“Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God.” [3 John 1:11 ESV]
“And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.” [Eph 4:30-5:1 ESV]
“Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage–with great patience and careful instruction.” [2Ti 4:2 NIV]
NOTE: this blog is a lot like a cross-country trip by car. The subheadings are rest stops. Please don’t speed. [insert smile]
Part I: The Bar
Most of us have played the game Simon Says (at least if you’ve ever been a kid). Most psychologists and educators view this game as helpful to a child’s development physically, mentally, and socially. But I was just pondering what would occur if we had an evil Simon who, instead of suggesting harmless actions like making a happy face or running in place, gave out more diabolical suggestions, like to hit a classmate or spit on the teacher. The thought then occurred to me that in the life of a Christian, we have an enemy very much like this. I am not so much talking about Satan himself, but the prop he uses. He is often the most successful when making subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) suggestions. And the world is adrift in an ocean of suggestions. Satan is the ruler of this world: “We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” [1Jo 5:19 ESV] He uses the world–what our society accepts as “normal”–and dangles it in front of our eyes to tempt our sinful propensity to consider and imitate what we see others doing.
How many times when we were growing up did we tell our parents that our own disobedience was not so bad because, after all, our sibling did the same thing? Or how about seeking a perk that our friends had, like staying out late on Friday nights? I can hear myself whining, “but Johnny gets to!” My brothers and sisters, I challenge you: have we really outgrown our penchant to excuse our own sin by considering how the world, our friends, or even other believers act or feel? The everbody-else-does-it-too attitude that our parents always corrected is not just youthful folly. It is part of our sinful nature. I have heard Christians in retirement age, even PASTORS, say things like, “I asked my brother how he handles sex outside marriage, and he says he has his fleshly needs.” The conclusion being that fornication is normal and it’s okay if we entertain it, too. We’ve compared notes and feel relieved that the Lord’s standards are just not plausible in real life. Is this not the same as the fourteen-year-old who minimizes and justifies his various forms of rebellion by looking to the standards set by his peers? What standard are we to hold to? Certainly not our own, as we make the bar purposefully low so we can step over it. And certainly not our peers when their bar may be what they’ve seen on TV or their latest Google search, which are both bathed in worldly attitudes and the vain philosophies of man. Our standard should be nothing less than the example of our Lord and the Word of God:
“But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. [Eph 5:3-6 ESV]
Brothers and sisters, all the sinful behaviors listed here are considered “normal” in our society and even promoted under the guise of “sexual liberation,” “self-expression,” and “the pursuit of happiness.” In other words, self-love. I don’t think it is happenstance that one of the latest coined terms these days is “influencer.” Social media, television, and the movie and music industries all play huge roles in shaping social standards and influence us in ways we may not even be aware of. They are piped into our homes through big screen TVs, stereos, computers, and video consoles. Either consciously or unconsciously we begin to imitate the behavior and human reasoning we choose to expose ourselves to. For example, the constant barrage of commercials on TV and web ads stimulates our appetite for stuff. Crime dramas can desensitize us to the real-life social ills of rape, incest, and murder. Even chick flicks on the Hallmark channel can tend to ingrain an expectation, especially for young people, that our own life dramas always end well. They may feed not just a desire but a demand for comfort and ease, or at least contribute to a feeling of personal injustice or despondence when life doesn’t cooperate–even when we rationally know life is not always a feel-good movie. All these are a bit more subtle forms of influence. The in-your-face influences are getting bolder every year, from the dark and occultic to the lewd and crude in movies and YouTube music videos. Maybe we don’t feel it intensely because we’re a lot like the fabled frog in the pot of slowly heated water that won’t jump out because he gets used to it so gradually. He doesn’t recognize at all the peril of being in a pot on a hot burner at dinner time. Brothers and sisters, our world is that pot and the devil’s hand is on the temperature control.
