A few months ago, I came across a Church website with a strap-line that went something like:
‘You’re incredible! We’re here to celebrate you!
Contrast this with how Jesus announces the Kingdom of God:
‘Repent: the Kingdom of Heaven is near!
What’s going on here? It’s worth lingering over these contrasting approaches because, whilst it’s clearly an extreme example, the website slogan is part of a broader cultural shift in modern evangelicalism.
Look more carefully at the Church’s slogan first. The sales pitch pivots around the good news that there is something amazing and glorious about us that’s worth celebrating. The second part of the strap-line – we want you, the customer, to allow us to join in the celebration – is essentially motivated by the first part part- that there is something about you, the customer, that demands our attention and applause. So we want you to allow us to join in your story.
Now contrast Jesus’ pitch. His announcement of the Kingdom of God turns this approach on its head. With the command to ‘Repent’, he’s telling us that we are not as good as we think we are. Worse, what’s wrong with you, Jesus is saying, can’t be sorted with a slight adjustment of the hand on the tiller: the coming Kingdom calls for a complete turn-around of behaviour and perspective.
Here, the first part of Jesus’ message depends upon the second part. Why should we repent? Because something much more important than you is on the horizon. The King is coming and you need to prepare yourself to be part of His Kingdom and His story. He is graciously allowing you to join him and become a part of his story.
Comparing the 2 approaches, Jesus’ message seems hopelessly out of kilter with the spirit of the age. Would he seriously expect to get much of a response today? Who is going to turn up at a Church trumpeting a message like that? If this is true, perhaps our Church website is onto something…
In today’s culture, we don’t want to come to Church to sing ‘Tell me the old, old story’ but rather, ‘Let me tell you my story!’ Forget forcing our kids to sing ‘we are weak but he is strong’, now you can buy the T-shirt: ‘I may be little, but to God I’m big stuff!’
Indeed, in some circles the cross itself has been turned into another symbol of self-worth. Doesn’t God love us with such a passion that it took his Son to the cross? Then we must be worth saving. Wow. You’re incredible!
Wade Clark Roof, who has been studying the religious journey of baby boomers since the mid-1980s, sees these changing perspectives as a ‘radical shift from an ethic of self-denial to an ethic of self-fulfilment’. This results in a religion ‘functionally and spatially located in the self … Individuals are free to create their own religious faith and consecrate their own sacred space … This kind of religious individualist neither wants, nor feels the need for, formal religious institutions.’
And so, to make the point, in one wide-ranging study of modern religions carried out by UCLA sociologists, the authors tell of a woman named Sheila who invented and then practised her very own religion. Its creed and liturgical structures were so unique that she named the religion after herself: ‘Sheilaism’.
What do you think? By attempting to be relevant to our culture have we over-engineered the Gospel to the extent that it’s no longer, well, the Gospel? Indeed, is it a false Gospel that should be denounced as heresy? How much of the emphasis about ‘human flourishing’ coming out of our Churches is simply piggybacking onto the same dynamic?
In my next post I’m going to explore this a bit further. I’m also going to try to explain why some churches that claim to be gospel-centred still think it’s OK to adopt this approach as a front-end pitch in order to attract their target audience into an initial engagement with discipleship.