Here’s an illustration I’d like to spin today.. it’s a bit unusual, but stay with me. There once was a basketball player (Who we’ll call Kenny). Kenny had every trait you would want in an elite-level basketball player; He was fast, could shoot, handled the ball well, and could jump “out of the gym.” But when Kenny took the floor for his first professional game, well, something odd happened.
Kenny didn’t dribble, he simply ran as fast as he could with the ball, knocking over several defenders as he unleashed an epic dunk. The entire auditorium was silent, except for the sound of whistles indicating his violations (and flagrant fouls). After a moment, the fans went absolutely wild. It was shocking, it was unexpected, it was athletic.. they had never seen such a thing. Both coaches were shocked, and the officials were bewildered that such an odd thing had taken place. The other team was awarded the ball, and quickly scored. As Kenny’s team received the ball again, there was a sense of tension as the ball was passed to Kenny. As soon as Kenny had the ball, he did it AGAIN! Full speed, monstrous dunk, raucous cheers from the crowd. Before the officials could repsond, the opposing team inbounded the ball, ran the length of the court like Kenny, and dunked too. Now the crowd was delirious, and the officials could only blow whistles and try to tell the coaches that this game would be declared a forfeit. This mattered little to both teams now, who had completely jettisoned the rules and were now actually tackling each other as they ran full-court to dunk again.
There were the obligatory meetings of the referees, coaches, and league officials. They were in complete agreement that what had happened was both bizarre and unacceptable. The problem? The players preferred this new style of play, and the fans couldn’t get enough of it. It was “new”, “fresh”, and “exciting”! Not only was it shown repeatedly on ESPN, but it was impossible to turn on any TV station without seeing the clip.
The next scheduled game played out the same way. Tip off, player taking the ball the length of the court and attempting to dunk before he was absolutely leveled by an unknown player. The crowd went crazy, and the media were quick to jump on this unknown player; who as it turns out, was 24 year old Brent Bednarik, who had never played basketball before that game, but had played middle linebacker for The University of Indiana. This set off an avalanche of trades and new signings. Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks hired former NFL head coach John Gruden, “effective immediately.” “I think John is just what we need”, said Cuban. “The league has changed and we have to change with it. We need a new skillset and the old school basketball coaches just aren’t cutting it. John brings with him a great defensive coordinator which will allow us to be the hardest hitting team in the NBA! The fans are gonna love it!”
And for the remainder of the season, the game got more physical. The hits were bigger. Teams found that they needed bigger runners and that their former All-Stars weren’t built for this new brand of basketball. The referees? They blew whistles frantically, calling every foul as it happened.. but in time, the crowd didn’t even notice the whistles, which had become nothing more than background noise. The league responded as best it could, but ultimately gave in as ratings, attendance, and sales skyrocketed to unimaginable levels. New stadiums were constructed in nearly every city to house the overflow crowds. New television deals were made with stations dedicated to 24/7 broadcasts of this “new basketball.”
Kenny became a legend, and was soon everywhere on TV and making hundreds of millions of dollars from book deals, and from sponsors. A shoe company has ensured that every kid in American now dares to “Innovate Your Game!”
In an interview, Kenny shared the genius that started this global juggernaut: “You know, basketball was just getting boring to me. Same old same old. Man, i’d been playing the game the same way since I was a kid.. but I thought, Hey, people like dunks, so I’m just going to go for it.. and i’m fast without dribbling, so, you know…” When asked about ongoing protests from the NBA Referee’s Union, Kenny responded “I don’t know, man. I mean, nobody comes to see those guys blow their whistles, you know? The fans love it, we love it.. they just need to change. I don’t mean to hate, but those guys are straight up haters. They just judge everybody. I know they say ‘that ain’t basketball’, ‘it ain’t what Michael Jordan or some other old dude did’. Whatever, court, players, ball. Man, I play for the Lakers, how are you going to tell me that’s not basketball? The fans love this basketball!”
And, the game continued. It was wildly popular and it was…. what? Basketball?
That story may seem a bit long, but I think it encapsulates nearly everything that has led us to where we find ourselves in American evangelicalism in 2013.
1. American evangelicalism has spun out of control because it’s become SUBJECTIVE instead of OBJECTIVE. The point where Kenny decided to just listen to his heart and what it lead him to do, he got away from actual basketball pretty quickly! It’s based nearly entirely on what we feel. Some sort of cloudy view of a “Jesus” who we talk about hugging, holding, talking to our hearts, “feeling” leading us… instead of a real, defined, historic event which happened in history (that whole “under Pontius Pilate” thing in the creeds? Yeah, it actually happened.) We teach our kids to listen to their hearts and that still small voice instead of teaching them the actual tenants of the faith. No longer seeing a need to catechise, we’re just happy that kids have a big warm felling and “love” Jesus. But what “Jesus” is that? The historical Jesus who came to earth to be crucified under Pontius Pilate to save us from the impending wrath of God? Seriously, when was the last time your kids heard that truth? God has NOT given us a subjective faith, but an objective, historical faith.