In the mid-eighties, in my late teens, I distinctly remember watching the old black and white movie Wuthering Heights with my grandma one night. I was engrossed in a scene where the female lead told her romantic interest that she’d let him hold her hand under her fan so that no one would see and think ill of the two. I was smiling at the sweetness of the scene yet highly amused by the antiquated courtship mores depicted in the movie. Then, all of a sudden, the station cut to a commercial of Cher dressed in one of her mostly mesh thong bodysuits paired with a leather jacket while she seductively posed and peddled the latest fitness gimmick. I was completely jarred to the core at the romantic innocence of the first image and the brazen sexualization of a body in the second. The temperature of the water went from cool to boiling in an instant!
Flash forward another thirty years and we now have stars like Madonna, J Lo, Lady Gaga, and Miley Cyrus all on board, flagships of the entertainment industry and its version of the female fantasy. Their stage outfits consist of fabric fig leaves patched to mesh, leather, and fishnet. What once would have been considered brothel attire is now lauded as “iconic.” Is it any wonder we have a Me-Too Movement? Like I’ve said, we can rationally know something isn’t real, like this false representation of the ideal woman and the resulting innuendo of her sexual availability. But many men still hope in the back of their minds that the illusion is reality, that somehow women always feel flattered to be desired by men. And some do when the man happens to have chiseled good-looks and sport six-pack abs. The flattery stops when it’s an aging politician making crude advances like an oh-so-romantic grab of one’s privates. Then real women get mad. Then twerking does not seem so sexy. I do not take sides on this. It is a two-way street involving gobs of money, a false sense of power, insatiable vanity, and a deep thirst for pleasure. It is called sin. Think about this. Nearly two millennia ago Paul said, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.” [Eph 5:15-16 ESV] If Paul could say that of his day and time, how much more so should we walk wisely in our day so late into end times fulfillment.
Our propensity to imitate the world in attitude, speech, conduct, dress, thought, goals, focus, and values is reflected in many churches today. For example, I’ve seen women in church who wear revealing ensembles appropriate for a bar. Whether they are a believer or not, it shows at least an attitude of grandstanding one’s body at a location that is supposed to be known, even to an outsider, as a place of worship. If you think I am being too critical, I know a pastor who would agree with you. When a brother complained one time of a woman’s skirt being too short, this pastor’s flip reply was, “Well, how short is too short? Should we measure?” Yet the heart of the matter is not creating a legalistic rule (or ruler!), but rather seeing our vanity and lack of love. All we need to do is ask ourselves if what we are wearing would make a brother (or sister) stumble. Paul said, “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.” [Rom 14:21 ESV] Out of love for others, believers should refrain from giving a visual impression of immodesty. We are to honor God with our bodies, not showcase them to the world. [1 Cor 6:20]
Now, I want to encourage young believers not to lose heart. I want to reassure older believers as well, those who may see themselves being influenced by these worldly attitudes and behaviors. Listen to the Holy Spirit’s conviction and confess and turn away from these sins. Choose to please your Abba, not yourself or the world. The Lord’s intent is always to correct for our good. He loves a humble heart: “For this is what the high and exalted One says–he who lives forever, whose name is holy: “I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.” [Isa 57:15 NIV] DO NOT let the devil come along, the original tempter, and berate you as being beyond God’s forgiveness or His ability to conform you to the image of His Son through the power of His grace. The scripture says, “And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says, “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”” [Heb 12:5-6 NIV] Just like any loving parent would, God disciplines us to protect us from the heartache and harm that come from sin.
