“Lord, make me popular.”
by Phil Vischer
I listened this morning to a TV sermon from a popular TV preacher.
“Sermon” may be the wrong term. It was a motivational talk about the power of positive thinking. It could have been given by Mary Lou Retton to a ballroom full of industrial lubricant salespeople. There were biblical references, but they were for the purpose of illustration, not exposition. Christ had nothing to do with the message. Positive life change comes from replacing negative messages with positive ones. The preacher inadvertently almost quoted exactly Stuart Smalley from Saturday Night Live – “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough…”
It was a helpful message. People applauded. They were encouraged. What it wasn’t, was Christian. It wasn’t Christianity. Life change in Christianity doesn’t come from positive thinking. It doesn’t come from thinking more highly of yourself. Or replacing negative messages with positive ones. It comes from dying to yourself and being reborn in Christ. A new creation.
Here’s a thought:
Christian mass communicators often resort to self-help motivation over actual Christian teaching because it is easier to communicate, and, in fact, it gets results. People’s lives ARE improved – on a mass scale. There wouldn’t be a self-help industry if self-help didn’t work. There wouldn’t be an Oprah if self-help didn’t work.
The problem is, what they’re teaching isn’t Christianity. Even when sprinkled liberally with Bible references. Christianity starts with dying to one’s self, not thinking more positive thoughts about one’s self. But that’s harder to teach through mass media. It is not a particularly appealing message. It’s countercultural. And it doesn’t initially sound like what we want. We want to achieve our dreams – not die to them. Not give them up. We want to “increase,” not “decrease.” We don’t actually want to follow Jesus. We want Jesus to follow us – to pick up after us – clean up our messes with his Jesus superpowers.
We want Jesus to make our dreams come true. And if that means we have to be better people, well, we’ll give it a try. But it’s about us. Our goals. Our dreams. Our lives.
The most discouraging thing about this sermon was that Jesus was only mentioned once, and it was a misapplied reference to Jesus’ baptism as an example of God being pleased with us even before we’ve done anything amazing. Just like God was “pleased” with Jesus even before he had done any miracles.
This preacher has robbed Christianity of the power of God, and replaced it with the power of positive thinking. Which is, quite frankly, a much more appealing message. You can get something without giving up too much. Sure, you need to work on your vices. But that’s just common sense. But there is no need to let go of the idolatry of “me.” I can still come first. The good me. The me I’ve always wanted to be. Me, me, me. I can get God’s blessing, while still focusing on me.
We miss one thing, though. Putting ourselves first is sin. Clinging to our dreams and goals is sin. Rebellion against God. So the power of positive thinking can improve our lives, but it can’t redeem us. We’re still enemies of God. We’re still fallen. Broken. Slaves to sin.
Our preaching has become limited to what is easily and appealingly communicated on a mass scale. And the reality of taking up your cross and dying to yourself is NOT easily and appealingly communicated on a mass scale. If it didn’t work on a mass scale for Jesus, how do we expect it to work on a mass scale for us?
Jesus had the most followers when he was giving people what they wanted – “signs and wonders.” Then he got down to teaching – to laying out the gospel. And people said, “This is difficult teaching!” And suddenly the crowds started wandering away. ”Um… More signs and wonders, please?”
Why do we think the difficult message of the gospel will work better for us than it did for Jesus? Even more vitally, why do we think we need to HELP Jesus appeal to a wider audience by CHANGING his message?
Jesus asks us to preach the gospel. To make disciples. Nowhere – not once – does he say, “And you are going to have HUGE success!” Not once. He actually says the world “will hate you as they hate me.”
If that’s the case, perhaps massive success should make us concerned. Perhaps we’re preaching “signs and wonders” – easy answers. Telling people what they want to hear, that your life can still be about you. That Jesus wants to clean up after you. Make your marriage work, give you healthy kids. A good job.
This is not what Jesus preached. And the more he preached, the fewer followers he had.
Don’t take the easy way out. We want everyone to be a Christian, so we try to make the Christian message as appealing as possible. Like political candidates “spinning” their message to attract followers. We want to be popular. We want Jesus to be popular. We completely ignore the fact that Jesus was NOT popular, and neither were his followers.
Jesus asks us to make disciples. He doesn’t promise us great success in that endeavor. It isn’t about results. It’s about obedience.
Get ready to have a very unpopular TV show.