Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Reformation Project: Thesis 13

13. Christian efforts to make God seem relevant to unbelievers must never take a form that promotes irreverence or trivializes matters of supreme importance.  There is no relevance to be found in a trite approach to God.

One of the churches I wrote about in the first section of this study featured as the sermon the preparation of a smoothie in the style of a Food Network program. At another, the minister began his sermon with 15 minutes of jokes.

While it was not a part of this study, I also have seen a large local church create a brochure in which celebrities replaced the apostles in a mock up of Leonardo's Last Supper. The brochure announced a sermon series in which the minister would explain what Jesus would have to say to these famous people.

In another recent trend, some churches are now preceding their "worship experiences" with their praise bands playing rock music -- secular music with no pretense of relevance to worship -- in order to draw a crowd.

The church exists to proclaim the Lord of Glory, the Creator of all things, the Redeemer of the world. One may ask if these techniques give due glory to the one who is being proclaimed.

Table of Contents for The Reformation Project

The Reformation Project: Thesis 12

12. Substituting or confusing marketing for Gospel proclamation inevitably leads to syncretism.

By the term "syncretism" this thesis suggests that bringing a marketing orientation to the mindset of the church results in the amalgamation of the religion of the church with that of the culture it is trying to reach. Thus, the result is a weakening of Christian teaching and practice. The intention is that the church shape the culture; the result may be in  reverse.

Anyone that has worked in business knows the old saying that the customer is king, but that is an approach to church that Christians can never agree to and remain faithful to their true king. Early Christians preferred persecution and even death before they were willing to say that Caesar was Lord, and with equal conviction today we must say to the various ecclesiastical versions of Madison Avenue that Christ is Lord of His church.

Of course, some will respond that Christians have a responsibility to understand the people to whom they are proclaiming the message of Christianity, and that is true, but it does not really get at the direction in which many would lead the church. In the name of marketing, it is common, nearly pervasive, nowadays to allow the tastes and beliefs of the unbelieving culture around us to dictate the purpose and elements of worship, the questions with which the church will deal, the church's mission, and the definition of missional success. This gives away a lot, and it is an approach that is inconsistent with Christian teaching on human nature and salvation, as well as the church.

Marketing approaches at best have a good intention of bringing Christianity to the culture, a project that is perceived as more easy in Dallas than in Dubai. Or, is it? Though different in many respects, the cultural values of both Dubai and Dallas conflict with the verities of Christianity. Often, we fail to notice the way our marketing has brought changes to the church not consistent with Christian teaching.

Table of Contents for the Reformation Project

Sunday, October 08, 2017

The Reformation Project: Thesis 11

11. The effort to proclaim the Gospel persuasively is not the same thing as a marketing program.

Churches go to great efforts to put butts in seats.

Not all of that is illegitimate. Certainly, efforts to gain the attention of unbelievers so that they will hear the gospel proclaimed is desirable so long as those efforts are consistent with what is required of us in Scripture.

However, it must always be recognized that faith in Christ is not equivalent to faith in our church brand, much less faith in the array of benefits offered by the local church.

In fact, any faith result produced by marketing efforts ought to be questioned, as scripturally saving faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of God, and, as such, it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone that believes. It is the power of the Spirit, not our planning, that brings to life those that are dead in trespasses and sins.

It is important that our attention to branding not overwhelm any gospel proclamation so that the latter cannot be heard due to the cacophony of the former.

Friday, October 06, 2017

The Reformation Project: Thesis 10

10. The Gospel, being the power of God that leads to salvation for everyone that believes, is substantively more consequential and effectively more powerful than marketing programs and all other manner of human cleverness.

It is not difficult to understand why thoughtful Christians want to do a better job of messaging. All of us have had the experience of lamenting that too many Christians and churches of stating their cause in a way that puts the cause of Christ in a bad light. Why can't we put our best foot forward so that unbelievers don't associate the term "evangelical with Westboro Baptist, Pat Robertson, or Jerry Falwell, Jr.

Why don't outsiders even know that those three aren't even evangelicals?

There is nothing wrong with wising to gain a hearing for the gospel in the larger culture. However, church marketing efforts in recent decades have gone well beyond that, exposing a Christian tendency to trust in our own cleverness than in the power of the gospel.

To marketers, the customer is king, but in the church Christ is king. His ambassadors should be gracious and loving, but we don't have the authority as Christ's ambassadors to alter the message to soft sell it to an audience that is dead in their trespasses and sins, nor can we defer to the subjects that our neighbors deem relevant when our King has stated clearly the nature of His central message. And, why when we want to? When we recognize the direness of the human condition, we should see that only the power of the Spirit can bring the dead to life.

Table of Contents for the Reformation Project.

Monday, October 02, 2017

The Reformation Project: Thesis 9

9. Given that Jesus’ message and manner of teaching sometimes resulted in people turning away from him (see, for example, John 6), one should not take numerical success or failure as any kind of evidence of faithfulness to God or the blessing of God.

There are many churches that reject the prosperity gospel (if you obey God, he will make you healthy, wealthy, and wise) that nonetheless believe it in a different form. They believe that their numerical growth proves -- more or less -- that God is blessing. God must be doing something, they argue, look at all of these people. Churches that are declining, on the other hand, must be cold and dead. God is not blessing them.

I heard a lot of this growing up, when this way of thinking was used to contrast the differing directions of liberal and more conservative denominations and churches. Liberal decline, it was said, was evidence that they had abandoned the gospel. Conservative growth proves divine blessing.

The fact that conservative denominations have plateaued (even as liberal ones have seen accelerated decline) has perhaps chastened this perspective, though it remains a part of individual churches and ministries. It also continues in a different form: we have plateaued due to lack of faithfulness -- if we got busy again with the Lord's work, we would have great growth.

