All Dressed Up With Nothing to Show

Kris BarnettChurch, Kristopher Barnett

[gravatar email=”” size=”100″ title=”Kris Barnett” alt=”Kris Barnett” class=”user-picture” align=”right”]I commute to work.  The journey takes almost an hour one-way.  The quiet drive often provides great solitude to pray (with my eyes open!) or listen to a sermon podcast.  I often select different routes to break up the monotony and occasionally my commute provides a little comedy.  One day, when taking a new route, I noticed the following sign on an auto repair shop: Rapture View Automotive.  I puzzled over the name of the business for a few seconds until I looked to the other side of the road and saw a cemetery.  I laughed all the way to the office! dressed

Another day, taking my typical route, I noticed an appealing office building.  The exterior was immaculate.  The structure sported beautifully stained logs.  The spacious porch invited passers-by to stop and visit.  The precisely manicured lawn left no blade of grass out of place.  The expertly trimmed trees swayed softly in the wind.  I noticed this appealing structure on prior commutes but on that particular day I recall thinking, this business knows something about curb appeal.  I searched for the sign to determine the company name.  The line after the company name caused me to crack-up.  It read, Plastic Surgery Center.  It was only fitting that a company that focuses on enhancing external appearances would invest significantly in the external appearance of their edifice!

As I laughed my way to the office that day, I passed several churches.  Most of them sported immaculate exteriors.  Their parking lots invited visitors and their pristine landscaping made the buildings seem warm and appealing.  I had a chilling thought.  Do churches serve the same function as the Plastic Surgery Center?  Do churches focus primarily on enhancing external appearances?  As I contemplated that question, I stopped laughing.  I remembered the words that Jesus used to denounce the Pharisees in Matthew 23:27-28.  “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”  Unfortunately, the church often imitates the Pharisees by dressing up the external while ignoring the internal.   Three examples of this practice spring to mind: buildings, beautiful sermons, and behavior management.

Churches dress up the external when they build majestic edifices while ignoring the spiritual condition of their membership and community.  Many churches subscribe to a Field of Dreams philosophy when it comes to church buildings.  They believe the mantra from the movie, “If you build it, they will come.”  The Field of Dreams philosophy results in churches investing millions of dollars in brick and mortar, often accumulating oppressive debt along the way.  A quick scan of the New Testament reveals that the early church invested more resources in developing disciples than constructing cathedrals.  Where does your church invest resources?  What can you do to transfer the focus from brick and mortar to spirit and soul?

Preachers are not immune to the temptation of dressing up the external.  Many preachers fill their sermons with flash but forget the necessity of substance.   Contemporary preaching leans heavily on illustrations, videos, and props.  Don’t misunderstand, as a preacher and teacher of preaching, I understand that sermons need these tools to engage a media-saturated society.  Jesus often accentuated his teaching with appropriate illustrations.  However, the illustrations of Jesus all served to illuminate solid, inspired instruction.  The flood of stories, videos, and props found in contemporary preaching often ignores this example.  Rather than shedding light on the Bible, these tools often entertain the congregation while distracting them from the inspired and authoritative substance of the sermon, the text.  I once heard a student revival preacher confess after telling a story, “That has nothing to do with the message, but I just had to tell the story.”  Preachers should vigilantly guard against this temptation.  Entertaining and engaging sermons with no substance might draw crowds but they rarely develop disciples.

Another obsession with external appearances plagues sermons and all types of instruction within the church.  Pastors, youth ministers, and even pre-school teachers can present an incomplete gospel that focuses more on behavior modification than heart transformation.  Behavior modification focuses more on doing right than being right.  Behavior modification encourages people to do more for God but neglects to encourage them with the power of God’s presence.  For example, in youth ministry this message focuses on the negatives that students should avoid: premarital sex, alcohol, and drugs.  Certainly Christian students should avoid these things, but instructing students to avoid sin without consistently teaching the power of God’s grace to save sinful hearts and sanctify lives is like sending students on an African safari with no weapons.  Students soon reach the end of their own ability and with no instruction on heart transformation they succumb to temptation and the guilt that follows.  Similarly, adults who receive a steady diet of sermons that call them to pray more, give more, and go more without consistently hearing about God’s grace will tend to develop the smug arrogance that often accompanies legalism.  Rather than being built up by God’s work within them, they become puffed up by their own efforts.  Of course, the inflated egos eventually burst when they inevitably succumb to the sin that they thought could never beat them.  Instruction that majors in behavior management over heart transformation ultimately results in believers who wear masks of religiosity to hide hearts of despair and confusion.  Be diligent that you do not allow yourself or your church to preach an incomplete gospel that produces incomplete Christians.

Prior to accusing the Pharisees of whitewashing tombs, Jesus fired this rebuke in Matthew 23:25-26.  “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.”  Perhaps the contemporary church and its leaders should allow this rebuke to serve as a reminder.  If we dress up the outside of our buildings, our sermons and our people, but neglect the inside, we invite disaster on our churches and our culture.