A monthly column that reflects on living in the Kingdom of God.
Especially for young church leaders including myself, the temptation to make the gospel ‘lite’ and ‘easy’ is an ever-present one. Having spent some time engaging students within and outside the church, it is a challenge that is never far away. There is the temptation within to ‘grow the church’ with an ‘accessible’ message, and there is the temptation without to present the Gospel and Christianity as a whole as something palatable for anyone. After all, especially with a postmodern generation that already finds Christianity so politically incorrect it’s not even funny, it makes sense to the rational mind to tone down the message. I still remember my first outreach mission in 1997. A number of us used our spring vacation to engage students at a nearby university with the gospel. Almost without exception and without hesitation, at the end of my sharing the message, student after student would say words to this effect: “that’s great. I want to get born again, but I still want to continue sleeping with my girlfriend.” Clearly, they had heard something about the message of the gospel even before I spoke to them. While I appreciated their honesty, the sad reality was that they would have been quite comfortable ‘accepting Christ’ without seeing the need to surrender their life to Him. As John Stott incisively wrote: “As we face the new millennium, we acknowledge that the state of the church is marked by growth without depth. Our zeal to go wider has not been matched with a commitment to go deeper. For many years, 25 or more, the church growth school has been dominant. I rejoice in the statistics, but we must say it is growth without depth. I believe it was Chuck Colson who said ‘The church is three thousand miles wide and an inch deep’. Many are babes in Christ”.
In many ways, Christianity ‘lite’ resembles the temptation Jesus faced in the desert as found in Luke’s gospel. Essentially, the temptation was to ‘gain the kingdoms of the world’ the easy way. Jesus of course ascended to his rightful position, but it was not the quick and easy way. Because it was not the quick and easy way, we are the grateful recipients of His obedience. What is the result of Christianity ‘lite’ downstream? The result is that everything suffers. Marriages and children suffer. If marriage is a call to the husband to love his wife as Christ loved the church, and for his wife to reciprocate in God honouring submission, what makes us think that a ring and a lavish wedding ceremony will turn an unsurrendered life into something else? No, the self-centredness we have without Christ as a single person is taken into marriage. If marriage suffers, children suffer, and if children suffer, the whole community suffers. Church life follows a similar pattern. Many church members who have never laid down their lives from the beginning feel like they are doing God a favour for simply showing up. Church planting, discipleship, generous gospel-centred giving and anything else that ‘doesn’t benefit me’ will probably not appear on the radar of many.
Culture suffers because we’ve lost our saltiness
It is not only the family and the church that suffers. The very culture around us suffers, because we have lost our distinctiveness as the salt and light. Instead of impacting our world because we are marching to a different drumbeat, we become subsumed into our surrounding culture. The ‘relevance’ we so dearly crave ironically makes us eternally irrelevant to a ‘post-truth’ culture. As discipleship evangelist Bill Hull points out, the low expectations we have of people have been to the detriment of Christianity and therefore the world at large: He writes: “Often pastors and leaders are the culprits. We make it acceptable to be Christian without becoming like Christ. We teach that a serious and devout life is optional — that it’s not evidence of salvation. I am grieved that I have been part of this deception. Even when we teach high commitment as the norm, in practice we give people a pass by accepting casual Christianity as normal and making discipleship the bastion of the brave and the elite.” In a sense we have become ‘wiser than Jesus’, thinking we can negate the need to preach repentance before someone receives Christ.
Does this mean we are to spend our days walking around with two-sided, full-body boards that say turn or burn? Are we to lose our minds in the process? No to both. We ought to still engage the culture in a thoughtful, compassionate way, without letting go of the hard-edged gospel. If we drink deeply from the stream of Christian thinkers through the ages, we need not fear intellectual suicide. In addition, the depth of relationship, so absent from our social media-driven society should also come alongside the call to surrender to Christ’s Lordship. Make no mistake, in preaching the gospel, our words are absolutely necessary, but an invitation to experience community with God’s people is also important. While a Christianity founded on genuine repentance is often absent, it should in fact be a key feature of ‘the normal Christian birth.’ True, repentance is expensive, but the costs of Christianity ‘lite’ are much higher and always disastrous in the long run.