This is not new, but I think plenty of people need to hear it: the core message of the Church is the gospel – the good news of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, proclaiming him as Lord and saviour. If we’re not emphasizing this message, we are doing church badly. “But we have awesome music”, “but we are seeing lots of people making a [n emotionally manipulated and under-informed?] commitment”, “but we’re really serving people”, “but we have an awesome community” … but no. The gospel has implications and it pays back careful reflection abundantly; I am not advocating dumbing it down or over-simplification – but we should not confuse the central message with the consequences for us as community. It is the same God who saves and sanctifies, and he achieves it through the same message; let’s focus on that.
“Of course we’re emphasizing this”, many Christians will say. But are we really, or do we just pay lip service to the rock on which the Church is built? Are we more excited about the gospel, or about additional ‘prophetic’ words that have very little to do with it? Are we more excited about the gospel, or about the claim that Jesus wants to heal someone/everyone? Are we more excited about the gospel, or about a new prayer technique or spiritual discipline? No doubt I could go on, but perhaps you get the point already.
It occurred to me today that the Church in NZ – the collective body of Jesus followers – has too often bought into the “but wait there’s more” mentality. We feel we need an extra little hook to get people interested in the gospel, and too often that hook becomes the biggest one on the line, weighing it down unduly and distorting the message through unnecessary noise (if I may mix my line metaphors).
As an example, I attended a service yesterday evening at a large city church in a mainline denomination (that narrows it down quite a bit, for the discerning). The music was, as always, professionally done, though I wasn’t a big fan of the songs played and I think less time could be spent on that part of the service, but I was most interested in the sermon anyway; each to their own when it comes to music, so long as the main message is on track. The sermon wasn’t bad – I had gone with quite high hopes, as I’d heard the preacher before and he seems to tend to stick quite closely to the text and to put together a coherent message coming from the passage. Yesterday the general gist was very good, and I was quite happy overall – I learnt some things that I hadn’t noticed in the passage before.
There were four main points coming out of the passage (the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15), and it was good to work through them. The focus however seemed to be particularly on the last point, which was set up as something extra and unexpected and counter-cultural; in short, it was claimed that the gospel involves God honouring us (not just saving us from sin), that kiwis don’t like honouring successful people and therefore we should buck the trend and honour and celebrate success rather than settling for bland, boring mediocrity. I agree that we shouldn’t settle for mediocrity, and that we should be joyful and creative in how we do church. But I don’t see how this (as distinct from the fact that God honours/blesses in a remarkable way those he saves) comes from the passage in question, and I don’t see why this idea should be allowed to overshadow the main points regarding mission, supposedly the theme of the talk – such as God’s preoccupation with and love for those not in relationship with Him.
While the talk was overall expository, coming from the passage, the odd emphasis near the end served to remind me that preachers really need to avoid arguing strongly for things which the passage does not say – otherwise (perhaps like the gnostics?) we’re left trusting in the secret, inaccessible/inscrutable knowledge of the preacher rather than the public and testable claims of the gospel as found in Scripture. Whether you’re a Christian or not, I believe it is in your interest for preachers to clearly explain the central Christian message, in order that you can make up your mind on this – on who Jesus is and why/if it matters – rather than being distracted by tangents and arcs leading elsewhere.