I felt myself especially shocked and appalled [though not particularly surprised] when I read a story a few days ago about a megachurch in Jacksonville, Florida. They’re in the news due to their shady youth events, specifically one based on the show Fear Factor. To quote Susan Eastman, “The climax of the church service was a pair of huge, hairy armpits. Youth Pastor Josh Turner offered up them up to teenage congregants attending a Wednesday night service at Jacksonville’s Celebration Church. The armpits belonged to a beefy youth leader, a guy close in age to the hundreds of junior high and high school students in the audience, but old enough have sprouted great piles of coarse body hair. As the youth leader held his arms aloft, the teenagers gaped at the hair, furred into a strip matted by sweat and deodorant. They watched as Pastor Turner dug into a jar of peanut butter and smeared gobs of it onto the exposed underarms, then turned to the audience. Did anyone, he asked, have the guts to lick it clean and swallow it down without puking? He got two volunteers. As the audience roared with excitement and disgust, the two male teenagers approached the youth leader and began to lick his armpits, burrowing their faces in the peanut butter and eating it. Neither puked. Their only prize was bragging rights.”
The purpose of the illustration is simple. The pastor tells us that, “It’s a metaphor for the courage it takes to be young and openly Christian. It’s about being fearless, by allowing them to do something that took boldness, that they might possibly get made fun of for doing. Standing up for Christ in the world requires you to be fearless.” As a result of these stunts, many parents are rightfully offended by what their children are doing and learning in church and are upset that these shenanigans are taking place. They’ve expressed their concerns to the church leadership, but the pastors are unapologetic. “[The teens] experience God here on Wednesday nights, and they can’t always articulate that to their friends. This gives them something to say. ‘Wow, you’ve got to come to church, you’ve got to check this out. This is amazing!” He continues “Whatever we’re doing, it’s working. We saved 35 young people that night. That’s 35 teenagers saved from drugs, saved from abortion, saved from premarital sex. There are life transformations happening here, and it’s incredible. Thirty-five people’s lives were changed forever. They were saved from an eternity of burning in hell.”
Now normally I would rant and rail against this sort of this and point out how ludicrous and stupid it is, and how they’re making Jesus and the Church to be one big joke and on and on. Because make no mistake-what they are doing is beyond the pale, they are so misguided, and that pretty much serves as the best example of everything that is wrong with the shallow, biblically illiterate seeker-sensitive church movement. [Note. I railed anyway.] But that’s not the direction I wish to go in. While this is one of the more extreme examples, I have heard and seen many others. One Pastor told his youth that if they could bring 1000 of their friends to a service he would let them taser him. Another threw pig ears in a vat of milk and had some teenage girls go bobbing for them -another Fear Factor stunt. One let his kids shoot his backside with a paintball gun, while another youth leader swallowed goldfish if his kids managed to do enough fund raising. That’s only a small sample, and there are so many others.
And yet what I want to discuss is WHY they are doing this. There are probably a ton of reasons, but I would imagine that it all boils down to one. Pragmatism. Specifically, they want to make Jesus and God and Church and Christianity look cool. To quote this pastor again, “The idea is to get students here to meet our Savior. They are getting all this crazy stuff out there in the world all the time. We are trying to show them that God is cooler.” The logic is, “If we can show that Jesus and Church is cool and relevant and edgy, then they’ll think that Jesus is cool and relevant, and they’ll ask Jesus into their hearts and make decisions for Jesus.” This is evangelicalism at its lowest, at its lamest, and at its saddest. And it’s pathetic.
We do not need to make Jesus look cool. We’re not his PR guy. He does not need us to refine and recast his image for him. We’re not spin doctors, and He’s not suffering from an image crisis. Besides, do we really want to look at what this media-driven sin-glamorized culture of ours says is “cool” and mold Jesus to fit right in? If it’s cool to lick peanut butter out of another man’s armpits, do we really want our Savior to reflect that standard of hip-ness? In 1 Corinthians 1:23 the scriptures say, “But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness.” That means that people aren’t naturally going to get it, and they’ll be offended by the message. That’s the natural progression and how it works when the gospel is introduced to the sinful and wicked heart. And yet if God is giving a person faith while we preach Christ crucified, then instead of a stumbling block a man will cling to that as a rock of hope. And instead of foolishness, to a man that God is calling it will make all the sense in the world. That’s the only way they’re going to get it, and otherwise it will not appeal to people.
We believe that God exists, that he came to earth in the form of a man, that he was killed on a cross, and then rose again. We believe that every person who does not repent and confess him as God will go to hell for eternity. That message isn’t attractive. I’m sorry but it’s just not. Nothing you can do will make the gospel message cool or conducive to mass consumption. You can’t make a crucified man bleeding on the cross cool. You can’t make a God who let himself be crowned with a crown of thorns and who was spit on, hit, and had his beard pulled out cool. You can’t make the reality of his resurrection cool. You can’t make his ascension cool. You can’t make his commandments, his will, and his works cool. And no matter what sort of goofy things that you do to cast the gospel message as a good time and fun for the whole family, it will never work, and you’ll be deceiving yourself every time.
Not only that, but the purpose isn’t to make church all wacky and cool- as if it’s some big party that everyone comes to. Yes we want our churches to be places where people can feel warm, welcome, and at home. Churches are designed to be safe environments where people are loved. And yet here we are getting a Church that is actively working to blur the line and trying to make church something it’s not. It’s almost as if they’re saying “Hey look, we’re not boring or dull. We can be crazy too. We can compete with the culture of the world, fit in, and be relevant.” When in reality the church just looks foolish. The church tries to do what the world does, but they just fall on their face. We see that with how cheesy half of our evangelical output is. Even this service. Fear Factor? Really? The show’s been around for almost a decade, and the show was cancelled almost 4 years ago. Instead of leading the pack, we’re always behind in the times because the Church sees the sparkly new trinket that the secular world has, and then a few years later we come up with out own iteration which is half as cool and twice as awkward. When we try to ape culture we become a bad parody of ourselves, and the church becomes that weird kid who still wears Umbro soccer shorts, a No-Fear t-shirt and high-top shoes.
This message of the gospel and the theology of the cross are always relevant for every person who ever lived at every walk and stage of life. It is a life unto itself, and we don’t need to rework it and recast it. We just need to be faithful to it and to the message. I don’t want a church that is uncomfortable and severe, not do I want to put up unnecessary roadblocks for people. But the answer is not in these disgusting games and illustrations designed to make Jesus and the Church look relevant and cool. To make us look hip and non-threatening. We just need to preach the Gospel faithfully to people, understanding that the Holy Spirit is the one that moves and convicts a man and opens up his eyes to the need for the saving efficacy of Christ, and that the Holy Spirit will do so with or with out people licking melting peanut butter out of each others armpits.