I suppose that it should also be mentioned that some people will take decline as proof of faithfulness -- we are declining because we don't go along with the culture. This also may be narrow thinking.

Even while we hope for God's blessing on our work, we should recognize that growth might be longed for, but it in and of itself doesn't prove God's blessing. In some cases, at least, faithfulness to Christ might result in a period of decline, not the opposite. So it was with the ministry of Jesus in John 6. His refusal to give material bread while proclaiming himself the bread of life did not go over well with the crowd. That crowd abandoned him.

Jesus asked the core group of disciples if they would also go away. The answer indicated possible discomfort with what Jesus had taught, but with no doubt as to where they must remain: "where would we go? You have the words of life."

So He does. Our task is to faithfully proclaim that word, praying that God will bless that proclamation with souls that will receive it.

Table of Contents for the Reformation Project

Sunday, October 01, 2017

The Reformation Project: Thesis 8

8. Justification is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone for the glory of God alone. The only thing that we contribute to our justification is our sins.

The first statement in this thesis is a classic statement regarding four of the five solas ("alones") of the Protestant Reformation. Understanding the meaning of justification is of vital importance to understanding what Christianity is about; yet, surveys have indicated that a sizable percentage even of active churchgoers lack familiarity with the term.

Is that important? Many modern churches attempt to minimize religious lingo, and there is a sense in which they have a point. Over the years, churches have developed ways of speaking that don't make sense to outsiders -- and one might argue that in at least some cases are unbiblical. It seems proper that in some instances that language that lacks meaning to hearers should be discarded.

But, churches cannot lose all of their religious terminology without losing their Christian identity. One might illustrate this way. Several years ago, I lived in Nashville when an NHL team -- the Predators -- came to town. I had seen a few hockey games on television, but I did not really understand much in the way of strategy -- players coming on and off the ice seemed chaotic -- and many of the rules were a mystery. What is icing? Why did they call offsides?

The NHL did not change its rules and terms to help southerners unfamiliar with the game to figure it out. In my case, I was able to attend a presentation by the team's radio announcers -- hockey evangelists? -- who showed highlights while explaining rules and the ins and outs of what was happening during the game. I even learned about the ethics of brawling!

Then, the game made sense. I have since attended many games, both in Nashville and since moving to Dallas, and I enjoy the sport.

Terms like justification are key words to Christianity: you don't understand the game if you don't get this. For the health of the church, the content of the above thesis must be taught.

According to the standards of my church, justification is " an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone." Thinking through those phrases will call to mind the joyful benefits of having been justified.

For more of this series of posts, see the Table of Contents
Table of Contents

Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Reformation Project: Thesis 7

7. Christianity at its root narrates the story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation.  That narrative constitutes the message of the church. A church that speaks often of other subjects and speaks only occasionally of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation is guilty of hiding the central message of Christ behind a shroud of peripheral subjects.

In both politics and business, experts will talk about the importance of staying on message. One may recall that in the 1990's presidential candidate Bill Clinton operated with a constant reminder from campaign staff: "It's the economy, stupid." As a general rule, candidates or businesses that lose sight of their central message do so at the risk of their viability. This is not to say that they don't care about anything else, but it is to say, as an old mentor of mine used to claim, that they need to keep the main thing the main thing.

Of course, churches and ministries don't always share the same values as businesses, not to mention politicians, but in this instance the parallels would seem to be instructive. Many ministers will quote Paul's statement about preaching "the whole counsel of God," as well as the need to instruct Christians in all things needed for life and godliness. True enough, but the church that loses site of its central message sets out on a course that will lead to faithlessness.

In truth, the Bible does not relate our story, but God's story, telling how he is operating in human history to accomplish his purposes, and at the heart of those purposes is his determination to redeem a people out of fallen humanity for himself. Every other subject that is a legitimate matter for the church's interest arises out of those themes.

Do non-Christians understand the church's message in this way? Probably not, as I am not sure that even many active church members can articulate this. The church will teach about many things, but all of the spokes flow out of the hub of creation, fall, redemption and consummation.

See here for a Table of Contents for this study.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Reformation Project: Thesis 6

6. Christian proclamation must take proper notice of the distinction between Law and Gospel in the Scripture, and must proclaim both in their proper relationship to one another.

This is a fundamental distinction in Scripture, but one that I fear is completely passed over in many churches and not understood even by many life long church members and attenders.

Generally, the distinction is this: Law is what is found in Scripture when God requires something of us. Gospel is what we find when God makes promises with no condition other than that we take him at his word.

To get more specific, as many readers have no doubt heard, the word gospel means simply "good news." The good news in question is the announcement, as we find in I Corinthians 15, that Christ has died for our sins, was buried, and rose from the dead on the third day, all in accordance with the promises of scripture.

Notice the character of the gospel as an announcement. It is news that we receive, not something that we do. I often hear people say that they want to "live the gospel," but this confuses categories. Certainly, a Christian will want to live his life in the light of gospel promises, understanding life as an expression of gratitude for what we have received by grace. However, we do not live the gospel. The gospel is not something we do. It is the announcement of what God has done for us in Christ.

In drawing these distinctions, I am not suggesting that the church should proclaim the gospel instead of the law. Rather, the church must proclaim both. The law points us to our need for Christ. To preach the gospel without the law results in people seeing no need for Christ. To preach law without gospel leaves people with a knowledge of their guilt and without hope. The church must proclaim them together.

When these are properly distinguished and declared together, those who hear can realize the grand truth that the terrifying chasm between a holy God and sinful men has been addressed in the Gospel, through which sinners have been reconciled to God in the death of Christ.

A Table of Contents for this "Reformation Project" can be found here.