Part II: Spoiler Alert! How NOT to Build An Amazing Church Culture
“Every church has a culture. Once you have a healthy church culture, the challenge is how to reproduce it. Here’s the secret sauce.” –Slug line from a church culture how-to web site
Not only are believers tempted to imitate the world, but we are also not immune from imitating other religious folks as well. Apparently, according to the above quoted blurb and subsequent article, Paul and the troubled church at Corinth did not get a copy of The Five Step Guide on How to Create An Amazing Church Culture and this “secret sauce.” The apostle seems to have failed because he did not eliminate enough toxic people. He must have not exuded enough passion, and did not appreciate the qualities of the movers and shakers while blaming the church’s current state of failure on the dead wood (those toxic people again!). Paul missed his “breakthrough” because he did not identify the values that would accomplish his vision for Corinth, values like “make it happen” (kind of sounds like a Nike ad?). Nor did he create short, memorable phrases that could be “exported” (i.e. that would catch on) with a follow-up temptation, I mean, question like, “Am I allowing what is good to to stand in the way of being great?” Huh? I think this speaker and author has hit his secret sauce a little too hard! Really. Secret sauce? The Church is not a Big Mac nor a candidate for these success-driven strategies that hijack its true power, message and mission. This crafty influence Satan is instigating from within Christianity’s walls and from the apostate church, this entire “church culture” idea, effectively supplants the work of the Holy Spirit with a man-centered vision and his own ability to execute it. The fruit is maimed lambs and a marked straying away from the pure spiritual milk of God’s word, so much so that the standards and values of a church are elevated far above sound scriptural doctrine and authority.
A good example of this is the Bethel megachurch in Redding, California that offers a school in the supernatural to teach its members how to prophecy, heal, and work various miracles to advance the Kingdom of God and bring heaven to earth. After three years of this school and a cool eleven grand, students are then fit to use their gifts for Kingdom service and become the heavy hitters they were called to be. While the entire theology is heretical, my point in this case is: Since when do the gifts of the Holy Spirit need to be taught? For that matter, since when do the gifts of the Holy Spirit need to be bought? Didn’t Peter rebuke Simon the magician harshly for offering to pay for the gift of receiving the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands? “Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money. But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money!” [Act 8:18, 20 ESV]
The Lord has taught me over the years, as I have grown in knowing His word, how to prayerfully dissect false teaching, of which I have been or would be completely unaware without His help. Please let me share them with you so that we can recognize the devil’s errors and always pray for the Lord’s wisdom. One of the ways that the enemy tried to temp Jesus was to offer a proof text from the bible to support an erroneous conclusion. All false teachers do this today. We need to counter such subterfuge with the entirety of God’s word, His heart behind it, the result (fruit) of the attitude or action, and the actual true biblical model practiced.
For example, when considering whether a school of the supernatural is a doctrinally sound idea, we can look to the authentic example recorded for us in the bible. Did Ezekiel go to some special school for his undergrad degree? Did he then go on to offer glowing insights and flattering promises of God’s plan to do great things through Israel’s leaders, those movers and shakers, and the whole nation? No. He didn’t mince words. He wasn’t a flim-flam man. I can’t think of any true prophet in the bible that did not correct error or warn the Lord’s people at some point to repent or face a coming judgement. Apparently, Ezekiel didn’t have the “anointing” that a Bethel education confers. He did not prophecy a glorious coming revival nor promise that the work and effort of man would reestablish God’s Kingdom. We can also ask: did the Apostle John consult a master of visions before writing Revelation? Did he do a second draft with corrections because he forgot to fact check the first draft, or felt it wasn’t convincing enough for the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief, or was told to spice it up because his publisher didn’t think it would sell? We can look for the source of the idea, too. Isn’t it rather the magic arts that stress teaching the next gen the tricks of the trade? Wasn’t it a nation steeped in false gods that felt compelled to teach Daniel all their own arts? Yet it was the wisdom that God GAVE him that proved far superior to that of Babylon’s own astrologers. Daniel’s faith caused his pagan peers and kings to stand up and take note, a faith that always pointed to the one true God.
