(First in a series.)

Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray, having followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness.  -2Peter 2:15

Three books I read just after seminary had a critical impact on my thinking and kept me from succumbing to the Evangelical deus ex machina.1

But first, some explanation of the world I lived in.

Bill Hybels was all the rage back at home, where I grew up just down the road from Hybels’s Barrington. Lots of people with itching ears found he was saying what they wanted a preacher to say and doing at Willow Creek what they wanted a church to do. In fact, he told everyone that was his key to success—finding out what people wanted and doing it.

So the sheep were tuned to his siren song and leaving their smaller, less sophisticated churches. The Hybels machine grew and grew. Soon, it was far larger than Chicago’s metropolitan area. Claiming what he was doing was “church,” Hybels advertised himself across the country, promising pastors new ways of doing what he dared to call “ministry” in such a way that they, too, could have god as well as money and fame. His products flew out of his glass and steel warehouse like the Deluxe flies out of Chick-fil-A.

Soon, Hybels went international and became huge even here in Europe and Germany. He never stopped marketing himself to everyone, everywhere, and his church provided the money for him to do so.

I tell you the truth: it would have felt so good to succumb. I could go to one of his conferences and then have some common ground with all the other Evangelical pastors in small churches hankering after what the GOAT had. “Just bow the knee, Tim.”

Each week my mailbox was stuffed with his marketing stuff. Christianity Today was his loudest marketing machine. Marketing Hybels and his subsidiaries was Christianity Today’s editorial vision and policy. Formerly they had existed to spread the American cultural religion of Billy Graham, so the transition to the next generation’s American cultural religion was easy for them. It was Hybels, now, whose slick and clean presentation of the successful American Christian life prevailed.

Conferences, books, curricula, full-page ads in Christianity Today—all with Bill’s face plastered everywhere. Naturally so, since his face was so easy on the eyes. Cleancut. Handsome like Billy.

And filthy rich. It was a poorly kept secret (intended to get out, I think) that his ride was a private jet.

So, my fellow Evangelical pastor, if back then you wanted god lowered from above to resolve your identity crisis as the pastor of a small or (horror) rural parish, Hybels was your man. He held the levers to the machinery, so just give him your attention, time, and money, and in just a little while your church would be growing and you’d be getting paid more and you might even be asked to do a workshop at one of Bill’s Willow Creek conferences being held around the country and around the world.

Again, believe me when I tell you that it was a battle resisting this pandemic. Soon after seminary, my dear father-in-law tried to give me a subscription to Christianity Today and I had to tell him “no.” Other men might be strong enough for it, but I knew I was not. I would succumb. Hybels and his machinery would turn my head, even if only slightly, and I would begin loving success rather than God and His sheep.

We are what we eat, and what I was eating right out of seminary as I took up the care of my first parish was Richard Baxter’s Autobiography and The Reformed Pastor, then Jacques Ellul’s The False Presence of the Kingdom.

Some readers will have heard of the first two, but likely not the third. Baxter’s Autobiography and Reformed Pastor put in front of me the Biblical and historic, Protestant pastoral care that was the perfect opposite to Bill Hybels. Baxter called me to be a shepherd and leave the hirelings to their money and fame. Baxter called me to love and give myself up to the care of those sheep purchased by my Lord’s precious blood.

So I refused to have anything at all to do with Wheaton (other than going home to visit our loved ones). I refused to read or even look at Christianity Today. They were corrupt and corrupting of the people of God and I hated them for it. Whatever issue was raised, they took the position just shy of being exposed as destroyers of God’s truth while also just shy of being ashamed for what they had published when they went to church Sunday morning and sat next to Wheaton profs and mission executives and publishers.

But what about Ellul? Why was he helpful?

Frenchman Ellul was a Christian sociologist whose thinking has been seminal for many. Quite prolific, some of his better-known works are The Presence of the Kingdom, The Technological Society, Propaganda, The Meaning of the City, The Humiliation of the Word, and Prayer and the Modern Man. In this last work he describes (decades beforehand) the transformationalist take on evangelism embraced by Tim Keller and his tribe of “in the city, for the city” Redeemerites:

In consequence of the desire to make the message (kerygma) valid for all, to see all men as in the presence of God, to increase the universality of the lordship of Jesus Christ, to insist on the value of mankind generally (to the detriment of the Christian), to insist on the value of the world (to the detriment of the Church), one comes to the point of denying whatever can only be specifically Christian.

The False Presence of the Kingdom is largely unknown. Haven’t seen it in anyone’s library and only a couple used copies are for sale online (although you can download a variety of formats on the Internet Archive).

Ellul breaks this little volume into two sections, “Conforming the Church to the Modern World,” and “Making the Church Political.”

Readers familiar with Evangel Presbytery and Warhorn Media’s work opposing the millenarian phantasies and voluble machinations of pastors and elders within the conservative Reformed church in the U.S. these past several years will understand the significance of this little work by Ellul in strengthening our resolve to oppose these men and their disciples, publicly. And although I will wait a bit to speak of the loudmouthed Christian celebrities whose ambitions were political back in the time of Hybels’s heyday, they were there and very much competing with Hybels for Evangelicals attention and money.

Hybels was docile and compliant, politically—just like his predecessor, Billy Graham, and his successor, Tim Keller. Hybels was all about human flourishing and giving pep talks about the dangers of selfishness and greed. Before Keller was on the scene, Hybels was promoting women’s leadership over men. He’d had the rabid feminist, Gilbert Bilezikian, as his Bible professor at Wheaton College, so Bilezikian’s sexual corruption was foundational at Willow Creek where he was affectionately known as “Dr. B.”

Meanwhile, over in the other corner were loud men with national followings, also, who made their name and money trying to put prayer back in schools, opposing Planned Parenthood, promoting this and that governor and politician, opposing centralized government and taxes, decrying the drug pushers, and sending out their hot and bothered broadsides presenting themselves as the solution to America’s godlessness.

Did I mention these more-conservative competitors to Hybels competing for Evangelicals’ attention and money were, to a man, pro-Israel? The return of Jews to Israel was their brand of millenarianism. It was proof that Christ’s return was imminent, and what was needed to guarantee it happened soon was world evangelism, America standing unflinching with Israel, and returning God to schools and education.

On the one side, slick and handsome Bill Hybels whose political commitments were soft-voiced liberal, but who presented himself as apolitical. Opposed to any sectarianism that threatened the complacency of his dullard sheep, Hybels spoke against political sectarianism just as his successor, Tim Keller, opposes “tribalism.”

On the other side, messianic blowhards telling dullard sheep that they were the true answer to America’s problems, and if people gave them their money and support, they’d turn things around—particularly education and government.

The astute reader may know where we’re heading as, next, we turn to Jacques Ellul and his False Presence of the Kingdom.

(First in a series.)

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1Latin: “the god from the machine”; the name refers to the mechane (Greek/Latin; also: machina ), a contraption or machine similar to a crane that made it possible for the deity to be levitated from above in ancient theaters.

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