Our Culture’s Gospel: Convenience—not Commitment
If one thing characterized the teaching of Jesus and the experience of the New Testament Church, it was commitment. If one thing characterizes our American culture, it is convenience. Can we hope to marry these two divergent ideas into a single, workable formula? If it can be done, our modern culture will achieve it. It strives to make the Gospel increasingly convenient, a Gospel without commitment.
In much of Jesus’ teaching, we see progressive revelation. We noted this with the preaching of the Kingdom. First, John said, “It is near” (Matthew 3:2). Jesus proclaimed, “It is near you”(Luke 10:9). Finally, He said, “It is within you” (Luke 17:21). However, when He spoke of commitment, nothing was progressive. Either you were, or you were not!
Jesus’ Call to Discipleship
For example, from the very beginning when Jesus called different individuals to become His disciples, they were asked to leave everything and follow Him. We see this with Peter and his brother Andrew (Mark 1:16, 17); James and his brother John (Mark 1:19, 20). In the narrative of the wealthy ruler who came to Jesus, the ruler asked Jesus how he could inherit eternal life (Mark 10:17). After some discussion about the ten commandments, Jesus got to the man’s real problem. He says to him,
“Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Mark 10:21
Eternal life and following Me, Jesus said, can’t have secondary status. The man, it reports, “went away sad, because he had great wealth.” He was looking for a “commitment-lite” Gospel! Jesus only offers the total commitment variety.
In one of their less glorious moments, the disciples immediately jump on this incident as an opportunity to see what they might be getting for rewards. Peter, the spokesperson, reminds Jesus that “we have left everything to follow you!” (Mark 10:28). Right after this, Jesus reveals He is on His way to Jerusalem to be tortured and killed (Mark 10:32-34). He is going to lay down His life for them. Even that news does not deter James and John who, through their mother, ask for the most prominent positions in Jesus’ Kingdom.
Jesus used this series of requests (the wealthy ruler, Peter, and James and John) to underscore that commitment is the standard in His Church—not convenience. Even in His culture, the successful life was measured by leisure and convenience, having servants and by “lording it over” others. But it was not to be so with His followers:
“Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:43-45
In His Kingdom, He calls disciples to living commitment. Later, as Jesus is approaching Jerusalem during that final week before His crucifixion, He again talks to His disciples about commitment.
“Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ (See above) If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” John 15:20
Following His death and resurrection, Jesus meets the disciples by the Sea of Galilee (Tiberias). You will recall that Peter had failed Jesus, denied Him three times and fled during His trial and crucifixion (John 18:26, 27). Peter’s faith had failed when convenience won out over commitment. There, by the same Galilee where He had first called him to be His disciple, Jesus reinstates Peter. He says to him, “Follow me!” Jesus reinforces the basis for discipleship: It is complete commitment to Him. In effect, Jesus is saying that without commitment discipleship is impossible! (John 21:15-22). On this occasion Peter learns he, too, will be crucified.
Now the questions come. Is this what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ in our present culture? Is this the gospel of twentieth century America? Is this what the church growth consultants recommend to achieve mega-church dimensions? Is this how we “market” the gospel today?
No, we have a different approach. While Jesus preached complete commitment, we promote a gospel of convenience. We rationalize this approach in the name of cultural relevance. “People aren’t used to commitment!” So the reason offered today for presenting a gospel of convenience is that we don’t want to “scare people off” by introducing this commitment business too soon. Let’s get them into the church first and talk of commitment later.
In the secular advertising world, they call this “bait and switch.” If so, we are trying to deceive and trick people by presenting a Christianity without the cross. If God believed in a gospel of convenience like that, Jesus would never have come to earth to be flogged and nailed to a Roman cross.
Following Christ involves cost and requires commitment. Nothing else is more certain in Scripture. When the disciples introduced Jesus to some visiting Greeks, listen to what He told them:
“Jesus replied, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you the truth, unless a kernal of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.” John 12:23-26 (see also Luke 14:25-35)
That requirement will never change (Galatians 1:6-10). He promised, “You will be scattered, separated and persecuted. Take heart! I will be with you and I have overcome the world” (John 16:32, 33). If all of the convenience programs used currently to create the Church of Modernity had been used in New Testament times, we would in all likelihood be pagans today. Is that where we are headed?
Entertainment Displaces Content
Three big “E”s characterize many church programs today. We have already discussed Emotionalism in the previous chapter. Here, we will touch on Entertainment and Egoism.
