I listened this morning to a TV sermon from a popular TV preacher.
“Sermon” may be the wrong term. It was a motivational talk about the power of positive thinking. It could have been given by Mary Lou Retton to a ballroom full of industrial lubricant salespeople. There were biblical references, but they were for the purpose of illustration, not exposition. Christ had nothing to do with the message. Positive life change comes from replacing negative messages with positive ones. The preacher inadvertently almost quoted exactly Stuart Smalley from Saturday Night Live – “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough…”
It was a helpful message. People applauded. They were encouraged. What it wasn’t, was Christian. It wasn’t Christianity. Life change in Christianity doesn’t come from positive thinking. It doesn’t come from thinking more highly of yourself. Or replacing negative messages with positive ones. It comes from dying to yourself and being reborn in Christ. A new creation.
Here’s a thought:
Christian mass communicators often resort to self-help motivation over actual Christian teaching because it is easier to communicate, and, in fact, it gets results. People’s lives ARE improved – on a mass scale. There wouldn’t be a self-help industry if self-help didn’t work. There wouldn’t be an Oprah if self-help didn’t work.
The problem is, what they’re teaching isn’t Christianity. Even when sprinkled liberally with Bible references. Christianity starts with dying to one’s self, not thinking more positive thoughts about one’s self. But that’s harder to teach through mass media. It is not a particularly appealing message. It’s countercultural. And it doesn’t initially sound like what we want. We want to achieve our dreams – not die to them. Not give them up. We want to “increase,” not “decrease.” We don’t actually want to follow Jesus. We want Jesus to follow us – to pick up after us – clean up our messes with his Jesus superpowers.
We want Jesus to make our dreams come true. And if that means we have to be better people, well, we’ll give it a try. But it’s about us. Our goals. Our dreams. Our lives.
The most discouraging thing about this sermon was that Jesus was only mentioned once, and it was a misapplied reference to Jesus’ baptism as an example of God being pleased with us even before we’ve done anything amazing. Just like God was “pleased” with Jesus even before he had done any miracles.
This preacher has robbed Christianity of the power of God, and replaced it with the power of positive thinking. Which is, quite frankly, a much more appealing message. You can get something without giving up too much. Sure, you need to work on your vices. But that’s just common sense. But there is no need to let go of the idolatry of “me.” I can still come first. The good me. The me I’ve always wanted to be. Me, me, me. I can get God’s blessing, while still focusing on me.
We miss one thing, though. Putting ourselves first is sin. Clinging to our dreams and goals is sin. Rebellion against God. So the power of positive thinking can improve our lives, but it can’t redeem us. We’re still enemies of God. We’re still fallen. Broken. Slaves to sin.
Our preaching has become limited to what is easily and appealingly communicated on a mass scale. And the reality of taking up your cross and dying to yourself is NOT easily and appealingly communicated on a mass scale. If it didn’t work on a mass scale for Jesus, how do we expect it to work on a mass scale for us?
Jesus had the most followers when he was giving people what they wanted – “signs and wonders.” Then he got down to teaching – to laying out the gospel. And people said, “This is difficult teaching!” And suddenly the crowds started wandering away. “Um… More signs and wonders, please?”
Why do we think the difficult message of the gospel will work better for us than it did for Jesus? Even more vitally, why do we think we need to HELP Jesus appeal to a wider audience by CHANGING his message?
Jesus asks us to preach the gospel. To make disciples. Nowhere – not once – does he say, “And you are going to have HUGE success!” Not once. He actually says the world “will hate you as they hate me.”
If that’s the case, perhaps massive success should make us concerned. Perhaps we’re preaching “signs and wonders” – easy answers. Telling people what they want to hear, that your life can still be about you. That Jesus wants to clean up after you. Make your marriage work, give you healthy kids. A good job.
This is not what Jesus preached. And the more he preached, the fewer followers he had.
Don’t take the easy way out. We want everyone to be a Christian, so we try to make the Christian message as appealing as possible. Like political candidates “spinning” their message to attract followers. We want to be popular. We want Jesus to be popular. We completely ignore the fact that Jesus was NOT popular, and neither were his followers.
Jesus asks us to make disciples. He doesn’t promise us great success in that endeavor. It isn’t about results. It’s about obedience.
Get ready to have a very unpopular TV show.
Amen, Phil! It’s this message that the world needs and what I remind myself with every day!
Very helpful and challenging insights. Key thought: “So the power of positive thinking can improve our lives, but it can’t redeem us. We’re still enemies of God. We’re still fallen. Broken. Slaves to sin.” As a preacher, this is a good reminder to me that simply getting the congregation to smile and nod their heads at me does not mean that I’m preaching for life change. Improvement does not equal life change, and certainly does not equal redemption. A very good reminder. Thanks, Phil. ~Matt
Phil – I think this is not good but great. And unfortunately the message here means that it will by definition not be popular, and harder still to popularize. No true believer can shout from the mountaintop “Woo hoo – I’ve died to myself! Jesus is King.” First, it is silly of course to do such a thing without being backed up by a ukelele. But more importantly, the very act of the decision (to die to oneself) precludes one from making such a proclamation.
