( originally written in 1998 )
While watching television the other evening, I came across what I can only call a Christmas Spectacular presented by a well-known evangelical megachurch in San Diego. It was a very impressive production indeed. At the center of the platform was a “Living Christmas Tree,” that is, a set of choir risers made to resemble the shape of a fir tree, staffed on eight or nine levels by singers in altar-boy type robes. In front of this massive structure two highly skilled singers, a man and a woman, performed several powerful numbers, often accompanied by a dance troupe of men and women, or at times a children’s choir. The production values were excellent, both in terms of the staging, the talent, and the television presentation-Hollywood or Las Vegas could not have done better.
The finale was especially impressive. A swinging rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus was presented by the assembled company. A choir processed up the aisles, while the dancers (who had quickly donned white robes-though they were unfastened in the front) surrounded the Christmas Tree. The two lead singers took center stage in the midst of the dancers, and everyone was swinging and swaying to the jazzy beat. The choir and dancers sang the various parts of the (upbeat) Hallelujah Chorus while the soloists improvised several inspirational slogans, inserting them into the rendition at diverse places. As the song reached its climax, balloons were released from the ceiling over the heads of the audience, and fireworks exploded from the stage. A rousing good time was had by all of the participants.
I should mention that there was an attempt at a spoken message, just before the finale. A man stood up-I do not know who he was-and addressed the audience. He stated that the theme of the evening was this-“He [meaning God] did it all for you.” All of the singing and dancing was simply a celebration of the fact that Christmas was a demonstration of God’s great purpose, namely, that men and women, boys and girls, might have a good and enjoyable life here and forever. The speaker (I cannot call him a preacher, for he did not preach) took about five minutes to explain his point, and then told his listeners that God was waiting for them to call upon Him so that He could have a relationship with them. This was followed by an interesting evangelistic tactic. The gentlemen told the audience that he was going to pray, and he wanted all of them to pray along with him audibly. He instructed the people that he would utter a phrase, and he wanted all of them to follow along, verbally repeating each of his phrases. After everyone was instructed to bow their heads and close their eyes, he led them in a typical prayer not unlike this: “Dear Jesus, thank you for your love for me. I realize now that I need you. Come into my life and save me. In Jesus Name, Amen.” As he concluded, the lights went out and in a moment the finale began. It was breathtaking.
But as I viewed this spectacular, I was grieved in my heart. The longer that I watched, the more that I realized that this production was exactly the opposite of everything that I understand the Gospel of the Scriptures to be. It all culminated in the brief time of sharing towards the end. I realized that if the speaker had written the Shorter Catechism, the first question would have been phrased like this: “Q.: What is the chief end of God? A.: God’s chief end is to glorify you and to enjoy you forever.” In an engaging style, this man had indicated that the Gospel was ultimately man-centered. It is not that God is an offended and wrathful Deity who requires propitiation as a result of humanity’s blasphemies, but rather that He exists waiting expectantly for us so that He can satisfy our needs in this life. Everything about the evening was calculated to appeal to the emotions of the members of the audience. The holidays are a time of sentiment as it is, and this church was blatantly capitalizing on this disposition in order to cast the Gospel in a most attractive garb. How could anyone be offended at such a message?
I was reminded of Paul’s words about the foolishness of preaching. From a human perspective, there is no doubt that the approach used in this performance must have an enormous popular appeal. People are willing to attend these productions. They are comfortable. They are tremendously entertaining. And they require nothing of the audience beyond observation. All that one must do is sit back and enjoy the sumptuous blend of color, motion and sound. But what do they have to do with preaching the Gospel? Is this evangelism as we find it in the Bible?
I have sometimes walked away from the pulpit after preaching knowing exactly what Paul was describing when he called preaching “foolishness.” I have wondered why God would choose such a method, especially in a culture that seemingly cannot concentrate on any subject for more than five minutes. Yet that is what He has done, and that is the method we must pursue. It is the bold declaration of the Word of God, the offensive Cross of Christ, the thunderings of the Law of God, the balm of the Gospel by appointed men that God has promised to bless. It is not the stage but the pulpit that must be at the center of our evangelism.
There is a double problem in productions like these: message and method. Clearly, the message presented was not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. While it was shrouded in religious, even Gospel, language, it was perniciously different. The preaching of the Cross is not a soft and cuddly attempt to manipulate men and women into a relationship with the Almighty God. Rather it humbles them as they understand their desperate plight as sinners, and begin to comprehend the grandeur of God’s provision in Christ. Paul’s method has no popular appeal. At times it landed him in jail, or on the wrong end of a whip, or under a pile of stones. But it was, and is, the power of God for salvation. We must not abandon it for the whims of popular culture. To the contrary, we need to engage in it all the more. These types of productions ought to make us stand up and, with more vigor than ever before, do what God has called us to do-preach the gospel to men and women. There is one advantage to the old way-God has promised to bless it. Relying on the Holy Spirit, let us resist the trends around us and declare boldly that men and women are lost, wicked, evil, and condemned. Let us tell them that they are God’s enemies. And above all, let us tell them about Christ. let us preach His active and passive obedience. Let us proclaim his love and mercy and kindness. Let us call sinners to bow down and kiss the Son.
It was good for me to watch this show. It deepened my commitment to do God’s work in God’s way-preaching the Gospel. I prefer the Shorter Catechism as it is: we exist for God’s glory and not vice versa.
James M. Renihan
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