The debate about preaching a message of “what people want” versus “what they need” isn’t new. It’s been debated since the earliest days of the church. But the issue takes on an entirely new dimension now as mass media can distribute that message to so many more people. Particularly in the digital age, wrong or destructive teaching can have enormous consequences. As a media consultant, challenged with getting a message heard by the most people (marketing), I want to make that message easy to understand and easy to like. On the other hand, as a Christian sharing a prophetic message, I need to deliver a message that isn’t necessarily painless, and may not be easily accepted.
Note that I use the word “prophetic” not in the sense of a direct message from God, but in the sense of “Truth telling” or delivering an often difficult message based on eternal principles from the scriptures. As believers in Jesus Christ, our task is sharing a message that is often difficult to receive. And yet when you look at many of the top churches and religious organizations today, the messages are easy to take, inspirational, and often shallow. That’s not to say a significant message of the Church shouldn’t be hope – particularly in the nihilistic culture of death we live in today.
But I’m reminded of Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957) one of the famous “Inklings” – the group of writers at Oxford that included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. In her book, Letters to the Diminished Church, she writes:
“First, I believe it to be a grave mistake to present Christianity as something charming with no offense to it. Seeing that Christ went about the world giving the most violent offense to all kinds of people, it would seem absurd to expect that the doctrine of his person can be so presented as to offend nobody. We cannot blink at the fact that gentle Jesus, meek and mild, was so stiff in his opinions and so inflammatory in his language that he was thrown out of church, stoned, hunted from place to place, and finally gibbeted as a firebrand and a public danger.”
In our present day efforts to gain an audience or write a bestselling book, I wonder if we’ve taken some of the distinctiveness out of our faith. Granted, most of the people Jesus offended were the religious folks. When Jesus was confronted by sinners or the suffering, he was far more tender and gracious. He saved his most fiery volleys for the hypocritical types within the church.
Also, understand that when I talk about offending, I don’t mean for stupid reasons. Focusing on money, Jesus junk product offers, cheesy, out of date approaches and styles, humiliating an opponent – no one has the right to be stupid in their presentation of the Christian faith. I’ll fight against bad hair and gold furniture on Christian TV until the day I die.
What I’m talking about here is presenting the honest reality of the Christian faith. But today, we hear pastors try everything in their arsenal to defend a point of doctrine without actually using the scriptures. We think the audience will “relate” to it better, when it may actually be positioning the Christian faith as just another “lifestyle choice,” and not the raging fire that transformed the Western world.
Are we preaching a message based on the Bible’s intentions or the audience’s aspirations?
Presenting the Christian faith in the media – or anywhere else for that matter – is a revolutionary act. We’ve lulled ourselves into thinking we have to play nice to get the audience’s attention when the exact opposite is true.
In my book “The Last TV Evangelist” I take on this subject directly and at length. Successful programming in the secular world revolves around conflict, so what are we so afraid to speak hard truths?