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  • sonnyholmes

Grifting @ church


Developing relationships with the neighbors has been an avocation for Harriet and me. We're the tenured condo owners on our block and by far the oldest. By now they all know I'm a retired pastor so I'm not the threat I used to be. As a result, on occasion they'll air out their church gripes or seek my opinion about something involving church. Recently one of them said, expecting a hug, "We went to church Sunday. I felt like they were trying to sell me something. It was more about rapport and making contact than substance. Have I got a deal for you."

Maybe it's just another dimension of the consumer world but it may be something worth exploring. My neighbor and his wife are young, educated, married, without children, purchasing their first home, and planning for the future. Their understanding of faith is nominal and they are not church people. So, for the first time since marriage they ventured out to one of the cool, happening churches in our area. We know the church and know further their commitment to excellence. Our neighbors complimented everything from the parking lot to the worship center. But, that was a problem for them. In a subtle way they tought they were being played.

It's a danger of pitching to seekers and the millennial cohort. They don't want to be targets of spiritual grifters. If you don't know what a grifter is just Google it and you'll get the idea. It's a pitch man, a con artist, someone on the make. Often, in the non-traditional world of church life, all the pizzazz and smooth talk may communicate something not intended. Three words come to mind from our talk with the couple and from our own visits to local churches since retirement:

contemporization | By this I mean the efforts of church leadership to bring worship and teaching and all the metrics of the church into the twenty-first century. It involves music, dress, staging, language, technology, organization, and just about everything the church is about in a world like this. Having pastored for thirty-five years I know the challenge of maintaining a contemporary look and feel at church. All of the above mentioned tools do say something about us.

The truth however, is that the gospel is always contemporary and that the most powerful evidence of his presence in every generation is the way he is working in each of his people. Keeping up to date is significantly important. We shouldn't communicate the "50's either. Being the new wineskin is the vision of Jesus. But, we don't have to contemporize him. He is new all the time.

contextualization | OK, context is the first rule of biblical interpretation. But, we've often taken the context thing out of context. When teaching the Bible it is important to explore the historical setting of the text under consideration. You know, to see what is "with" the text, as in context. Many preachers today like to fast forward their passage to right now and build a contemporary context around it. In many cases the actual meaning of the text is lost by trying to make it fit into a context that doesn't apply.

The truth, however, is that his word was given in a particular place and time. There is a context that helps us understand how it applies to life. Our neighbors went to church on the Sunday following the racial killing of nine believers at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston. The topic that Sunday was "Love one Another". They left thinking loving one another meant accepting and approving one another regardless of circumstances. They were confused.

contriving | Nothing communicates more ineffectively than something that is contrived. By that I mean something that is manufactured or forced to fit a particular circumstance. One of the real trip wires is using borrowed illustrations and making them our own. OK, now, borrowing material is one of those fifty shades of gray matter teachers and preachers have traditionally handled with a wink and nod. Not today, however. You see, moderns have a authento-meter wired into their IOS. They can detect fake stuff on the spot. So, in trying to make a connection, we often disconnect instead.

The truth is, the gospel always communicates, on every continent, in every age, to every class of humans. We don't have to create something to build a bridge with others. As the writer of Hebrews reminds us, "...the children share in flesh and blood..." (Hebrew 2:14, ESV), we are connected by a fallen human nature, salvation by grace, and life experience.

Good grief, we are called with Paul to "...preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ..." (Ephesians 3:8, ESV). Did you get that? Unsearchable. They are immeasurable (Ephesians 3:20, NIV), and beyond imagination (1 Corinthians 2:9, ESV), just to mention a few. We don't have to dress them up, or him either.

Paul wrote it clearly. "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes..." (Romans 1:16, ESV).


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