Target Your Base

My traditional, conservative church rightly warns against the rising tide of liberalism in evangelical churches and reminds us that we must believe something to be saved.  Across town, there is a left-leaning church (determined by the fact that “Yes, We Can” bumper stickers outnumber the Christian fish symbol on cars in the parking lot) that rightly speaks about the dangers of legalism, hypocrisy, and the need for Christians to put their beliefs into practice with acts of sacrificial love.  Both churches are preaching to the choir.

Recently it occurred to me that churches are like political parties in that each has a distinct base.  There is a certain type of person with a distinctive set of beliefs that attends each church.  Even its visitors tend to look the same.  And if I was a pastor, I think it would be part of my job to regularly offend this person.

C.S. Lewis reportedly said “remember the resistant material” (I heard this from Os Guinness, and though I haven’t found where Lewis said it, the statement is so good that I’m going to assume he did).  Lewis’ point was that there is some aspect of the gospel that will offend every person and culture.  Our job as ministers of the Word is to determine what part of the gospel offends our culture and then preach that part.  If we proclaim only the part of the gospel that our culture already agrees with, then we are being redundant, merely cultural Christians who are not yet proclaiming a transcendent Word from God.

So here are two questions which each pastor and teacher should regularly ask themselves:

1. When was the last time I was offended by the Word of God?  How long has it been since I heard a Word from the Lord which convicted me that I was a sinner and needed to change?  If it’s been awhile, we may be trying to control the voice of God, only seeing in Scripture what we already believe.

2. Think of the person in your congregation who represents your base.  How long has it been since you delivered a Word from God that challenged this person?  Has he heard anything in the last month that would make him uncomfortable?  If not, then despite your orthodox theology, you may be a cultural Christian, saying only what your base wants to hear rather than what they need—a transcendent Word from the living God. 

Anyone can talk about the sins of the other side, but to target yourself and your base, that requires courage and faithfulness.  God didn’t call us to preach the Word in general, but to preach the Word to this particular person in this particular congregation.  Let them hear it.

11 Comments

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  1. I think what troubles me about the idea of the gospel offending people is that when I that statement, I automatically picture a person gasping and saying, “I can’t believe the Bible would say that!” Sort of like the way someone would be offended when another person tells and off-color joke.

    I believe that Scripture should convict us. There are certainly times when I’m reading my Bible or hear a sermon and I’m slapped (or maybe punched) in the face by my own sense of not measuring up and I recognize my need to change. I’m assuming this is what you’re talking about when you say “offend,” so I guess my problem is really just semantics.

    So all that said, I wouldn’t even want to go to a church where I never felt convicted. “Feel good” sermons might have their place sometimes, but if that’s all a church is about, then frankly I’d “feel” better just sleeping in.

  2. “Our job as ministers of the Word is to determine what part of the gospel offends our culture and then preach that part. If we proclaim only the part of the gospel that our culture already agrees with, then we are being redundant, merely cultural Christians who are not yet proclaiming a transcendent Word from God.”

    Really? What parts are those? Let’s look at the gospel’s parts:

    1) God’s Story of Rescue says that the we were crafted after the Creator to exist in an eternal relationship with Him marked by mutual love. That’s good news, not offensive news.

    2.) This world is screwed up thanks to rebellious, broken people. Do you really think people need to be reminded this? Sorry, people already know things a screwed-up, that there is evil in the world and they do things that just aren’t they way they are supposed to be. Why do Christians continue on insisting that the gospel begins with sin? While people certainly respond negatively, perhaps in offense, at the demands of God’s Way, i’m pretty sure that people intuitively know that things aren’t the way they are supposed to be. The good news is that we all can be rescued form this brokenness and rebellion.

    3.) God invaded the world in the person of Jesus Christ to rescue us from our brokenness and rebellious choices. He came and died for all people (I know you don’t think this is the case, that Jesus simply died for the chosen elect, the elite). Through Jesus all people can find the rescue they desire and reconnection to relationship with God. That’s good news, not offensive news.

    4.) Jesus is coming again to re-create all of this, to restore things to the way God intended them to be at the beginning. That’s good news, not offensive news.

    I don’t get why people insist that the gospel is offensive. You know this. I and plenty of other fair-minded people think that Jesus and His gospel Story are inherently (un)offensive, not in-and-of-themselves offensive.

    Explain to us all where Jesus (or Paul for that matter) has called His followers proclaim an offensive message. I thought we were called to disciple people in the Way of Christ and God’s Story of Rescue. And that Way is Life and Good News. Not offensive news, Mike.

    -jeremy

    PS- I know a good book on this subject by a budding theologian🙂

  3. Well said. When you speak in churches like yours and mine, which of the two perspectives found in your book will you emphasize?

  4. Just some guy:

    I’m not sure what “your” church is like, but I can speak for mine. When I did cover some of this material in my conservative church, I probably spent more time explaining the weaknesses in the beliefs of the postmodern innovators, simply because this is the largest need of the moment. However, I did take care to also point out their good points and our corresponding weak points, so much so that when I was done the pastor’s first words were, “Now, don’t be mad at Mike!”

    See my Cedarville and Western Seminary articles posted below for how I try to handle this–focusing on the need for right doctrine while also appreciating this generation’s emphasis on social issues.

  5. Steve:

    “Convicted” is what I meant. My point is that I think that pastors often are tempted to play to their base, only briefly touching on the sins of their people while talking a lot about the problems out there “in the world.”

    Paul uses the term “skandalon” in 1 Cor. 1:23 to speak of the gospel, which is stronger than mere “conviction.” That is why I chose “offense.”

