Recently, Francis Chan made headlines for stepping down from leading his very large church. To explain his decision he wrote a book, A Letter to the Churches, where he makes some very good critiques of American Christianity. Perhaps a driving critique can be summed up with his comment to an interviewer, "Too often we add in our own voices, thinking that if we just offer just the right services or package the gospel in just the right way so no one gets offended, we can convince people to stay. By catering our worship to the worshipers and not to the Object of our worship, I fear we have created human-centered churches.”
Many, including myself, have lamented the above sentiment for some time. Chan rightly exposes the influence of our consumer-driven world upon churches of all denominations. If the product isn’t popular, we assume we must change the product or at least change the wrapping paper to make the external appearance more attractive to our culture. Yet we see that this approach doesn’t always work, even within many current industries. Doctors do not do this to their prescriptions, accountants can’t do this with reports to the board of directors, nor can professional sports coaches do this with their training. In each of these examples, the truth still stands as most important to outcomes, regardless of outward packaging or popularity.
Chan, like many of us, often complain about American Christians shirking the cost of discipleship as Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes true Christian living. People want to be consumers of God’s grace, but they don’t want to put anything into it. People want forgiveness but they don’t want to repent or change their ways. Chan points to the many third world churches that grow without any of the fancy accoutrements getting in the way. Members of such churches are invested participants, invested in the growth of God’s kingdom. They gladly and willingly pay the cost of being a Christian. They are not simply consumers.
It is very tempting to run with this criticism, to get angry at ‘lukewarm’ Christians, and to attempt to separate real Christians from the fake ones. In such cases, we are tempted to put a ‘but’ after the Gospel. This same temptation has plagued preachers since the very beginnings of the Christian church. The Pharisees criticized Jesus for hanging out with people who just moments ago were full-fledged sinners. They often criticized Him for too quickly eating with tax collectors and allowing a prostitute to hang out with Him. The Judaizers demanded such a “but” from Paul, as they tried to stop unclean Gentiles from eating with Jews. The enemies of the Luther and company, within and without, also couldn’t trust that people are saved simply by believing in Jesus’ promises. They wanted to prove real believers to prove themselves through their actions.
Certainly, a church can be full of people with weak faith, no faith, or even a consumerist faith. What pastor hasn’t been frustrated with his own faith let alone the life of his church.
Perhaps the answer to creating a healthier church and a more invested people is found in preaching more clearly the full freeing Gospel.
Yet the antidote to a lukewarm church is not more law, more demands, or more fear. St. Paul says in chapter 8 of his letter to the Romans, “for what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending His own son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering.” He also writes in the same letter, “This is why I am so anxious to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the Gospel for it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:15-16). Paul believed that the preaching of the Gospel - that Jesus has paid it all for free - actually brings salvation. Perhaps the answer to creating a healthier church and a more invested people is found in preaching more clearly the full freeing Gospel. It seems counterintuitive, but the Church actually is for consumers and only consumers. Grace is only for people who have absolutely nothing to give, who can not pay a dime toward their discipleship, let alone for their sins.
Jesus made this point time and time again when he used babies for his sermon illustrations. The disciples rebuked woman bringing their children to be blessed because babies are useless. What can they contribute to the discussion let alone the kingdom of God? Yet Jesus turns their rebuke upon them saying, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:15).
Jesus didn’t come to save people who could pay their way to the cross, nor did He die and rise for people whom He knew would one day pay Him back. He doesn’t love you because He sees your potential. Jesus died and rose for people who can give nothing but only consume what is given. He gives His gifts of forgiveness and eternal life only to those who have absolutely nothing to pay for it. He baptizes, hands out His body and blood, and absolves only those who are completely useless in the kingdom.
It’s this Good News alone that will create healthy disciples. So if you attend a megachurch, a small old country steeple, or a gathering of three in someone’s home in Singapore, preach the Good News of Jesus Christ for consumers. It’s there you will have a holy Christian Church, the communion of Saints.