I have a weekly column in our local newspaper. What follows is this week’s essay.
In these last couple of months, our church has spent our afternoon services studying American church history. I find it hard to overestimate the importance of a study like this. Churches are what they are today because of decisions that have been made in the past. Ignorance of that past almost inevitably means that we view “the way we do church now” as “the way that it’s always been done.” Only when we see that many of our contemporary church practices are innovations are we in position to ask whether those practices are biblical.
I’ve jokingly subtitled our series “From Jonathan Edwards to Joel Osteen.” Jonathan Edwards is widely considered to be the most brilliant American theologian (though he lived before the Revolution). He is best known for his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” and he represents the last flourish of Puritanism in America. Osteen, on the other hand, is a contemporary megachurch pastor, known for his bestselling work Your Best Life Now. He preaches a God who desires, above all things, that we be happy and have our ambitions fulfilled. The difference between these two men and their messages is gaping. The question is, how did Christianity in America transition from one to the other? Regardless of which vision of Christianity you prefer (and I definitely have a preference), the shift itself is intriguing.
One thing becomes readily apparent: whether consciously or not, ministries often view Christianity like a department store mannequin, capable of being outfitted in contemporary fashions as the seasons change. This tendency to re-form Christianity to meet the taste of culture has at least two consequences.
The first is that it cheapens Christianity. Think about it: nothing looks as silly as that which has just gone out of fashion. Try getting a thirty-something to show you her senior pictures, for an example. Churches doing ministry by chasing trends are at a distinct disadvantage, because they will almost always be a step behind the real culture-makers. The folks making the movies and music will always be edgier than the church, and therefore the cheap knock-offs the church offers will tend to look just like that: cheap knock-offs.
And Christianity, which is supposed to be timelessly true, ends up looking like the most dated thing going.
I think that this cheapening of Christianity is a serious issue, but the second consequence is of even greater importance. As Christians seek to re-dress the mannequin to meet the tastes of the culture, they almost inevitably change the message itself. Think back to Edwards and Osteen. For Edwards, our basic problem is sin against God, and our need is to be forgiven through Jesus Christ. For Osteen, our basic problem is a lack of self-worth and success, and our need is to believe that God wants to supply all these things. By any measure, these aren’t the same messages.
Let’s choose instead to follow Paul’s example. Disregarding the pressures of culture, he said, “But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23–24).