I write this post in response to my recent visits to a local Mega Church as part of one of my college classes. In this class we were supposed to visit two churches we normally don't attend and get a grasp of where they stand theologically and politically. Besides the Mega Church the other church (I use the term very loosely) was a Unitarian Universalist Church. What I have had brewing in my mind since my visit to the Mega Church was the content of the preaching and the emphasis of the message. My hangup with the message isn't so much what was said but what was left unsaid.
I attended the service that fell on a Saturday that was actually a "Good Friday" message, I thought "If these guys are going to preach the gospel this will be the day." And rightly so the emphasis was the cross, Christ's death was lifted up, sin was talked about, and the fact that it was my sin that Christ died for was clear. I really have little problems with what was said, my beef is with with where the whole emphasis of the message lay.
The emphasis of the application of Christ's death was completely on the here and now. When the phrase Jesus can set you free from your sins was used it clearly had earthly horizontal application. Jesus can deliver you from the guilt of abortion, Jesus can deliver you from the feelings of shame from adultery. Not just in the deliverance from the feelings of guilt and shame but also that Jesus can deliver you from a pattern of sin that is damaging your life. This was spoken of through deliverance from drug addiction, broken relationships, lifestyles of anger, etc.
Now I have no problem with that, I think that is true and it is Biblical. We are freed from shame and guilt through Christ. We are freed from being slaves of sin and a sinful lifestyle. This is true. However the clincher is what was not said, and it is the heart of what the gospel is all about that was not said. Christ did not die primarily so we would no longer have guilty feelings, or so we would stop chasing girls. These are secondary blessings.
The ultimate reason Christ died was to glorify God, and next to that Christ died to reconcile us to God. Neither of these were mentioned. Now I don't expect Arminians to say that the ultimate reason Christ came and died was to glorify God, I have never heard an Arminian answer that way to the question "What was the ultimate reason Jesus died?" that's just not on man centered radar. However, I would expect all Christians to say that Christ ultimately died to reconcile us to God. The reality of reconciliation to God was never mentioned at all at this Church and in this church's preaching.
I would submit that reconciliation is at the very heart of the purpose of Christ's death (2nd only to the glory of God, but that is another post). It is this reality that is being completely displaced in our man centered and consumeristic age. Mega Churches, if you want to fill the pews, do not start with people as sinners at war with God who need to be reconciled. These Churches are starting with man and HIS FELT need. So the emphasis of the gospel message becomes "Come to Jesus He will help you make good business decisions." "Come to Jesus He will take away those bad feelings you have for those bad things you have done.", "Come to Jesus He will enhance your love making with your spouse."
The point is that we start with man and what he thinks he needs, and the Church like a good business responds with the age old proverb "Have it your way". Thus the gospel becomes a product on the market. A product to be repackaged in order to appeal to the desires of the consumer. So in a nutshell what this means for the Gospel is that the emphasis will become primarily horizontal (man and his felt needs) while the vertical (man's standing with God) is displaced.
This is why as I said it is not what was said that was problematic when I visited the Mega Church, it was what was not said. David F. Wells gives and excellent summation of this in his book "Above All Earthly Powers: The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World" as he writes:
"In these churches, Christian orthodoxy is not jettisoned, but it is tailored for the new consumer audience, which is one much given to spirituality shorn of theology, one stripped of much of its cognitive structure.[…] God is much friendlier too. Gone are the notes of judgment, though these are more displaced than denied, and they are replaced by those of love and acceptance. God, in one such message, was presented as the one ‘who loves you, is proud of you, believes in you, and will give you strength to stand up to the forces of evil in the world.’
Sin is preached but is presented more in terms of how it ‘harms the individual, rather than how it offends a holy God. Sin, in short, prevents us from realizing our full potential.’ Conversion is insisted upon but then, paradoxically, it is the this- worldly benefits that are accentuated, the practical benefits of knowing Christ receiving all the attention with scarcely a look at what happens if we turn away from him.
To turn away from him, Hybels [One of the Leading Mega Church Pastors] says, leaves that person not so much under God’s judgment as unfulfilled. Thus the exclusive message of classical evangelicalism is maintained but parts of it are de-emphasized and parts are transformed to make the adjustment to this consumer-driven and therapeutically- defined culture.” (p.305-306 AAEP)
That little phrase "Though these are more displaced than denied" is what I am getting at when I am saying it is what was not said that is the problem. Wells is on the money with his assessment.
That said I get to my main point of this post, the beauty of the reality of reconciliation with God. As I have been leading up to this I am setting the backdrop that this truth has been ignored and man's this worldly needs have become the emphasis. In the New Testament you will be hard pressed to find any passage talking about the application of the death of Christ make the emphasis horizontal. Rather it is unanimously vertical, the phrase so often used by the NT authors is "Reconciled to God".
"For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life." (Rom 5:10)
"All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation;" (II Cor 5:18)
"Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. " (II Cor 5:20)
I could go on with citations but this will do. The point is that through the death of Christ we who were enemies are reconciled to God. There are two things to note here: Firstly, people are enemies of God. This is huge. The Atheist who stomps his foot and yells "There is not God so how can I hate Him?!" in saying that he is simply speaking out of his enmity. The height of hatred of God is to say He isn't there.
Along with this first point it needs to be noted that the word we translate from the Greek to get the English "Reconciled" literally means to change mutually.This means that not only is it the rebel cussing and mocking who changes his disposition, but God Himself is reconciled to the sinner. God in His humility is reconciled to sinful men.
The second thing to note is that God through Christ has reconciled rebels to Himself. To be reconciled to to be wholly restored in relationship. The best picture we can think of is the one Christ Himself gave us in the classic story is of the prodigal son. This complete wretch of a son comes home after blowing his dad's money on prostitutes and booze.
In this culture the son was expecting nothing short of a public beating and humiliation, not only from his father but from all the people of the town as soon as he entered the town. This is because this culture was an honor, culture and the towns people were defending the honor of the father this son disgraced by his wasteful living.
But what does the father do in Christ's parable? He runs down and meets his son and embraces him at the edge of town, right before the humiliation would begin. He kisses him. In fully embracing this rebel son in a culture of honor it is this father who has taken the dishonor upon himself. Their relationship is fully restored, the son expected to be humiliated and live a life of servitude but rather his father takes the shame of forgiving him and recieving him.
This is at the very heart of the gospel, God embraces us and receives us when we deserve none of it at all. The Gospel is primarily vertical. It is a message of reconciliation to a holy God. This was Paul's plea in 2 Cor 5:20, "Be reconciled to God!".