When I was a non-believer the band U2 was one of my favorites. I listened to them all the time, my wife and I danced to a U2 song at our wedding and our cd case, yes we are old, was filled with their music. When I first became interested in church — ok my wife was interested and I loved her so I went along grumbling — we ran into a church that was promising to focus their sermon series around the music of U2. They had their worship band play U2 songs rather than traditional worship and then based their sermon series around the songs. As a huge fan of U2, a non-believer and someone willing to go to church if not necessarily to listen, I should have been the perfect target audience for this form of outreach.
Yeah, not so much…..I frankly thought it was lame – again bear with me as this was a some time ago. I just could not understand why anyone would want to go and hear church band playing U2 followed by a pastor talking about U2. If I wanted to listen to U2, I could actually go see them and drink beer in the process,(woohoo, parteeee yes that was me – my wife is a wonderfully patient woman) or watch them on TV or indulge in any of the myriad of ways that the world offers to entertain the non-believing soul. When my wife, who was praying for me to stop being a stubborn fool, tried to interest me by showing me the churches music online, as a U2 fan I was appalled at the imitation by the church, it was just wrong in so many ways to unbelieving me.
Why is a church doing a bad imitation of the world if their message is so good?, I asked.
No matter how lost I was at the time and how silly that version of me seems to me years later, it still remains a good question, Why does the church feel the need to imitate the world in order to reach the world if the churches message is so good? Also do we realize how we look when we try to do so?
This question came back to me when I read 1 Corinthians recently. It is the letter from Paul to the church that he had founded in Corinth about 3-5 years before. Corinth was a large metropolitan city that reflected the Greek culture of that day. They were into sex, booze and fancy philosophical arguments. The craze of the day was following new speakers who would arrive in Corinth and set up shop and put on dazzling displays of eloquence. It did not matter whether what they were saying was actually true or not, just that they were fancy, seemed super intelligent and seemed different from the previous hot speaker from the week before. Philosophers were followed like we follow our local sports teams and the rivalries were just as fierce. Everyone who was anyone wanted to be rich, refined, superior, and follower of the “it” philosophy of the moment. Think Madonna and Kabbala.
The church at Corinth was supposed to be radically different from what was going on around it. Jesus said that they will know that you are disciples by our love for one another, right? But rather than being a light of huge contrast between the darkness of the culture and it, the Corinthians believers chose to take the simple truth of the Gospel Paul had taught them a few years before and add in the super awesomeness of the refined Corinthian culture. They took the message of the Gospel and made it better, like the old show said – it needed more power. They jazzed it up a bit by adding their touches of intelligence and culture and in the end had the church look a lot more like the world, just weirder. People were getting drunk at communion, competing who could speak in tongues more so they could be seen to be more spiritually refined, bragging about their gifts and generally just being like a strange version of the city around them.
I don’t believe that they were doing it out of a desire to reach the world, but the end result is the same — the church doesn’t look like the church, it looks like the world…in a bad way.
Paul responds in what is some of my favorite verse and lays it out simply:
1 Corinthians 1:
17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect.
18 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.
and 1 Corinthians 2:
And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony[a] of God. 2 For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. 3 I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. 4 And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human[b] wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
Paul was brilliant. Analysis of a number of his writings show not only that he could speak in different languages, but that he could think at a high level in different languages. He was a student of the most prominent teacher in Israel. The Jewish culture of the time was all about oral argument and debate. From his educational background and writings it is hard to conclude that he could not have blown away the Corinthians with his eloquence and debate skills. He likely could have put the silly philosophers to shame as well. He chose not to rely on his knowledge and learning, though. Why? Because the rise or fall of the Christian message will always begin and end with the simplicity of the Gospel. An offer that is so simple that a small child can understand it.
Jesus is God. Jesus became man. Jesus was punished for us. Jesus died on the Cross to save us. Accept Jesus.
So simple that it can be set out in simple pictures to bridge language barriers. Yet, it has the power of God behind it, the Holy Spirit in all His omnipotence arguing in its favor. God wrestling with a person’s conscience to get him to agree with what everyone knows is already true. Truth with God behind it does not need to be said with a British accent whilst drinking tea with pinky extended to be truth. God does not need to be relevant or cool to be on His throne.
Do we trust that? Do we trust in the power of God working through the message of His Son? Do we truly believe that it is the message not the messenger that matters? If we do, it makes the whole church thing a lot easier. It also entrusts the hearer of the Gospel to God and not to our personal brilliance or level of cool.
U2 could not reach the stubborn fool that I was — it is not U2’s fault, I was dead in my sins in trespasses. Appealing to a dead man gets you nowhere. The only thing that brought me to life was the message of Jesus delivered through His Holy Spirit. That brought life where there was none. Be as cool and trendy or hip as you want to be, it is not my style but there is nothing wrong with it. Just don’t get away from the simple message that is the only thing that matters — Jesus is Lord.
Ps – Bono wants you to be Christian. So does the Edge.