Now that its almost Christmas, a series of deadlines have passed, and one could finally find the time to write a post again.
Upon first becoming a Christian I found myself attracted to the seeker-sensitive model of worship. More specifically, the model prescribes that whatever was found on a sunday morning in church should be measured by the unbeliever’s comfortability: will he be offended? Will he feel alienated? Will he find the message relevant? Will he be comfortable? The seemingly intuitive thought is that the church service ought to be as attractive as possible to the so-called seeker (no such seekers exist: Rom. 3:9-18), and in doing so the church would be able to evangelize in a maximal way. Often, therefore, the sermons would in a self-conscious fashion avoid using terms like “sin” or “wrath” because these categories would only serve to alienate the non-believer or the recently-converted. The lyrics of the music would echo a message that promote a healthy view of the self and a somewhat one-sided picture of the love of God. What is presented is a sterilized, sentimental picture of a god more akin to that which is represented by Deepak Choprak rather than the Bible.
After witnessing an interview of Rob Bell and an article ranting about the church’s supposedly over-zealous reaction against him, a certain kind of picture starts to press itself upon my mind: Cotton Candy. Let me explain.
The theology which Bell presents, and the article that sought to defend him sounded amazingly pious: how could any so-called Jesus-follower ever rant such hateful and judgmental comments against a pastor who is trying to deal with the pain and suffering that exists in this world? How could any right-minded person ever criticize a man who seeks to vindicate the “love” of God? Theologians like Bell are exalted as authentic and honest, while the evangelical church critical of them are decried as hurtful and downright malicious in their intent.
Now I’ve picked up Love Wins and I’ve read most of the book (couldn’t bear to finish it!) – the content consists in a bunch of rhetorical questions that aim at knee-jerk emotional reactions rather than rational and scriptural contemplation. It may sound pious at first, but what it is could only be described as the feeling of cotton-candy consumption: fluffy, unsubstantial and nutritionally vacuous, though at first aesthetically pleasing. The kind of theology that Bell represents, in other words, may look pretty but has no weight. It may have a verbal similarity with Scripture, but actually contains content in contradiction to Scripture.
It is this kind of cotton-candy theology, however, that will comfort the unbeliever. When the outside world’s expectations is that which the church uses as the measure of success in her worship, she is actually giving up an essential element of her character. The church is not supposed to be a recapitulation of the world’s voices, nor is it supposed to bear a primarily therapeutic function. Rather, the church is the people of God, normed by the word of God, living in exile in a world dominated by norms that are antithetical to that God she serves. As such, one ought not be surprised, and in fact ought to anticipate, that the world will reject the preaching of the church and decry her existence in hate. Of course, what we say must take into account how we say it, and we ought to conduct ourselves in sensitivity with those outside of the church, but all this sensitivity is the mode by which we follow the Lord. The substance is non-negotiable. It is surprising to me that we often get taken aback by the fact that the world lacks respect for us, when our Scriptures so clearly tell us that the world will, and does, hate us because it first hated Christ. We are aliens and sojourners in an exile land – any triumphalist understanding of Christianity is resisted by Christianity’s own Scriptures.
What are the implications? Let me put it in, perhaps, the most shocking way possible: the world ought to feel alienated on a sunday morning. Alienated, hopefully, not because the church resists their entrance or because of a neglect on our part to welcome the non-believer well, but because the church represents a God who is radically different than the gods of this world, a God who is holy, and a God who the world resists. Sunday morning, taking our cue from the Old Testament understanding of the Sabbath, is an identity marker which demarcates the people of God from the rest of the world and is particularly a worship service aimed at God. Whatever “feelings” one gets on sunday is welcomed as a by-product of the goal of worship of God. And this God cannot be worshipped in just any way, he himself prescribes the ways in which he is to be served (See Lev. 10 and Ps. 51 for stark reminders of this). God the Father has invited us, and indeed, adopted us into his family, and in that family the covenant children must bear distinct characteristics and markers which the Father himself has set in place. We don’t set the terms, he does.
And in doing so, the task of the church is to exist as the witness to the one Holy God, from whom redemption comes through the life and death of Jesus Christ. She is to faithfully expound the whole counsel of His word, preserving it and transmitting it from one generation to another. She is to bear the marks of God’s word in her body, and she is to live as pilgrims on this earth as elect exiles. When she is faithful in this task the world will fail to understand her, unless the Spirit works in the hearts of the elect. And the word of God, in all of its fullness, is the furthest thing from cotton-candy theology.