Brothers and sisters, this is a blatant example, but there are more subtle ones. Consider the entire seeker-friendly model of doing church that has permeated the fold. Instead of preaching the gospel, the power of God for salvation to all who believe, of which we are not ashamed (?!), pastors are preaching hip and culturally-relevant sermons so as to not offend anyone by pointing out the sinful nature of man’s heart. In reality, this is not friendly or loving at all. Now, Jesus came to seek and save the lost. He laid down his life for the sheep. So should we. “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” [1 Jo 3:16 ESV]
So, let’s check some fruit. How many popular preachers today would give up their multi-million dollar ministries and mammoth church buildings and fat bank accounts for the good of the Lord’s sheep? Not only can we see rotten fruit, but we can also see absent fruit, like love. The seeker-friendly mindset cares not one whit for the eternal welfare of the lambs. It misleads even pastors into the corporate model of running a successful organization. They are lured into studying trends, survey results, and strategies that will put them on the religious map, on the up-and-coming list. They turn into hirelings that leave the sheep open to danger because they are focusing on bringing God glory through these man-made efforts and not on God himself. Jesus made it very clear to Peter that if he wanted to show his love for Him, he was to love His sheep: “When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.” [Jhn 21:15-17 NIV] Can the Lord’s point here not be clear?
The seeker-friendly, corporate model of doing church, however, is very much concerned with packing people into the Kingdom. Ahem. I mean church. More people mean more wallets and bigger budgets so that a new building is justified, so that we can bask in each others’ adulations of how the Lord is abundantly blessing our inferior human methods. The pursuit of numbers is esteemed, speaking truth is too controversial and old, nor is it as lucrative as giving people what they want or offering what is desirable. Having a successful ministry is the in thing, so much so that faithfulness to feed the lambs is given a back seat to feeding one’s ego. Having millions of followers on Facebook is coveted, following Jesus, bearing one’s cross, is spoken of less and less. Let’s use one of the falsehood detectors I’ve mentioned to test these attitudes. Would and did Moses, any of the prophets, or the apostles seek their own or their ministry’s popularity? Would their goal have been to get as many Facebook likes as possible or have their YouTube sermons go viral? Isn’t this people-pleasing disguised as “growing your ministry?”
Part III: A Bitter Pill to Swallow
The truth is that spiritually sick people want to avoid pain. Conviction is a lot like the setting of a broken bone or taking strong-tasting medicine. Sinners do not seek out encounters that humble them to the core. They do not seek to be discomfited by the Holy Spirit for their sin, vanity, and pride. They do not seek to peer in a mirror that accurately reflects the filthy rags and poverty of soul hidden under their respectable attire and “I’m a good person” mantra. It is human nature to avoid physical or emotional pain. We don’t seek God in the natural man. We seek any balm to ease our pain but balk at His offer of genuine healing. It is true of all pain we try to comfort with things like drugs, alcohol, food, sex, or any host of other escape mechanisms. It is true even of religion, especially the diluted gospel of these last days. The phrase, “religion is the opiate of the masses” isn’t so far off the mark nowadays, is it?
This is really just another case where man has the whole notion of “seeker-friendly” upside down and in reverse from the Lord’s vantage point. Isn’t it rather true that Christ seeks us? Isn’t it His initiative? David wrote under inspiration that “The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good. The LORD looks down from heaven on all mankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.” [Psa 14:1-3 NIV] An unsaved person seeks many things, even seemingly good and healthy things like a sense of belonging and feeling loved. But all of us have an impulse to turn away from the offense of the cross, from the prideful charade of external religious activity and man-made rules, from self-effort, and from self-love. Friendly people, coffee, and donuts emptied of the cross of Christ is just another Tupperware party, folks. [1 Cor 1:17]. Jesus said, “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” [Luk 7:23 ESV]
