In the Jurassic Park movie franchise there is an overall theme; how fantastic would it be to visit real dinosaurs at an amusement park? This attraction would be so incredible it would dwarf the demand for any zoo, aquarium, and theme park combined. But in each movie, the experience always goes horribly wrong. The experience at Jurassic Park turns into chaos and death. Jurassic Park is not some wonderful place to be entertained. It is a place where dinosaurs break out of their cages and try to eat you. Why in the world would anyone go back to Jurassic Park after that? Go to a place where I can be eaten alive? I’ll pass on that!
If you have been following the trends of Christianity in America, you know that there is a decline in church attendance. Any reasonable person would not need the latest research to know that church membership is in a freefall. The empty chairs and pews in our churches are evidence of this reality.
The strategy on answering “how do we get people back into church” has gone as wrong as it would be to set up a velociraptor petting zoo to attract people back to Jurassic Park. Efforts at being trendy, popular, fashionable, and entertaining may work for a season but soon fizzle out. Using the promise of better health, better wealth, and better relationships also collapse. All of these promises fail. And when they fail, the people who follow this guidance feel guilty and damned for not applying what they were taught correctly. Faith in this version of Christianity is easily snuffed out. Adherents to these strategies will either give up on this version of Christianity because it has failed them and left them burned out or they will end up rejecting the Christian faith altogether. I don’t blame them. I would burn out and give up on this version of Christianity too. The good news here is that what they are rejecting is not Christianity but something else.
People need more lists, things to do, accusation, guilt, and exhaustion, like they need another encounter with a cage-free T-Rex. Life in general has already eaten them alive. Everything in our life screams at us to do more and try harder. Our relationships, jobs, and life in general can be a constant reminder that we are not who we ought or want to be. Week after week can be one disappointment after the next. Overdue bills, kids getting into trouble, an angry spouse and boss have us feeling defeated. Then to go to church, even if it has a spectacular “what-do-they-have-in-there-King-Kong” door for an entrance, to be reminded of all the ways we have failed throughout the week to be given life application as something to hope in? I’ll pass on that.
The popular church in America and the West has become “Jurassic Park.” Come for the thrills then run away or be killed. An entire theology and hermeneutic that revolves around the action of the Christian instead of the action of Christ for the sinner is as deadly to a sinner as a dinosaur is to a guest at Jurassic Park. It is all law preaching. It may be a cheap version of the law that misleads people into believing that they are crushing life as a Christian champion, or the actual
law is being preached that kills and leaves hearts broken and in despair with no offer of good news at the end. The popular church today then tops it all off by offering how to apply what they have heard in the accusation of the law as a means of motivation to get to work being better for Jesus. Any sane person would feel the sting of this application and how it leaves them dead in the ditch. The law cannot save anyone. The law has no interest in forgiving sinners. The law commands and accuses.
I am confident that there have been church meetings to figure out how to get folks to come back to Jurassic Park, I mean... church. But I believe that we should not be asking “how do we get people to come back to church?” The right question is “why are people leaving the church?’
Why are people leaving the church? Because it has become a place where only the accusations of the law are being heard and life application is offered as the gospel. To be clear, life application is not the gospel; the gospel is “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3-4).
The good news is that the hope of Christianity is in God, who will never fail us (1 Cor 1:9). His promises are a sure thing. For Christ’s sake, this is most certainly true.
A recent study by Barna Group showed that less than half of practicing Christians in America leave church every time feeling forgiven. Of course, they are leaving church not feeling or believing they are forgiven. Odds are they are not hearing the proclamation of the forgiveness of their sins. To only receive application at church and never proclamation is bad news.
But here is the good news!
The whole point of Church is to be in a place that hands over the gifts and promises of Jesus Christ to dirty rotten sinners who are in desperate need of them. What are these gifts? They just so happen to be the forgiveness of sins courtesy of Christ’s cross and blood. These gifts are delivered to us at Church in the Lord’s Supper, Baptism, and the hearing of the gospel in our ear-balls. All of which the Holy Spirit uses to give, strengthen and increase our faith in Jesus. If this is not happening at church, the church is off-topic and has missed the entire point.
For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:13-17).
The main point of the Church is not to be told how to apply lessons in our life so that we can become better people or have a happier life. Church is supposed to be a place where we can go and hear the proclamation of God’s law in its full value to bury us and then to be resurrected by the proclamation of the gospel of Christ crucified for the forgiveness of our sins. The purpose of proclamation is not so that we might be better in our morality or have a happier life. That is the goal of application courtesy of moralistic, therapeutic deism. The Christian church was to be a house of prayer, a sanctuary for sinners who can expect to hear the proclamation of God’s word and to be buried and raised with Christ so that they might not be dead people but alive. This is not a popular message. This is not a promise that churches will be packed to hear this message. But for the ones who do come they will receive the good news, specifically good news that is for them, that for Christ’s sake they are forgiven.