Gimmicky Christianity

How many of us have seen the commercials, the advertisements, the marketing schemes that try and sell us a product or service? In a few weeks the Super Bowl will come to a T.V. near you, along with all the multi-million dollar commercials. Today Super Bowl commercials have become almost as important as the actual game—especially if you do not care for the teams playing. Many of these commercials, advertisements, and marketing schemes attempt to allure and entice people to buy a product, try a medication, or go on a vacation. As an allurement or enticement companies create gimmicks. These gimmicks can be subtle, like an airbrush model, famous person, a doctored picture or photo; on the other hand, these gimmicks can be obvious, like giving a percentage off or having a BOGO deal. In the end, companies display their product in the best image possible, with the best deal possible, and wait for the people to come consume. But here’s the thing about commercials, advertisements, and marketing schemes, they are an easy way to connect to consumers, but they can carry a high price tag with low effect.

According to Bloomberg’s Businessweek, “product or service recommendations made by friends, co-workers, or neighbors you know and trust—is still the most effective way to win new customers.” The article goes on to note, “While traditional advertising such as TV spots and newspaper ads, as well as digital marketing such as sponsored links of Google, can build awareness, they increasingly do not resonate with target audiences.” Therefore, the slick, glossy, gimmicky, advertisements have not over-taken word of mouth, living, breathing, billboards of everyday life—namely real people.

Here’s the point that I want to make, there is always a tendency for the church to be affected by culture rather than adapting to and contextualizing to culture. Looking at various practices and methods of churches to reach people over the past twenty-five years or so, it seems that there has been, and is, a tendency for churches to be gimmicky. Let me define “Gimmicky Christianity;” “Gimmicky Christianity” is elevating practices and/or methods to the place of preeminence. In other words, it is making idols out of tools that should be used to reach people. And these idols come to replace the hardcore practice of discipleship—being conformed into the image of Jesus.

“Gimmicky Christianity” can come in a variety of forms, but it mostly comes in how we “sell” church, or Christianity. Some sell the image of Christianity and their church’s image by stating—“We are not like all the other churches.” By putting down other churches in the area, they try and elevate what they have to offer as if they are better than the others—as if they are perfect and will not let you down. Their “image” becomes the gimmick. Others sell their church, and Christianity by where they meet. By meeting in a school, movie theatre, a bar, dance studio, or night club they think somehow they are “going” to where the people are. While I have no issues regarding where churches meet, the problem with this “sell” (this mentality) is that churches are still asking people to come to them. In other words, it is still a “Come and See” mentality—even though it is done in a “neutral” space. Nevertheless, the space becomes the gimmick. Still other churches “sell” Christianity with their sleek environments, advertisements, and generic talks as if to arise the sleeping backslidden believer, the religiously immune, the Darwinian agnostic to come and check us out. Therefore, the presentation, the advertisement, and the way we “spin” church becomes the gimmick.

While I am not against, but in many cases for, these practices, I believe we can do the gospel an injustice when we come to rely on these practices to the point of elevating them over the hard, dirty, difficult, and demanding call of daily gospel living and sharing among our family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors. In other words, I believe we miss the boat if we come to rely on gimmicks to reach people rather than trusting the gospel and the work of the gospel to reach people. These very well may be ways we contextualize our environments, worship services, buildings, and language in a twenty-first century culture; but the last time I checked, contextualization, while important, is not preeminent and has never transformed lives. Contextualization (i,e, methods, practices, language, etc.) is only tools by which we bring people the gospel. Worshipping contextualization as preeminent would be like us ascribing preeminent value on the kind of phone we have and forgetting that the phone is just the tool by which communicate and connect with others. It is just the medium by which we connect with people. The value and transformation does not rest with the phone (although it may have transformed the way we communicate) but with what happens on the the phone. Therefore, we must not forget or muddy the power of the gospel and the transformation of the gospel by relying more on the avenues by which we bring or communicate the gospel. As Paul tells the Corinthians, ”

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (1 Cor 2:1-5).

