I made this comment on my blog earlier this week, and a reader said that it bears some fleshing out – and I think he’s right, but I also think that it deserves some kind of context.
The context for me is this: I have this problem with lemmings. On the one hand there are the kind of lemmings who just do what they are told, and they will march over the cliff and into the rocky beach whether this is the crag under MTV point or the quarry at the base of Mount historical Institution. All lemmings, all going headlong to their deaths, and you can’t really stop them.
Did you know that this happens not because of a mass suicide instinct but because lemmings can’t see very well? That’s right: they can’t distinguish between a suicidal drop-off and a trickling brook, so they just march on out and hope for the best. It's a myth that they do it because they have a death instinct -- perpetuated by Disney of all places, but let's not get off-subject here.
So my problem with lemmings is not that they all march out to their deaths: it’s that there’s one lemming in the pack that probably could put a stop to things if he wasn’t so stupid as to demand that they keep going on.
You know: for example, I’m very much in favor of preaching the Gospel to lost people. Who wouldn’t be, really? I mean, if the Gospel is the power to save, and Jesus is the only way, what kind of jerk do you have to be to keep it to yourself? It’s the Gospel, and it cost you nothing, and you don’t deserve it, so maybe you should act like it matters to you.
So we go out to the lost – not just the guy next door, but the homeless guy in the park, and the meth addict who lives in a trailer park on the other side of the high school, and the single parent who has a kid who goes to school with your kid – and we start talking about this Jesus. Jesus saves, we say – he died for our sin in accordance with Scripture, and he was buried and raised from the dead in accordance with Scripture.
And it gets this luke-warm response, as if they expected music or an interpretive dance or something. So we try a movie – maybe the Jesus movie, or the Gospel of John (which I recommend, btw). And that gets one of these people to say, “I ... I think I need Jesus. Will you help me?”
So we help this person, and we think, “Wow – a movie worked good! Maybe I need a bigger screen so more people can watch it!” And we go out and buy a big Phillips plasma screen and a surround sound system and we renovate the living room so it seats 75.
Well, many people are polite about sitting through the movie, but not many come across – you get one or two a month who, like the meth addict or the homeless guy, need help and can get it from you, so they ask.
So you decide to go from the Gospel of John to the Passion of Christ – a global box-office smash. And after two showings, you have some people in tears apologizing for leaving church, and they say they want to help you get this movie out – this movie which shows Christ being torn to shreds with the lash, and shows the kind of humiliation he suffered on the cross. Some people even get sick watching it, but it seems like you are getting more people in to see it and you seem to have at least a steady stream of helpers, even if they change on a fairly-regular basis.
Well, after about 18 months, everyone in town has seen the Passion at your house, and now attendance is starting to fall off. And with attendance waning, your help is starting to get thin – because it’s not as exciting to serve popcorn to 5 people as it is to serve to a full living room.
So you decide to watch a few other movies, and you realize that if you give a little talk at the end of the movie, you could make any movie about the Gospel – almost. You can make the Matrix about the Gospel. You can make the Lion King about the Gospel. You can make V for Vendetta about the Gospel. You can make Cars about the Gospel. The Kill Bill trilogy seems to challenge you, but you have a 5 minute schtick on that, too. All kinds of movies, and if you spend 5 minutes at the end you can convince yourself that you are talking to people about the Gospel by offering them free movies at your house.
After about 2 months of that, the local video store guy comes to one of your screenings, and after the crowd breaks up he tells you that you’re putting him out of business with this free movie stuff, and if you don’t stop he’s going to report you to ASCAP for doing public performances of videos without being licensed. In your head, you think, “wow! Persecution! I’m being persecuted for the Gospel!” and you tell him, “I forgive you, because you don’t know what you’re doing, my friend,” and that just makes him angrier.
Your helpers see how angry he is, and they step in to defend you, but it turns out that the local owner of the 6-screen “plex” is also there and he takes the video guy’s side – you’re wrecking legit business in town by offering free movies, and you should back off because everyone’s got to eat.
In the span of a few weeks, suddenly the town is split into two sides: the side which says you’re doing God’s work by showing free movies (they don’t actually come – they just want to be there for Jesus), and the other side which really has a variety of reasons to say you’re just being a jerk – the fire department has questions about whether you can legally seat 75 in your house, the police have had complaints about parking in the street, some of the local pastors have a problem with your “Gospel” in that it seems to be somewhat empty of what the Bible teaches even though it is full of what these movies teach, and so on.
And in that, there is a stumbling block to the Gospel, and it’s not Christ on the Cross: it’s the method you have adopted by which you think you are doing “the Lord’s work”. And we go there as Lemmings, somehow unable to see that the first guy has already fallen to his death because this is a sheer cliff face and not just a dip into a creek. That first guy should have gone a little slower, but the second guy should see the first guy fall and put the brakes on.
Now, here’s the irony: some people are going to read this and say, “those unrighteous emergents! You tell ‘em, cent!” and others are going to say, “that unrighteous cent! Who is he to pass judgment on the emergents!” but my point is that this is really a problem with all of evangelidom today! That is: we have abandoned the offense of the Gospel for far more ridiculous offenses that keep us separated from the people who need the Gospel most.
The “emergents” are doing this, right? Let’s be honest – there aren’t any power-bloc SBC pastors who are writing books about how Jesus is like Neo: that’s an emergent thing. But there are plenty of SBC power-bloc pastors who are writing books which ought to be classed, at best, as contemporary historical fiction. They are demonizing all kinds of behaviors that the Bible doesn’t demonize, and at the same time they are fostering cultures in their own churches which the Bible does demonize because they have built bunkers and biospheres rather than cities on hills.
Calling Neo a kind of Jesus is an offense which drives away people who think they know better; calling every homosexual a participant in a vast godless conspiracy is equally wrong-headed and drives away those who are actually homosexual.
These things are stumbling blocks to the Gospel. These things place burdens on people which are not right – because they are placing unscriptural and unnecessary burdens and qualifications on the lost when Christ made it clear that He came for, and we should be going out to, the lost.
Yes: the Gospel ought to be foolishness to the Greek and a stumbling block to the Jew – but not because of a false religion we erect around it. The offense of Christ being a man who died a shameful death, but because He did exactly what the Father demanded of Him and agreed with the Father that it must be done He was able to take His life back up again, is enough. It is by far more than enough to keep the sinful hearts of men away – because it is not something which makes us look sexy or smart or politically savvy. It will make us the scum of the earth, the last among all men, if we live it completely.
But that offense is enough. The idolatry of making new offenses by being lemmings to our own innovations which have become traditions is not just an offense to men, and a stumbling block to them; it is an offense to God for which we must repent.
We must repent. We who are average people. We who usually vote Republican. We who went to college and decided that we think we know what social justice is all about. We who think that you can’t trust someone with money, and we who think you cannot trust someone unless they have a little money. We who have forgotten that hell is real and that Christ died to save us from hell, not to save us from being lower-middle class or possibly uneducated about the nuances of 20th century beat poetry. We who have made an idol out of evangelism and out of human kindness and out of the four walls of our church.
We must repent from placing stumbling blocks at the feet of those who are being called by God to Himself. Shame on us – woe unto us. We know what the warning sounds like: let us hear it right now in order that our households are not left barren and we are not left in the darkness when the Lord returns.
In that, line up behind the guy in front of you and be in the Lord's House with the Lord's people on the Lord's day this week. Sometimes its the right thing to just follow the crowd, and if you can't think of a better reason this week, that's good enough for now. Unless you live in Neosho, MO.