By Ross Engel –
What the Hell is going on here?
In September, I sat through an absolute train-wreck of a conference. I heard a presentation from a schismatic wordsmith who makes up fancy words that don’t mean anything, I heard someone else encourage us to turn the church into a business, and I talked to some very confused ministry folks. I came to the realization that so many people just don’t know why the church exists. Who can blame them? So many of the ideas being shared today are Law-driven (try harder, do more) and manipulative.
I sat through this veritable “self-help” seminar, cleverly disguised as a ministry conference, wondering to myself, “why, why, why!?” Or maybe, more accurately, “What. The. Hell!”
While I was there I was reminded of a great quote from Dr. Rod Rosenbladt, at Concordia University Irvine, who said,
“When our focus shifts from ‘Christ outside of me, dying for me,’ to ‘Christ inside of me, improving me,’ then the result is despair.”
Many church workers are paralyzed with despair and confusion because they keep getting fed the malarkey that Christ exists to help us be better or help us do better. And the only way you know you’re actually doing better is by the number of people in your building, a big budget, and community recognition.
Which brings me to what’s really eating at me today.
When did the church stop trusting in the power and efficacy of God’s Word? And worse, when did pastors stop trusting in the performative power of God’s Word?
We read over and over again in Scripture that the Word of God is powerful. In Hebrews 4:12 we read, “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
And in Isaiah 55:10-11 we read, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, And do not return there without watering the earth, And making it bear and sprout, And furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; So will My Word be which goes forth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty, Without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.”
These and many other passages reflect the perfomative Word of God, which does exactly what it is supposed to accomplish. So why don’t pastors and churches believe this wholeheartedly anymore? Why adopt gimmicks and other nonsense as though God’s Word just isn’t enough?
Gimmicks become a must when one doesn’t trust the proclamation of God’s Word. Whether preached, chanted, sang, spoken, or read aloud, more and more churches and pastors don’t trust that God is going to do something when His Word is proclaimed. Or more accurately, they don’t think God is going to do the thing that they want God to do (like increasing butts in pews and dollars in the offering plate). They forget that sometimes the result of God’s Word isn’t growth that can be measured, but rather spiritual growth and the nourishing and securing of the remnant of God’s people.
Pastors and Churches that don’t trust the Word end up using stunts and ploys to transmogrify the bride of Christ.
In March, a pastor made the news when he offered that the church would pay for members to get a tattoo of their logo. Is this a clever idea done in the name of evangelism and outreach? Maybe, though I’m not quite sure this stunt delivers the goods Christ won for us on the cross.
The issue isn’t the tattoo, but rather the fact that pastors and churches aren’t willing to just boldly and clearly proclaim Christ and His Word, to deliver God’s gifts without finding some sort of gimmicky way to do it.
The same pastor now wants to make a name for himself by setting a Guinness World record by speaking for 50 hours straight. What a waste of time! Time is so precious and this gimmick detracts from actual Word and Sacrament ministry. In 50 hours, how much actual Word and Sacrament ministry could take place? How much time could be spent nourishing a family or taking care of the flock?
I once had a pastor tell me “Publicity is publicity, whether good or bad. Just get your name out there.” Somehow I don’t think our Lord desires for His bride to serve as the headline or centerfold of the local gossip rag. A favorite professor of mine often said, “The church is the bride of Christ, NOT the culture’s whore.”
Has the bride of Christ been dressed up to be the culture’s whore? It sadly seems that way when I survey the terrain of American Christianity. Worship services seem more centered on individual experiences, emotions are manipulated, and the end goal is entertainment. It is not about delivering God’s gifts. Congregations seek ways to make a name for themselves in their community through gimmicks and cleverness. And in the midst of it all, God’s Word and His precious gifts, the Means of Grace given to His people, get shuffled off to the side to make way for the next new fad, the next shiny gimmick.
There will always be temptations to adopt the latest and greatest gimmicks and fads in the church. But instead of searching for the next best thing, I challenge the church to start being the faithful bride of Christ. And to the Under-shepherds of God’s flock, hand over the goods! Give the gifts of God, 200 proof, to the flock that God has entrusted to your care and get rid of all the nonsense that obscures what God has to offer in His precious Means of Grace! Because ultimately, that’s what you’re here to do!