2. American evangelicalism has spun out of control because it’s PRAGMATIC. I believe most American evangelicals swallow the poison of pragmatism because it fits so perfectly with the “American Dream” that we are sold on every day through TV, Movies, and Music. In a nutshell, something is true and has value if it works. If it meets the goal. Kenny’s “New Basketball” was, pragmatically speaking, a huge success. Giant arenas were packed with fans, players enjoyed the new game, huge TV contracts were signed. What more could you want? Never mind that it had, by definition, become something completely OTHER than basketball, they kept the language and kept right on going. The requirement of a Pastor is no longer the biblical requirement to preach the WORD, and administer the sacrements. No, like Mark Cuban in the example above, we’ve changed what we’re looking for in a preacher on our new requirements. He’s got to be funny, presentable, inspiring, be business and leadership savvy (which means he attended the seminar of the latest fad-leadership guru) and a great speaker. Throw in a book deal and you’ve got you “John Gruden”. How do you know if he’s successful, by how faithfully he exegetes scripture or the quality of disciples? No, by the size of his arena, the number of fans, and the TV deal. Sound familiar?
3. American evangelicalism has spun out of control because of it’s obsession with RELEVANCE. The NBA has a great history and a great parade of great players throughout the ages. The sublime beauty of a George Gervin finger roll, the precision of a Larry Bird three-pointer, or the finesse of Magin Johnson running the floor are all lost if we subjectively, pragmatically change the rules. Once we see the rules as changeable based upon our redefinition of the game, those guys aren’t admirable, they’re “old school”, “boring”, “dead”. No longer judging the success of a church by the biblical standard of preaching the scriptures, from the bible, in context, we judge the success of a church by size, “relevance” (whatever that means), national exposure, and innovation. Ask yourself an honest question, who is more successful, Joel Osteen or Brent Kuhlman? According to American evangelism, it would have to be Joel Osteen. I mean, Brent who? Brent Kuhlman pastors Trinity Lutheran Church in Murdock, Nebraska (population 235). Treat yourself to one of Pastor Kuhlman’s sermons online and ask yourself who is handling God’s word properly.
This article is already long past the “recommended” word count for successful (pragmatism rears it’s head again!) blogging. But these concepts are important. If you don’t understand the subtle deception *ingrained* in our sinful nature, you won’t see the slight change in course of your faith until you are in a mega-arena, built by pragmatism, cheering on something called basketball which Larry Bird and Dr. J wouldn’t even recognize. (And they’d probably just be the “old guys hatin’ on everybody” in the new league anyway.)
In this example the league caved in to the style, the new direction. God? Never. We have been given a faith “once for all delivered to the saints”. While we may ignore the blowing whistles, when the game ends we don’t get the game ball if we’ve made our own game out of what we were delivered.
To those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ:
May mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you.
Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.
(Jude 1:1-4 ESV)
So how do you know the real from the fake? Easy, the real is, well, simple:
1. You are born in sin and an object of God’s wrath.
2. Jesus came in the flesh and lived a sinless life and atoning death to satisfy God’s wrath.
3. Those who repent of their sin and believe in Christ’s atoning work for the forgiveness of sin will be saved.
4. We are called to receive the sacrements of communion, baptism, and preaching of the word in the same passive manner we were made righteous.
The hammer of the law and the balm of the gospel. If what you are hearing each Sunday isn’t THAT, then you’ve got an arena, a ball, and a court.. you’ve got a coach and a crowd, but the whistles are blowing “Foul!”. Call it basketball, call it “church”, but it’s something entirely different. “It is what it is, but church it ain’t.” Instead, the overwhelming majority of American evangelicalism has created it’s own gospel;
1. God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.
2. Become a Christ Follower and discover that purpose.
3. God’s plan is bigger than your plan! Dream audaciously!
4. Begin to; Believe, Speak, and Step out in faith to “birth” this dream that God has for your life.
No wrath, no repentance, no atonement. In short, you don’t need a bloody cross for that; that’s nothing more than subjective, pragmatic, narcissism. And look around, it sells! (which, according to pragmatism, makes it both true and successful, right?)
Keep your eyes, ears, and minds alert. Listen for the subtle perversions. Listen to your preacher, does he sound like a man proclaiming a historic fact (news anchor) or does he sound like someone trying to sell you his pragmatic vision (sham-wow-guy)? What would our brothers and sisters in the early church have thought of “God has a wonderful purpose for your life” mantra as they were fed to lions? Does your “best life now” sound anything like the earthly ministry of Jesus? Or, are they simply using “church language” to sell the American dream? Kenny continued to use “basketball terms” and call it basketball long after it had been replaced with a different game. All the “new” players would tell you they love basketball and play basketball, but look at what they are doing and promoting. Is it, in fact basketball?!?!?
Think about it.