The Church of the crucified and risen Lord Jesus is filled and fueled by resurrection power—so, why do we turn to gimmicks and get-growth-quick schemes?
The McMass Project, a nondenominational group, after seeing the decline of American churches asked themselves, “How could we solve this ‘vacant church problem?’” Their answer? McDonald’s. Their website says, “We want to revitalize Churches as centers for conversation and cultural engagement by putting a McDonald’s franchise in a church.” One of McMass’s core members says that, “Christianity is unable to capture modern audiences.”
Now, I’m no church growth expert, but a Big-Mac is not the answer to the American church’s woes—or anyone’s for that matter. Our churches are in great need of revitalization, of reformation, not under the golden arches or gimmicks, but under the glorious gospel of grace.
What's in a Shtick?
When a church gets a shtick, they are on sinking sand. Shtickyness is a self-imposed powerlessness; it’s an empting of the power of the cross (1 Cor. 1:17). The Holy Spirit doesn’t need gimmicks, shticks, or innovations to bring revival. And while it’s easy to scoff at pumping the smell of french fries into the church’s fellowship hall, we must look at ourselves and see if there is a shtick in our eyes.
What do we want our churches to be known for? If we aren’t careful, if we aren’t watching what the main thing is in our church’s culture, our staff meetings, elder meetings, prayer meetings, budgets, etc.—we might be drifting. When a church wants to be known for their kids ministry, groups, comfortable services, music, social justice ministries, their homeschool squad, or for being the church that has their theology together, or the church that does verse-by-verse preaching—the church is in danger of becoming a baptized caricature of Target vs. Wal-Mart. Ministry isn’t competition. And instead of walking in the Spirit of Christ, we might be walking in the spirit of the Pharisee who says, “Thank you, God, that we aren’t like that church over there.” When anything other than Christ becomes our thing, we are in danger.
Reject Underhanded Ways
I’m not advocating for sloppy and disheveled services and ministries; our churches should seek to do our best in all we do. But the problem comes with our varied definitions of “best.” To do our best doesn’t mean we begin our services with Coldplay or Skynrd, or put on Barnum-and-Bailey-esque services, or preach sermons as bold as soggy toilet paper, or provide a children’s ministry atmosphere tantamount to unicorn rides. Doing our best, biblically, means faithfully handling the Bible.
“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15)—which means we are lifting up Jesus of Nazareth, preaching that old-time religion. “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28). The best, and truest, men’s ministries proclaim Christ. The best music, that’s actually worshipful, exults in our great God and Savior, regardless of the creative environments. In A.D. 110, Pliny the Younger was charged by Emperor Trajan to see what those Christians are all about. Pliny discovered “the Christians arose early in the morning and sang hymns unto Christ as a God.” What would Pliny discover in our churches today?
The apostle Paul rejected the bait-and-switch tactics of his day. “But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God…For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” (2 Cor. 4:2, 6). We have a lot of renouncing to do—if we want to experience heaven-wrought power. “The real problem,” Francis Schaeffer warned, "is this: the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, individually or corporately, tending to do the Lord’s work in the power of the flesh rather than the power of the Spirit.”
When churches baptize their golden calves, their artisanal works of the flesh and advertise them in the name of Jesus, and look to them rather than him, they’ve sold themselves out for broken cisterns. The Alpha and Omega is not keen to playing the background, or being the assumption-factor in our churches. Saying, “Of course it’s all for Jesus,” will not fly. Jesus is not a fan of being "of-coursed."
Be An "Of First Importance" Church
While conferences abound, giving hearty approval to buffoonery, we must be the kinds of churches that say, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation…For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (Rom. 1:16; 1 Cor. 9:16). The power in our churches doesn’t reside in our plans—and plan we must—but in the dead-raising and sin-souring news of God’s love and free offer of forgiveness to anyone who will believe in the name of Jesus Christ.
The gospel is the extraterrestrial power in our churches; it’s been strengthening Christians (Rom. 16:25), saving sinners (1 Tim. 1:15), and changing cities (Acts 8:8)—all without our improvements and recipes for relevancy. What good is it for a church to have the most attractional and highly attended services and lose their lampstand (Rev. 2:5)? We can improve our hospitality ministries, graphics, and coffee—but these things don’t rend the heavens. Either grace touches down or it doesn’t. Which is why God gets all the glory.
We ought to be known, first and foremost, for being the people who lift up a crucified carpenter who’s not dead anymore. Let’s resolve to be “of first importance” churches. “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3–4).
Our center, our core, our purpose, our message is always Jesus. We are now stewards of this omni-relevant news that “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:43). Every local church elder must take watch over the church, and lead the church, time after time, back to their first love (Rev. 2:4). Christ is the center. When our churches and ministries lose the center, we don’t become more relevant. We actually get out of sync with the universe, for it is God’s “plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:10).
Spurgeon reminds us what captivates a church for the long haul:
“I will defy any man to hold together a large congregation, year after year, with any other subject but Christ Jesus. He might do it for a time; he might charm the ear with the discoveries of science, or with the beauties of poetry, and his oratory might be of so high an order that he might attract the multitudes who have itching ears, but they would in time turn away and say, ‘This is no longer to be endured. We know it all.’ All music becomes wearisome but that of heaven; but oh! if the minstrel doth but strike this celestial harp, though he keepeth his fingers always among its golden strings, and be but poor and unskilled upon an instrument so divine, yet the melody of Jesus’ name, and the sweet harmony of all his acts and attributes, will hold his listeners by the ears and thrill their hearts as nought beside can do. The theme of Jesus’ love is inexhaustible, though preachers may have dwelt upon it century after century, a freshness and fulness still remain.”
The gospel never gets old; year after year, sermon after sermon—and into eternity—it gets fresher and sweeter. May Solus Christus be true in our ecclesiology; apart from Jesus, we can do nothing (John 15:5). We must blaspheme our shticks, our misplaced confidence, and re-believe the gospel of grace. Tips and tricks, gimmicks and fog, and visioneering fades, but the gospel word stands forever—and that is how Christ will build his church. In our churches, may it be beautifully and blatantly obvious that live for our Galilean and Galactic Emperor. We don’t need a side of fries with that.
 Jake Heller, “McMass Project Aims to Put McDonald's Restaurant in a Church.” NBC News. November 25, 2014. http://www.nbcnews.com/business/business-news/mcmass-project-aims-put-mcdonalds-restaurant-church-n255991
 Eusebius of Caesaria, “The Church History of Eusebius,” in Eusebius: Church History, Life of Constantine the Great, and Oration in Praise of Constantine, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Arthur Cushman McGiffert, vol. 1, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1890), 165–166.
 Francis Schaeffer, No Little People: Sixteen Sermons for the Twentieth Century (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1974), 64.
 Charles H. Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 15 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1869), 124–125.