Thinking Out Loud

November 23, 2012

A Great Message: It Just Isn’t Christian

Phil Vischer posted this on his blog nearly a week ago. I knew that it needed to be featured here with more than just a link, but as I looked through for a cutoff point and considered the actual click statistics, I realized that what I needed to do was reblog the whole thing. But as I remind my readers at C201, it would be a nice courtesy if you were to click over to his blog; the link is in the title below.

“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.

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February 12, 2012

Don’t Follow Television Jesus

About three decades ago, I was writing monthly checks to three different television ministries. 

I believe in the good that Christian television can do, and I know a number of people who — with apologies to their pastors — receive their greatest spiritual nurture from Christian television. 

And I worked in Christian television.

As the only community television producer at a Toronto station who was allowed to direct his own program, I produced 48 half-hour Christian music showcase shows. I also was an audio engineer and worked in guest relations and music coordination for a national daily Christian television show. I also assisted a local church with their weekly broadcast of their Sunday morning service, seen on a national network to this day.

So you would expect me to be a little more supportive, right?

And you would also expect after all the flak I took two years ago for posting a picture of a prominent TV Bible teacher’s luxurious house — or, houses — I wouldn’t have wanted to do it again yesterday, right?

But that opulence; that excess is wrong. Just plain wrong.

There’s a saying in ministry that as a pastor, you should get a salary reflective of the median income of the people you are serving, live in a house that is typical of your parishioners, and enjoy vacations and benefits equal to the average member of your church.

That should apply with parachurch ministries as well, such as relief and development agencies, music ministries and (especially) television ministries.

The ease with which some people are corrupted by the finances involved in Christian broadcasting makes their theology somewhat suspect. I’m not saying that they are guilty of completely misreading the Bible or ignoring the basic laws of Biblical exegesis. But they either are (a) not understanding the text, (b) skipping sections they don’t want to read, (c) or fully understand what it all means but feel it applies to someone else. Or of course there’s always (d) they are in ministry for the money.

Certainly, this does not apply to everyone in television ministry. Not by a long-shot. Many are sincere, and present the gospel with clarity.

However,  I think the very thing in the personality of some people compels them to go on television means that the Jesus they present on air will be partially skewed by the elements of their own personality.

Christian television is a great place to let the introduction to Jesus happen. But from there it’s time to move on to (a) corporate worship in a local church, (b) interactive Bible study in a small group or coffee klatch, (c) finding a personal mentor, counselor, or prayer and accountability partner, (d) finding a place of Christian service, (e) finding a context for Christian witness; or (f) all of the above.

Generally speaking, Christian television doesn’t give you an outlet to do the things listed above. You receive — on various levels depending on the type of program or number of programs you watch — some degree of Bible teaching and exhortation; as well as the opportunity to give money. But that’s really all these shows can do for you.

Though you do get a kind of look at Jesus as he appears on television; the “television Jesus”  somehow robs you of the full picture. There are so many other voices who want to share in your fullest discovery of the infinite aspects of Jesus Christ.

And unless you’re reading this in a really, really remote place; you’ll find the opportunity to pursue Jesus in a local church not too far from where you live.

May 12, 2011

Focus on the Family Canada Opens $9.4M Facility

According to a report in Christian Week, they paid $1.4M (CDN) for the land and $8M in constructing their own home, after paying rent for 27 years.  The Canadian branch of Focus on the Family, the organization founded by James Dobson, now has its own physical operations base in Langley, B.C.

But not everyone is excited.  The anonymous author of the popular Canadian Christian news and opinion site, Bene Diction Blogs On writes,

I really wish this organization would leave the country. But no, they’ve just completed an 8 million dollar building project, debt-free. Anything this group does should be wide open to public scrutiny and I wish Christians in Canada would wake up. FotF is no more committed to ‘the family’ than founder James Dobson is. The US extremist toxic religious right group has 65 Canadian employees. While the Canadian arm says it is independent of the US group, US leaders are on the Canadian board and start up costs of 1.6 million were given to the Canadian operation from the US. The Canadian group is fundamentalist, authoritarian, theocratic and lobbies against the same things the US group does, using language friendly to unsuspecting believers.

Here at T.O.L., thoughts are somewhat mixed.  On the one hand, it’s hard not to appreciate the work Focus did recently in developing The Truth Project, a comprehensive crash course in developing a Christian worldview on subjects like Philosophy, History, Science, Politics, Education, and the video series’ key question, ‘What is truth?’  Or its earlier contribution to parents on long road trips with its Adventures In Odyssey audio/video series.

But on the other hand, Canadians get skittish when Christian organizations wander too deeply into everything from politics to parenting.  Any elevation of Focus’ profile under a majority Conservative government is more conservatism than some people are comfortable with.

And it’s easy for Christians to second-guess any kind of capital spending project at a time when so much of the Church’s energies are being focused on the needs of the poor.  Adding an elevator to your church to give the handicapped greater access?  Be prepared for a firestorm over the costs.  Putting up a nearly $10M building for what some see as an outmoded media outreach, using something as quaint as radio?  Get ready to meet the critics.

Perhaps the facility is a bargain at $9.4M.  One would have to attend the June 18th Grand Opening to make that call.  And Focus, like so many other radio ministries, is probably active in online delivery.  So what is it about Focus that makes some of us a little nervous?

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