Really, how can using carnal methods draw people to Christ? Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” [Jhn 6:44 ESV] Brothers and sisters, this is a grievous error that we dare to subvert and replace the power of God in His work of salvation. If the intent in all our human manipulations is to reach the unchurched for Christ, isn’t it in reality just trying to make the gospel message more palatable? To make us less offensive? It is kind of like a group of church members I heard were going out on the street to hand out tracts. This is noble in itself. But these same folks were giving out candy with the tract to passersby and saying, “Jesus loves you.” They sadly wonder why they haven’t seen a revival from their efforts! Now, can you imagine Paul or Peter doing this? Milling about in the Jewish synagogues or Gentile gathering places and handing out phylacteries and a first century equivalent of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup? Is this the gospel? Is this the gospel which Paul spoke of when he said, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.” [Gal 3:1 ESV] Is this the gospel of which Paul said, “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” [1Co 1:22-24 NIV]
Now, what fruit do such human methods have? In the above example, the people on the street are assured of Jesus’ love and it is substantiated with their satisfied sweet tooth. What of sin? What of judgement? What of Jesus’ sacrificial love needed to suffer and die for us, not the proffered chocolate covered sweet sentiment? Would the apostles go about asking people (like many tracts do these days) how they can get to heaven? Did they glorify the reward, or the Rewarder? What did Jesus do? None of the apostles, nor Jesus, tried to appeal to the flesh: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” [Jhn 6:26 ESV] Our overweening concern about offending people is proved to be the people-pleasing bent of our flesh. We avoid criticism, a backlash, being disliked, a bad reputation, and more outright forms of persecution. We want to share in the glory of Christ but not His sufferings. [Phil 3:7-11]
Jesus always modeled a heart attuned to pleasing his Father, not man. We need to imitate Him. He did not placate his listeners, like so much of the New Age leaven that teaches humanity is one big happy family. Even Pope Francis has been quoted as saying that we are all the children of God. No. Jesus called the religious leaders of his day a brood of vipers, evil, and children of the devil. John said that becoming a child of God was a right given to those who received and believed in Jesus, not just any god. [John 1:12] Christian faith dares to uphold the specificity of one Mediator, not wishful generalizations in the name of unity, another false god. Did Paul mean unity in the sense that we ignore what is blatantly false for the sake of getting along? How did he view pagan religion? As one path among many to reach God? Then why even preach? This great man of faith suffered for the sake of the gospel and was beheaded for his faith in Christ not because Jesus was one of many gods, as if He has competing peers. Paul died a martyr because he knew “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” [Acts 4:12]
What about other teachers who talk about Jesus quite a bit but throw in an admixture of things that make us pause and say, “Hmm. That’s not quite right?” How did Paul handle these false teachers? He did not sit down and play patty-cake with them. Did he not say, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” [Gal 1:8-10 ESV] Paul stuck to the Lord’s script and did not improvise to suit his own or his audience’s mood. Our Savior did not withhold hard sayings, either, like denouncing popular practices of his day such as divorce, or demanding preeminent love for him, or challenging the status quo. No. He taught things like “you heard it was said….but I say” and “woe to you scribes and Pharisees.” [Matthew 5] He turned crowds away from him with a boldness not of this world. [John 6:60-67] Our Savior was always about his Father’s business, not big business, preaching the good news, not filling the pews. [Luke 2:49]
Part IV: A Worldly Mock-Up
There is a spiritual tide taking the Church out into a very worldly sea, my friends. It is in its essence a slick marketing model. The spiritually healthy things that sinners need, like truth, reproof, doctrinal correction, and exhortation to do the right thing are often left out because they do not make sales conversions. And this marketing model is being replicated and imitated more and more. It is growing in many churches throughout more affluent countries, not because it is blessed, but because man’s sinful propensity is to jump on every bandwagon and march under every banner that seems so successful, so righteous, and so God-honoring that we must do it, too. But these things honor our egos more than Christ. We are told we can and will do great things for God if we [fill in the blank]. This appeals to our flesh. We all want to be great in the Kingdom of Heaven. But few of us want to be servants. Few of us want to suffer. Few of us want to labor in the vineyard while encountering thorns. Few of us want to wait patiently for our heavenly reward. Few of us want to bear our cross and suffer like the examples throughout scripture that we should be imitating.
