Written by: Don Matzat
If we want people to “like” our churches, we must be careful what we teach.
Let’s suppose that a group of Protestant Church leaders hired a noted secular marketing expert to assess the message of the Church and provide suggestions for how that message might be made more acceptable to the people of this age. After a few months, they gather together to hear his report. Here is what he might say. Let’s eavesdrop…
You want your churches to be popular and successful. I don’t blame you. With my wide range of experience in secular marketing, I believe I can help. You must understand that postmodern people today attend a church they like. Polls have indicated that there are basic Christian teachings that people don’t like. If you want people to attend your church and like your church, you must adjust your message.
For one thing, to suggest that man is by nature a sinner, an enemy of God, and that there is nothing that he can do to please God is insulting. To say that man’s highest, loftiest efforts fall short of God’s glory might prompt people to no longer strive after excellence. All of the wonderful obituaries you read in the paper about wonderful people who accomplished wonderful things must mean something. To say that man’s good works may look good in the eyes of men, but in the eyes of God mean nothing in terms of going to heaven is counter-productive. You must offer to people a God who is not critical of their efforts but affirms them. Psychology tells us that every-one needs and wants to be affirmed.
In the past, the truth of the human sinful nature has been attacked. Those who attacked the “sin-talk” knew what they were doing. The ancient Pelagius was on track when he gave man the ability to draw near to God. Both Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy teach that man is not dead in his trespasses and sin but has been severely wounded, and those denominations are growing.
I read about the evangelist Charles Finney who led a very popular revival in the 19th century. I believe you should learn from Finney! He rejected the notion that man was by nature a sinner. Finney taught that man was a sinner because he sinned, not the other way around. Under Finney’s system, man was capable of making a decision to live for God and to even arrive at perfection. As a result, multitudes flocked to Finney’s crusades.
Today, the issue of self-esteem is a very important and popular subject. If you are to be sensitive to the felt needs of people, this doctrine of the sinful nature must be jettisoned. Why promote a product nobody wants? It’s bad business. If you want to engender self-esteem and not wound the sensitive inner-child of those who visit your churches, all this “sin-talk” must stop!
In addition, we are living in a kinder and gentler society. To teach the notion that God requires a blood sacrifice to forgive sins is to promote violence. If a visitor happens to be an animal rights activist, how will he or she respond if you bring up all the animal sacrifices in the Old Testament? Think of the poor little lambs. Will not the image of God’s priests slitting the throats of little lambs give your children bad dreams? Such teaching is highly offensive and counter-productive.
Of course, in the New Testament you have the issue of the violent, bloody crucifixion of Jesus Christ on the cross. Now think of this: Jesus was the Son of God and you teach that it was the will of his Father that he should suffer such a horrible death. How can you expect people to like a God who kills his only Son? There were some feminists at the Reimagining Conferences who suggested that this action was divine child abuse. How can you emphasize what some regard as child abuse at the hands of God? If you are to be successful, you must be sensitive to the gentleness of people today. Be practical! This blood and gore message is simply not good business.
You must, of course, emphasize forgiveness. Forgiveness is popular and therapeutic. To forgive is an important plank in good psychology. Rather than saying that forgiveness is based upon blood and gore, I suggest you should emphasize the “niceness” of God. God forgives us because He is nice, and we should be nice, as God is nice and forgive other people. As a result of this adjustment in your proclamation, people will like God. Consequently, they will also like you and come to your churches. And you will be successful.
Perhaps you feel that eliminating sin and blood sacrifice is a little radical. You may be right in feeling a little fidgety. Indeed, this adjustment will create a religion that is no longer essentially Christianity.
Rather than eliminating sin and blood sacrifice, marginalize the subjects. You can still promote the notion that God is nice if you don’t focus on sin and blood sacrifice. Insist that you still believe it, but in practice, don’t talk about it that much. One very popular church west of Chicago is very successful because they are highly sensitive to their customers. They only occasionally focus on the subjects of sin and blood sacrifice. In fact, they are very wise in not even displaying one of those horrible crosses in their huge facility. Learn from them.
Of all the teachings that have been proclaimed from Christian pulpits by far the most damaging to the enterprise of the church is the notion of God imputing righteousness to sinners. Again, learn from the highly successful evangelist Charles Finney. Finney, who had a brilliant legal mind, stated that the concept of God imputing righteousness to people is logically incorrect. In the court of law, it doesn’t work that way.
