So we had another uninspiring (at least to me) sermon today at Zarephath Community Chapel. The text for the sermon was Colossians 3:12-14. Paul exhorts the readers to clothe themselves in righteousness, and zips through a few things to illustrate what he means: Be compassionate, be gentle, be kind, be patient, be humble and vote Democratic (just kidding).
As I saw the text, I figured, "Hey, this is a great passage to preach from!" It contrasts with the categories of fallen behavior Paul mentioned in the previous verses, and there are so many things you can use it as a springboard for. You could give concrete examples where Christians can be compassionate instead of supercilious, such as gay-right issues; ways to be kind, such as welcoming seniors into your lives, or pitching in at a food shelter; and so on.
Nope. The sermon focused more on the line about forgiving as we have been forgiven, which could have been a great message too, if the pastor had discussed areas where it's hard to forgive, such as a spouse's infidelity, or the countless unthinking indifferences and insensitivities that bedevil human relationships. Instead, at least from what I took away, the sermon was about how great it is to have been forgiven — not by other people, for specific wrongs, but by Christ for our general sin. And even then, the people he asked to share about how nice it is to be forgiven were teens or preteens who had nothing specific to share, just that they enjoyed being forgiven.
Well, yes, I suppose I do too, but isn't something as weakly expressed as that so general as to be utterly meaningless -- especially when the person who confesses to sinning "a lot" has no idea what the heck she's talking about, except at some basic level? These are kids, for crying out loud. What do they know about being attracted to someone other than your spouse, about being so frustrated with your children's screaming that it's all you can do to restrain yourself, about having to forgive a malicious, backstabbing co-worker or a lying, indifferent employer for the ways they keep hurting you and tearing you down? What do they know about having your heart torn out of you because you wanted what you can't have, and you took it anyway, or about dealing with old griefs and pains you thought you buried 20 years ago?
What does such a sermon like this one, treating such an in-depth passage in such a cavalier fashion, do, but make us feel good about ourselves and how lucky we are to be forgiven while the rest of the world is going to hell? It's good to be reminded about grace, but when every sermon — or at least a vast majority of them — is about the redemption Christ offers, and how believers will be spared from God's wrath, I can't help but feel someone's missing the point. Is that really all there is to the gospel? If so, why are we exhorted to bear fruit in keeping with repentance? Why all the talk about a transformed life if there's no evidence of a transformation?
This sort of shallow thinking, which seems so common in evangelicaldom, is one of the reasons I no longer consider myself an evangelical Christian, despite the doctrinal similarities. The gospel has to go deeper than that. Christ calls us to holiness, which means not just a restored relationship with the Father, but a restored set of relationships with our fellow men as well — a real and recognizable community. In fact, it's really impossible to get the relationship with God restored if you're out of any sort of fellowship or relationship with a larger community. If going to church and singing "Amazing Grace" once a week (or even three times a week) is the end-all-be-all of the faith, then why does Christ talk so much about our responsibility to other people. It's one of the two prevailing themes of his preaching, along with "No one gets to the Father but through me."
A friend of mine whom I call Respectfully Brian P. (because that's how he always signs his correspondence) suggested that this approach to sermons is probably deliberate. They do the same thing at his church, and when he talked with his pastor about it recently, he was told it was because they're making the church services "seeker-friendly." In other words, the Sunday worship service is meant to vapid and void of meaning because that's all non-Chrsitians and new Christians are supposed to be capable of understanding. In other words, the worship service is meant for evangelism, and growth is meant to take place at the small group Bible studies most members don't attend.
Pardon me, but that's bass-ackwards.
I'm all for churches being seeker-friendly. By that I mean we don't have a someone at the door to greet you who acts like he's your best friend, even though you've never met before. (That screams "phony" to most people.) It means we avoid buzz words like fellowship, grace, blood of the Lamb, saved, Holy Ghost power, and so on. Put it in simple, straightforward talk that's accessible to the man in the street, because anything else sends a message of "We belong and you don't."
Dumbing down the message is about the stupidest thing a church can do. People who are wrestling honestly with life's questions are going to be turned off by a church that gives pat answers for everything like, "Omigosh, Jesus is just so cool, you know!? And, like, following him has made my life just so much better, you know? Like, totally!" Anyone who knows diddly about Christians knows that our lives aren't perfect, that we still screw things up royally for ourselves and the people around us. And anyone who's been following Jesus for any amount of time knows he usually makes life worse for us, dividing members of families against one another, and bringing pain after pain to our lives. In fact, that's what he promises us. It'snot our happiness that is his chief concern -- it's the glory of his Father.
Christians who tell you that Christ has made them happy all the time either are simple-minded or in denial. Making happiness and the ease of the Christian life the official teaching of a church is inexcusable. Lying to people is a horrible way to bring them into a relationship with Christ.
Going by church tradition and by biblical record, the meetings held on the Lord's Day, i.e., Sunday, are believers' meetings. Those were meetings where the early Christians got together to celebrate the Lord's supper together, to encourage one another, and so on. Especially during periods of persecution, it would have been disastrous to bring someone to church who wasn't a Christian already.
In terms of evangelism and outreach, it makes far more sense to get someone involved in a small group, because that's where the relationships form, that's where people are going to be more honest and open about their doubts and struggles, and that's where you're more likely to get a nonbelieving friend to come out and return again and again, because of the intimacy of the group.
The dumbing-down of church services "for evangelism" is one of the all-out stupidest, most lame-brained, ill-conceived ideas ever to be blamed on the leading of the Holy Spirit in recent American church history, not to mention one of the most condescending.
(That's not to say that small groups should be dumbed-down either. I've never been at a Bible study with a nonbeliever who complained it was too deep. Honesty, brokenness, Christlikeness -- these are the things that will really win people over to Christ, not keeping everything at a beginner's level.)
The sad thing is, Rob Cruver is a decent preacher. I don't doubt his commitment to the Lord is real, but I can't help feeling empty inside after church each week. Heck, I feel empty inside during church each week.
I'm supposed to meet with him a week from Thursday, when I hope to spring some of this on him, in a loving and respectful way. I'm not sure what I hope to accomplish, really. The meeting is supposed to be to discuss ministry opportunities at Zarephath, which is essentially what I want. I don't want to be plugged into a standard ministry slot, nor do I want to stage a confrontation where we end up angry at each other, each convinced the other guy is missing the point or otherwise a hopeless case. I'd like to generate honest discussion about what I would like to bring to the church and whether it matches what the church wants from its attendees and members.
If not, I guess it'll be time to move on, and I'm really sick of looking for a new church.