Article 20 of the Thirty-Nine Articles (1571): “it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything that is contrary to God’s word written.…” Clearly, this historic confession espouses a normative principle, not a regulative one.

So, there is an historical precedent for orthodox churches to use creative means of worship, evangelism, and ministry. But such an extant history does not verify the wisdom, goodness, or efficacy of such creations. And especially, in our secular age, where church structures and divine authority have been largely eviscerated from culture, the employment of consumeristic gimmicks and entertainment practices only tends toward Christian syncretism. And if this is true with the worship service, it is all the more true with evangelism and outreach.

Getting Off the Gospel Blimp

When it comes to the historical divide between regulative and normative principles, it is worth remembering that the arguments for each arose during the time of Christendom (pre-Enlightenment), when cultures and kingdoms were formed, however imperfectly, by Christian practices and principles. In such an environment, faith and practice still mattered, but when the outside the culture has been Christianized, the fusion of church and culture is less detrimental than when the faith of the church and the faith of the culture are at odds. Such is the case today.

For more than 200 years, and some would say 500 years (Charles Taylor), the acids of modernity have been eroding Christian doctrine and practice. Therefore, any combination of church practice and culture will conjoin the holy and profane (2 Cor. 6:14–7:1). Yet, such syncretism is not always observed, because in the West Christianity does not join up with animism or Hinduism. Rather, it conjoins Christianity with consumerism, materialism, scientism, and entertainment-ism.

These material religions are typically not perceived to be religious and therefore the pastors and evangelists who use their celebrities, technologies, and media strategies don’t see the problem. But the problem can be seen in the way that the church loses interest and confidence in the plain preaching of the Word and the normative gathering of the church. Things are happening too small, too slow, and too strictly for modern sensibilities. And therefore, in our age of sensationalism, churches and church leaders look for and depend upon grand programs, bigger buildings, cooler personalities, and new technologies to advance the gospel.

When does the hologram preacher show up? Oh, he’s already “here.”

In this cultural moment, churches are now applying a normative principle to evangelism and outreach, as well as church and missions, church planting and campus multiplying. And by so doing, in a culture that is increasingly hostile to Christ, they will inevitably compromise the faith, water down doctrine, follow the wisdom of this age, and seek to build the church on materials that will not last (i.e., wood, hay, and stubble). If you need a reminder of how this looks, just watch this video:

Today, the folly of building massive ministries on creative energy and unbiblical principles has been seen. But this is not a new phenomena. It was visible in 1967 when The Gospel Blimp was produced.  It was visible in Geneva, when churches sought to do what Scripture said and no more. And it was visible in first century, when Paul urged the church to build on the foundation which is Christ (1 Cor. 3:10–15) and to trust in his power, not their own.

Indeed, the wisdom of God is seen in the gospel of Jesus Christ, both in its content and in its packaging. And the way God has sought to package the gospel is to clothe the glory of God in cracked pots and weak churches. To the world, such a strategy looks foolish and unimpressive and outdated. But to the elect angels in heaven, it is what they long to look at (1 Pet. 1:12). What about you?

Are you content to do the work of the Lord in the ways of the Lord?  Or are you seeking to do great things for the Lord in your own wisdom and power? Are you satisfied with the slow, seasonal growth of sowing and reaping? Or do you want a modern, scientific approach to church growth?

Scripture is not silent on what God’s strategy is. Just read Matthew 13 and notice all the agricultural metaphors.

The Lord’s Work in the Lord’s Way

The truth is, none of us are immune from self-reliance and self-exaltation, from serving the right Lord in the wrong way. We are products of our age and impressive speakers, larger services, and cooler celebrities is what we crave. Yet, floating the gospel with any new kind of blimp only detracts from God’s work; it never carries it forward. And thus, we would do well to continue to have our minds renewed by Scripture, both with regards to the content of the gospel and to the way God intends for his gospel to be proclaimed.

Wonderfully, God does not call us to touch up his Mona Lisa or to display it in some other way than he has described. The gospel is the power of God for salvation and the gathering of God’s people where the Word is rightly preached, the ordinances are rightly observed, and the saints are rightly taught, equipped, and sent out to make disciples is sufficient to accomplish all that God intends. The question is, will we believe God’s message and God’s methodology? Or will we be double-minded men?

Lord, we believe. Help us in our unbelief.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds