“What has the power to attract and change people?” If you’ve been part of a church, you’ve probably asked yourself this question at some point. I certainly have. But I am increasingly concerned with the answers we as the church are giving to this question. Not the answers we’re giving with our words, but the answers we’re giving by how we “do church.”
Even if we are keeping the good news of Jesus as the main thing with our words, everything else we do as a church often preaches a contradictory message: The power to attract and change people lies in the top-notch production of our services. Or in the hipness or humor of our pastor. Or in our kids’ program that gives Disneyland a run for its money. Or in the prestigious or wealthy people among our congregants.
Or, for those who react against the previous items, in our perceived authenticity, simplicity, and humility.
And I get it. As a pastor, I daily feel the temptation to trust in something other than God and the gospel of Jesus to attract people to our church and to change them. I tend to think our success depends on the greatness of my preaching, the hipness of our congregation, new Facebook likes, and the list goes on.
But lurking behind these temptations is a lie that is more harmful than we realize: The gospel needs our hype. Even though we don’t put words to it, our actions often communicate the message that the gospel is insufficient to attract and change people. That God needs our creativity, ingenuity, production, and cultural prestige.
The Apostle Paul dealt with this thinking in his first letter to the Corinthians. In Corinth, there were these traveling, debating philosophers that people would go out to listen to (think Socrates and Aristotle). These philosophers were highly respected and had cultural prestige. If this were today, it would be their messages that were liked and re-posted on social media and their podcasts that were at the top of the charts.
And the Corinthian Christians wanted a belief system that was equally respected by their society. They wanted a form of Christianity that enabled them to be a part of something that was universally attractive and convincing.
But Paul says that this is a misunderstanding of the gospel. In 1 Corinthians 1-4, he says three things to counteract this thinking: 1) The gospel message is foolish (literally “moronic”) to the world (1:18), 2) The gospel preaching is foolish to the world (2:1-2), 3) The gospel people (the church) are foolish to the world (1:26-28).
And then he goes on to say that this is all by God’s design. God intentionally set up his plan of salvation and his plan for the church in a way that seems foolish. We are saved not by our wisdom or common sense, not by being powerful or hip in the eyes of the world, not by our great success as a church, not by our efforts at religion or morality, and not even by our great humility.
We are saved simply by giving up all hope in ourselves and trusting fully in “Christ crucified” (1:23). Christians are those who find their greatest joy, comfort, and hope in the death and resurrection of the Creator God.
Which is a message that is intentionally simple, odd, even weak.
But why would God design His salvation in this way? Paul clearly states: “…so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1:29). God’s purpose in saving us in a way that appears moronic to our natural senses is to eliminate all room for boasting. We can credit nothing in ourselves for our salvation! We are forced to give God all the credit.
Now, what does this have to with the hype of our churches? When we use all the same means of attracting and energizing a crowd that the world uses, at the very least, we’re left confused about whether God or our marketing techniques are working. When we’ve put so much time, money, and effort into our own efforts to makes things happen, when things happen, we’re not sure where to give the credit. In other words, we’re left boasting in ourselves rather than completely awed at what God is clearly doing.
Now, is there anything inherently wrong with having high-quality sound and lighting production in our services, drawing on the latest communication techniques for our sermons, or having jungle gyms and live animals to keep our kids entertained? No.
The problem is that anyone can attract a crowd with these methods. You don’t need God and the gospel in order to get a bunch of people to come together and get them excited about what’s going on. And when we prioritize these things over the clear communication and application of the gospel, we confuse people. We communicate that what God wants from us is to gather a large group of people and get them excited about something. And that the methods we use don’t matter.
What God wants from us is to trust His means of attraction and growth; namely, the power of the gospel message. Paul calls it “the word of the cross” and says that “it is the power of God” to those who are being saved. The power that God has ordained to draw people in and bring real, lasting change is in the simple, foolish-seeming “word of the cross.”
And then the rest of Scripture informs us that God also grows and matures us through his word (which centers on the gospel message), prayer, the sacraments of baptism and communion, and the community of saints (the church). God has ordained to both save us and grow us through these seemingly “ordinary” things.
And He calls us to trust in these means even when change and growth aren’t happening as fast as we’d like. For pastors and church leaders, this means that the answer to the question of how to attract and change people isn’t a new program, a new website, a more culturally-aware worship leader or youth pastor, etc.
For congregants, this means that the criteria for evaluating a church should not primarily be factors that have no relation to God’s means of change and growth: the clear communication of and reliance on the gospel message, the preaching of the Word, prayer, and the support and accountability of Christian community.
God is working. God is drawing people to Himself. God is changing people. And he graciously wants to include us in this work. But our role is not as PR managers, doctoring up the gospel to make it more appealing. Our role is as ambassadors, communicating the good news of Jesus with clarity, calling for people to respond with faith and repentance, and trusting God to bring the heart change that only He can do.
There is nothing greater than seeing God work and knowing for certain that it is God, and not anything in us, who is drawing people in and changing them.