The Promise-Driven Church

Todd Wilken
Thursday, May 3rd 2007
Nov/Dec 2005

I've always been fascinated by 7-Up. As a beverage, it's only drinkable when mixed generously with whiskey. But as an idea, 7-UP is genius.

7-Up is the stuff of advertising legend. In 1967, the 7-Up company launched the uncola advertising campaign. True to its name, this was an effort to market 7-Up as everything the typical cola wasn't.

The Uncola strategy took a uniquely anti-establishment view for the soft-drink industry. 7-Up understood that in the 60s, political, recreational, and social issues boiled down to Them against Us. They were old, stodgy, conservative, the people the Beatles referred to in "Nowhere Man." We, on the other hand, were hip, adventurous, iconoclastic, and fun-loving people. With its Uncola theme, 7-Up positioned colas as Them and identified itself with Us.

7-Up's sales took off. No wonder; theirs was a surefire approach. Reinforce the negative brand perception of your competition-old, stodgy, conservative. Present yourself as the alternative-hip, adventurous, iconoclastic, and fun-loving.

Then in January of 2003, the makers of 7-Up pulled the same marketing trick again-on themselves. The new beverage was "dnL." According to the advertising, "dnL is from the makers of 7-Up, but it is everything 7-Up isn't.. . . It's 7-Up flipped." You guessed it, they just turned the old 7-Up can upside down and filled it with something that looks and tastes like caffeinated antifreeze. Pass the whiskey.

The Unchurch

In the mid-1950s, Robert Schuller was called to start a new church in southern California. He began by conducting a house-to-house opinion poll: "[H]he asked the people what sort of a church they would want to attend. They wanted light, beauty, tranquility, beautiful music, friendly people, programs that suited their needs, sermons that weren't boring-better yet, sermons that weren't even sermons! They wanted a place where they could feel comfortable." Schuller's approach was less like 7-Up and more like Pepsi. He simply offered something sweeter and fizzier than the traditional church had on tap. Still, by 1980, Schuller was dedicating his nearly three-thousand-seat Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove. Not bad.

Also in 1980, a young Rick Warren was taking Schuller's approach a step further, and entering real 7-Up territory. Like Schuller, Warren showed up in southern California with nothing. Like Schuller, Warren went door to door taking an opinion poll. But Warren's question was different. Schuller wanted to know what people liked in a church. Warren wanted to know what people didn't like. He asked, "Why do you think most people don't attend church?"

I asked myself, what kind of church are we going to be? And I decided, why don't we be a church for people who hate church? There are plenty of good churches around here. Why don't we have church for people who hate church? And so I went out and for twelve weeks I went door to door, and I knocked on homes for about twelve weeks and just took an opinion poll.

Warren went looking for people who hated church, and he found them. He heard four common complaints: 1) church is boring; 2) church members are unfriendly; 3) the church is preoccupied with money; and, 4) the church's child care is inadequate. Warren set out to build his new church around these four complaints. "A church for people who hate church." A church for the unchurched. The unchurch.

Twenty-five years later, Warren's approach is standard operating procedure in American Christianity. There are unchurches everywhere you look. But this isn't rocket science or revival. Whether it's soda pop or pop Christianity, the marketing works. It's a surefire approach. Reinforce the negative brand perception of your competition-boring, unfriendly, and greedy. Present yourself as the alternative-exciting, friendly, and caring.

Arguing with Success

What's wrong with the unchurch? A lot. But I'll name just two things. First, the unchurch tells the unchurched, "Yes, everything you've suspected about the church is true. The church is backward, lifeless, boring, and self-serving." The unchurch survives and thrives by reinforcing the popular negative stereotype of the church.

Second and more important, a church built upon the complaints of the unchurched can never be anything more than what the public demands or expects. Water cannot rise above its own level. A building is no stronger than its foundation.

There is a better way. Yes, the unchurch has the people, the influence, and the affluence. What could be better than acres of campus, tens of thousands of members, and packed worship centers? I know it sounds insane, but there really is a better way.

The church is not built upon the complaints or compliments of the world. The church has something better. The church is not built upon polls, planning, or even purpose. The church is built upon the promises of God.

We know what it looks like when you build a church upon the complaints of the unchurched. There are examples all around us. But what would it look like if the church were built upon the promises of God?

The Promise in Person

The Apostle Paul writes, "The Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us-by me, Silvanus, and Timothy-was not Yes and No, but in Him was Yes. For all the promises of God in Him are Yes, and in Him Amen, to the glory of God through us" (2 Cor. 1:19-20).

Paul is saying that every promise God ever made is fulfilled in Jesus. Old Testament, New Testament, past, present, and future-Jesus Christ is the final "Yes" to every one of God's promises. All of God's promises flow out of, and lead back to, the crucified and risen Jesus.

Paul is also saying that God is all about keeping his promises, in particular the promise to save sinners. "This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners" (1 Tim. 1:15). Moreover, this promise to save sinners isn't just one promise among many; it is THE promise of God. All the other promises of God, whatever they may be, are really just a part of this greater, all-encompassing promise.

In other words, saving sinners isn't God's hobby, it's God's raison d'tre. If God has a "thing," as we used to say, this is it. In Jesus, God was doing his thing. Paul writes, "It pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross" (Col. 1:19-20; see also 2:9). Paul isn't simply asserting Jesus' divinity here. He is telling us that the fullness of who God is was revealed in Jesus hanging dead on the cross for sinners. The cross and the resurrection are what the Triune God is all about.