To begin with, we want to distinguish between entertaining and interesting. The word “interesting” is derived from the same Latin idiom meaning, “it is important.” As we examine Jesus preaching and teaching, two elements are prominent: He talked about subjects that were “of interest” to His listeners and were important to them as well.
Let’s review some of Jesus’ topics. He talked much about eternity, life after death, sin, God’s holiness and love, repentance and forgiveness, peace, etc. These were all topics that people of His time found interesting and were important to them. These subjects are still relevant today because people’s hearts have not changed.
Jesus also used illustrations that His listeners understood. Generally, Israel had an agricultural economy. People knew about sheep and shepherds. They knew about cultivating the soil and the toil of developing a good harvest. Their staple food was bread. Jesus applied things from routine life to eternal life. He was about His Father’s business to redeem people. His miracles to restore physical health were but metaphors for the spiritual healing He wanted to bring to people everywhere.
Yes, Jesus was interesting, but He was not entertaining. How is that? For starters, let’s look at some synonyms of the word entertainment: Amusement, diversion, distraction, recreation, fun, play, good time, novelty, pleasure, enjoyment. The goal of being interesting is to focus the listener’s attention on the subject and to increase his or her understanding. The problem with being entertaining is that it entices the listener away from the subject. Interest is an appeal to thought and the mind; entertainment appeals to feelings and the emotion. Jesus did not confuse the two.
Jesus refused to be party to providing entertainment. For example, as Pilate is interrogating Jesus, the Roman Governor discovers that He is from Galilee. King Herod, who had jurisdiction over Galilee, happened to be in Jerusalem then. So Pilate has Jesus taken to Herod. At that point, we pick up the narrative from Luke’s Gospel:
“When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform some miracle. He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer.” (Emphasis added) Luke 23:8, 9
Was King Herod really interested in what Jesus had to say, or did he want entertainment? Look at what follows when Jesus would not entertain him:
“Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him. Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate. That day Herod and Pilate became friends—before this they had been enemies.” Luke 23:11, 12
Much like our present-day secular culture, Herod was big on entertainment. Jesus certainly understood this about King Herod. This is first noticed when King Herod imprisoned John the Baptist.
“Now Herod had arrested John and bound him and put him in prison because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, for John had been saying to him: ‘It is not lawful for you to have her.’ (Herod had married his brother’s ex-wife.) Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered him a prophet. “On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for them and pleased Herod so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked.” Matthew 14:3-7
In a burst of entertainment induced emotion King Herod contradicts his better political instincts. Responding to his impulsive and public oath, Herodias tells her daughter to ask King Herod for the head of John the Baptist. The entertainer conveyed the request and the king had to fulfill his promise. John the Baptist was beheaded. News of his execution spread quickly throughout the region and was conveyed to Jesus (Matthew 14:9-13).
Now a few years later, Jesus stands before the same King Herod. Undoubtedly, what had taken place earlier with John the Baptist must have entered Jesus’ thinking. He knew King Herod kept up with events in his kingdom. He was knowledgeable about religion and about Jesus. His desire to have Jesus “perform” for him was not that much different from having the daughter of Herodias dance for him. To him, it was just another form of entertainment.
Jesus refused to make the Gospel of the Everlasting Father a “featured attraction” even for a king who had the power to release him. He was not going to perform “in person.” Jesus understood the world of difference between being interested and being entertained. He knew He was about to give up His life to atone for the sin of the world. How could He degrade the power He shared with the Father by offering a miracle as entertainment to this king?
How times have changed! In many churches and on many television programs, entertainment is king! Something Jesus, the Son of God would not dare to do is common practice for many church programs and services. Since church leaders will not label the trash we are in such a rush to promote, produce, and present as entertainment, then perhaps its time for church members to stand up and call it what it is. But be warned! If you do, be fully prepared to be put down and ridiculed because you are opposing this “new, innovative” approach to evangelism. It is a new wave to church growth—entertainment. After all, it works! Why shouldn’t we use it?
Jesus rejected entertainment evangelism.
What better opportunity to endorse the use of entertainment than before King Herod? He could “reach” him at the level of his interest, but Jesus would not participate in it. If Jesus rejected entertainment evangelism why should people who claim to be His followers bend to our secular culture rather than obey the Lord of the Church? Must we bow down to the standards of our present culture?
