Church: It's Time to Stop the Spiritual "Bait and Switch"

Jay Lemke
Thursday, May 1st 2008
May/Jun 2008

Men, I'm told, do not read the Bible. This is explained away by the idea that men do not read, period. Apparently, we're knuckle-dragging Neanderthals who hoot at women, scratch ourselves and laugh at bodily noises. We watch sports (only the violent kind), we watch TV (only the violent kind), but we do not read-or so the wisdom goes. And yet, I see us doing it all the time. We read the sports pages, car manuals, gun magazines-perhaps an item about a pretty Hollywood actress. No, it is not a matter of reading; it is a matter of interest.

To be perfectly fair, of course, men aren't the only ones not reading the Bible. Statistics from Barna Research show that while approximately 90 percent of Americans own a Bible, something like 40 percent of us read it with any regularity (once a week). While not disputing such surveys entirely, they seem charitable given what Americans apparently know about the Bible. Or rather, don't know. Barna Research also says that 75 percent of Americans believe the Bible teaches that "God helps those who help themselves" (a little wisdom from the non-Christian Ben Franklin). Also, from a relatively recent Gallup Poll, only half of adults surveyed could name any of the four Gospels. My sinking heart tells me more than half of Americans could name one of the judges on American Idol.

Moreover, this lack of Bible knowledge also translates into a lack of church attendance and affiliation. Studies show that the majority of Americans do not attend church on any given Sunday. A 2008 Pew research study showed that Americans are flip-flopping on faith more often than a walleye pulled out of a Minnesota lake. According to the research, most Protestant denominations are losing members, as are Catholics (nondenominational churches are one of the few to note an increase in attendance).

So, how does American Christianity attempt to tackle this apparent lack of interest in things Christian? It seems, unfortunately, that the answer is often through clever marketing. As a public relations professional, I am slightly bemused and saddened when I see Bibles marketed to men and women like any specialty magazine on the market. In a quick web search on Amazon, I found scads of different Bibles exclusively devoted toward men, women, teens, boys, girls-you name it, there is a Bible for it. (In the interest of full disclosure, I have the Surfer's Bible, which I sort of like though I can't surf.) The marketing, of course, works and the Bible regularly tops the world's best-seller list year after year. I suspect that for many Americans the Bible seems like the type of thing one should have in a home, sort of like a treadmill. But while it sells more copies than Harry Potter, more often than not it winds up with a layer of dust under the bed or smelling of mold in a box down in the basement.

Why?The answer is clear. We are bored by the Bible and we are bored by church.

So what does the church do to combat this pathetic reality? The modern church, in all its human wisdom, has decided to be something it's not. For example, to show men that the church is masculine and cool, we plan things like rock climbing adventures and paint ball excursions; and we have conferences that teach men how to be better fathers and husbands. For women, it is much the same: Christianity is there to help you be a better wife, raise better kids, and have a more contented life. Not that there is anything wrong with these things per se, but it misses the main point by a mile.

Sadly, church marketers seem to be falling prey to a practice being abandoned by their secular counterparts. Marketers on the cutting edge know that today's consumers are savvy and easily see through cunning spin. For example, if you are informing the public of a government policy, you do not hire a fake reporter (as the Bush Administration did) to do a fake report and then upload it to the nation's news satellites. The public, in an increasing measure, does not fall for such tactics-and the government was soundly criticized

In my field, the Public Relations Society of America has a strict rule of ethics. Among these are to "be honest and accurate in all communications" and "to avoid deceptive practices."

With the popularity of online social media, some American companies have been caught trying to influence public opinion in a way many have found disingenuous; such as placing information on a blog without readers knowing the true source. Indeed, many have learned the hard way that Americans do not like to be deceived, and the strategic thinkers within public relations know that they risk reputation and profits whenever they attempt something that may be construed as sneaky.

So why, in the church of all places, does such apparent dissimulation exist? Many in the American church seem intent to communicate under false pretenses, even as the secular world is learning its lessons. We'll bring people in with music, food, fun, and games; and we'll make them think being a Christian is about whatever interests them. We'll play on their felt needs, and we'll do research to determine what "seekers" want in a church. We'll stick our collective fingers in the air and then we'll become what people what us to be.

Finally, after all of that work, once we have people in the church, we may eventually get around to telling them, "Oh, by the way, Jesus died for your sins."

In my public relations world, that's called the old "bait and switch."

But we in the church do it all the time. We tell people they should read the Bible because it will help them in their daily lives. While there is a sense of truth to it, that is like telling someone to read Moby Dick because it will help them with whale spearing.

Whether overtly or subtly, we are telling people they should be Christians because it will make them better in their particular area of interest. The American church is playing a huge game of spiritual bait and switch. At some level, we must be ashamed of the basic message of Christianity, and we don't believe that on its own it is powerfully interesting-to men, to women, to boys, and to girls. We are scared to give people the best message of all-because we believe we know better than God.

As Jeremiah said of the false prophets of his day, "They have healed the brokenness of My people superficially, Saying, 'Peace, peace,' But there is no peace."

