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Christianity Lite

Church Lite

by Dennis Pollock

A few generations ago the church in America was known for her hellfire and brimstone preachers. These fiery orators loved to paint hell hot, sin ugly, and God angry. They sometimes preached the terrors of God with such enthusiasm you suspected they actually enjoyed the prospect of sinners getting their just due in that place where the worm never dies and the fire is not quenched. Not content with preaching against sin in general, they often forcefully preached against the sins and habits they considered most heinous, which usually included drinking, smoking, wearing lipstick (for women – very few cross-dressers in those days!) and attending theaters. The faithful of the church, who abstained from such things, amened their pastor heartily, whereas the poor souls practicing such habits either went forward in tears at the “altar call” at the end of the service or left in shame, vowing never to attend that church again

It was easy to tell who was a Christian in those days and who was not. Righteous males didn’t “drink, or chew, or go with girls that do.” Righteous women wore the plainest and ugliest clothes possible, with dresses that nearly reached the floor, and hairdos that nearly reached the ceiling. Most forms of entertainment were looked upon with suspicion – having fun somehow didn’t seem very righteous.

That was then – this is now. Occasionally I hear a pastor bemoaning such legalism as I have described, and when I do, my immediate thought is, “Where are such churches?” They have dropped out of sight nearly as far as the brontosaurus and the tyrannosaurus rex. The pendulum today has swung in the opposite direction with a vengeance. Exit Christianity harsh; enter Christianity lite.

In the modern evangelical church today there are two cardinal sins that pastors attempt to avoid like the plague: 1. Don’t be lengthy. 2. Don’t be negative. People with habits that are questionable have nothing to fear from such churches today. Not only do the pastors fail to preach against sin specifically – the very mention of the general concept of sin is taboo.

The goal for the church service is to keep things positive and keep things moving. Emphasize the goodness of God and His wonderful plan for your life. Stress Christ’s willingness to help you not only get to heaven, but to make sure that you are successful and fulfilled in the here and now. In fact, better not to say anything about heaven – the concept of an afterlife with God in a perfect place seems so irrelevant to today’s modern generation, striving for higher self-esteem, and preoccupied with their smart phones, tablets, and laptops. Streets of gold and mansions in heaven are so 1800s!

In many churches the idea of directly appealing for sinners to come to Christ, and to take some action that indicates their willingness to do so, is anathema. Just preach a pleasant message and let them find Christ in their own time and on their own terms. God is good, we are special, life is nice, and you can do anything you set your mind to, with a little help from above.

Keep in mind that I am not describing the “liberal” churches that deny the deity of Christ and can’t even believe in Christ’s virgin birth and resurrection. No, many of the “lite” churches consider themselves staunchly evangelical, and would affirm the Nicene Creed without hesitation.

The Real Problem

The problem with such churches is really not so much in what they are saying. After all, God is good and Christ is more than willing to help you with your present situation and problems. We are exceedingly valuable in the sight of our Creator, and in Jesus life can be more than pleasant; it can be filled with “joy unspeakable and full of glory” (along with the inevitable trials and pressures that come our way).

The problem is not so much in what they proclaim; it is in what they dare not say. Perhaps the key doctrine that has gone AWOL from the church today is the doctrine of repentance. The idea of admitting ourselves to be rebels at enmity with a holy and sin-hating God doesn’t fit well with our touchy-feely, warm and fuzzy brand of Christianity. Far better to speak of the need to be more well-balanced or have our attitudes adjusted, rather than tell people to their faces that they need to turn from their sins.

Yet strangely we find the concept of repentance to be so thoroughly Biblical as to be virtually inescapable if we ever bother to read the Scriptures. When John the Baptist arrived on the scene, his message was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” Following hard on John’s heals was his cousin, Jesus, whose message was identical: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” When Jesus commissioned His disciples to go out to heal the sick and proclaim the kingdom of God, we read, “So they went out and preached that people should repent.”

RepentanceAfter Jesus’ resurrection, He appeared to His disciples and gave them the content of their future sermons: “repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” And on the Day of Pentecost, after the Holy Spirit had fallen and the Jews were under terrible conviction of their sins and wondered what they must do, Peter instructed them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

That such a doctrine as repentance, so thoroughly and irreversibly woven into the fabric of the Scriptures, could be ignored and neglected in the church today seems almost beyond belief. It must either stem from Biblical illiteracy or else an arrogant presumption that we now have a superior knowledge and sophistication that the early church did not possess.

