There are two songs that come to mind as a basis for why we should continuously peer into ourselves as individual disciples as well as our congregations to seek out any weaknesses, failures or areas in need of improvement:
“But if we are the body
Why aren’t His arms reaching?
Why aren’t His hands healing?
Why aren’t His words teaching?
And if we are the body
Why aren’t His feet going?
Why is His love not showing them there is a way?”
(If We Are the Body, Casting Crowns)
“Christ has no hands but our hands
to do His work tday.
He has no feet but our feet
to lead men in His way;
He has no tongue but our tongues
To tell men how He died,
He has no help but our help
To bring them to His side.
We are the only Bible
The careless world will read,
We are the sinner’s gospel,
We are the scoffers’ creed;
We are the Lord’s last message
Given in deed and word,
What if the type is crooked?
What if the print is blurred?
What if our hands are busy
With other things than His?
What if our feet are walking
Where sin’s allurement is?
What if our tongues are speaking
Of things His life would spurn,
How can we hope to help Him
And welcome His return?”
(The World’s Bible, J.E. Hamilton)
It is important to examine ourselves frequently because we love Christ, we love His body and we desire His will and without examination, damage and decay may develop, unnoticed.
On Facebook this morning, I quoted from Tim Keller’s The Prodigal God:
“Jesus’s teaching consistently attracted the irreligious while offending the Bible-believing, religious people of his day. However, in the main, our churches today do not have this effect. The kind of outsiders Jesus attracted are not attracted to contemporary churches, even our most avant-garde ones. We tend to draw conservative, buttoned-down, moralistic people. The licentious and liberated or the broken and marginal avoid church. That can only mean one thing. If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on people that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did.”
I was hoping to generate some discussion, because, as one friend pointed out, there is likely more than one reason for some of the church’s ineffectiveness today. Thankfully, there were some great insights:
“Perhaps the message is the same, but the way it’s delivered–the spirit, the words used, even the feel of the entire church experience–is not.” (Amber)
“Maybe our actions aren’t aligning with the actions of Christ either, which would obviously take away from whatever message we might be preaching? Or perhaps we do preach some of the same message, but then add our own cultural and political spins that would push away people who otherwise wouldn’t be pushed away?” (me)
“I wonder if it is because we are closed up in church buildings expecting people to come to us.” (Anne-Marie)
“Christians choose to “fight” really stupid battles. Like legislating morality. No amount of legislation is going to keep people from sinning. And it doesn’t matter because their heart hasn’t changed anyway. We want to put an end to “sin” instead of changing the heart. I think that has done a lot of damage.” (Kymberlee)
“I think the “martyr complex” may be a factor. By that I mean the mindset that anytime anyone disagrees with me or I am picked on for my beliefs, I seek solace in the fact that “we must suffer for Christ.” In reality, this isn’t really persecution, but me calling it that definitely turns people off. I remember watching a clip by Jon Stewart (“The Daily Show”) where he faux-sympathizes with Christians, along the lines of, “Oh, you’re such a minority in the U.S. But who knows, maybe someday one of you could even become President.” (Amber)
“So much can be said of the way we preach as well. I’ve seen that a lot of what comes from the pulpit isn’t preaching at all, but lambasting. From what I’ve heard from members and preachers alike is that that kind of preaching prevents people from bringing any non-believers out of fear for turning them off. We don’t need to compromise the truth but we do desperately need a spirit of winsomeness and love for the lost in our tone, choice of words and overall message. Jesus didn’t preach to the choir, why should we? If we preach as if we’re talking to non-believers (even if there are none in the audience) don’t be surprised if members start bringing some because they see that you can be trusted to ‘speak the truth in love.’
Not to mention Jesus himself saved his ‘lambasting’ not for the sinners or unclean, but for the self-righteous, religious pharisees. We often forget that the religious need to be ‘shaken’ by preaching as well. Jesus addressed two different groups of people in his sermon on the mount. But notice: it was not non-believers and believers he spoke to, but rather those who would follow him versus the self-righteous, moralistic, hypocritical, pharisaic types (Matthew 6:5-6). We shouldn’t neglect addressing the same group today.” (Thailer)
All of these thoughts should be taken into serious consideration by all Christians, and I hope to hear even more suggestions, opinions and experiences.
For this article, though, I want to expound upon Keller’s original point. I summarized in a comment:
“In his book, The Prodigal God, Keller demonstrates how the answer is neither religion nor irreligion: just as the younger brother in the parable [of the prodigal son] won’t be saved by his lawlessness, the elder brother can’t be saved by his moralism. Jesus reached the heart, not the externals. The heart change would lead to outward change, but Christ did not start by commanding the lawless to become religious. He showed them His grace and love, made a sacrifice and bid them to repent and follow Him.“
Yes, we may be preaching repentance just as Christ did and in that sense, we preach the same message as Him, but have we strayed from His methods, His approach?
Have we left out the heart? The gospel? Grace?
Have we only served to condemn the world, instead of proclaim good news for the lost?