Dorothy Sayers, the British novelist, was right when she claimed: "We are constantly assured that the churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine-'dull dogma' as people call it. The fact is the precise opposite. It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man-and the dogma is the drama."

So what do we think would happen if we asked people to read the Bible because of its main point? What if we stopped baiting and switching and we told them that Christianity has some bad news before you get to the good? What if we told them that there are some passages in the Bible that are so darned difficult to hear that sometimes they even keep us up at night?

A. W. Pink said: "It is sad to find so many professing Christians who appear to regard the wrath of God as something for which they need to make an apology, or at least they wish there were no such thing."

I wonder what happens to someone-who has been taken in by the notion that the church is primarily there to help him lead a fulfilling life-who comes across this passage from Romans: "But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God's wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed." And then later in Romans, "There is no one righteous, not even one; there is not one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away; they have together become worthless; there is not one who does good, not even one. Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit. The poison of vipers is on their lips."

Does the person then say to himself or herself, "Well, that doesn't really help me. In fact, that is kind of a downer. In fact, that is kind of depressing. In fact, that is not at all what they told me church was about." I wonder if the person gives up then and makes plans to sleep in Sunday morning.

If people stop there, of course, all they have heard is the bad news. The good news that follows should be what sets people's hearts ablaze and engenders excitement.

C. F. W. Walther, the Lutheran theologian, summed this up well in writing: "You are a lost and condemned sinner; you cannot be your own savior. But do not despair on that account. There is one who has acquired salvation for you. Christ has opened the portals of heaven to you and says to you: 'Come, for all things are ready. Come to the marriage of the Lamb.'"

If there can be an understanding of that truth, the Bible not only would remain a best-seller, but it would be read-even by men.

As Dorothy Sayers has said, the story of the Bible is so amazing that to not be interested is to not understand exactly what God has done in history. It is to not understand that from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Revelation, the entire Bible focuses on Jesus, and what Jesus-as God-was going to do to save mankind from God's wrath. It is a true story of a God, as C. S. Lewis says, who is not safe, but is good. It is a story of us being saved from God by God.

The bad news of Christianity must be very bad and the good news must be even better. If those two tensions are not there, then the Bible is simply boring and dull.

Any reader of books knows that each book has a main point. The main point of Stephen King's books, usually set in Maine, is that there is evil that people are trying to combat; they are not travel pieces on the beauty of the northeastern coast. The main point of John Grisham's novels are about courtroom drama and of a lawyer trying to secure justice; they are not about how to improve one's legal skills.

As a church, we must explain the main point of the Bible; it is the only way to engender real interest in it, and it is the only way to be honest. True, the main point of Christianity may be offensive to some, but Paul warns us about this in his first letter to the church of Corinth: "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved, it is the power of God."

I love how Jesus handles such things. A huge crowd comes up to him after he has fed them with all of the fish and bread. He now has them in the palm of his hands. They will do anything he says. He can start a huge movement with all of these people. He can start a megachurch with a basketball court, a bookshop, and a café. And then he does something that many in today's church would have advised against. He starts to tell people that he is the bread of life, that he came down from heaven, and that whoever believes in him has eternal life. In other words, he is dogmatic, black and white, and more than a little offensive. He tells them that only through him can they know God, and they begin to grumble and are frustrated by this hard reality. They begin to walk away.

Does Jesus run after them? Does he tell them to try him again, that they didn't really understand? No. He allows them to leave, turns to his twelve disciples, and asks: "Do you want to leave as well?" Peter, bless him, says the only thing that we should also be saying: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."

It seems that Jesus had little interest in baiting and switching. He told people the truth, even if it meant turning people away. It seems that Jesus lost more followers than he gained. In fact, by our modern standards, Jesus could be called a poor evangelist. He never had someone fill out a card-or even some papyrus-to show how many people had "made the decision to follow him." Indeed, when the rich young ruler comes and asks him the way to eternal life, Jesus doesn't make it easier, but even more difficult. It seems that Jesus is always making it more difficult to follow him than the modern Christian church would make seekers believe. Why does Jesus do this? Why does he say things like: "Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect"? Or, "Sell all your possessions and give to the poor"? Or, "Only the meek will inherit the earth"? He is saying all of these things to drive us to the cross, to help us realize that he is the only one who can help us. Only by realizing that we can't do what he says (I'm not that meek), will we turn to him and trust that he has already done all of these good works in our place. Martin Luther called it the "great exchange"-all of our sin put on Jesus, and all of Jesus' goodness put on us.

The Bible is not about improving ourselves, but about how Jesus-and Jesus alone-sets us right before a Holy God who is angry with sin. It is about how we did nothing to deserve any of this love from God. In short, it is the most amazing and beautiful story ever told.

The church must stop turning Christianity into something it's not. Only then, when people really understand how much trouble they are in from God and how much he sacrificed to save them, will they turn to the Bible as the 66 love letters it really is, and truly enjoy reading the Word of God.

Thursday, May 1st 2008

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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