The Love of God

One thing that nearly all flavors of Christianity have in common is an insistence upon the love of God. Rarely do I preach any evangelistic sermon without making more than one reference to God’s incredible love. In attempting to win sinners to Christ, our goal is to present our triune God in such a way as to reveal His incredible attractiveness. And God is most decidedly attractive. The only reason people are not immediately attracted to Him is that they do not know Him.

Without a doubt God’s most attractive feature is His amazing love. Love is difficult to resist. Arguments can be withstood, logic can be denied, and emotion can fade. But who can brace himself against God’s overwhelming, incomparable, unconditional love?

So it might seem that in this, at least, the liberals, the lite evangelicals, and the more Biblically oriented evangelicals are on the same page. But there is a difference. I can best explain it by using the following illustration:

Many years ago I watched some kind of circus movie, most of which I have long forgotten. But there was a particular dialogue that has stayed with me all these years. The lion tamer was explaining to someone about the difficulty of getting a lion to jump through a hoop of fire. He told how that the act had been seen so often that many people considered it a small simple feat of little significance. He went on to explain that training a lion to jump through fire was extraordinarily difficult, perhaps the most difficult of all circus acts, due to the lion’s natural animosity toward fire. The lion considers fire his only real natural enemy, and has a powerful inbuilt aversion to it. To overcome this hatred of fire and make the lion willing to jump through a ring of flames requires tremendous patience and skill.

Without understanding the lion’s hatred of fire, the jump means almost nothing. But when you grasp the lion’s true nature, you can appreciate all that had to go on to make the jump possible.

When I read books like Paul’s epistle to the Romans, I can’t help but see this same principle demonstrated in God’s grace extended to all humanity through His Son Jesus Christ. I fear Americans have heard only the positive side of the gospel so often that the idea of God’s willingness to forgive and accept sinners into His family has become humdrum to many. Too often the attitude of the unconverted seems to be, “Yes, of course God will accept me, if I should choose to come to Him. But I’m not sure I want to just yet. Perhaps later on – we’ll see.”

Such a blasé attitude is the natural result of those who are constantly told of God’s goodness and love, but almost never hear of His severity and hatred of sin. The Scriptures tell us, “Behold the goodness and the severity of God…” Like the lion with the fire, our holy and awesome Creator has an inbuilt animosity toward sin. He who is “of purer eyes than to behold evil” hates sin in all its varied forms and manifestations. He who shows such tender compassion toward the weak is also “angry with the wicked every day.”

Love and Holiness

It is only as we consider the majestic and fearful holiness of God that we can fully appreciate His incredible love and mercy. Calvary is best viewed in light of Mount Sinai. The same God who extended forgiveness to the blaspheming and church-persecuting Saul of Tarsus struck Ananias and Saphira dead when they dared lie to the Holy Spirit in the presence of the saints. The same Jesus who refused to condemn the woman caught in adultery plainly told her to “go and sin no more.”

By minimizing God’s holiness and hatred for sin, pastors often think they are doing people a favor. They can draw them with honey, and later on the new converts can learn that God may still get upset about certain things. But we do people no favor when we withhold from them the very essence of the One we yearn for them to know. The cross never shines so brightly as when it is portrayed in the light of God’s majestic holiness. Indeed it is that very holiness that made the cross an absolute necessity.

Most of us have had times when someone who had hurt our feelings came to us later and apologized. Often, in an attempt to smooth things over, we might have said something like, “It was nothing,” or “I never thought a thing about it.” One thing you can be sure of – when you go to God with your sins, asking His forgiveness, He will never say, “It was nothing” or “I never thought a thing about it.” Your sins are a big deal to God – such a big deal that the only way God could maintain His own integrity and forgive you was to have His only begotten Son die on the cross in your place. No, He will never say, “It was nothing,” but He will say something far superior to that. He will say, “Because of the cross I forgive you.”

I am certainly not advocating a return to some of the harsh and legalistic strains of Christianity that held sway in the past. Preaching entire sermons on the evils of lipstick or suggesting that anyone who smokes cigarettes is on a fast train to hell is not only wrong; it is stupid. God’s holiness is far bigger than health issues or cosmetics. On the other hand, preaching such a soft wimpy gospel that adulterers and practicing homosexuals can sit through a year’s worth of sermons and never feel the slightest twinge of guilt for their lifestyle is not much better.

The concepts of repentance and the holiness of God are not antiquated notions no longer relevant to modern Americans. As long as people still sin, and as long as God is still holy, there will be a need for preachers and teachers to emphasize these things. And having made plain that “the way of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord,” we can then proclaim the glad tidings, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…”

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