Accessorizing the Gospel: How We Are Losing the Gospel in Our Local Churches and Personal Lives

Thursday, February 09, 2006

I really like my iPod nano. You've heard me mention it time and again. It's become a gizmo I've been limping along without for quite some time. A couple of years ago I graduated to an MP3 CD player on which I played MP3 sermons I had downloaded to a CD. But CD's will only hold just below 700 MB each. I then upgraded the minivan stereo to an MP3 enabled player so I could listen to the CD's without headphones. Nice....til we traded the minivan.

Then came the iPAQ, my indispensible handheld powertool for work. I purchased a 1GB SD card and loaded all the sermons I could on that. I came to hate it, however, because I couldn't pause a sermon and then pick it back up again where I left off, forcing me to start all over again. Then when I upgraded my iPAQ, that problem got fixed, but the sound quality got worse.

Then came my beloved iPod nano. Not as bulky as the regular iPod, yet built with just the right amount of space for the sermons, music, and podcasts I could possibly ever listen to in a month's time. Recently I entered a couple of technology stores to browse around, there was an entire section devoted to the iPod in each store. Accessories "out the wazoo." There were the in-ear lanyard headphones, the armband, the tubes, the radio remotes, the fm transmitters, the USB power adapters, the docks, the AV connection kit (something I'd love to own!). Then there were the Bose® accessories and the Sharper Image TM accessories. There is even a great website devoted to iPod accessories, called The i Store.

It didn't take long to notice that if one were to purchase just a couple of the accessories for the iPod, regardless of which version you had, you'd end up spending more than you did for the iPod itself! Then it hit me as I was gawking at all the cool stuff that was causing technology lust to explode in my heart: this is just what I have done so often with the gospel....just what our local churches have done with the gospel.

The same can be said in my experiences in Christian bookstores. I have come to dislike them with such a passion that I just can't go in one anymore. They are no longer called Christian bookstores, but Christian stores. That's because Bibles, Bible study books, theology books, commentaries, and books on discipleship take up little space any longer. (In my former denominational bookstores, all the good stuff was found in the back left corner of the store with all the empty, fluffy, pop Christian stuff blasting out at me when I walk in the front door). What little Bibles and sound books are offered are also surrounded by endcaps of Christian coffee mugs, aisle displays of stuffed toys, clearance racks of seasonal gifts, walled by t-shirts and posters and Christian framed art, sprinkled with patches of Christian vegetables, complete a checkout stand stocked with Christian pencils, Christian erasers, Christian bumper stickers, Christian comic books, Christian necklaces, Christian earrings, Christian bottle openers, Christian rubber balls, Christian keychains, Christian bookmarks, Christian ties, and last but not least, Christian candy and Christian action figures.

For me, most Christian bookstores seem to be marketing Jesus by accessorizing the gospel. It's like the old days with Mr. T, a black man like any other, yet one who only gained attention and popularity with a bad attitude, a mohawk and 20 pounds of jewelry. (Today though he has shed the jewelry, he still dons the mohawk and the attitude in the pulpit as he preaches.) The same goes for musicians. I recall the group Stryper years ago, and as I saw a video of them performing it hit me: if they could really sing (instead of screaming) they wouldn't need to be over-accessorized with all the makeup, tights, and long hair-don'ts. Or to use a biblical example, compare it to little David, the shepherd boy, who while wearing Saul's battle accessories was so swallowed up David could barely be seen at all! It all hindered him from doing what God had called him to do.

I think our churches are also being swallowed up and accessorized to death. Think about what our local churches are committed to these days. We accessorize the gospel with programs "out the wazoo." Children's programs, youth programs, men's ministries, women's ministries, sport's programs, music ministries, and on and on it goes. A look at the average local church bulletin often appears like a menu at a buffet.

Now, I would like to add that there is nothing necessarily or inherently wrong with programs and ministries. They are useful. But many times they operate independently of the purpose of the local church and thus, without being fed by it. And what makes much of it so bad is that the microphone and loudspeaker of the local church - the pulpit - is usually absent of the centerpiece of the local church - the gospel.

