Jay Lemke wrote a fantastic article in the most recent issue of Modern Reformation magazine, which you can read by clicking here. You might have to sign up for a free trial to read the article. But I highly recommend it and think it’s well worth your time. He has written a lot of what I’ve been thinking recently, but better than I could ever write it. If you’re going to read either my post or his article, do me (and him) a favor and read his. I draw heavily from his with my response below.
Lemke touches on a lot of difficult issues in the general evangelical church today, from a lack of Bible reading to a lack of interest in doctrine, to a lack of true spiritual teaching in America’s churches. Much research on the state of the current church is discouraging – while over 90 percent of Americans own a Bible, less than half of them read it at least once a week. Further, less than half could name any of the four Gospels and 75 percent think that the Bible teaches that “God helps those who help themselves” (it doesn’t).
“I suspect that for many Americans the Bible seems like the type of thing one should have in a home, sort of like a treadmill. But while it sells more copies than Harry Potter, more often than not it winds up with a layer of dust under the bed or smelling of mold in a box down in the basement.”
Why are Americans so bored with the Bible and bored by church? Lemke says that churches are trying to remedy this by upping their marketing efforts. While I am in the marketing/public relations field, the tactics used in marketing are no way to solve the problem of what the White Horse Inn calls “Christless Christianity.”
Churches have tried making church “cool” or “fun” and as a result have made Christianity not about sin and Christ’s death but about having a better, more contented life. While many Christians would agree and point to Joel Osteen as the scapegoat, this problem is much bigger than Osteen’s “Better Life Now.” In fact, this philosophy exists in many churches and people don’t realize they are sitting under this type of teaching. It’s evident as moralistic teaching or as attracting people with entertainment, music, energy, and positive feelings. This is especially evident in the megachurches (of which I wrote a research paper recently that I can email if you want it), as well as Rick Warren’s “Purpose Driven Church” network and Bill Hybel’s Willow Creek network. These churches seem to take Paul’s charge to be everything to all people too far and water down the gospel in order to attract people.
This is where Lemke’s “bait and switch” comes in. It’s a public relations tactic designed to attract and “hook” people with what they want, and then give them the truth. What churches should be giving is not what people think they want, but with what they need – a call to repentance and forgiveness of sins found only in Christ.
“We’ll bring people in with music, food, fun, and games; and we’ll make them think being a Christian is about whatever interests them. We’ll play on their felt needs, and we’ll do research to determine what ‘seekers’ want in a church. We’ll stick our collective fingers in the air and then we’ll become what people want us to be.”
This is a practice pioneered by the Willow Creek Community Church, a 10,000+ member megachurch in the Chicago area. Countless churches have adopted this marketing strategy in order to be “seeker sensitive.” After baiting people into the church, they eventually get around to telling attendees (as Lemke says) “Oh, by the way, Jesus died for your sins.”
In reality, church isn’t about being seeker-sensitive. It’s about God’s elect people having the privilege of meeting with him. “Seekers” should absolutely be welcomed to church, but the service should not cater to their wants, needs, or comfort level. Jesus was the furthest thing from seeker sensitive. He told the rich young ruler difficult things for him to hear; he tells the hungry crowds that he is the bread of life instead of giving into their wants (and hungry stomachs) again. John tells us that many disciples left Jesus after hearing him talk about eternal life found only through him.
“In fact, by our modern standards, Jesus could be called a poor evangelist. He never had someone fill out a card to show how many people had ‘made the decision to follow him…’ It seems that Jesus is always making it more difficult to follow him than the modern Christian church would make seekers believe.”
Christianity and the Bible is not about improving ourselves or feeling good or finding self-fulfillment. Instead, the entire Bible is a story pointing to Christ and our need for him because of our sinful separation from God. It is about how through Christ alone we are seen as righteous before a Holy God who condemns sin.
Why then is there a disillusionment and a boredom with the Bible and with “doctrine?” I agree with Lemke that the story of redemption through Christ found in the Bible is “the most amazing and beautiful story ever told.” Some critics say that doctrine is dull, stuffy, and divisive. But the doctrine of Jesus Christ is the most exciting, hopeful, and effective doctrine ever written. No amount of seeker-friendliness, emotional music, or fluffy moralistic teaching can outdo it.
Christianity is hard. It’s not a cure-all for discontent in this world, and it’s not the easy road to self-fulfillment. Being a true disciple of Jesus Christ is hard. It’s not a wide, flowery path but a narrow, difficult one. I’d like to close with a couple quotations Lemke uses (and one by him):
“We are constantly assured that the churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine – ‘dull dogma’ as people call it. The fact is the precise opposite. It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man – and the dogma is the drama.” – Dorothy Sayers, British novelist.
“It is sad to find so many professing Christians who appear to regard the wrath of God as something for which they need to make an apology, or at least they wish there is no such thing.” – A.W. Pink
“The Bible is not about improving ourselves, but about how Jesus alone sets us right before a Holy God who is angry with sin. It is about how we did nothing to deserve any of this love from God…The church must stop turning Christianity into something it’s not. Only then, when people really understand how much trouble they are in from God and how much he sacrificed for them, will they turn to the Bible as the 66 love letters it really is, and truly enjoy reading the Word of God.” – Jay Lemke