I'm always amazed at the strange things people think they've heard me say. I bet it happens to you, too. Someone comes up after the service or sends me an email telling me how much they've been blessed by something I've said—how it's changed their life or how they made a major decision based on it. Only problem is, I never said it, and I don't believe it.
It creates a bit of an awkward situation. I don't want to be rude and pop their balloon. But I don't want to keep quiet and let them go on believing and acting upon something that isn't true—and worse, has the potential to be spiritually harmful. So I usually stumble around, offer a knowing nod, a quick thank you, and then say something along the lines of, "Well, what the Bible actually says is ..."
Unfortunately, that's how communication works in our fallen world. It's inherently flawed, because we're inherently flawed. People hear what they want to hear, and we often fail to say what we actually mean to say. It's what makes preaching such a difficult task.
Outside of a very small church or house church, few of us have an opportunity to make sure that what we meant to say, what we actually said and what people think they heard us say has much in common. Fact is, the difference is often mind-boggling.
Some Dumb Things Smart People Believe—and Think I've Taught Them
Life is nuanced, and so are the scriptures. They can't be reduced to sound bites and tag lines. Yet the sad truth is that many people in our churches base their faith almost entirely upon cliches and sound bites rather than the totality of scripture. In other words, some awfully smart Christians believe some really dumb things.
For instance, in my travels around the country, I've come to believe that a majority of Christians would agree with most, if not all, of the following statements.
1. "Faith can fix anything."
2. "Forgiving means forgetting."
3. "A godly home guarantees godly kids."
4. "God has a blueprint for my life."
5. "Christians shouldn't judge."
6. "Everything happens for a reason."
7. "Let your conscience be your guide."
8. "God brings good luck."
9. "A valley means a wrong turn."
10. "Dead people go to a better place."
And these are just a few of the cliches, myths and spiritual urban legends that permeate our churches. They sound plausible. They make for nice tag lines on posters, T-shirts and Jesus junk. But if depended upon, they ultimately produce disappointment and disillusionment when God fails to come through on a promise he never made.
Frankly, as pastors and preachers, we're partly to blame. We do a number of things in the design of our worship services and the delivery of our sermons that unintentionally give life to these kinds of empty promises and cliches. We don't do it on purpose. But we do it just the same.
How Did It Get This Way?
How do these (and other) spiritual urban legends work their way into our sermons and churches? A variety of things come into play.
First, many of them align with the dominant beliefs and values of our culture. The more widely believed something is, the less likely we are to question it. Just like everyone else, Christians tend to trust the wisdom of the majority—even though the Bible makes a good case for taking a poll and then heading in the opposite direction.
Second, most of these goofy ideas match up with what we'd like to believe. For instance, the confidence that faith can fix anything or the comfort that comes from believing that dead people always go to a better place fits nicely with what we'd all like to believe. So any time a pastor says anything even remotely close, that's what people tend to hear, even if it's not what we said.
Third, these ideas are usually passed on by reputable sources. Christian friends, Sunday school teachers and Bible study leaders often offer them as well-meaning encouragement or advice. And since the source is reputable, people tend to believe what they say and pass it on in much the same way that computer viruses, Internet rumors and secular urban legends are passed on. We don't bother to double-check them before hitting the Send button because the source is reputable.
Frankly, there's not much a pastor can do to completely kill off these dumb ideas and happy-talk cliches. But there are some things we can do in our services and preaching to undercut their credibility and to make it less likely that our people will buy into them or pass them on to others.
Here are four of the things that I've found to be most helpful in my own ministry and preaching.
1. Make people bring a Bible.
Many of us unintentionally designed our worship services and sermons so that no one needs to bring (or even own) a Bible. The biggest culprit is the pattern of putting Bible verses and texts up on a screen.
Admittedly, our intentions are admirable (a desire to make the Bible accessible to those who are unfamiliar with scripture or don't yet have a Bible). But the unintended consequences are not so admirable. Whether it's in a youth group or a church service, once we start putting the text up on a screen or in the bulletin, it won't be long until most people stop bringing a Bible. Why should they? They don't need it.
As a result, it starts a vicious cycle. When new Christians (and lots of other Christians) don't see anyone else carrying a Bible, they don't either. It's not long until the mark of a visitor is someone with a Bible in hand.
