An interesting thing has happened in to the church in the last few decades. America is becoming an increasingly unchurched nation. We have the tradition of church attendance largely due to our Judeo-Christian heritage. Our parents and grandparents largely attended church. Increasingly though Americans are eschewing church while “spirituality” is on the rise. Personally this became apparent to me while viewing profiles on mainstream dating sites of all places. More and more people are listing their faith as “spiritual but not religious.” I’ve exchanged messages with several and what they mean by that is all over the map. So we are more “spiritual” than ever but traditional “religion” is on the decline.
So the modern Christian church has tried to adapt to the changing population. Increasingly churches are catering to the unchurched. They feature contemporary style music, light-weight sermons, sermon series focused on “real issues”, and offer attractions like coffee bars and a plethora of children’s programs. Those things are not bad or wrong. However my concern is that in many of these churches their “preachers”, “tickle men’s ears.”
In 2 Timothy 4:3-4 Paul wrote about this very thing:
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.
I call this the Tony Robbins Church. I am not knocking Tony Robbins. So far as I know he does not represent himself as a pastor, preacher, or theologian. He is a motivational speaker and I don’t think most people feel like they are attending church when going to a Tony Robbins seminar. Yet the church has seen men like Norman Vicent Peale, Robert Schuller, and now Joel Osteen and Jesse Duplantis (to name but a few) who do not preach the Gospel. In their zeal to be every positive they fail to preach the whole Word of God. They purposely skip those verses that deal with sin, damnation, punishment, etc. They preach a “health and wealth” Gospel. After all if they were to preach the whole Gospel of God they would not be able to afford their extensive TV networks! No one wants to hear about their sin! How negative. We would all love to believe that God wants us to be health, wealthy, and wise. He wants us to have that fancy house and luxury car and of course perfect health to go along with it.
Jesse Deplantis put it this way:
“I’ve never had the Lord say, ‘Jesse, I think that car is a little bit too nice.’ I’ve had vehicles and the Lord said, ‘Would you please go park that at your house. Don’t put that in front of my house. I don’t want people to think that I’m a poor God.'” (Jesse Duplantis, “When Will We Yield To The Anointing of Wealth II,” April 10, 2005)
Really Jesse? Where do you find that in Scripture? Did not Jesus and his disciples live often sleep outdoors with little more than the clothes on their back? Which of the apostles was rich? How many died of old age? History is full of the greatest pillars of the faith being martyred for their faith. Was their faith deficient and that is why they suffered thus? No most of the pillars of the faith died terrible deaths and lived very modest lives. Richness is not a sin. Neither though is poverty or poor health. God desires us to be spiritually rich and spiritually healthy. Guess what? We are all going to die and we can’t take anything with us. Do you still think God wants us all to be healthy and wealthy? No God does not want us to be poor or in bad health but He cares more for our spiritual well-being than He does for our material well-being. Those who teach otherwise are NOT teaching the true Gospel.
In Acts 20:24 Luke wrote:
For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.
Yes these men do not proclaim the whole counsel of God. They only preach what they feel are the positive verses. As I wrote in my previous blog article, the Good News is understandable only by knowing the “bad news.”
In a way they are lazy and concerned only with tickling ears and filling seats (oh and raking in donations). You see the truth is when we understand why God allows poverty, poor health, and suffering we see them through wholly new eyes. My dear sister died nearly a year ago from a nine month battle with pancreatic cancer. In the midst of dying her comment was not why God chose to inflict her but “why not” her. She understood that God was good and her cancer, thought fatal, was not a punishment. Her cancer drew her closer to God than anything else in her life ever had. She died in the arms of Jesus. At peace. Did her faith fail her because her health failed or did her faith triumph over her failed health?
Joel Osteen may pack the house and draw millions more via television but are they hearing the whole Gospel? Or are the only hearing those things that make them feel good about themselves?
God does not want us to feel good about ourselves. He wants us to glory in Him. When our will aligns with His will we will have all the desires of our hearts. Someone once wrote that “The purpose of the church gathered is to edify the saints. The purpose of the church scattered is to seek and save the lost.” I believe we have lost our vision. The church is the gathering of God’s people to worship Him and edify one another. It is outside of church, in our everyday lives, that we “seek and save the lost.” In other words, the primary mode of evangelism happens in everyday life. Inviting people to church and entertain or motivating them is not evangelism although God can and does use churches to save people. We must remember that when the church gathers our purpose is to worship God and edify each other. As such we would expect no less than the whole Gospel.