The gospel should be the filter and intent by which we do everything. If not, we will come to rely more on our tools, our methods, and our practices, elevating them to idolatry status.

But why is it that we have the tendency to rely more on the mediums and not the message/truth itself? If we were honest, the reason we have the tendency to rely, or depend, on the advertisements and gimmicks is because they are much easier than the demanding, difficult, and dirty call of living and sharing the gospel. Yet, while discipleship (gospel living) is dirty, difficult, and demanding, I would argue that just as having a living, breathing, walking, and talking billboard is the best way to resonate and reach people with a product or service, it is the Jesus way of reaching and resonating with people far from God. In all honesty while many may enjoy our methods, practices and environments we create, this is not what they are ultimately looking for. They are looking for substance; they are looking for truth. They are not looking for the ultimate weekend entertainment hour, they can get that elsewhere. In the end, people—especially the ones that are skeptical about Jesus, Christianity, and the church—are more curious and investigative of whether or not Jesus is real, loving, gracious and one who can transform their lives, while at the same time curious and investigative of whether or not his people really believe that he is real, loving, gracious and the transformer of lives.

Our desire as churches should be for the gospel to shape and mold our church body in a way that catapults individuals to live and share the gospel as well as the corporate body to look for ways to demonstrate and bring the gospel to bear on and in the community at large. And therefore, the number one reason why we would want people to be part of our church, or for people to invite others to gather with the church is not because of where we meet, our sleek environments, fancy productions, or because of how different we are from “our grandma’s church,” but because God has transformed lives and he is using this body of believers to help shape and mold people into his image. Let us, the church, be careful not to make Jesus, Christianity, or church about the next and latest gimmick—the medium of how we communicate the gospel. But rather let us lead our people to be authentic Christians; Christians who are living, breathing, walking, and talking examples of people who have been, and are continually being, transformed by the gospel. I believe when we put our focus here, over time we will see that this strategy will be the most biblical, the most effective, and the most strategic way of reaching people far from God. For it will be the most authentic, rather than gimmicky, way of communicating the transforming power of King Jesus.

The Nature and Identity of the Church

This morning I was thinking about the nature of the church. I believe it is important for leaders as well as believers to know and understand who we are as the church, the people of God. As a pastor it is important for me to lead the church to embrace their nature as God’s people so that we can be who he desires us to be, which will lead us to do what he desires us to do.

In brief, here are three ways to describe the nature of the church.

1)   The Church is Missional

A few years ago I read a statement that had a deep and lasting impact in my life. Christopher Wright, author of The Mission of God, wrote, “It is not that God’s church has a mission, but that God’s mission has a church.” This is one of my favorite statements in regards to understanding the mission of God. When it comes to understanding God’s mission and how the church is missional there are two important concepts.

First, it is important to understand that God has been on mission ever since the fall. Therefore, mission is not created with the birth of the church. Mission existed long before the church—granted that mission is much more defined and clearer within the church. Because God is on mission, his people participate in that mission, which means they are missional—they are participants, conduits, vehicles, by which God is advancing his mission in the world.

Second, we must understand what the mission of God is in the world. This is a hotly debated topic today. While I do not have the time this morning to dive into the deep waters of this hotly debated topic, suffice it to say that I believe that the mission of God is to redeem, restore, and rescue man from their sin, while at the same time beginning the reversal of the curse of sin in both man and the world—which has caused and causes brokenness, damage, distortion, and suffering—by inaugurating his kingdom through the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ and promising to consummate his kingdom at the return of Christ. At Christ’s second return, when he comes to consummate the kingdom, God’s mission would be complete, for he will have fully redeemed, restored, and renewed his creation by fully reversing the curse and effects of sin.

Understanding that the church is missional prevents it from becoming a spiritual institution, country club, and dispenser of spiritual consumption. It is a body that is advancing King Jesus’ mission in the world. Thus, we are active not passive; focused not confused; moving not stifled; a missional body not a religious gathering.