  6. Jeremy:

    I really want to avoid a public debate with you, but let me say that of course I agree with you that the gospel is good news and that it begins with creation. But you do need to explain how the most unoffensive man ever died in the most offensive way ever.

    The gospel is that Jesus is Lord (see the N.T. Wright essay you are reading for Tuesday), which means that we are not. I don’t know anyone, including myself, who does not find it hard to die to self and live for Jesus. I think that is what C.S. Lewis meant–that if we don’t talk about our sins and the specific ways that we must die to sin, then we are not applying the Lordship of Christ to the precise spot where this people needs to hear it. Thus, because we are sinners, the life-giving gospel will offend us.

    To use your favorite example, notice how many homosexuals are offended at what the Bible says about their sexual practice. Should we swallow this offensive part of the gospel or tell them that submitting to the Lordship of Christ has direct implications for their sex life?

    By the way, if you paid closer attention in class you “would know” that I am agnostic on whether Christ died for all or just the elect. Logic implies the latter but Scripture says the former. Stop web surfing, my friend!

  7. Dr. Wittmer, a very timely word. I was challenged today in church by a friend (who you know) who is returning to Kenya next year after his studies in the US are done and his message to our church brought up many things we have (intentionally or not) softened or read over quickly. His challenge to us is echoed here in your blog. Maybe God’s trying to tell me something.🙂

  8. I agree with Steve: maybe it’s just semantics, but can’t we find a better word? “Offend” is incredibly caustic. The Jesus I see in the scriptures was inviting, beckoning, and wooing. In the words of an 84 year old man in my congregation: we follow “the loving, gentle, caring Jesus.” Paradoxically he was also demanding and confronting of sin and the systems of evil.

    Obviously, people were uncomfortable by his demands and even responded in offense. I don’t deny that one bit. Jesus even answered the very question you posed with a parable on 4 soils. The disciples themselves would have been asking why people weren’t responding in triumphant jubilation at the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven…at the gospel. So he says that people who have ears to hear are responsible to listen, to respond by embracing this good news through repentance, belief, and following. To respond by denying self, taking up your cross, and following him and his way.

    While Jesus doesn’t address the nature of the SOWER (instead focusing this parable on the SOIL) I think Paul gives a great picture on how that sower should be. 1 Thess 2 talks about how even though Paul, Silas, and Timothy could have waved their apostle card around and demanded conformity and conversion, they didn’t. Instead their posture was as a nursing mother and encouraging father. As Dr. Meadors said in class: this imagery is inherently power denying and entirely basin-towel oriented.

    I certainly affirm the need to confront rebellion. I just think we have 2 very different ways of going about that, Dr. Wittmer. Re: my pet example, for example: I think if Christians actually followed the teachings of Jesus in Matthew 28 on DISCIPLESHIP your said “offended homosexuals” would react quite differently to the community of Jesus, Jesus Himself, and His Story. Not to get personal or anything, but how many gay people are your friends? I’ll make it easier: how many gay people do you know? By name?

    I don’t ask these questions because I presume an answer, but rather 1) because I’m curious and 2) to emphasize the point to all of your readers that we’re called to be in relationship with “the other” and the proclamation of the gospel (especially with its demands on dying to self, repentance, honesty about rebellion, etc…) must occur in the context of relationships. From my conversations with my gay friends—the people whom I am actually in relationships with—the problem entirely is the very anti-discipleship methods employed by the Church in general and Christians in particular.

    Maybe I’m missing something in this post, Dr. Wittmer, but the use of this sort of language—offend, offensive, offending—seems nothing close to the example of a nurturing mother and encouraging father Paul talked about. Can’t we use a better word? Words matter for me, Dr. Wittmer, and I think a reason America is skipping into post-Christendom is precisely because our starting place and posture revolves around these words.

    Maybe I’m wrong. I’m guessing you think I am🙂 Sorry for the long post, but I wanted to help you understand better where I am coming from. I hope you can hear what I’m saying here.

    -jeremy

  9. Jeremy:

    I agree with the tenor of your post–though I remind you that Paul says the gospel is a skandalon in 1 Cor. 1:23. The point of my post is that because we are sinners the gospel should convict us on some issue–and that is the precise point where we need to die and rise with Christ. Surely you agree with this. I am puzzled how this led to the question of how many gay friends I have.

  10. In response to thoughts from Jeremy:

    I had a professor in college who used to say that “the gospel is offensive, we don’t need to add to it.” I think you are right in reminding us how our lives and the way we communicate should reflect the love of Christ, but I think the gospel itself does offend people. I believe the message of the gospel is the offending part because the message says that we cannot achieve righteousness on our own. It strips aways our pride. And, at least for myself, I hate being told I can’t do something. Whether it be my standing before a holy God or something else. Jesus message is good news or else no one would subscribe to it. But the self-righteouss, and I get that way sometimes, it is a blow to my pride.

  11. Mike,

    I agree with your counsel to ‘target your base’.

    The difficulty in doing that has to do with ‘how much the base will allow before they put you away’ so as to marginalize or silence your voice. Since the people you preach to have the power to lay traps to ‘get you’…well, you see the issue here.

    Should you begin to speak out in a way that offended the ‘deep pockets’ at Cornerstone and GRTS your days might be numbered as well. Which, I think, would be too bad. We should be able to critique from within. But it may be dangerous. You can consult John Sanders on this if you like.

    I believe that Jesus did just what you are suggesting but in the end those in power became irritated and impatient with him. He was ‘stirring up the rabble’. It was much easier to silence Him than to listen and consider change.

    So they did. Hand in hand Rome and Israel ‘handled’ the problem.

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