POP GOES THE GOSPEL
I distinctly remember my first sermon as the new Pastor of a church in Victoria, in 1995. On my first Sunday morning, I preached what I considered to be a safe message; a basic explanation of the gospel as explained by Paul in the first 5 chapters of Romans. I spoke about our created purpose (to honour and serve God), our rebellion against God, the universal nature of sin and its dire consequences, God’s rescue mission through Christ, His incredible sacrifice to pay for our sins, and the forgiveness that is now ours through Christ alone. When I returned home after the service, I received a phone call from the chairman of the elders. Without any pleasantries or preamble, he informed me that “we haven’t heard the words sin, judgment and hell in our church for nearly 10 years, and we never want to hear them again!” I responded by promising him that the church would continue to hear those words as long as I was Pastor, because I was determined to preach the complete Gospel as it is declared in God’s Word. To say that we had ongoing issues is an understatement!
The gospel is good news. But we can only fully appreciate how good it really is by firstly understanding the bad news of our predicament without Christ. Mankind’s rebellion against God, our resulting estrangement from Him, our slavery to sin, our looming judgement and, finally, the inevitability of eternal punishment, are all key elements of the gospel story. It is this bad news that makes the good news so wonderful! It is what makes grace so amazing! This is why the Apostle Paul devotes so much time to explaining the problem of sin and God’s judgment in the first three chapters of Romans. The gospel is only good news if you understand our dire predicament. Furthermore, people can’t or won’t repent if they are unaware that they need to repent.
But something very disturbing has been happening within Christianity for several decades. The bad news has been shelved. Discussions of sin, judgment and hell are considered old fashioned and unduly negative. What I experienced in that Victorian church was indicative of what was, and still is, occurring throughout Christendom. Sermons are now geared towards the positive, and the gospel has been refurbished to appeal to a modern audience.
Dr Robert Schuller was one of the early pioneers of the refurbished, pop gospel in the 1970s. On one occasion, he made this comment, criticising the old gospel:
“What is that basic flaw [in the old Gospel]? I believe it is the failure to proclaim the gospel in a way that can satisfy every person’s deepest need – one’s spiritual hunger for glory. Rather than glorify God’s highest creation – the human being – Christian liturgies, hymns, prayers, and scriptural interpretations have often insensitively and destructively offended the dignity of the person.”
Schuller believed that preaching about such things as sin, judgment and hell were offensive to modern people. Instead, he crafted a new, sugar-coated pop gospel that proclaimed the power of positive thinking and promoted Christian faith as the means of achieving success and fulfilment in life. His rationale was simple: the gospel is a product, and, like all products, it needs to be marketed in a way that appeals to the perceived needs of common people. “Find a need and meet it!” was one of his catch-cries. And, as quoted above, Schuller believed that the major need that the church could tap into was people’s “spiritual hunger for glory” (success, fulfilment, self-actualisation).
In an interview with Christianity Today, in 1984, Schuller commented, “The church must develop a theology for mission. I don’t think it’s done that. I accept John 3:16 as a good one if people have a fear of hell. Maybe they have, but I find a lot of secular people haven’t. At what point can I find a button to push so that I can reach them? I think their desire for self-esteem is that button.”[i]
Schuller’s influence within the modern church cannot be underestimated. As his own church grew exponentially, countless thousands of preachers all over the world began to copy his style. The new pop gospel spread around the globe, finding its way into the pulpits of almost all Christian denominations.
The pop gospel is ubiquitous within Christianity today. Preachers from all denominations speak about God wanting to restore broken people, heal past hurts, remove our shame, fulfil our potential, give us a life of purpose, help us achieve our dreams and do extraordinary things. Even conservative evangelical churches who decry many of Schuller’s liberal excesses, have been subtly influenced by the pop gospel movement, evidenced by the rarity of sermons dealing with sin, judgment, hell and the need for repentance. The paucity of sermons dealing with these topics is completely disproportional to the proliferation of these themes in the Bible, including within the teachings of Jesus himself.
The modern pop gospel embraces many concepts derived from pop psychology, particularly the concepts of self-esteem and intrinsic self-worth. Preachers will proclaim that you are a person of infinite worth with incredible potential, and that God’s plan is to set you free from the insecurities, hurts, doubts, failures and fears that are holding you back, and enable you to become the person you were meant to be. The fact that some of you reading this blog may be wondering what is wrong with this type of message indicates how effective and pervasive this modern indoctrination has been.
Over the next few weeks I want to compare the true gospel of the Bible with the pop gospel of modern Christianity. In some instances, it may seem that the differences are insignificant, mere matters of nuance and semantics, but I hope to demonstrate how utterly destructive these embellishments are to the truth of the gospel and to its intrinsic power to save people from hell.
The next parts of this series are:
Part II – What Is Our Intrinsic Worth?
Part III – What Are We Saved From?
Part IV – What Are We Really Saved From?
Part V – How Are We Saved?
Part VI – What Are We Saved To?
Part VII – The Curse Of The Shallow Sermon
Part VIII – Modern Proponents Of The Pop Gospel
Part IX – Foundational Flaws Of The Seeker Friendly Movement
Part X – Responding To The Pop Gospel
NOTE: I don’t claim to have coined the phrase, “Pop Goes The Gospel”. A book of that title was published in the 1970’s, decrying the influence of rock and pop music in church music. That is a different topic to the subject being addressed in these papers, and one with which I am not in complete accord. But the phrase is entirely appropriate for a discussion of the development of the sugar-coated, popularised, post-modern version of the gospel that is so prevalent today.
[i] Robert Schuller interviewed in Christianity Today, Aug. 10,1984