In addition, Finney hit the nail on the head when he said that the doctrine of imputed righteousness would hinder moral reform. Why should people strive after righteousness if they already have it? Be sensible! Good Christian people today are fed up with immorality. They are sick and tired of sex, pornography, and philandering presidents. How can you possibly suggest that God would impute the righteousness of Christ to Charles Manson, or to Jeffrey Dahmer? In the minds of good moral Christian people, this is ludicrous.
I realize that there are many of you Protestants who have not taught imputed righteousness since the time of the great revival in the last century. Most Evangelical Christians today are fortunate enough to have never heard this distorted doctrine. But be careful. There are some theologians today who are trying to get you back to the teaching of the 16th century Reformation. Ignore them!
If you are within the Lutheran and Reformed camps, you are stuck with this doctrine, but I believe you might be able to use it to your advantage. Teach this imputed righteousness as being what you call justification or what God does for you. Sanctification, or the Christian life, is what you do for God. Use what God does in justification as a means of shaming people into sanctification – or living good Christian lives. Polls indicate that people go to church to be motivated to live good lives and be successful. Give them what they want.
In preaching, it is very important to become familiar with the phrases “Let us” and “May we.” If you insist on still preaching sin, blood sacrifice, and imputed righteousness, get it over with quickly. Do it in the beginning. Make the meat of your sermon moral admonitions that begin with the “Let us” or “May we.” Encourage your people to live good lives. Give them sound principles.
It is vitally important that your moralizing compares the good people in your church with the bad people in the world. The phrase, “Let us be men of integrity unlike our philandering president” is a winner. Not only will it cause your men to feel good about themselves, but they will also see you as a conservative Republican, and probably appreciate you and your church even more. When people leave your church, it will be your moral admonitions and positive affirmations that will be ringing in their ears.
The issue of living the Christian life is a vital message today. Make sure that the people always hear that message as self-improvement. Never speak of the diminishing of self. Some of you have the doctrine of “dying to self in Baptism.” This idea can be highly inflammatory. Realize that the most dynamic power within the human psyche is the power of the self. Some of the phrases in the Bible written by Paul are not at all helpful. Never preach on the theme of “boasting of weaknesses” or considering all of your good, positive moral traits to be “dung.” “The Christian life is self-improvement.” Put that motto on your wall right next to your mission statement. It will help you to attain your lofty goals.
Finally, I believe that the renowned scholars who comprise the “Jesus Seminar” are right in saying that Jesus did not say everything that the Bible ascribes to him. Jesus statement “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No ones comes to the Father except through me” is not the kind of statement you would hear from a teacher of love, kindness, and acceptance. This alleged exclusiveness of Jesus Christ is a major hindrance to your success.
To get around this, place much emphasis upon Paul’s statement that you must be all things to all people. This will give you the appearance of being biblical. Since the culture today is postmodern and there is no absolute truth, rejecting the exclusiveness of Christ is following the mandate of Paul. The Roman Catholic Church is gaining members because they opened the door of salvation to all men of good will. Do the same! Never be critical of the religious convictions of other people. You have your truth. Let them have their truth.
If Paul addressed the Athenians in a postmodern age, he would have spoken of the “unknown God” as emerging out of the Jerusalem community of faith. He would have commended the Athenians for their religious views and dialogued with them to see if they could discover a common language in which to express their diversity. He would have attempted to bring them together, not create divisions.
If Agrippa had been a postmodern ruler, Paul would have never tried to convince him of the truth of Christianity and convert him. For Paul, this would have been politically incorrect and he would not be practicing his “all things to all people” motto. Rather, he would have suggested to the king that they were unable to find agreement because Paul’s words did not signify the same thing to Agrippa as they did Paul. Since Paul’s words did not possess objective meaning, Agrippa’s thoughts on religion were just as valid as Paul thoughts.
If you follow these suggestions you will build a loving community of faith that is highly respected by people of all religious convictions. You will be loved as an open-minded, kind, and gentle man of God. You will be successful.
Don’t concern yourself with the Jesus’ statement, “Woe to you when all men speak well of you.” It is probably not authentic.
If some of your fellow church leaders voice concern that you are borrowing my secular ideas to build your church, respond with a look of disbelief and ask, “Doesn’t the Bible say that the Jews fleeced the Egyptians?”
That’s my report. Now, get out there and sell that product!