Every time my family and I go shopping my son asks, “Can I go look at the toys?” I usually smile back at him and say, “If you listen and obey, then we can go look at the toys.” It’s predictable, like clockwork we end up in the toy aisle. This time of year my son’s desire to see the toys is even greater. It is understandable, Christmas is around the corner and he is a child who is infatuated with the wonder of toys. Hopefully there will come a day when he has outgrown the toy aisle. When his interests will shift because he will have grown up and will have more mature interests. Some adults though never do mature and end up living in their parents basement till their 35.
This illustrates a massive problem in the American church—we love the toy aisle and we refuse to grow up. While there are many faithful churches out there, they tend to be the exception, not the rule. The evidence is all around us. A recent study, the State of Theology, demonstrates that American evangelicals do not even know the basics of the Christian faith. When speaking to friends involved in Christian education I repeatedly hear that far too many Christian college students enter higher education without knowing the basics of Christianity. If graduating students and adults who have been in the church for most of their lives don’t know the fundamentals of the faith, what are they learning from all those hours spent at church? Where are we failing?
There is plenty of blame to go around. Many local churches are too busy trying to be the next big thing to take the time to actually disciple people. The desires of laypeople are also a problem; many look for churches which are hip and trendy instead of faithful. These two problems feed off of each other, Christians want shallow churches and many churches are too willing to accommodate the desire. As Christians, we should want to mature in our faith (1 Cor. 3.1-3), but that is much more difficult than watching a light show and fog machine every Sunday morning. The problem is one of desire, of what we treasure, of what we expect from a church. We desperately need to grow up and leave the proverbial toy aisle behind.
Below are four changes American churches and Christians need make if we want to mature and leave the shiny toys behind.
We need worship, not concerts. Walk into the average large church, especially mega-churches, and you are not likely to find the congregational voices as the main instrument during the worship songs. I am all for worship being done well, with quality musical instruments. Yet, what our services are lacking is not musical skill, but participation from the congregation. Why? Our worship services have become concerts. They are spectacles, sideshows, and performances. The congregation is encouraged to be passive and to receive entertainment instead of being led to worship God. This focus on performance and entertainment may draw a crowd, but it does so at the expense of worshiping God—the whole reason we exist. This epidemic is also seen in the content of our songs. Recently my wife and I were at a service at another church, and the pastor made a comment about how great the worship set was. At that point, I leaned over to my wife and said, “Worship? The most common word used was me!” If that was worship, then it appears we were worshiping ourselves instead of God! Our songs, like our worship services, are focused on us instead of God. God is often an afterthought in our worship services. If this accurately categorizes our worship, is it any wonder that so many Christians know so little about God and his word?
We need preachers, not comedians and story-tellers. To be clear, I am not against a well-timed joke to make a rhetorical point or a story which actually helps to illuminate an important point. That is all good as far it goes. But the core job of the pastor is to preach the word of God. Our job is to say, “Thus says the Lord.” Again, in many evangelical churches, the speaker is more of an entertainer than a preacher. They can hold our attention with interesting stories and funny jokes, but there is no real substance to what they say. God and his word have become an add-on to the message. The cookie-cutter messages are often predictable: start with a funny story, introduce a problem, sympathize with our condition, sprinkle in some bible passage (out of context), offer some self-help, have a few more more stories/jokes, and end with an altar call of some variety. It’s predictable, sad, and self-focused.
About seven years ago I was sitting in a mega-church and I listened to the Lead Pastor describe how his church was really good at getting people in the door and getting them to confess Christ. The problem? They couldn’t seem to get people to take the next step, to grow. They couldn’t get them to take their faith seriously. He lamented that they couldn’t figure it out. I sat their befuddled because the truth was staring him right in the face—you get what you subsidize. They placed no importance on actually teaching from the pulpit, only on entertaining people and growing numerically. What do you think that teaches people about the content of the Christian faith? What does that teach people about they should live as Christians? Perhaps their entire model was the problem? That thought apparently couldn’t be entertained as they have tens of thousands of people in their services every week. Simply ignore the fact most of them aren’t growing, don’t know the basics of the faith, and just check-in and check-out every week. I wonder what the problem could possibly be?
We need the gospel, not therapeutic self-help. This point ties in with the content of our messages and our songs. What we teach, what we emphasize matters. Did Jesus come so that we will have better communication, love lives, marriages, families, and self-worth? No. Surely some of those things can come by the grace of God and by walking in wisdom, but Jesus came primarily to purchase a people for himself as he was directed to do by the Father. This is the heart of the Christian message, not seeking self-help or feel good emotions. Christ came to do his Father’s will, to obey unto death, to defeat his enemies and to rescue those in slavery to sin. He came to call us to repentance and faith. He came to call us to die to ourselves and follow him, not to discover how great we are. The church is suffering because we are so distracted by the false allure of the toy aisle—self-help, self-esteem, and therapeutic feelings. Much of evangelicalism has a small or distorted understanding of the gospel precisely because it has made the gospel about us instead of Christ. The fault is at the feet of our teachers who are distracted by shiny toys and who are too busy building their own kingdoms.
We need to seek God’s approval, not the world’s. This really is the heart of the matter. Much of our childish behavior is linked to our desire to be liked by the world and to be like the world. We mask this truth by saying we want to be relevant or we want to reach the community, but in the process we start to look, act, and think just like the world. The church is most relevant when we offer an alternative to the world. We reach more people when we are different. When we seek the approval of the world, we start to look like the world. Then we become truly irrelevant because the church becomes a redundancy to the world. We cannot seek both the approval of the world and God at the same time. We can only serve one master. It will either be God or the world. Right now, we care way too much what the world thinks of us.
If we hope to change the troubling trends of American evangelicalism we are going to need to leave the toy aisle d behind and grow up. This won’t be easy, but it is possible through humble faith and repentance. If we will humble ourselves as both churches and individuals to seek out real worship instead of concerts, real preachers instead of comedians, the gospel instead of therapeutic nonsense, and to seek God instead of the world there is both hope and the power to grow up in the faith. In fact, when we do this, God will honor our faithfulness, and by his power people will grow up into maturity.