Entertainment evangelism appeals to the emotions, not the volitional part of our beings. Because entertainment depends on an emotional response, it does more than corrupt the listener. The entertainer’s ego is at risk of cancerous growth. The satisfaction of the person on stage becomes just as important as the salvation of the person in sin (Acts 8:9-24). So we have completed the circle: Entertainment, Emotion and Ego. Three big “E’s” of our secular culture gain full status in the programs of the Church of Modernity.
Lest the reader thinks our words are negative and harsh, let’s listen to what Jesus said:
“The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven.
“He replied, . . . ‘A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.’ Jesus then left them and went away.” Matthew 16:1-4
In his letter to the Corinthian church, the Apostle Paul echoes Jesus’s rejection of entertainment to promote the gospel. Remember, the Corinthian church had gone big time into the entertainment, emotion and ego business. Paul was writing a corrective letter to bring them back to the truth (I Corinthians 2:1-5; 3:1-4). In part, he says, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God” (see I Corinthians 1:18-24). Why? “So that no one may boast before him” (1:29).
When we tailor the Gospel to the standards and desires of our secular culture, we replace God’s assessment of humanity and message to the world with human reason. “For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” (I Corin-thians 1:25).
The power of the Gospel comes from the resurrection of Jesus and is displayed in the transformed lives He produces.
“It is because of him (God) that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written, ‘Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.” I Corinthians 1:30, 31 (Jeremiah 9:24)
God, through His Son, Jesus, has provided everything necessary to bring us into relationship with Himself. Pathetic pieces of entertainment put together to “attract people to the Gospel” have to be condemned for what they are: Garbage (Philippians 3:7-11; II Timothy 4:3-5). The issues that Jesus continually talked about are still important today. People are still interested in eternity, life after death, heaven and hell, and relationship with God. They need to hear the entire truth directly from God’s Word, without the trappings of cultural manipulation.
Evangelism Is Reduced to Marketing
We turn now to what probably is the saddest chapter in the church’s drift into secular humanism. Few departures from Scripture in church history have ended up as radical as the turning of evangelism into the marketing schemes we are seeing today. However, as we examine our modern culture, the evolution of marketing-based evangelism is not difficult to understand.
If emotion and convenience can replace conviction and commitment as the basis of appeal to the Gospel, then we can reduce evangelism to marketing. Using a marketing strategy to fill our churches is much easier than preaching the everlasting Gospel to deliver people from sin and hell.
All of the major goals of the “church growth” movement can be met with the right marketing techniques. Church growth as presented today is a human enterprise. Church leaders and pastors get the credit for church growth success. They debase God’s work of reconciliation to our secular culture’s methods of marketing a bar of soap, a weight reduction program or any other commercial product or service. Our secular culture is directing our methods.
Evangelism provides the baseline for all subsequent church activity. Accordingly, it is imperative that we return to the Scriptures to see what evangelism is all about. The New Testament writers are singularly clear about the preaching of the cross and the reaching of the lost. For them, evangelism was a spiritual transaction to take a person from death to life, from living in the flesh to living in the Spirit, from an earthly to a heavenly perspective.
Jesus Himself declared the principle on which evangelism functions. The New Testament church, the Church of the Firstborn, followed His example. Here is how Jesus explained it to a Jewish leader of His time:
“Jesus answered, ‘I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, “You must be born again.” The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear the sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’ ” John 3:5-8
To Nicodemus, the Jewish religious leader, evangelism was appropriate human ancestry. It perplexed him that some “new birth” was necessary since he was already a child of Abraham, with the right human connections. If anyone could be brought into the Kingdom of God through using an emotional pitch with evangelism, surely Nicodemus was a good candidate. Jesus, however, said that Nicodemus needed a radical transaction of his spirit that only God the Holy Spirit could accomplish. It is completely unseen to human eyes. It is not something that can be programmed and produced through human wisdom.
Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus informs His disciples that He is going to send them the Counselor—the Holy Spirit. As the “Counselor” the Holy Spirit would be guiding and teaching them as His (Jesus) followers.
” ‘All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.’ ” John 14:25, 26
Before the Apostle John ever wrote his gospel, God gave him the Holy Spirit to teach him how things were to be done. It was not John’s secular culture that was his guide to evangelism. It was the Holy Spirit of God. The promise of the Holy Spirit’s work with the disciples was different from His role regarding the unbelieving world. Listen as Jesus tells His disciples:
“ ‘Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will convince the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and in regard to judgment, because the prince of this world (Satan) now stands condemned.’ ” John 16:8-11
Jesus does not leave any room for questioning about Who is to bring conviction. That is the work of the Holy Spirit. He acts upon people to bring conviction of sin, the need for right living and judgment to come. To presume that expertly programmed, entertaining and emotional appeals can somehow do a better job than the Eternal Spirit of God is not only the height of arrogance, it is impossible. Jesus did not give His disciples power to bring people into conviction. It was not a “mix” of entertainment and the Spirit. It is only the Holy Spirit’s work.