In an interview with Christianity Today, published on Oct. 5, 1984, Robert Schuller was quoted as saying:
“I don’t think anything has been done in the name of Christ and under the banner of Christianity that has proven more destructive to human personality and, hence counterproductive to the evangelism enterprise than the often crude, uncouth and unchristian strategy of attempting to make people aware of their lost and sinful condition.”
My oh my! What Bible was Robert Schuller reading? Let’s contrast this to the very first sermon given by a follower of Jesus. The preacher was the Apostle Peter and the occasion the Day of Pentecost right after the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit. Here is the last sentence of Peter’s sermon:
Therefore let all the house of Israel know beyond a doubt that God has made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ. (emphasis mine)
Not the way to win friends and influence people! No Peter accuses the Jews of crucifying the Lord! Their Messiah. To be guilty of the death of God’s Holy Messiah is about the worst sin imaginable to a Jew. Yet Robert Schuller would say such a thing is “unchristian.”
Once again Romans 3:23 (written by Paul) says:
For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God
First Peter now Paul! How can Robert Schuller say such a thing when the very followers of Jesus made clear to men their sinful state?
Joel Osteen was once interviewed by Katie Couric.
Host Katie Couric suggested that the popular minister does not “spend a lot of time in (his) sermons talking about good and evil, sin and redemption. It is a very overall positive message.” She asked, “Why don’t you give people more of a moral template?”
Osteen insisted that he does, but “in a positive way.”
“There’s enough pushing people down in life already,” he added. “When they come to my church, or our meetings, I want them to be lifted up. I want them to know that God’s good, that they can move forward, that they can break an addiction, that they can become who God’s created them to be.”
That sounds good and I don’t doubt Joel’s desire but at the same time what is it he wants them lifted up from? By far the #1 thing God wants them to be lifted up from is their sin! Sure God wants you to overcome your addictions, love your spouse better, etc, but without forgiveness from your sin those things are meaningless. If God is good then even the “negative” things He has to say are for our good.
I know it would seem I am picking on Joel. I am using him as an example just like Robert Schuller though I like Joel far better. Joel considers himself a pastor and the leader of a church. Yet Joel does not preach the whole Bible! He only focuses on those things he believes are uplifting and positive. Yet in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 wrote:
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.
Not Paul said all Scripture is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for training. He did not say “some Scripture” or “only the positive verses.” No he said it was all useful. So why doesn’t Joel, or Rober Schuller, or a host of others preach all of Scripture? One simple reason. Because if they preached all of Scripture they would not fill all those seats and raise all the money. They would not have worldwide TV audiences.
In 1 Corinthians 1:18 Paul wrote:
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
If someone is offended by the message of the cross then that is not our concern so long as we are faithfully preaching the Gospel. For such it is foolishness. That is not our problem. We are to preach the Good News (which includes the Bad News) and leave the rest to God. Whether our church is big or small is up to God. Our job is to faithfully preach the truth.
I had the pleasure once to attend a series of lectures by Paul Matzat author of the book “Christ Esteem: Where the Search for Self-Esteem Ends.” Our generation is obsessed with self-esteem. We are told we have to learn to love ourselves, esteem ourselves. Only allow the positive in our lives so nothing can drag us down. Yet listen to what Paul Matzat wrote:
“The call of the gospel is away from self and unto Jesus, because self is the problem and Jesus is the solution.”
His book is aptly titled “Christ Esteem.” We don’t need self-esteem. Most of us already think to highly of ourselves. What we need is “Christ Esteem.” You see when you lose your life in Jesus Christ and realize who you are in Him then you have something far more valuable than self-esteem. When you realize the God of the Universe took on flesh and blood and died a terrible death on the cross to pay the price for your sin you will realize you are of infinite value to Him! Now what could be more positive than that?
God allows suffering to mold us into the image of His Son Jesus Chirst. Poor health, poverty, lost job, … are sometimes the way God gets our attention and increases our faith. Those things might be our fault but God uses them for good (Romans 8:28).
We don’t need our self-esteem built-up. We need our Christ-esteem built-up. We don’t need to feel good about ourselves. We need to feel good about God! Once we know who we are in Christ we will feel good about ourselves.
The church and many of her leaders are losing their vision, losing their way. The message of the cross and our need for forgiveness from our sin is as relevant today as it was 2000 years ago. If pastors will not preach on sin who will?
 As an aside I somewhat dislike the term “religion.” Religion is man’s attempt to explain God or some other higher deity. Christianity is God’s revelation to man. For some it may be a religion but what it really is at the core is God sending His Son to make a way for us to have a relationship with Him. Christianity is a relationship not a religion. It is a relationship with Jesus Christ. If it is not that at the core then it is not Christianity. We attend church because we want to be in the company of fellow disciples of Jesus (iron sharpens iron). It is not our church attendance though that makes us Christians. It is our faith.
Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one
These are the lyrics to John Lennon’s famous song “Imagine.” It voices a sentiment shared by many in today’s spiritual climate. It suggests a “brotherhood of man” is possible if we can just imagine a better world free from the things that divide us:
- No heaven
- No countries
- No religion
- No possessions
- No greed or hunger
The premise is that if we remove these things that historically have caused conflict, division, or even wars then we will achieve a brotherhood of man. Before I address this from a Biblical perspective I want to first make a few comments.
To some extent these things were tenants of Communism. Communism downplayed or forbid religion. In the State approved churches in China, for example, pastors were not allowed to preach on heaven or hell. The government did not want to give people anything to “live or die for.” Lenin’s motto was “From each according to his abilities; to each according to his needs.” There were still possessions but in theory class distinction was eliminated. Your job or education did not determine your income. Just your needs. There were still possessions but in theory no one had considerably more than others since income was distributed by need. A larger family would need more income than a small family but not to give it a higher standard of living. The collective farms run by the State would provide for the sustenance of everyone. So did it work?
History would say NO! The Soviet Union fell apart and China has had to resort to free market reforms. While China still represses religion house churches thrive. I know those who espouse John Lennon’s ideals would say the problem was these things were forced and enforced as opposed to voluntary. They must believe that slowly over a long period of time mankind will see the wisdom of abandoning the things that divide us.
I would ask the question though if these things are the root of the problem. Jesus was confronting the Pharisees who were complaining that His disciples were eating with unclean/unwashed hands. Jesus addressed their concerns saying:
“Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18 But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are what make a man ‘unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ‘unclean.’ (Matthew 15:17-20)
Jesus’ point was that sin begins in the heart, in the mind. A pure heart can look upon the same scene an impure heart can look on and have a very different reaction. The stimulus is the same but the way the heart responds is what is different. Jeremiah 17:9 says “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” That is the natural state of man’s heart: desperately wicked. So we have a desperately wicked heart and it is out of our hearts evil comes. So how will removing all outside sources of division cure the heart of man?
If you go back far enough in time there were no countries, few possessions, and few religions yet somehow we got to where we are today. What began the downward spiral? The problem is the heart of man. The wicked and desperate heart brought about wars and greed and division. Cain and Abel were the sons of Adam and Eve. Human history was not very old yet Cain murdered his brother out of jealousy and anger. They were not affected by all the things John Lenon would have us eliminate save religion. They believed in but one God and had no quarrel over land or standard of living. Yet Cain killed his brother. So we see sin already at work so soon after the fall of man.
An analogy might be putting a criminal in prison. We isolate criminals from society and take away their freedom. For the sake of argument let’s assume the prisoner is in solitary confinement. There he cannot commit any crimes. Has his criminal nature (i.e. his heart) changed? Not necessarily. He may be completely unchanged but lacking the opportunity to pursue criminal acts the inmate cannot commit further crime. For Lenon’s vision to work hearts would have to change. Merely eliminating countries, and religion, and possessions would not work. Men would still hate, still lie, still cheat, still steal.
Besides you can never eliminate everything that could divide. What about looks, intelligence, talents, and so forth? Those things have longed caused jealousy. They are things we are born with to some extent and so you will never eliminate everything that could cause division. Unless our hearts change it won’t matter what we eliminate.
If religion is one source of division it is interesting to note the attitude of the early Christians as recorded in the Book of Acts chapter 4:
32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.
Here we have a group of highly religious people sharing everything! Some had much to give, some had little, some had only need. There were divisions yet their changed hearts moved them to give for the benefit of others. Christian missionaries have for centuries taught people to read and write, help them become self-sufficient, brought much needed medical attention, and so forth. Yes in time organizations like the Peace Corp did the same as a secular organization but missionaries were doing these things for centuries before any secular groups were and continue to today. Christians run homeless shelters, homes for abused women, orphanages, and so much more.
Religion is often blamed for wars and at times rightly so although often those religious wars are as much about racial and cultural differences as they are about religion. As a Christian I will only defend Biblical Christianity. I do not approve of the Islamic teachings (held by some) that infidels are to convert or die. Yet how many people died under Stalin and Mao? While Hitler claimed a Christian background there was absolutely no evidence of it in his life and his views of racial purity and eliminating the weak were nowhere found in Christianity. Japan’s many atrocities in China, Korea, and in WWII in general was not religiously motivated. The deaths from these sources far exceed deaths from so-called religious wars.