Last week we began a discussion of the church’s tendency to conform to culture rather than to conform to Christ, and to do so in the belief that the inherently offensive nature of the cross and the call to discipleship may be off-putting to those who need to hear the gospel message.
In response to that belief, not only do we see a propensity for scaling back the call for full discipleship in the life of a believer, but there is a strong trend toward competing against the world as entertainers, as though a robust theatrical presentation will compel the world to embrace Jesus where a forthright presentation of the message of the cross will not do so.
This approach to corporate worship and evangelistic outreach has prompted many to decry what is often called a “watered-down gospel.” I’m inclined to reject that characterization, because it assumes that the full gospel message is included, but that it has been diluted with water. I’m fairly certain that is not what is happening.
Instead, what I am seeing is a message from the church wherein difficult truths are carefully avoided, and the more challenging teachings of Jesus are strategically ignored, while choice elements from contemporary culture have been woven into the resulting theological voids. Through this practice, we see facts supplanted by feelings, and verity traded for a good vibe. David Alan Campbell noted that such an approach to presenting the Christian message “may get a lot of people into pews, but it won’t get anyone to the Cross.” I tend to agree.
In an attempt to be sensitive to the ears of contemporaries outside the body of Christ, we modify the call of the gospel. We adjust it to make it more palatable to culture’s fragile self-esteem and emotional sensitivities. In some cases, that is precisely the designation that is applied to this approach to faith and outreach, calling our assemblies “seeker-sensitive services.”
And what is it we believe these “seekers” want? They want short-attention-span entertainment. They want fast action that is impressive and impactful. They want music with a catchy beat and pitch-perfect harmonies – dramatic presentations delivered with eloquence and flair. They want messages that boost their self-esteem, messages that feel good.
To capture and hold this crowd, we must host-specific concerts with headliner bands that really rock the audience. We need to have mind-blowing multimedia with interactive stage lighting, sound effects, and dry-ice fog machines. It is all the flair and glitz the world serves up, with a serendipitous religious icing.
If we do these things, the world will see how cool we are, and they will bust down our doors to get in and be a part of what we are doing. They will retweet our sermon notes and like our Facebook pages. If these things don’t happen, we can never reach the world for Christ.
Or so I am told.
The Undesirable Result
Substituting style for substance carries with it a number of undesirable side effects. The outcome of eliminating the call to full discipleship is, at least, fourfold.
- If the hearer embraces the modified message, they have embraced a non-truth, a message that is not aligned with the call to discipleship that Jesus has made. In this, we have done our hearers no favors, but have, rather, deceived them. As David Furman said, “Holding back truth or being vague regarding what God has made clear is not being sensitive — it is arrogant and unloving.”
- It also carries with it the propensity for us to get in God’s way. If the attention is drawn to our presentation style rather than to the Son of God, we are not presenting the message God wants presented. We go to the world with a message that says, “Come check out my church because we have/do such a cool X, Y, and Z,” when we should have a message that says, “You need to know my God, and here is a place you can meet him.”
- Furthermore, we inappropriately presume that we know better than God what should and should not be considered the gospel message, and we arrogantly endow ourselves with the authority to change that message.
- And finally, we incur a rather strong condemnation from the apostle Paul.
But though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach any other gospel to you than that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed. – Galatians 1:8, WBT
Yowzah! That’s strong stuff.
A diluted presentation of scripture is a less-than-faithful exposition of God’s word that invariably results in an anemic Christ-follower. It is the infant who never grows up, and who must continuously be fed milk because he or she cannot handle solid food (1 Corinthians 3:2, Hebrews 5:12).
The Best Message
In stark contrast to that, the apostle Paul proclaimed, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2, NIV-1973). Paul fully acknowledged that the message of the cross is a “stumbling block” and “foolishness to those who are perishing,” but it remained his message nonetheless.
Why would a Holy Spirit-inspired apostle employ a message of foolishness and offense to reach a lost and dying world for Christ? It is because the message of foolishness and offense is also a message of truth, and despite what seeker-sensitive advocates claim, truth is something for which the world is starving. At a time when the public and president repeatedly denounce “fake news,” how much more impactful is it for any of us to present a fake gospel?
The message of the cross is the effective message, and if our efforts to reach the world are not effective, it is because our message is not the message of the cross.
Jesus was very forthright in identifying what would be (and is) the one effective evangelistic tool. It was not human eloquence. It was not a pristine, cutting-edge worship center. It was not a nine-piece worship band. It was not padded pews or stackable chairs.