But that's nowhere near as harmful as the next result. Newer Christians and immature Christians start to put their trust in the spiritual guru who stands up each weekend and authoritatively unpacks the deep truths and life-wisdom found in an ancient and cryptic book called the Bible. Once that happens, they're wide open to cliches, platitudes and anything else that has a nice ring to it. They have nothing to test them against.
That's one reason that at North Coast Church, I've refused to put our sermon text or even cross-references up on a screen. I want to literally force people to get and use a Bible if they want to follow along. The result has been lots of people bringing Bibles—and new Christians who quickly assume that they'd better get one to fit in with everyone else.
When it comes to ministry, my goals are simple. They're probably a lot like yours. I want to help non-Christians come to Christ (John 14:6). I want to help new Christians grow to maturity (Colossians 1:28-29). And I want to help all Christians learn to spiritually feed themselves and think Biblically (Acts 17:11). Yet the third step is hard to pull off when no one brings (or even owns) a Bible. It's difficult to move people beyond sound bites and sermon notes if they don't have a Bible to check them against.
2. Teach the context, not just the proof texts.
Another way I try to undercut simplistic cliches and half-truths is by making sure my sermons include the context of a passage and not just the proof texts that support whatever points I'm trying to make.
At North Coast Church we use a combination of book studies and topical series in our preaching. We work very hard to be practical and relevant. In so doing, it can be tempting to give people principles and life applications supported by a laundry list of verses—some of which are taken way out of context. (I know none of you have ever done this, but I'll admit I have.)
While supplying verses that support a principle or life application is important, I've found that it's also essential to get people to actually turn to the passages and see them in context. Doing so helps them grasp that the Bible is not just a collection of pithy sayings mined by a clever pastor. It drives home the subtle message that some verses don't mean what they seem to mean in isolation—and this goes a long way toward undercutting the happy-talk and cliches that are so often built upon a favorite text or even a single sentence taken out of context.
As an added benefit, it also pulls the rug out from under the false teaching of many cults. Many of their most bizarre doctrines are built on a phrase or verse taken completely out of context.
3. Encourage and answer the "Yeah, but ..."
Another thing I try to do when preaching is to make sure that I acknowledge and address as many of the "yeah buts" that I can imagine my listeners asking. For instance, if I'm preaching from a passage that deals with God's sovereignty, I know that some folks out there are asking, "Yeah, but does that mean God is responsible for ...?" or "Yeah, but does that mean God actually caused Adam and Eve to sin?" plus a host of other questions.
Acknowledging the "Yeah buts," and especially questions for which I have no answer, makes a big difference. It doesn't undercut their trust in the Bible, but it does undercut their blind trust in me. And that's a good thing. It helps my congregation understand that the scriptures are nuanced, complex, and don't always hold an easy cliche or simple answer for every situation. It sends a strong message that the Bible is more than a collection of Zen-like sayings to be cataloged and then pulled out and applied when needed.
4. Tie your small groups to the sermon.
To those of you who know me or North Coast Church, this comes as no surprise. We've long tied our small groups to our sermons in a lecture/lab model. One of the great benefits is that it gives our people a socially acceptable forum to question, disagree with, and even challenge what they've heard.
Here's what happens in most churches: when a parishioner hears something he or she doesn't agree with, they write it off. Or perhaps they discuss it with someone on the way home from church, but that's about it. They have no opportunity to really grapple with the idea—no opportunity to push back or be pushed back. Sermon-based small groups encourage critical thinking and an Acts 17:11, Berean-like searching of scriptures. By definition, in a sermon-based small group, people talk about the sermon, the text and how it does or doesn't apply to them.
I've discovered that when our people find out that it's acceptable (and even desirable) to compare the things I say with scripture, they start to do so. The results aren't a loss of respect for my teaching or an increase in cynicism, spiritual rebellion or hearsay. The results are greater appreciation of scripture. Even better, once they start to check out what I say to see if it matches up with scripture, they tend to do the same with the cliches and spiritual urban legends they're exposed to.
The fact is, smart people will always believe some dumb things. Blind spots are nothing new; they will always be with us. But the way we structure our sermons, worship services and ministry can go a long way toward either fostering or exposing these spiritual urban legends and empty cliches for the baloney they are.