Unlike with several other episodes this season, the writers of last Saturday’s Saturday Night Live episode didn’t appear to have taken the week off. It was unusually funny, with the delightful Jennifer Lawrence as host. And the musical guest, the Lumineers, killed. The TV was still on as I was getting ready for bed—and there on my TV was none other than Andy Stanley.
I forget that he has a show on after SNL. Of course he does! How cool is that? How hip! What better way to reach the unchurched, his passion in life, than by catching them right after Saturday Night Live?
I’m trying not to be jealous.
I’ve said so many nice things about him recently—in the wake of my recent sermon inspired by his book Deep & Wide—that I forget that I’m not supposed to like him. As a United Methodist pastor, I’m supposed to complain that he “waters the gospel down,” that he compromises the message, that instead of offering the Good News, he offers the “news that you can use.” He hears this stuff from preachers like me all the time.
So there he is on TV, in front of a relatively large, young, post-SNL audience, talking about personal finance, credit cards, consumer debt… And I’m sure he’s giving good, practical advice—like he’s a regular Dave Ramsey.
Andy, you’re killing me!
First, he’s 50-something, and he looks like he’s 27. How is that possible? Second, while I fight the temptation to imagine that I have to compete with him on Sunday mornings, he constantly reminds me of how overmatched I’d be if I tried.
I don’t know jack about personal finance. Not only did I not take that class in seminary, seminary itself messed up my personal finances for years! So I would never feel qualified to preach about it.
I’m sure that Andy relates personal finance to the gospel in that clever, creative, and relevant way of his. Trust me: I’m only being a little snarky here. Andy’s approach works beautifully for him. My point is, I’m not him. I can’t be him.
I mostly only feel qualified to stick with the gospel—and the Cross. Even in the midst of last Sunday’s sermon, in which I related the prodigal son to Lance Armstrong, I had this to say about God’s grace:
Do you know why God has an infinite supply of grace? Because God—by coming into the world through Jesus Christ—has paid an infinite price for it: he’s paid for it with the gift of his own precious life! He didn’t have to, but he chose to out of love.
I’m always coming back around to the Cross. As Paul says, “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved” (1 Corinthians 1:18-19). To me, it’s the best news of all.
So preachers like me can take heart in this new article from Mark Galli in Christianity Today. He writes in response to the dust-up between Louie Giglio (an Andy Stanley friend and associate) and the political opponents who pressured him to step down from offering the benediction at yesterday’s Presidential inauguration.
Giglio got the gig in the first place because he’s mobilized so many young Americans against sex trafficking—a cause everyone can get behind. (And from the White House’s perspective, being associated with a popular, “friendly” evangelical leader is never a bad thing.) The gospel will rarely be so congruent with our culture as it is in the case of sex trafficking—which is also why Giglio ended up losing the gig: out of faithfulness to that same gospel, he preached a sermon many years ago against homosexual behavior.
David Kinnaman’s UnChristian signaled that many Christians have concluded the big problem is that the evangelical church has aligned itself on the wrong side of some social issues, or with social issues that have little or no cultural cachet—and thus they move to champion more popular social causes to win a hearing for the gospel. It would uncharitable and unfair to suggest that Giglio and his church have done this, but if other evangelicals are like me, it remains a temptation for any who have a heart to introduce Jesus to others. Sometimes it works, as Giglio’s invitation to pray suggests. But as a strategy, it will invariably backfire, no matter how much we try to hide our work on unpopular causes, as the fury against Giglio’s 20-year-old sermon illustrates. The degree to which we employ this approach merely as a tactic to gain a hearing is the degree to which we will eventually be spurned by the very people we hope to attract.
Galli says that we don’t need to gain a hearing with our culture by any means other than the Cross.
Need-driven preaching… communicates that Jesus is just another way to solve our problems. It is no wonder that the culture looks at us, pats us on the head, and says, “But we’ve found other, equally valid ways to solve our problems, thank you.” We tend to think that postmoderns have brought relativism down upon us, but it seems, we Christians have been the culprits the more we make our message about meeting people’s needs.
The most needful and difficult task of the church today is to again preach the message of the Cross, and to do so in a way that alarms, surprises, scandalizes, challenges, invigorates, and inspires a 21st century world. What that would look like exactly is hard to say; our theologians and pastors need to help us here. In the most general terms, it has to be about Christ first and last. It has to be about the Christ who came into the world not to improve generally good people, but to resurrect the dead, not to bolster our self-esteem but to forgive us, not to make people successful but to make them loving, not to win the culture but to establish a kingdom without end. Even more scandalously, the message of the Cross is about a universe saturated with grace, where nothing we have done or can do earns us the right to participate in this stunning new reality; all has been done for us. The best we can do is acknowledge the reality (faith) and begin to live as if it is reality (repent).
The current state of our preaching is driven by an admirable desire to show our age the relevance of the gospel. But our recent attempts have inadvertently turned that gospel into mere good advice—about sex, about social ethics, about how to live successfully. This either offends or bores our culture. A renewed focus on the Cross, articulated in a culturally intelligent way, is the only way forward. Some will be scandalized by it, others will call it foolishness, and yet some will cling to it as salvation. But at least everyone will be talking about that which is truly First and Last.
So my challenge as a preacher is not to look at some other preacher and wonder, “How can I do that?” Rather, I need to look at what I’m doing and wonder, “How can I do that better?”