When Churches Lose Their Way
A friend received a mail-out this week, obviously part of a mass mailing. It advertised a new church start up in a community a few miles from where I live (in South Carolina). Actually, it’s a church that’s been around for a little while—the name isn’t important—but has recently partnered with a Texas mega-church to become one of their satellite campuses.
What this means is that the new church will have its own congregation, band, campus pastor and ministries. But the main pastor back in Texas will bring the sermon each week, broadcast live via the Internet. They won’t be an independent local church anymore but instead will be a part of the Texas church (this of course begs the question of what possible interest a mega-church a thousand miles and four states away could possibly have in planting a satellite campus in suburban Columbia, but we’ll leave that topic for another day).
Simulcast services are the fastest growing venue for modern churches, and many congregations are finding them indispensable in reaching new people. There are several in our own state, with New Spring Church—the state’s largest congregation and one of the largest in America—being the most obvious example. We do the same thing on a much smaller scale at my church, where we have a simulcast service across campus to another building that goes on at the same time as one of our main services in the worship center.
The point of my ramblings isn’t this new mode of doing church. If anything is obvious by this time in American church life, it’s how essential technology is in order to get the gospel across to our culture. Facebook, Twitter, television and the Internet are as necessary for today’s churches as horses were to my circuit-riding forebears in the nineteenth century.
What really caught my attention was the mail-out itself, and how it interfaced with modern culture. The more I looked at it, the more I realized that as churches continue to wrestle with effective means of communicating with lost people, the more we’re apt to do, well, dumb things. In today’s confused and confusing environment, it’s easy for churches to lose their way.
The mail-out advertised a new sermon series preached by the main pastor back in Texas. It apparently was sent out to tens of thousands homes in our area to gin up attendance for the new church’s grand opening. I posted the thing at the top of the blog and, as you can tell, it’s a take-off of Leonardo De Vinci’s famous painting, “The Last Supper,” that portrays Jesus the night before his crucifixion, gathered with his disciples for a final meal. For Christians, that supper sets the pattern for our most sacred worship event.
In the mail-out, though, it’s not the twelve disciples who surround the Lord. Instead, the faces of several well-known celebrities are superimposed on the bodies of the disciples. And this is where things start to get weird.
To the left of Jesus, for instance, instead of James spreading his arms in supplication of the Lord, there’s Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys NFL football team, with a stern look on his face as he plans how to make his next billion dollars. Beside him is Kim Kardashian, replacing Philip, with a vacant look on her immaculately made-up face. To her right, Labron James spins a basketball on his finger where Thomas used to sit.
Closest to Jesus, on his right side, is Ellen Degeneres instead of the beloved disciple, John. Peter has morphed into Lance Armstrong in full cycling gear. Finally, Katy Perry’s smiling face with that adorable pageboy ‘do sits atop Judas’ shoulders (I don’t know how she feels about that).
Thankfully, they didn’t replace the face of Jesus with the image of the Texas pastor, although surely they must have considered it.
The title of the upcoming sermon series is “What would Jesus say to…” with the implication that the Lord would have some special message to these celebrities. I guess the thought was that in our celebrity-crazed country, non-believers would be hooked into this kind of sermon series and want to come to the new church in order to find out what Jesus would say to them, too.
Maybe they will. I guess I can see how a non-believer might just do that. And in fact, the Texas mega-church has a track record of reaching tens of thousands of people with the gospel with just this kind of approach. Maybe there’s so little knowledge of the Bible today compared to so much immersion into our reality-TV-show-culture—where we have the illusion that the lives of the famous people on TV somehow have something to do with how we live—that presenting Katy Perry alongside Jesus will lead someone to trust Jesus as their Savior. Maybe.
But instead of lifting someone’s attention from Kim Kardashian to Jesus, wouldn’t this approach be just as likely to drive down someone’s possible interest in Jesus to Kardashian’s level of spiritual emptiness? I mean, the dynamic would be just as likely to work its way down as up, wouldn’t it? Maybe even more so, since our neo-pagan culture has much more familiarity with Kardashian than with Jesus.
And in my middle-aged, curmudgeonly brain, I just wonder if the visual imagery of Jesus with this crowd of celebrities doesn’t subtly communicate something that at best trivializes the gospel. At worst, you have to wonder if it doesn’t in fact demean the Lord.
So how exactly can we in churches effectively engage the culture for the sake of the gospel without losing our way? If anything, the “What Would Jesus Say To…” sermon series at least offers the opportunity, for some of us at least, to ask ourselves some questions. I’m really not trying to focus too much on this single situation. The fact is, every pastor I know is dealing with the same, urgent situation. We all want to do whatever it takes to reach the lost people around us. So here are the questions I’m asking myself, as I reflect on “What Would Jesus Say To…”:
In our rush to be relevant to the culture, how far are we willing to go in blending cultural values with the biblical gospel?
As the church engages the culture, where is the line that, if we cross it, we’ve gone too far?
At what point does the gospel lose its distinctiveness when we try to package it so that it’s more accessible to our culture?
Does good taste matter anymore?
Does reverence for Christian truths, symbols and figures matter anymore?
How do we do effective evangelism in a culture so secular that it has little familiarity with biblical truth?
In a culture that believes all truth is relative, what’s the practical difference between a sermon series that asks, “What would Jesus say to…” with one that asks, “What would the Buddha say to…” or “What would Muhammad say to…”?