I gave my little recipes for making true and false Christians in a more humorous way in the past few days, but I want to discuss it in a more serious manner now in terms of where I see a lot of churches going.
First, more and more churches are hiring consultants that tell them what they need to do if they want this or that result in their church. These are largely sociological and psychological approaches to ministry that look toward what people in that particular community, or in general, best respond. I would argue that this is flawed at the get go. Now, I have to say, by way of qualification, I don’t mind people doing things in the community to gain opportunities to gain a hearing so that they can preach the gospel. My issue is the thinking that any of this stuff actually saves people itself. No one is made a Christian by any other means besides “being taught of God” through the gospel. We are told in John 6:44–47 that it is only through God drawing an individual through the preaching of the gospel that people believe and are given eternal life. So any other means, including cultural manipulations to draw people to Christ, are not only futile, but will end up working against the gospel rather than for it. So if you want to hold a carnival, or if you want to have a concert, or if you want to do this or that with the way you set up your church, you need to first know that it will be the preaching of the entire gospel in the context of the whole counsel of God in Scripture that exclusively saves a person. There is no other way of doing so, as the Scripture tells us there is no other means through which one can be saved.
Having said that, there is also the bait and switch model, where churches present one thing to draw people and then the gospel that calls them to something completely adverse to the way they were drawn. I’ll give you an example. A lot of emerging churches are putting up these “shock jock” signs that either have curse words or something close to it in order to convey the “we’re not religiously uptight like those other guys” feel. This then attracts people who don’t like to hear that they are sinners in need of repentance. Then, once inside, they hear the exact opposite of what the sign conveyed, i.e., that they are sinners in need of repentance. Hence, what was used to gain a hearing has now been revealed as deceptive and a marketing tool, and the person, if he or she becomes wise of it, realizes that he or she has been the victim of a sales pitch, which then makes the church look completely disingenuous. They are left then with a far more hypocritical church than they had before, since the church is calling people to be holy but had no regard for acting holy in the way that it drew people.
Then there is the other option, where the church draws by means of something unholy and then doesn’t call anyone to repentance once inside either; but of course, that’s not really a church at all, since the real church works according to God’s program by teaching us to repent, have faith, and work out our salvation with fear and trembling, as God’s call upon our lives from the foundation of the world is for His people to be holy and blameless before Him. The “church” that doesn’t call its members to further repentance toward and faith in Christ as Lord isn’t a church of believers but a club for unbelievers who want some sort of pseudo-spirituality to make themselves feel at peace with God on their way to hell.
So I’m not adverse to gaining an audience through various means, as long as it is being drawn to preach the gospel, and as long as it is drawn in light of the gospel’s purposes. But what I’m talking about today is the fact that people have begun to think that if they do this or that, their numbers will grow (which they will), and that in the drawing of those numbers by these methods, the church will make more Christians (which they won’t). This thinking can be seen in the idea that we should take surveys to find out what people like about religion and church, or to what sort of presentation of Christ people best respond, etc. In other words, this is done, not just to gain a hearing, but to replace the work of the gospel in converting. These things are done, not just to draw the crowd, but to get them to make a decision for Christ and to stay in the church. And that is where it all goes wrong.
These particular people (whether they be seeker-sensitive churches or emerging churches that do the exact same thing with a slight twist) do surveys, try to engage culture, look to be “relevant” for the following reason: they want to make converts by channeling what people like into a decision to follow Christ. Here’s the problem: When you are simply manipulating a person to make a decision by presenting Christ in terms of what they already like/prefer, you are only making an appearance of conversion, not participating in an actual one. Conversion has to do with changing the mind of the individual from rebellion against Christ as Lord, which is expressed in his likes and dislikes, toward a reception of Christ as Lord of his life, i.e., changing the trajectory of his likes and dislikes along with it. Remember, God’s purpose for us to become holy and blameless before Him, not merely pick up our ‘get out of hell free” card. What the person has done instead of preaching the Person and work of the Jesus Christ of Scripture, which is the catalyst through which true conversion takes place, is to preach a Jesus of Christ of the individual’s personal preferences/likes and dislikes, and in doing so, has aided the stasis of the individual’s rebellion against the true Christ, all the while believing himself to have been converted.
In other words, what has changed is not the sinner in need of repentance toward Christ, but the presentation of the Person and work of Christ in order to conform to the rebellious spirit of the sinner. A change has taken place alright, but it is a change of message, not of the sinner toward repentance. It is merely switching the labels on Christ and the devil, so that the devil, whose love for accommodating lies has always been well received, can now be presented as Christ, and the rebellious person who accepts him, as a Christian.
Hence, if I am more inclined by my culture to hear messages about a Christ accepts me no matter my continual rebellion against what He has spoken, that’s the Christ this particular church will preach to me. If I like a religious rebel Christ, that’s the Christ I’m going to get. If I like the Christ of social reform, that’s who I will get. Whatever Christ will cause me to become a “convert” is the Christ I will receive, because it is not the real Christ who is important, but my decision to follow “Christ.”