For example, I do not see Paul justifying his own private luxury ship to fulfill his busy ministry itinerary. I do not see John living out his earthly life in a twenty-two bedroom mansion. I do not see Peter’s preaching engagements prefaced with a rock-band like production or opening show. No. They were not kings. They were not celebrities. They were not among the who’s who of the upper echelons. Their winsome personalities did not draw the world to Christ. Rather, Jesus said, “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.” [Jhn 15:19 NIV] Our Lord speaks truth. He warned His disciples. They were indeed hated, mistreated, and killed by the world. The heroes of faith, those we actually read about in the bible and not in Christian media, were the ones who spoke truth, too, and were held in animosity because of it. [Heb 11:35-38]
Nowadays, we are being marketed spiritual greatness in the Kingdom sans the crown of thorns. And many are listening to this deception because all false teachers “are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. [1Jo 4:5 NIV] Brothers and sisters, it is better to be obedient to the Lord in the few things he gives us, to go unnoticed for them, and to desire only His glory–not our own popularity and success or visions of grandeur. [Matt 25:23] If we are faithful, He may give us more. That is the key. HE gives it. HE chooses the what, the when, and the how. If He impresses on us a clear need to care for an elderly parent but we would rather get out there and “do ministry,” guess what? Caring for one’s family honors God more than any of our grand ministry schemes ever could: “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” [1Ti 5:8 NIV] It starts with humble obedience, day by day and task by task, not by entertaining thoughts about what great things God will do through us in the coming years. If we do this we will lose sight of obedience today and get carried away by all of our illusions of tomorrow. We don’t put on our can-do, let’s-make-it-happen attitudes stoked by some religious pep talk and take heaven by storm. The Kingdom does not work that way. It would be like an army’s privates telling their commanding officer that they plan to lead a key offensive against an enemy stronghold because they felt pretty jazzed and wanted to make him proud. The commander would just shake his head at the gall, naivety, and foolishness of assuming his capitulation to and blessing of insubordination and a reversal of the chain of command. Samuel told Saul, “What is more pleasing to the LORD: your burnt offerings and sacrifices or your obedience to his voice? Listen! Obedience is better than sacrifice, and submission is better than offering the fat of rams. [1Sa 15:22 NLT]
So, we see most modern “ministry” is merely religious, feel-good marketing because it appeals to the carnal nature of man. Preaching has shifted to using a bait-and-switch method of outreach that appeals to the flesh. You can be okay with God and assured of a heavenly home. These are half truths that lead one to hell. The gift is stressed more than the Giver to the point of muting out preaching on repentance from sin, practicing sacrificial love, warning about false doctrine, or preparing us to face persecution for the sake of Christ. It’s the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too mentality found in almost any worldly ad campaign. We are following the crowd on how to “sell” our faith. We package it as nicely as we can to make it much to be desired. Heaven without hardship. A no-brainer offer. But what did Jesus warn? “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” [Mat 7:13-14 ESV] No wonder so many fall away when we sow on rocky ground. [Matt 13:20-21]
Now, we know who took the original fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil and made it so appealing. He first planted doubt in Eve’s mind, a suggestion to question the rightness of God’s command, so that the outright lie, “You will not die!,” could even sound somewhat credible. Disobedience became less weighty once the consequence of sin, death, was swept aside. All the negative aspects of disobedience were removed or not mentioned. That first slick salesman then proceeded to talk up the fruit’s amazing benefits, its key to knowledge and a god-like life. Sound like any of the overrated promises hawked today? How about something like my personal pet peeve, the “sowing a faith seed” gimmick. These TV hucksters promise you’ll get more from God back if you generously give to their ministry. You’ll see spiritual breakthrough. God’s blessings on you will flow! People long for these things. Yet what happens when the return on their investment isn’t seen? Often, bills go unpaid. In extreme cases, people may file for bankruptcy. Children can suffer for the financial need created. These are all interpersonal effects, but what about emotional? People can feel less-than for being tricked. People may become angry at God and abandon their faith when the rotten fruit falls. People can come to the wrong conclusions that God must not love them or their faith is tainted because the false promises held out are empty. See? Same tactic. Don’t mention any of the actual harmful consequences and just focus on the item’s desirability. It’s encroaching on the mainstream evangelical crowd, too. I can envision a billboard flashing the next gospel knockoff, something like: Ten Steps to Eternal Happiness–Now Showing at a Church Near You. Like a red tide, the slick methods of the world are leaching into how religion “does business.”