2)   The Church is Communal

In his book, When the Church was a Family, Joseph Hellerman has a chapter titled, “Salvation as a Community-Creating Event.” I love that title because I believe it gets at the heart of what the Gospel does—it creates a community, a people. One is not saved outside the church, but saved into the church. When one comes to faith in Christ, they are birthed into a new family. As Cyprian of Carthage penned, “You cannot have God for your Father unless you have the church for your Mother.”

Church isn’t about a bunch of individual “saved” people gathering together singing some songs and hearing a sermonette and dispersing back into suburbia-land only to wait until the next week to come and sing some songs and get a sermonic fix. If this is how people view church, as a place one goes to sing some songs and hear a sermon, they have missed the boat in regards to the true nature of the church. Attending a weekly corporate worship gathering where songs are sang, prayers are offered, tithes are collected, sacraments are administered, and the word is preached is part of what we do as the church, it is not the complete picture.

The church is not some fan-base for Jesus—like some sports team’s fan base—where they show up on Sundays, cheer for Jesus with one another and then go to their respective homes never to encounter another fan during the week. This is where uber-individualism many times prevents the church from being the church. As a community (a family), the believers submit to each other for accountability, mutually encourage one another, care for one another, love on one another, and meet the needs of one another. As a community, the believers call one another, Facebook one another, go to dinner with one another, discuss with one another, cry with one another, laugh with one another, pray with one another, talk theology with one another, and share struggles with one another.

The enemies of the communal essence of the church are individualism, busyness, the virtual world (television and internet), and self-absorption. It is important for believers to understand that the nature of community moves from me to we, and from we to HE. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12:

 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is  with Christ…. For the body does not consists of one member but of many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body…. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body…. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it (1 Cor 12:12,14,15,16,19,20,27).

3)   The Church is Formational

Last, but not least, the third essence is formation. The notion of formation can be traced all the way back to Genesis 2 where God forms man from the dust. In addition, it can be found in the creation of God’s people, Israel, and how he desired to form them into his people so that they may be a light to the nations. Therefore, when it comes to the Church in the New Testament, the church should be driven by formation, not necessarily information. Please do not misunderstand what I am advocating. I am not saying we should not teach the Bible, have Bible studies, read devotionally, etc. What I am saying is that we should not be driven by information, but by formation.

If you look over the last fifty years or so of Christianity in North America we have had a lot of teaching and dispensing of information. However, this has not necessarily led to the church being formed into the image of Jesus. Therefore, we must understand that part of our nature is to allow God to shape, mold, conform, and form us into the image of Jesus so that we might be the people he has called us to be—people who live for his glory, under his rule and reign, for the good of the world.

This idea of formation should change the way we teach. We no longer teach for the sole purpose of content and dispensing information, but taking the information and truth we study and moving it to form us and shape us into the image of Jesus. The litmus test to whether or not one is being formed is if they are being more like Jesus, which also includes them being missional and communal.

Let us not forget as believers, as those part of the church, that our nature, identity and essence is wrapped up in Jesus. And if our identity and nature is wrapped up in Jesus we will be missional, communal, and formational.

My Life: A Clanging Cymbal or Beautiful Music?

If your kids are like mine, at some point they scream. Not only do they scream, but they keep on screaming. It is noisy, loud, obnoxious, and quite irritating. On the other hand, there are times when we are in the car, or at home, where they break out into a beautiful rendition of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” “Burning in My Soul,” or “One Thing Remains,” as well as a host of other songs. As they sing, there is a sweetness, a pureness, and a beauty accompanied behind a a five and seven year old singing.

Today, I am reminded how important it is for our lives, the way we move, live, speak, act, and respond in and to this world to match up with the beauty and glory of what we believe. If we believe that Jesus is the King of Glory who has come to set things right–in this world and in our lives–it is imperative that we allow him to live through us in this world. If not, what happens is that our lives, our actions, our responses, our movement, and our speaking becomes like the noisy sounds of children yelling at the top of their lungs. And we all know, there is nothing beautiful, harmonious, and sweet about that. If our lives are lived like a noisy sound of a child yelling, there will be this constant rejection and ignorance of Christ based upon the noise coming out of his children.