The gospel is given a nominal head-nodding, to be sure. Jesus died for our sins to forgive us and we're all going to heaven. That's about as far as it goes most of the time. The depth of knowledge that the average church member has of the gospel is probably around a one on a scale of one to ten. And the other ministries that supposedly encircle that gospel message do not flow out of the gospel, are not energized by it, and do not point others toward it. Instead, they tempt us to spend our mental resources, family time, money, and other valuables on things, events, and "opportunities" which really do not emphasize or make us desperate for the main thing.

When the gospel is devalued we ought not be surprised when it is accessorized. That's really the only option we have to offer when we remove the centerpiece from the table of our local church, or when we ignore it's importance or worse yet, it's presence beyond an occasional glance. The worship of Jesus Christ and His work for us on the cross and out of the empty tomb should be treasured and presented as beautiful and desirable enough to cause believers to want to come to church.

However, since this does not happen, the gospel must be accessorized with ministries and programs that are initiated to supposedly enhance it, support it, and lead others to it. Yet the reality is that it is impossible for this to happen. Unless programs and ministries flow out of the real valuing, treasuring, believing, and preaching of the gospel, they will not point others back to it. Rather, such programs and ministries will draw others away from the gospel, while saying that they are related to the gospel, when actually they are displacing the gospel. Tell me this is not what has happened in many of our local churches today. The accessories are getting far more attention than the gospel itself.

There are two sides to this issue. First, the gospel is beautiful enough that it really needs no accessories. For Paul, throughout his epistles, it was this message that he depended upon for it was the power of God to save (Rom. 1:16), the main thing he had passed on to the church (1 Cor. 15:1-4), and the only message he focused his attention on (1 Cor. 1-2; 1 Thess. 2).

Second, however, it is right to say that the gospel can and should be adorned. For we must adorn it with our behavior, our love for one another, our preaching, our hospitality, our friendships, our worship, our thanksgiving and praise, etc. And if these adornments happen to take the shape of a ministry or program, then praise God for them!

But for some reason, the unavoidable caveat seems to be that when the accessories become the centerpiece of a local church, rather than the gospel, then the gospel will wither and eventually become nothing more than it has already become throughout our local churches - a nominal message with absolutely no power to effectually change lives and promote the doctrinal and spiritual worship of God.

The challenge for us on an individual, personal basis is this. How much time and attention do we devote to "gospel accessories" more than we do to the gospel itself? I'm referring to how much time we spend listening to Christian radio, Christian music, Christian programming on television or radio, Christian books, Christian magazines and journals, Christian blogs, etc. How much time do we spend involved in our church-related programs and ministries? Isn't it amazingly easy to find ourselves pouring so much of our time and attention into these wonderful accessories such that we pay little if any attention to the gospel itself.

How ridiculous would it be if I were to remark on my wife's earrings, necklace, clothing, hair style, shoes, and perfume, yet never remark as to her inherent beauty. Sherri is smart enough to see through that and figure out that I must be saying that it takes all those accessories to make her look good. And how would that make her feel? It's an absolute lie. She needs none of those things to be beautiful. In fact, I often tell her she needs no makeup at all or a fancy hair-do (as opposed to my hair-don't) to be what she is - beautiful. All these things simply bring out the beauty and adorn what is already there. But focusing on those things rather than on her is superficial and temporary. Eventually the shoes and jewelry wear out, the perfume bottle becomes empty, the hair is cut, or the clothing turns out of style. Yet her inherent beauty does not change.

Examine the attention you give to the gospel of Jesus Christ, to His person, work, Kingship, intercessory prayer work...all on your behalf. Take a careful look to consider whether or not you spend more time accessorizing than fellowshiping around and worshiping through the message of the gospel. For me it is a trap that is all to easy to fall into day after day. But let's break it together, spending more time in the Scriptures, searching for Christ, for redemption, for the gospel, communing in the Spirit with King Jesus. Let's spend more time talking about these things together. Let's spend more time on music and books and radio programs that help us see Jesus and make us more desperate for Him, and less time growing spiritually numb with music that is safe and fun for the whole family. (Incidentally, the recent trend in Christian radio is Christianity without Christ. It is moralizing the Christian life so that we can have a bunch of fun without Jesus. How then is it really safe for the family if the gospel isn't in it? But I digress.)

Let's love Him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. Let's stop loving the accessories.

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