Reflections on Surfing Secularism, part II

Yesterday I posted the first part of a three-part series analyzing Dave Schmelzer’s piece titled “Surfing Secularism: Why Fighting the Rest of the World Is a Losing Strategy for Churches.”  He highlighted three presuppositions of churches and its leaders who surf secularism well. Those three are as follows: 1. It’s not about them.  It’s about us.  (In fact, maybe there is no “them.”); 2. It’s not about the trappings.  It’s about the offer; and 3. Our culture does not equal God’s culture.  In yesterday’s post, I examined the first presupposition, so feel free to check it out before reading this one; however, it is possible to read this second post and then go back to the first.  My aim in this piece is to tackle the second of the three presuppositions.

Now it is time to explore Schmelzer’s second presupposition of churches and leaders who surf secularism well.  Here goes: “It’s not about the trappings.  It’s about the offer.”  Schmelzer quotes a German pastor, Marlin Watling, who says that “trying to be cool is not cool.  There needs to be a real love for the city and the people in it.”  This hammers at the core of the church’s witness to culture.  Worshiping on Sundays is not a magic show or circus.  It is not a place for ministers to advertise for their next book, seminar, or conference.  Sunday worship is a time of exaltation of the savior who bled and died so that we could gather and declare him and his work in our lives.  It is a time of celebration and mourning and encouragement.

After providing Watling’s quote as an introduction, Schmelzer chips away at the current mode of expression coming out of the church. From his perspective, he sees way more line drawing taking place in the name of forming a biblical worldview than the exhibition of a changed life.  There is real truth to this observation of today’s evangelical church; although, some streams are more vocal and dogmatic than others.  Schmelzer seems to be painting with broad strokes on this point, but churches and their leaders do need to take notice. Espousing the right doctrine has the tendency to mask an unchanged heart in the spiritually immature and the legalist.  It is also true that a changed heart is not possible without receiving the right doctrine: the life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.

When Schmelzer says that “St. Paul takes a hard stance against focusing on rules and lines,” he is only half right.  The apostle Paul does emphasize a changed life over against “rules” in Galatians 6:15; however, the context of this verse deals with the Judaizers in the early church demanding that the Gentile believers add something to their salvation to be truly saved.  Paul writes the letter to the Galatians in order to correct the wrong doctrine of the Judaizers for the right doctrine contained in Christ’s gospel: justification and believing faith are a free gifts, which require nothing from the Gentiles.  In this case, getting the gospel message straight was of high importance for Paul and the Holy Spirit, who inspired the apostle to write the letter in the first place.

What does Schmelzer have to say about Jesus and his gospel?  I find it intriguing that he never once uses the word gospel in his piece.  Given his previous position as a pastor, I know that he knows the gospel.  In fact, it is not possible to lead a church for approximately fifteen years and see growth without proclaiming the gospel of Jesus.  Somehow Schmelzer sidesteps from articulating it in this piece. In fact, the closest that he comes to an explication of the gospel message is the following sentence, which closes out his section on the second presupposition: “Watling, Wilson and Kaiser each mention that secular people, like all people, want the richness of the “good news” Jesus talks about.  But first, that richness has to exist.”

On its face, this sounds good.  It is a call to the church to demonstrate the life that Jesus teaches.  In fact, everyone in the church must carry his weight in living out the gospel call.  One of the main reasons for gathering together is to hold each other accountable in this endeavor.  It is my humble opinion that Schmelzer would agree with those previous sentences.  Here is where I differ with him in a subtle, but ultimately, definitive way.   Schmelzer quotes three Christian ministers who believe that secular people desire the richness of the good news that Jesus teaches.  Therein lies the problem in case my readers have not spotted it.  Those three ministers and by extension Schmelzer seem to be saying that the secularist desires “the richness of the good news” that Jesus offers.  This begs the question of whether or not the secularist truly desires Christ himself or simply what he offers like a genie in a bottle.

Someone might say that I am splitting hairs with Schmelzer’s words.  There might be a tinge of truth in that statement; however, the Lord confronts the crowds and the apostles over whether they believe in him, or simply desire to see him satisfy their needs.  In the sixth chapter of John’s gospel, our Lord performs the miracle of feeding 5000 people, and then walks on water while calming the waves (John 6:1-21, ESV).  The apostles had been privy to both miraculous events while the crowd experienced only the first.  Jesus tells the crowd in point blank terms “…you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves,” and then he explains to them that “…the work of God…[is to] believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:26, 29, ESV).  The richness of the good news failed to make any difference in the lives of the religious leaders and many in the crowd because they rejected the person of Jesus.

Our Lord even questions the disciples’ belief in him, which leads to many turning away except for the apostles (John 6:60-69).  When Peter declares that Jesus has the words of eternal life and that he is the Holy One of God, this demonstrates the importance of believing the right doctrine about Christ and proclaiming the right doctrine about him (John 6:68-69, ESV).  Schmelzer and company may wince at that statement, but I fail to see how anyone can get around our Lord’s words at the end of John chapter six.  Jesus’ interaction with the disciples and apostles serves as a warning to the church and its leaders.  Schmelzer is right to emphasize a changed life, but this is only possible because of believing faith.  Now, believing faith is only possible because the Father has been drawing men to himself in Christ by the Spirit.  Lastly, believing faith only carries its power because of faith’s object: Christ himself.  It matters quite a bit what one believes and proclaims about the Lord Jesus.  Tomorrow, I will wrap up this series with the final post on the third presupposition.

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