However, on the other hand, if our lives become this sweet, pleasant, harmonious sound of children singing, we may gain the attention of those around us. In fact, we may peak their interests enough (through the way we live, move, act, speak, and respond in an to the world) that they want to hear more about the origin of the songs coming from our life. When we do, we will be able to tell them that our sounds, our singing, our living come from our great God and King, Jesus.

So, the question becomes how can we make sure that our lives are not a clanging cymbal, but a sweet, pleasant, harmonious sound of praise emanating from our lives? Paul gives us the answer in 1 Corinthians 13. The answer is simply love. We can have all the spiritual giftedness, understand the Bible backwards and forwards, give as much money as we want, sacrifice to great lengths for spiritual advancement, but if we do not have love, we are just a “noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” Therefore, for our lives to be sweet, pleasant, and harmonious we must love. And our love must be vertical before it is horizontal. We must love God with all our heart, soul, and might, so that we may love our neighbor as ourselves. For when we love God, his love flows through us as a beautiful symphony of praise, disseminating beautiful music from all areas of our life.

In conclusion, are you, the way you are living, a noisy gong and clanging cymbal like that of a screaming child, which is leaving a bad aftertaste in the mouths of those who do not know Christ? Or, is your life a beautiful symphony of sweet, pleasant, harmonious music like that of a young child singing their little hearts out, which is spreading the life, light, and love of Christ? May our lives produce the sweet, pleasant, harmonious, beautiful, and powerful music of Christ and how he is reversing the curse of sin and conforming our lives as he intended them to be. I think we will come to find that people will respond much better to this music rather than the other.

Desiring a Breakout Year

In a couple of weeks I will be starting a new series around the whole idea of Breakout. The definition I am working from is, “a sudden advance to a new level.” I believe many people each year desire a breakout in some area of their life, whether it be in a marriage, parenting, a career, a health slump, remodeling a home, overcoming a habit, or breaking the monotony (mundaneness) of life. Obviously these areas center more around individuals, but I would say that the whole notion of breakout resides also within businesses, organizations, and [yes] even churches. Maybe business has been stale, creative juices have been clogged, profits have been down, membership has been down, attendance has been dwindling (or at a standstill), and morale is either in existent or discourage mode. And what is needed, what is longed for is a breakout—a movement to the next level.

We must understand that breaking-out is natural, or at least the very idea is. It is natural because growth is natural. God has designed and wired us to grow—whether physically, spiritually, relationally, emotionally, creatively, organizationally, etc. In all simplicity, to breakout is to grow. Therefore, when we want to breakout, we simply want to grow, to breakout of our current state. Where do you want a breakout? Where do you need a breakout?

Let’s say—for some odd reason—you do not want, or need, a breakout in any area of your life. I would turn to you and say, are you perfect? You mean there is nothing in your marriage you could do better, or improve in? You mean that your parenting and the way you respond, talk to, spend time with your kids couldn’t improve? You mean that there is nothing in your work or vocation that you could improve in? You mean that you handle your finances exactly the way you want—spending, saving, and giving? You mean the way you treat people and handle your friendships is flawless? Obviously, there is no one who lives life perfectly (if so, you must be part of the Trinity). Therefore, if we were honest, we all at some level need a breakout.

I know there are some areas in my life that I am desiring a breakout. For one, I want to finish my dissertation next year so I can receive my PhD. In addition, I want to lead my children and family better, more closer to King Jesus. And furthermore, I desire for the church I pastor, Western Oaks, to experience a breakout year. God has greatly used them and has primed them for a sudden advancement to the next level. My prayer for next year is that none of my breakouts would be in my own power, for my own glory, nor for my own good; but would be in the power of the Spirit, for the glory of Jesus, for the good of others.

Where do you need a breakout? Where do you need growth? Where do you want God to take you? So how do we move from here to there? How do we breakout from here to there? How do we grow from here to there? For one, in order to have a breakout we must have a breakdown. This is where we will begin January 12. See you then!

In the meantime, write down some areas you want, or need, a breakout. Also, have a happy new year!