Are we preaching with a “do as I say, not as I do” mentality by not showing the same mercy, compassion and service that Christ did?
Are we preaching from afar but neglecting to truly go into the world like He did? Are we shutting ourselves up in buildings and wondering why those on the outside don’t respond to our invitations to services or lectures or meetings?
In short, is our message only partially similar to His?
Like Kymberlee said, often we turn our message into empty moralism by pushing for godly living in all people, with or without their acceptance of Christ. We denounce their wordliness by highlighting their sins yet without trying to reach their heart and often without ever trying to reach or know them personally.
How many times have you seen or participated in lambasting some nameless unbeliever for some sinful decision? I’ve seen many post articles or stories in the news on Facebook with their own commentary about how so-and-so (who none of us will likely ever meet) should be ashamed of themselves for whatever behavior is being reported.
What is the purpose in this? What does it accomplish? What message does this send?
And so the gap widens between the church and the irreligious.
A friend posted a most interesting study about Christians today and whether they more closely resemble Jesus or Pharisees. I want to highlight one point that hit home for me:
““Many Christians are more concerned with what they call unrighteousness than they are with self-righteousness,” Kinnaman also said. “It’s a lot easier to point fingers at how the culture is immoral than it is to confront Christians in their comfortable spiritual patterns. Perhaps pastors and teachers might take another look at how and what they communicate. Do people somehow get the message that the ‘right action’ is more important than the ‘right attitude’? Do church leaders have a tendency to focus more on tangible results, like actions, because those are easier to see and measure than attitudes?“”
There is so much truth that needs to be digested by believers in that statement. Are we as careful and cautious and condemning of self-righteousness as we are of the lawlessness of others? With every condemnation and judgement we make of others, do we examine our own selves twice that? I’d venture to say that self-righteousness and moralism combined may be more dangerous than blatant disobedience. Why? Because it is rooted in pride, self-sufficiency in ourselves rather than God and even worse, it is blinding. It has the outward appearance of godliness because it doesn’t discern the heart. So, while one who is clearly far from God in their deeds and lifestyle can plainly see his lost condition, the religious person assumes he is close to God and is therefore in more danger of not seeing his own lost condition.
And the first thing we all need to do is acknowledge this as being possible in our lives.
While we all tend to gravitate in one direction or another in general, it is likely that we may experience both ends of the spectrum at times as well, and we therefore need to be on the lookout.
I also want to share a comment on that article from a reader:
“Very interesting article. In 21st century America, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who has never heard of Jesus or Christianity. What is sad, though, is that Christians have allowed themselves to become known less about what they are for, and more about what they are against, and we’re seeing more and more people turned off from it, particularly among the younger generation. We can sound the battle cry that there’s a war on the sanctity of marriage, and jump in our SUVs and mini-vans with the stick family decals and sit in traffic for an hour trying to cram into Chik-fil-a to make a political point, but what kind of message is that sending to those on the outside looking in? We can repost statuses about saving a fetus, but then dismiss the mother as a welfare leach mooching off OUR tax dollars. When a natural or man-made tragedy occurs, it’s too easy to blame it on “those” people, those heathens, or say it’s because we don’t have prayer in schools anymore (as long as there are math tests, there will always be prayer in schools). We can claim to “love the sinner, hate the sin,” but what message are we really sending about God’s love?“
I want to end with the context of our starting quote by Keller:
“It is hard for us to realize this today, but when Christianity first arose in the world it was not called a religion. It was the non-religion. Imagine the neighbors of early Christians asking them about their faith. “Where is your temple?” they’d ask. The Christians would reply that they didn’t have a temple. “But how could that be? Where do your priests labor?” The Christians would have replied that they didn’t have priests. “But..but..,” the neighbors would have sputtered, “where are the sacrifices made to please your gods?” The Christians would have responded that they did not make sacrifices anymore. Jesus himself was the temple to end all temples, the priest to end all priests, and the sacrifice to end all sacrifices.
No one had ever heard anything like this. So the Romans called them “atheists,” because what the Christians were saying about spiritual reality was unique and could not be classified with the other religions of the world. This parable [of the prodigal son] explains why they were absolutely right to call them atheists.
The irony of this should not be lost on us, standing as we do in the midst of the modern culture wars. To most people in our society, Christianity is religion and moralism. The only alternative to it (besides some other world religion) is pluralistic secularism. But from the beginning it was not so. Christianity was recognized as a tertium quid, something else entirely.
The crucial point here is that, in general, religiously observant people were offended by Jesus, but those estranged from religious and moral observance were intrigued and attracted to Him. We see this throughout the New Testament accounts of Jesus’s life. In every case where Jesus meets a religious person and a sexual outcast (Luke 7) or a religious person and a racial outcast (John 3,4) or a religious person and a political outcast (Luke 19), the outcast is the one who connects with Jesus and the elder-brother type does not. Jesus says to the respectable religious leaders “the tax collectors and the prostitutes enter the kingdom before you” (Matthew 21:31).
…If our churches aren’t appealing to younger brothers, they must be more full of elder brothers than we’d like to think.“