So, how does one popularize (or at least advertise) this unappetizing philosophy, without either “watering down” the message (sorry, that’s an overused and approaching meaningless phrase) or appearing boastful at this wonderful thing we have done? All I can figure is to quietly go about my life, be who I am, give what I can, and occasionally speak to one who will listen.
Here’s a related question: how do you think the podcast would change if you found out that 10 million people a week listened? I think the honest answer to that would reveal answers to some of the questions I have posed. In this way: right now as near as I can figure, you assume the numbers of listeners is low, and probably in general already believers. But if you knew you were reaching a zillion folks, what would you say? (I mean, besides “I have no idea what this guy Dave is asking!”)
So I have started rambling, which is a sure sign I need to end.
Hear Hear! You should listen to some audio or video of sermons on the atgrace.com website. You and Troy are singing from the same sheet music – the BIBLE 🙂
Hmmm, yeah, okay. But Jesus IS popular — likely the most popular religious figure in the world today — and there are many good reasons for that. Jesus himself shared some pretty attractive truths (eg in him can be found rest, peace and love), just as he presented some contentious ones. He said when he was lifted up, he would draw everyone to himself which is attractive, and also that his message would divide families, so not universally attractive.
I’m making the point that popularity doesn’t negate the veracity of the message, just as a lack of popularity didn’t. We cannot assume that it’s wrong simply because it’s popular. While there are other points you’re making, that seems to be a large theme here.
And yet, in a way, isn’t the Great Commission all about making Jesus popular? We have seen repeatedly in our storytelling media from the time it happened — and even before — that the crucifixion/resurrection story is compelling, and thus attractive.
Furthermore, a message of dying to self will ultimately lead to someone living better, loving better, and being fulfilled in what they do. But that isn’t self-help, right? 🙂
We are promised that there will be an outpouring of God’s spirit in the last days. It would be unfortunate to miss out on that because it didn’t precisely line up with our expectations. After all, that has happened before.
I have a twofold response —- one is fully convicted. I am guilty way too often about being narcissistic in my faith. I make it about me even when I think I am making it about Him. Very sneaky sin. Thanks for the reminder I needed today on that.
Second – Brad makes many great points. I would say that people sometimes get so focused on wanting Jesus to be popular that the messages they are giving are not really about Jesus at all. They are about us and making us “better”. Jesus came because we can’t self-help, at least I can’t. I can’t die to myself without His help and I can’t live life new without His help. He pursued me, He saved me, He sanctifies me. It’s all about Him but we make it about us.
At least this is my take on it – but I know that what I know is not even an inch of what there is to know. Just dropping my two cents! Plink plink.
Thanks Phil for throwing this out there – lerrrrrrv the podcast and WITB.
Re-posted this to my FB wall. I think it needs to be heard again. 🙂 Good word. More people need to hear it. God bless you. And thank you for the encouragement. I’m not popular. What I’m doing (making Christian games) is not popular. But maybe that’s ok. Thank you for reminding me that Jesus wasn’t popular either. I’m in good company.
It’s very refreshing to hear this, especially from the creator of Veggietales. Don’t get me wrong: I love Veggietales. But the presentation of God’s truth is always incomplete in a Veggietales video. That is why I am so excited that you are doing “What’s in the Bible?” now. I have no inside knowledge of what God’s plan is for the church in this generation, but it does seem to me that the Holy Spirit is moving. I see the popularity of God-centered teachers like Timothy Keller, John Piper, Francis Chan and others. I see new websites like the Gospel Coalition springing up. I think–and I may be wrong–that God is bringing some reformation and revival to the church. There is a focus on the Gospel, and a realization that much of what has passed for evangelical Christianity is really just Christian-based moralism that has abandoned or forgotten the evangel. Even though it seems like our country is going down the toilet when it comes to issues of religious liberty, I see so many reasons to be hopeful. I don’t know how we did it, but the church in America has managed to focus on all of these things that should flow from the Gospel instead of the Good News itself. Maybe that is changing, though. I am so thankful that the creation of “What’s in the Bible?” has come about at the same time that I became a dad. My son is three, and he already enjoys these DVDs. I can’t wait to use these DVDs for family devotions. Back in the day, evangelical Christians would teach their children through catechisms(such as Wesminster Shorter Catechism). These DVDs will serve as a similar tool in our home.They are entertaining AND Gospel-centered. Instead of just little tidbits teaching Christian virtues, they expound on the whole counsel of God. I know it was a huge bummer what happened with Big Idea, but I really do believe that the work you are doing now is way more important and meaningful. Keep up the good work, Phil!
I completely agree. I’ve been on the internet trying to find why such a change in focus from Vegie Tales to “What’s in the bible?” Is there a story somewhere where Phil explains why the gospel is the focus of the later, but not the former?
Excellent and refreshing!!!
Thank you Phil!
Thank you, Phil, for this very timely reading. It speaks directly to my need. Having been emptied of so much the past few years, I realize I’m still clinging to the disintegrating remains of my own plans and ideas. It’s time to give all of what’s left to Him. Blessings to you and yours.
Thank you Phil for the excellent article, a helpful reminder to all of us that would call ourselves Christians to follow Christ and not modern reworked and lukewarm Christianity.
Amen. God help us not deceive ourselves.