Maybe the Message Needs to Change?

I haven’t written for a long time. To be honest, the uncertain and unstable nature of, not only a global pandemic, but political, racial, economic and denominational divisions have often stopped me from using the venue of this blog to share my thoughts and feelings. This is the first time in ministry where I’ve felt insecure and less-than-confident in my leadership and ability to simply be myself. Every single thing one says, does, posts, likes or doesn’t say, do, post or like seems to be held closely under the microscope of scrutiny. But, I’ve had an extra cup of coffee this afternoon and discovered just the right amount of caffeine-infused liquid courage to post the following.

I’ve been serving in fulltime ministry since 1999. It’s an incredible honor and privilege to serve within the Church, attempting to offer Christ’s love and hope to those around me. I am continually in awe that God allows and invites us to play a role in helping reveal the “Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.”

Of course, reality and experience would say that Kingdom work is easier said than done. Throughout the history of the Church, we have had our fair share of triumphs and trials, victories and defeats, successes and scandals.

There have been moments where it appears the Church has lost its way. In those times, faithful reformers have led us back to our foundational core – Jesus and love.

In recent years, the rise of Christian Nationalism and the politicization of American Christianity has distorted the basic teachings of Jesus.

Rather than focusing on the teachings of Jesus that call us to love God, love neighbor and even love our enemies, many vocal Christian leaders who garner the attention of the spotlight have focused on electing the right leader, defending the sanctity of both marriage and life, and most recently – demonstrating that pro-life really only means pro-birth (as many churches have chosen “faith over fear” in their coronavirus response – which really means we don’t care about the “least of these”). Honestly, many faithful people are championing the anti-mask and anti-vaccine movements under the umbrella of “true, strong faith.” I’m all for freedom, but to use our faith to justify these types of actions is harmful. In doing so, I believe a dark stain is being left on the Church.

Unfortunately, we Christians have been doing a much better job of letting people know what we are against, rather than what we are for.

The current collective witness of the Church, more distracted by political agendas than the imperative to “go and make disciples”, is actively turning more and more people away from the faith. To be honest, I have grown tired of having to explain that “I’m not THAT kind of Christian” to friends, family and strangers.

What is becoming all-too-obvious, even for the casual observer, is that change is desperately needed. The Church (across the globe, but especially in the States) is in need of a new generation of reformers.

In roughly 23 years of ministry, when change is needed within the Church, there is an all-too-familiar refrain that may be causing more harm than good.

“The methods may change, but the message remains the same.”

If by the “message”, one means the “Good News of great joy for ALL people,” then “yes”, that should remain.

If by the “message,” one means all the anti, extra junk that distracts from the light and love of Jesus, then that is a firm “no” from me.

In allowing the political agenda to distract us, we’ve lost the true message of love that Jesus embodied. Jesus challenged the kind of religious and political structures that many Christians are trying to create today. The fact that many faithful Christians can support political candidates and agendas who show no moral compass, who fail to demonstrate love for all, whose policies and agendas threaten to reverse to work Jesus was called to do shows their are problems with our methods and messages (see Luke 4, Jesus came to “proclaim good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and set the oppressed free). It’s hard to see the heart of Jesus in political platforms that call for the reduction of affordable housing, healthcare, education and food assistance, that call for bigger, privatized prisons, and that further oppress the already marginalized among us.

If we truly want to vote our Christian values, we would be wise to read the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5-7) before we enter our polling place. It’s hard to take the teachings of Jesus seriously while voting for almost any candidate (regardless of party).

The rise in our evangelical (and mainline too) brothers and sisters who are deconstructing their faith should be a huge warning sign to the Church. Unfortunately, it may be too late for some to consider reconstructing their faith.

You see, in the overly politicized Church, many are hearing messages that are nothing but political campaign rallies for candidates who do not reflect the heart of Jesus or the Gospel of love. We hear sermons that say one thing, then we read those “red letters” of Jesus and conflicts abound.

Maybe the methods weren’t the problem?

I remember being told, “Just start a contemporary service. Just be a little more edgy and relevant (come on, can you get more edgy and relevant than this guy…who makes references to Guns n’ Roses on a regular basis?). Just be a little more casual. That’s the answer.”

But, if the statistics reveal anything, it’s that none of this actually worked. Sure, there are booming megachurches around the nation. But, the rise of the mega church came with the decline of those who identify as Christian. The worship wars created unnecessary tension and division in the Church. Rather than growth, we’ve created generations of Church Hoppers who simply follow the dangling carrot of the cool church. Rather than church growth, we’ve witnessed sheep stealing and the rise of the trendy pastor (folks, after the Mike Todd fiasco, really think through your cool illustrations) and the best band in town. And, let’s be honest, the best worship band rarely holds a candle to the best dive bar band!

Maybe the methods were the problem, but that wasn’t enough?

I wonder if the move towards modern expressions of worship is a necessary part of the equation, but that a shift in style simply isn’t enough. If the church that proclaims, “We aren’t your grandma’s church” just because they have cool lights, a fog machine, a wall of LED lights, a worship leader with a stupid hat (seriously, what’s the deal with worship leaders and wide-brim hats?), pastors in skinny jeans and glasses that weren’t even cool in the 80’s, continues to preach messages that are tweetable but void of the heart of Jesus, maybe we need to spend more time focusing on the message?

Listen, I’ve spent 23 years being caught up in this same trap. There are many times when I’ve tried to be “cool’. There are many times when my messages have been nothing but veiled political propaganda. There are many times when I’ve been tempted to believe that a shift in methodology would be enough.

I believe that what we need is a both/and approach. We need to be paying just as close attention to the message as we do the methods. By spending so much time focused on the methods, we often fail to see the message straying from the Way of Jesus.

At the end of the day, we really need to ask ourselves if we are being our true, authentic selves in both the methods and the message. Are we preaching to promote Jesus or something else? Are we “all in” to a particular method to honor Jesus or to be hip?

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have the answers. I have failed more often than I have succeeded. I strive to honor God in the method and the message, but I easily fall into the trap of “this will be cool…this will be funny…this will attract people away from that church down the street.”

I guess what I’m really saying is that maybe it’s time for the Church itself to do some deconstructing and reconstructing – to eliminate the baggage that is interfering with the message of Jesus – and rediscover the way of love that shares a message of “Good News of great joy for all people.”