Jesus is the promise of God in person. The promise to save sinners in Jesus is the promise that binds all of God's promises together. This promise is the foundation of the church. Paul writes, "no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 3:10-11).

Knowing this, the apostles conducted no opinion polls. They just preached Christ crucified. The apostles didn't ask what people liked or hated about church. They just started announcing that the promise of God had been fulfilled in Jesus: "We declare to you glad tidings-that promise which was made to the fathers God has fulfilled this for us their children, in that He has raised up Jesus" (Acts 13:32-33).

No matter how big or successful it becomes, a church built upon the complaints of the unchurched can never be anything more than what the public demands. However, the church built on the promise of God in Jesus is always everything God has promised. All the unchurch can ever do is meet the felt needs of the unchurched. It is held captive to their complaints. It is limited by their expectations. If the unchurch fails to live up to the expectations of the unchurched, it has nothing more to offer them.

The church can do more. When (not if) the church falls short, even when she lives up to the world's worst stereotype, she still has the promises of God. In fact, such failure and disappointment is anticipated and expected in the church. The church doesn't present herself as a place where all your expectations and needs are met. No, quite the opposite. The church is never surprised when sinners think, speak, and act like sinners, especially in her own ranks. The church is a sinners-only club. The church is not here to silence the complaints of the unchurched, or to live up to their expectations, but to deliver God's promise of forgiveness to sinners in person-the person of Jesus Christ.

Preaching and Practicing the Promise

The unchurch offers the unchurched "life-application" preaching. Why? This is what the unchurched expect. The unchurched always expect less than God gives. The unchurched expect preaching that gives them practical solutions to their everyday problems. The church has something better.

To begin with, the church doesn't preach to the unchurched. The church doesn't really care whether someone is churched, unchurched, underchurched, overchurched, mischurched, dischurched, prechurched, dechurched, or rechurched. The church preaches to sinners-sinners who are unchurched and sinners who aren't; sinners who are seeking and sinners who aren't; sinners who are unbelievers and sinners who aren't.

We know what sinners want to hear. We want to hear about ourselves. We want to hear that God loves us just as we are. We want to hear how we can improve our lives and ourselves. We want to hear that we can do it-with a little help from Jesus. This is why the unchurch preaches so much about the Christian and so little about the Christ.

But what do sinners need to hear? First, we need to hear what God's law says about us:

As it is written: "There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; they have together become unprofitable; There is none who does good, no, not one. Their throat is an open tomb; with their tongues they have practiced deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips; whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; destruction and misery are in their ways; and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes." Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin. (Rom. 3:10-20)

Then we need to hear what the gospel says about Jesus:

But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as an atoning sacrifice by His blood. (Rom. 3:21-25)

In her preaching, the church points sinners outside themselves (their potential, their plans, and yes, even their purpose), to Jesus. The church preaches the Christ, not the Christian. The church has something better to say to sinners than what they want or expect to hear. Even at the risk of being considered irrelevant, the church tells sinners what they need to hear. Paul was well aware of this risk, even in his day:

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Cor. 1:18, 21-24)

The world will never consider Christ crucified relevant. The unchurched will never tell us that they want to hear the message of the cross. This is why the church doesn't ask people what they want to hear. The church preaches what people need to hear.

The unchurch offers the unchurched lots of things to do. The typical unchurch is a very busy place. Why? This is what the unchurched expect. The unchurched always expect less than God gives. The unchurched expect the church to be like any other volunteer organization. The church has something better.

The church isn't interested in giving sinners something to do. The church is interested in giving sinners the things God has done for them. The church isn't interested in keeping Christians busy. God has given us our families, neighbors, and work to do that. The church is where God does his work.

Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord's Supper are God's work. The church calls Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord's Supper "the means of Grace" and she means it. They are the tangible, audible, and edible Word of God. They are the tangible, audible, and edible promises of God. Through these means God does his work for sinners. Through these means God keeps his promise to forgive sinners. Through these means God keeps the church on her foundation, Jesus Christ. Through these means God builds the church up to her full stature in Jesus Christ.

The world will never consider Baptism, Absolution, or the Lord's Supper important. They will always value man's work more than God's work. The unchurched will never tell us that they want these gifts. This is why the church doesn't ask people what they want. The church gives people what they need. The promises of God are so much better than the complaints of the unchurched, aren't they?

In the words of Samuel Stone, the world will always regard the church with "a scornful wonder." Ask the unchurched what they hate about the church and they will tell you. But don't build the church upon what they say. Build the church upon what God says.

When the church is built on the promises of God, she will never be what the world wants or expects. But she will always be what God has promised. When the church is built on the promises of God, she will never appear relevant or useful to the world. But she will always be able to give the world the one it needs: the crucified and risen Jesus.

1 [ Back ] In the preceding article, Mr. Wilken has taken an excerpt from Michael Gershman's Getting It Right the Second Time, Remarketing Strategies That Have Turned Failure into Success (New Delhi, India: Roli Books, 2000), available November 12, 2002, at Business Standard, story.asp?Menu=14&story=3308.
The information on Robert Schuller is taken from Michael and Donna Nason, Robert Schuller: The Inside Story (Waco: Word Books, 1983), p. 21. The quotation from Rick Warren was taken from public remarks at the Pew Forum's Faith Angle Conference on Religion, Politics and Public Life, "Myths of the Modern Mega-Church" at Key West, Florida, available May 23, 2005, at EventID=80.
Thursday, May 3rd 2007

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

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