It was, and is the cross, and the message of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection.
And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. – John 12:32, ESV
As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; – John 3:14, NASB
So Jesus said to them, ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me.’ – John 8:28, ESV
If it is our intention to draw men and women to Jesus, we do so through the message of the cross.
The Result of the Best Message
What happens when we faithfully present the message of the cross, and the undiluted call to discipleship? Is everyone happy? Does life go more smoothly for us?
No. Not so much.
I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints. – Jude 1:3, NASB
Standing for truth, godliness, and discipleship (contending earnestly for the faith) will make you intensely unpopular, injecting you into conflict in ways you never believed possible. Withstanding that conflict will require you to wear the full armor of God (Ephesians 6:10-20). Evangelist Leslie Ludy describes such boldness as smacking a hornets’ nest with a baseball bat, and then finding that your feet are embedded in concrete. You cannot get away!
Greg Lauri once said, “The Christian life is not a playground, but a battleground.” In contemporary society, the only Christianity that is tolerated is the quiet, passive, almost submissive Christianity that in no way resembles the “contending earnestly” that is called for by Jude, the half-brother of Jesus. The act of standing for truth is labeled as antiquated, unloving, feeble-minded, or even terroristic and criminal.
The pressure to remain silent, to allow society to spiral into hedonistic filth, grows daily. No one should dare to say aloud that the emperor is parading naked through the city. Yet, God calls us to shine as lights in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation (Philippians 2:15).
The reality is that the gospel is offensive. If that causes your brow to furrow, if you don’t understand the truth of that, then I submit that you don’t really understand the gospel. It is disconcerting and unsettling. It is disruptive. It is a “skandalon,” – a rock of offense.
Sadly, that offense is taken not only by those outside the body of Christ. Within the body, many have become so steeped in compromise that they have a low tolerance for truth.
For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. – 2 Timothy 4:3, NIV-1973
There is a positive side, however. People will respond. The world is starving for truth, for reality, and though most do not say so aloud, we know the emptiness of what the world offers up on its menu. When truth is presented, it is such a stark and refreshing contrast to the emptiness of the enemy’s lies that the truth is deeply compelling.
It is the truth that will set men and women free (John 8:32), and it is the truth that will hold their attention.
It is this knowledge that in 1904 and 1905, the evangelist Reuben Torrey, from Hobokken New Jersey, was inspired to (foolishly, by the world’s standard) reserve Royal Albert Hall for two months at a cost of $85,000, and to hold daily gospel meetings within. Royal Albert Hall was, at that time, the largest venue in London, and even the biggest names in entertainment had difficulty filling it for more than one night. Yet daily, for two months straight, the hall was filled to capacity, while people stood in the rain clamoring for admission, eventually being turned away.
Prior to that, Torrey preached in the Liverpool Tournament Hall, filling it night after night for nine weeks, sometimes multiple times per night as thousands exited, and thousands more poured in. It is estimated that some 35,000 were turned away because there simply was not enough room in the hall to accommodate them.
People are hungering and thirsting for truth, for reality, for substance.
The Drawing Power of the Gospel
Forget the flash and the flair. When Jesus is lifted up, he will draw all men and women to himself. We need to lift Jesus higher.
And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. – John 12:32, ESV
No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day. – John 6:44, NASB
The LORD appeared to him from afar, saying,
‘I have loved you with an everlasting love;
Therefore I have drawn you with lovingkindness.’ – Jeremiah 31:3, NASB
It is through the gospel of Jesus that we are “drawn” to God. And it is through the gospel that we draw others.
We do not berate and browbeat. We do not “drive” men and women to Christ. Cattle are driven. Sheep are led. We, as sheep, are led by the chief shepherd of our souls (1 Peter 2:25).The gospel of Jesus Christ is God’s power for salvation (Romans 1:16). That same gospel that “draws” us is the gospel that saves us (1 Corinthians 15:2). If both of these things are true, by what stretch of logic would we ever embrace an adulterated message that has neither the power to draw nor the power to save?
Through embracing the truth of the gospel of Jesus, I refuse to allow the culture to shape my theology, my message, or my faith. Instead, my theology, message, and faith will be used to the fullest extent to shape the culture.
‘Therefore come out from them and be separate,’ says the Lord.
‘Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you.’
‘I will be a father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters,’ says the Lord Almighty. – 2 Corinthians 6:17, NIV-1973