It reminds me of my favorite scene (and outtakes) from “Talladega Nights,” where Ricky Bobby and his best friend are going back and forth, discussing the ways they like to picture Jesus. My favorite one is, “I like to picture Jesus as a figure skater who does interpretive eye stances of my life’s journey.” Of course, the whole point of the scene is to point out how ridiculous it is to make up your own personal Jesus rather than to deal with the one who actually exists.
What this has done is created a “Christianity” with as many “Christs” as there are “Christians,” so that when the real Christ of Scripture comes along, He only seems to be one of many more palatable options; but Yahweh isn’t Baal, and Christ isn’t the devil, even when you switch names on them. Likewise, although Christ is therapeutic, He’s not primarily your therapist; although He’s a friend, He’s not your buddy; although He does not condemn those who are in Him, He will condemn those who are not; although He fills a void, He does not primarily exist to do so. Instead, He is primarily Lord and Savior, and all else follows if those two are received. Rejected in lieu of a more palatable option, and nothing follows from Christ, because the true Christ has been rejected. I may like rock stars, so I paint Christ as my favorite rock star, but that’s not Christ. I may like Mr. Rogers, but Mr. Rogers isn’t Christ. I may like my grandfather, but my grandfather isn’t Christ. I cannot paint Christ in a different light than Scripture without painting another Christ. And so, if I paint a more palatable Christ for each individual so that I can feel good about evangelizing and that God has used me to bring the masses to Himself, I am engaged in a deceptive enterprise, where I have merely become a master of illusions, where thousands appear to come to Christ, and no one actually does. In my mind, I will be filling the kingdom with souls, but the living Christ’s hands will remain empty.
This is because conversion changes the person, not Christ and the message that calls that person to repent and put his faith in the true Christ as Lord. I cannot curtail rebellion with a message that strokes rebellion’s ego. I cannot put an end to the devil’s reign over a person’s life by presenting Christ in such a way that even the devil himself would find attractive. The true Christ and His message is offensive to rebellious ears. It says, “God does not accept you as you are,” “You are under the wrath of God,” “You will perish unless you repent,” “Repent from your rebellion against God and put your life in the hands of the Lord Jesus Christ who had to die for your sins because God would not have accepted you otherwise,” “Now, live under the authority of Christ in your daily thoughts and actions, and remain teachable to His Word.”
None of this is what self worshiping individuals want to hear. They want to hear about a Christ who saves them while they seek out all that “life” has to offer. They want a Christ that will help them in their relationships, marriages, finances, etc. They want a Christ that will establish the lives that they have worked so hard to build up from their rebellion. They certainly don’t want the Christ of Scripture to come along and take over, as He will very clearly wreck most, if not all, they have so long desired to come to fruition.
So what is the purpose of surveys, consultants, programs designed around target groups, etc.? If it is all to make conversions, then don’t bother, as you will end up with just as many unbelievers as you would without them—only everyone will identify himself as such in the if you do this, being deceived by your ministry rather than brought to the truth through it. Is your ministry therefore a ministry of Christ, or a ministry of the adversary if it aids his purposes?
We wonder why there are so many false Christians in our society. We wonder why so many Christians have no ethics, don't know Christian theology, don't know their Bibles, live as the world lives, have children who live exactly as secular children do. Well, what did you think was going to happen with this model of "ministry"? Only the true Christ and the true gospel can save. You can't save with a false Christ or a false gospel. Sure, people like it when you tell them that Christ will make them rich, solve all of their problems in marriage, take away their loneliness, give them inspiration in life, etc. (and Christ in a way does do those things), but the problem is our broken relationship with God. Perhaps God will fix your marriage or perhaps He will ruin it, but your problem is that you need to have your relationship with God fixed, and it is only through the real Christ that such can be accomplished, and it is only through repentance and faith in the real gospel that God draws us to Christ. If we are only concerned with God being a cosmic maintenance man for our problems, or giving us inspiration in life, then our trajectory is still toward the self and is not in route toward a salvific relationship with Christ in the first place. Hence, our only solution to our problem is God drawing us through the preaching of the gospel that reconciles us to the true and living God through the One true Christ. Ergo, our only hope is that these churches around us stop trying to "save" us through their various marketing ploys and start preaching the entire gospel and the entire counsel of God while upholding the standard of holiness in Christ to which they are calling us.
Let us not manipulate the rebellious likes and dislikes of people in order to coerce them into an appearance of a decision for Christ when all they are doing is making a decision to re-label their rebellious likes and dislikes under “Pursuits of Christ.” We have enough salesman who promise miracles to us in our society. Let’s teach the whole counsel of God, the entirety of Scripture, that displays the Person and Work of Jesus Christ, so that a true picture can be given when we deliver the command, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.” And then, maybe, we'll actually start seeing people saved.