That's the thought that crossed my mind and came out of my mouth during a recent breakout session with Lutheran colleagues from southern Ohio.
One member of our group shared the impact on him of some polling he'd read about done among people leaving Easter Sunday worship services. A high number of them, people who had presumably just heard the good news of Easter--that God the Son, Who had taken on human flesh and died on a cross, taking humanity's rightful punishment for sin, and then, on Easter, rose from the dead in order to give all who turn from sin and believe in Him everlasting life with God--had been proclaimed, sung about, and shouted, could not articulate what Easter was about.
Truth is, what my colleague shared did not surprise me, not because I think that the average worshiper on Easter Sunday is stupid.
The problem is that we who are called by God through the Church to preach and teach about Jesus routinely make the wrong assumption. We forget that the ground has shifted beneath us.
In North America and Europe, we live in a post-Christian culture. But we assume that most people who pass through the doors of our church buildings know the content of the Gospel--the good news--about Jesus and the new life He offers freely to those who believe in Him. Our job, we assume is to simply remind people of this gospel in compelling, entertaining, painless (cute) ways, being careful not to take up so much time that people are late for the Sunday brunches at local restaurants.
But cute isn't working any more.
Churches are losing membership, my denomination (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) more rapidly than any other denomination in the United States. And, according to an article in last week's TIME magazine by Jon Meacham, Americans claiming no religious affiliation at all has risen from 15% to 20% in the past five years.
While mainline churches have sought to present a message indistinguishable from a corrupt and failing culture and while many evangelical churches have watered down the Gospel to be culture-current and both strains of Christian faith in America have often followed the siren song of political engagement rather than Gospel proclamation, Americans have tuned the Church out.
And who can blame them? If we sound like everybody else, just the praying wings of this or that philosophy or political party, who needs us or the message we offer?
After hearing about the polling of Easter worshipers who didn't know what Easter was about, my colleague decided that his preaching had to change, starting on Easter Sunday, 2012. "You know what I preached about last Easter?" he asked us. "Easter!"
That stood in contrast to reports I'd heard about the sermon of another mainline Christian pastor (not Lutheran) on that same Easter. She had shown pictures of Easter bunnies and talked about not how Christ can make the life of those who surrender their lives and wills to Him brand new, but about how Christians needed to be good people and make the world new by their good works. That isn't the Gospel! The Gospel is God-centered, Christ-dependent.
It turns out my colleague wasn't alone in sensing God's call to get back to the basics and to forget about being entertaining, culture-current, or cute. That became clear as the rest of us began sharing.
"I just finished a sermon series looking at the basics of Christian faith through Luther's Small Catechism," said another one of our group.
"We've been doing a Bible study based on The Augsburg Confession," said another.
Two had done adult Sunday School class on basic Bible teachings.
I offered that our adult Sunday School class was looking at the Biblical underpinnings of The Augsburg Confession, a basic statement of Lutherans' understanding of Christ and the Christian faith, and that I would soon be doing a sermon series on the same theme.
No bishop or church council had told any of us to take this back to basics approach. It seemed to me that this strange convergence in our thinking, born of prayer and study, had the same source: God the Holy Spirit was telling us to forget about cute and simply proclaim the Good News about Jesus, to assume nothing, to take nothing for granted.
To tell you the truth, this moment of desperation and of wrestling with why the Church is needed and how Christ is essential for every human being, is exhilarating and liberating. In the past few years, my preaching has changed. For most of my twenty-eight years as a pastor, my sermon preparation has, to some extent, been weighed down by two questions, the very asking of which, was limiting: How can I get their attention? How can I make it palatable?
Now though, the Holy Spirit seems to be guiding me and others who want to share the Gospel to ask a different question: What do people need to hear?
That very question liberates the pastor from being a marketer to become a preacher and teacher.
It also drives me to God's Word for direction and to God's Spirit for wisdom more than ever before.
And the feedback I get tells me that, on the whole, people hunger for this kind of back to basics approach. People need to hear the truth about God the Father, God the Son Jesus, and God the Holy Spirit. They need to hear the truth about the Bible, the sacraments, repentance, faith, salvation, discipleship, loving God, loving neighbor, the Ten Commandments, sin, evil, the devil, original sin, and being set free from sin and death by God's grace given through faith in Jesus Christ. A back to basics approach fills these needs for God's truth.
According to that article by Meacham, it isn't just we Lutheran Christians in southern Ohio being led by God's Spirit in this way. He says that this back to basics approach is one of the ten big ideas reshaping American life right now:
In a classic attempt to turn adversity to advantage, Christian leaders who once assumed a cultural dominance...are now arguing for a double-down strategy. Rather than softening the Gospel message to make it more marketable to America skeptical of institutions...what draws real energy among the faithful is a renewed commitment to what Christians call the Great Commission, the words the resurrected Jesus spoke to his apostles at the end of Matthew: 'Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.'" [See this translation of the passage, Matthew 28:19-20.]In His famous conversation with the Jewish teacher Nicodemus, Jesus says:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God." (John 3:16-18)The compassion that God has for those who don't yet know Christ or the Good News about Him is undoubtedly behind the back to basics push many of us are feeling as we pray and read God's Word these days.
It appears that Pope Francis I, newly elected head of the Roman Catholic Church, is getting the same message from the Holy Spirit. In his informal homily before the College of Cardinals on the day after his election to the papacy, Francis said:
We can walk as much as we want, we can build many things, but if we do not profess Jesus Christ, things go wrong. We may become a charitable NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of the Lord. When we are not walking, we stop moving. When we are not building on the stones, what happens? The same thing that happens to children on the beach when they build sandcastles: everything is swept away, there is no solidity. When we do not profess Jesus Christ, the saying of Léon Bloy comes to mind: "Anyone who does not pray to the Lord prays to the devil." When we do not profess Jesus Christ, we profess the worldliness of the devil, a demonic worldliness.Amen!
The time for cute is over.
[UPDATE: As I was writing this piece, thinking of all the people who need Jesus in their lives and how each minute that passes without our plainly proclaiming the Gospel about Jesus puts those people's eternal lives in jeopardy, lines from Bob Dylan's song, All Along the Watchtower kept coming back to me: "...let us not speak falsely now, the hour is getting late." Jesus is what people need from the Church and from Christians. No one else will give Him to them.]