During my time as a professor of communication studies at Louisiana College I taught a class entitled “Defending Christianity in the media and marketplace.” The idea behind the class was to challenge students to explore and understand the culture so that they could be better equipped to defend Christianity in a culturally effective way. As their final assignment, I challenged my students to interview local Pastors and Christian leaders as well as those that followed them and reveal the results in paper accompanied by a presentation delivered to the class.
What is worship?
I challenged the students to ask specific questions, such as “What is worship? What is the definition of a good service?” and perhaps the most revealing question of them all, “What is the gospel?” At first glance, the answers to these questions may be assumed, but what my students and I discovered is that local culture has done much to distort and confuse these fundamentals of Christianity.
My students said that many of the people they surveyed identified the gospel as “the good news.” But some could not articulate beyond this what constitutes “good news.” And fewer still could contrast the good news with the bad news. To be clear this was not an exercise attempting to identify theological precision or perfection, but rather the results of the interviews revealed that there is often a disconnect between what Pastors intend to communicate and what is actually heard and retained by parishioners.
Oprah or Jesus?
In fact the gospel is the good news that we are saved by grace through faith on the account of Christ’s death and resurrection. But are truly aware of how good the good news actually is because it is rarely differentiated from mere good advice. Perhaps Pastors should consider returning to the preaching of the fundamentals of the gospel rather than attempting to placate the short attention spans of audiences with motivational, moralistic therapeutic dissertations better suited for Oprah than for Sunday morning worship. When it comes to worship, the answers provided by those surveyed were instructive as well. Many of the answers focused on the artifacts of worship such as music, but some rightly identified worship as something that “involves all of our lives and not just what happens on Sunday morning at church.” As to the definition of a “good” church service, the answers here were most revealing, because they were all different, and many had difficulty articulating an answer without resorting to clichés such as “When God shows up”. When pressed as to what this meant, the person being questioned could only talk about feelings and emotions in subjective terms. The danger is that when a good church service can only be defined in subjective personal terms of our needs being met and our lives being blessed, Christ ceases to be the object of our worship. Most often He is replaced by idolatry, the idol of our affection being ourselves, and Christ and His Church simply becoming the means by which we obtain our selfish desires. As it turns out idolatry is not a sin reserved for the pagans of ancient civilizations. It is very present in our culture today, even in our very religious culture.
Timothy Keller, former pastor of New York’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, points out in a message delivered to the Gospel Coalition 2009 National Conference that our religious idolatry tends to manifest itself in three ways. First, Truth Idolatry, the ideas that right doctrine rather than simplicity of the death and resurrection of Christ is the basis of our salvation. Next, Gift Idolatry, where salvation is dependent on and enhanced by spiritual gifting rather than the cultivation of spiritual fruit as the result of the life transformed by the gospel. And finally, perhaps the most common among well behaved and decent religious people, Morality Idolatry, the thinking that a moral and decent life is the means of salvation instead of the atoning work of Christ on the cross.
In his book, We become what we worship, G.K. Beale observes, “What people revere, they resemble, either for ruin or restoration.” In the class I taught, we discovered, idolatry is alive and well in our culture and in many of our churches. When we revere a particular style of music, a particular denomination, or the personality of a preacher, more than we revere Christ, we become steeped in idolatry. Much like the silversmith’s of Ephesus in Acts 19, we become very angry when those things we hold dear are threatened.
If our understanding of the gospel, our worship, or what we call a good service is dependent on anything or anyone else other than Christ alone, then He is no longer the object of our worship and the exclusive means of our salvation. The first letter in Idols is revealing, it is the letter “I”, and we would do well to remember the words of our Lord in Matthew 22:37-38 “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment.” In the final analysis, it is this first and great commandment that is the last arbiter of identifying the loyalties of our hearts.