Most newer churches in America have coffee shops that rival Starbucks (remember when it was the old $40 Nesco coffee urns?). They have game rooms with big screen TVs and pool tables, rock concert-like worship music, holiday fanfare that uses stunts, and the like. It is no wonder that the cost of reaching the lost is snowballing with each added attraction needed to draw the crowd. One church unabashedly admits that these things are the bait to draw people in so they can “hear the gospel.” But is it the gospel these people are hearing? Or those half truths we mentioned? Or another gospel? And if the gospel in all its integrity can be heard, is this what the candy-tempted and gimmick-led crowd was seeking? A warm and fuzzy group of people, an opportunity to make new friends, an exciting modern atmosphere? Probably. And we aim to please. We have to go the extra mile to prove we’re a really cool bunch. It’s like we’re trying to make up for the bad rap Christianity gets, and justifiably so considering the human knack of determining guilt by association. Scandals like the Catholic church’s sexual abuse fiasco and subsequent cover-up, the bilking of the sheep in the name of tithing, or the psychological manipulation and dishonorable treatment of women by male church leaders. Friends, Jesus warned about the tares that would grow up with wheat. And by no means are we perfect, either. We can go the other extreme and we get stuck in the trap of selling a “perfect product” made and marketed by fallible people instead of a perfected people made and led by an infallible God, and we will despair. We should warn believers and unbelievers alike that we will all stand before God and give an account for what we have done. We need to remind the unsaved when they see hypocrisy what God will do with all the disobedient, the “workers of lawlessness.” We should expose them and their error, not bend over backwards to assure people we are not like them to the point of side-stepping straight talk about hard issues. We recuse ourselves from the dilemma by passing such topics off as too controversial, too offensive, or best left up to one’s “Christian freedom.” Lord, help us speak the truth in love.
Conclusion: Are We There Yet? YES!
So, what can we learn from all this? My hope is to reassure those that are reading the bible and asking themselves “What has happened to the Church?” that they are not alone. My prayers are for the misled sheep to gain spiritual sight so that their faith is not shipwrecked when they are stumbled. My purpose is to sift out error through the power of the Word. God’s Word is indeed a two-edged sword: it should be used to fight for and protect the children of God, but at the same time to reveal man’s sinful motives. It may be a wake-up call to some. My desire is for the lost to be truly found and not fall short of the promise. God’s heart and motive behind all He has said in his word is love, the same love that moved our God of glory to leave heaven for a foul manger, a finite body, and a cruel cross in order to restore our dignity and redeem us as His own.
Many may read this and explain it away by saying, “Well, our culture is different now so we need to use new methods, more relevant sermons, more modern means to reach the lost. Some claim the bible is no longer relevant in our modern culture. So, unlike the Bereans who searched the scriptures daily to confirm Paul and Silas’ gospel message, the answer nowadays is to disavow the power of God’s word and relegate it to obscurity instead of teaching its lifesaving truth. Wow. Isn’t this kind of like saying the bible is getting in the way of our ministry? My friends, do not fall for it. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” [Heb 13:8 ESV] So is His cross. If the gospel message was sufficient for the saving of souls in Paul’s day, if by it the Lord worked in power, if through it the Church was born, then it still retains its life-giving purpose. It remains the Church’s responsibility to preach it, regardless of our society’s criticism of our cherished book of God’s counsel, works, and words. If we feel we need to prop it up, tone it down, or tweak it to suit our own or another’s sensibilities, we are kowtowing to the masses at best. At worst, we are yielding to the spirit of the antichrist. We might even consider, too, that perhaps our ear-tickled world is nearing the point in time that Jesus referred to when He said, “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” [Luk 18:8 ESV]
“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” [Heb 13:7 ESV]
“I [Jesus] can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.” [Jhn 5:30 ESV]
“The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.” [Act 5:41 NIV]
Let us imitate our Lord and His faithful servants throughout the ages. Be encouraged to fight the good fight of the faith. Our power to do this comes from Him. We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. [Phil 4:13] Amen.