He said they would receive power to proclaim the Gospel and to be witnesses of Jesus throughout the world (Acts 1:6-9). The only Person who can bring people to life spiritually is the Holy Spirit. He alone it is Who can reach and shepherd a person to God.
So, the Apostle Paul, a powerful preacher, modeled his own preaching on what Jesus taught the disciples.
“When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God . . . My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom but on God’s power.” I Corinthians 2:1-5
Had Paul attempted to reproduce the work of the Holy Spirit through “men’s wisdom” the results would have shown it. He would have had “quick and dramatic growth” but it would have been the sowing on rocky ground about which Jesus warned. The harvest would not have survived the Roman persecutions that soon erupted. Since the Holy Spirit was responsible for the results, the Apostle wrote with confidence,
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us . . . (nothing) will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:35-39
The Influence of Humanism
Secular humanism in our present culture has influenced the Church of Modernity. To see the entent, let’s review the elements that we have looked at in the last two chapters. Humanism (and our culture):
1. Ignores God’s eternal nature and power. Human effort is what is important.
2. Exalts the secular over the spiritual. Technological advances prove that the material world is reality and the spiritual world is illusion.
3. Recognizes “new and modern” over true and accurate. “New-fashioned” is always better than old-fashioned in light to today’s “advances.”
4. Elevates public acceptance as the proof of truth. Convincing people is the validation of truth. It’s true if it works.
5. Uses emotions to achieve results. Superficial acceptance is ratified through emotional satisfaction. Conviction is unnecessary: It’s right because it feels good.
6. Endorses attachment without true commitment. The goal is numerical success, not purity of heart.
7. Lowers commitment to the convenience level. Life is easier, less complicated and more fun without commitments.
8. Provides entertainment as a placebo to hide reality. Screens out the truth about the serious and lasting certainties of life.
9. Produces marketing success through “program selling” and manipulation. The object is to sell the product; improve the bottom line for the product, whatever it takes.
In the process of adopting many of these characteristics, the Church of Modernity has pushed aside Biblical principles and developed a new gospel. This is not unique to our time. The Apostle Paul encountered the same kind of circumstance. We have alluded to conditions he confronted in the church at Corinth. He also spoke directly to those problems in his letter to the church in Galatia.
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned.
“Am I now trying to win approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.” Galatians 1:6-10
Those powerful and inspired words express Paul’s unconditional stand for the Gospel that he had presented. His condemnation of any who would alter his message doesn’t require explanation. Severe consequences await any who would tamper with the Gospel. In the remainder of Galatians chapters one and two, the Apostle presents his credentials and authority for what he has just said. Then, in the third chapter he returns to the subject of 1:6-10, writing:
“You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” Galatians 3:1-3
In other words, Paul says, “You started the business of being a Christian with God. Are you now turning to another source to finish it off?” Is the Gospel a matter of revelation from God? Are His standards something based on human design and effort? Did Jesus fully consummate salvation or are we supposed to help Him out? Can you alter these principles of the Gospel and continue to call it God’s grace? What did you commit yourself to? Perhaps I missed something that you can help me to understand!
These same questions need to be asked today of the Church of Modernity. In Paul’s time and with the church of Galatia, the question was one of Christian faith being taken over by observance of the law. At the other extreme was the desire for self indulgence and gratification of the sinful nature.
“You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather serve one another in love.” Galatians 5:13
Today, rather than what Paul argued for, we see the Church of the Living God trying to be the “Church of the Latest Gimmick.” Church programs gain status and certification based on of what’s “in” from secular culture no matter how far “out” it is from Biblical truth. The church’s calling is not to follow the “latest thing” but to commit itself to God’s eternal truth as revealed in Scripture.
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” II Timothy 3: 16, 17
That is the one place where we will not go wrong. The Bible is the last Word on everything for the Church of the Firstborn.
So there is always hope. God forgives when there is true repentance. But there is a choice to be made. Who’s power are we trusting—God’s or the world’s? Either/Or. The individual, the church leader and pastor, and the church itself must make the choice.