This sermon is part of the sermon series "American Idols". See series.
We have built in us the desire to see things work, and we are an inventive people. That's in part a by-product of living in our American culture.
There is a company out there now called Baby Einstein. It was developed back in 1997. This mother, who was a teacher, discovered that there was no product available to help her children really learn to appreciate art and music in early, early childhood. So she began to develop her own line of videos and tapes for infants. It was a hit. So much so that in 2001, Disney bought the product and began to make it a worldwide corporation.
Until just recently Baby Einstein seemed to be going along beautifully. But Washington State University did some tests and discovered that a child who sits in front of Baby Einstein videos actually develops language skills more slowly than those who don't. At least, that's the claim. Of course, Disney, who has billions of dollars tied up in marketing Baby Einstein, is now trying to counter the claim.
Only in America would there exist cultural learning videos for babies. But that's us. We are like that. That's who we are. We believe things ought to work and ought to work efficiently. It's not a bad thing, and it has very positive repercussions.
Our American pragmatism
It's a basic American value to want to make things work and make things work for us. We call it pragmatism, or utilitarianism. It's the only philosophy that actually originated in the United States. It's the idea that something has to be useful. In fact, we measure something's value by its ability to produce something good.
But what in the world does that have to do with us? Why in the world would a Christian care about something as innocuous as an American cultural value about creating things that are useful or things that work? Well, probably because we care about important things.
There are two texts in the Book of Proverbs that illustrate an opposite set of values. The first one is Proverbs 20:14: "It's no good. It's no good, says the buyer, and then off he goes and boasts about his purchase."
My guess is you've been tempted to be this buyer. It's called bargaining. You convince the seller that what he is selling isn't worth what it appears to be worth, and then you walk off knowing that you have walked away with something of great value. We understand the value of bargain hunting. There is nothing wrong with that. But here there's a slight sense that something unethical, as if the buyer knew he was undercutting and undermining what the other person was trying to sell."
But there's a more common sense approach to bargaining—one that makes perfect sense in American culture. Proverbs 14:23 says: "All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty." In our very utilitarian culture, that's the way we were raised. If you work, you will make it; if you sit around and chatter all day long, you'll probably end up poor.
So what's the real question here? Those of us who are Christians wrestle with what it means to live in a culture so inundated with these values that they've become a part of who we are. It's like asking a fish if it likes water. He doesn't even know what water is.
Fighting the philosophies of our culture
We win against this subtle philosophy of the pragmatic and utilitarian when we seek to be the people of God, rather than merely drawing a crowd to gather in the building. That is a challenge, because the church after all is made up of people, and if no one is here, it's hard to call it a church. One of the questions we're always asking is whether or not we are just gathering folks so that we are all in the same place at the same time or if we're actually transforming people. Do we become the church, or are we merely a crowd who happens to like the entertainment?
There is a book review that I ran across in which Mark Devers says, "Today many local churches are adrift in a shifting current of pragmatism. They assume that the immediate felt response of non-Christians is the key indicator of success." He's suggesting that the church is catering to the non-Christian's interests in experience.
He goes on to say, "At the same time, Christianity is being rapidly disowned in the culture at large. Evangelism is characterized as intolerant. Portions of biblical doctrine are classified as hate speech. In such antagonistic times, the felt needs of non-Christians are hardly to be considered reliable gauges, and conforming to the culture will mean a loss of the gospel itself." And then he puts this in bold print: "As long as quick numerical growth remains the primary indicator of church health, the truth will be compromised. Instead, churches must once again begin measuring success not in terms of numbers but in terms of faithfulness to the Scripture." True success comes when we seek God's pleasure instead of our human gratification.
Worship is not about us.
The American culture has for about 200 years equated salvation with personal freedom and spiritual self-gratification. We are in it for what we can get out of it.
We led the world in a thing called the revival, and we practiced revivalism from D.L. Moody and Finney and others. We went out into the world and painted a picture of what Jesus would do for those who came to him. He would shape them, change them, and make them better. And he does. There's nothing wrong with this movement, but an attitude of "church is for me" seemed to stem from it. Now, in the 21st century, we ask questions like, "Did you enjoy church today?" "What did you get out of church today?" "Did you like the music?" "Did you enjoy the sermon?" It's easy to forget that this isn't about us; it's about God.
So there is a drastic movement across the United States and around the world to turn church into something less horizontal and something far more vertical. People are returning to forms of literature that call attention to God, that remind us that this isn't about us—it's primarily, if not exclusively, about him. To defeat the utilitarianism in this culture, we must remind ourselves we are here to seek God's pleasure.
The question we have to ask is not "Did you like the music?" but "Did God like the music? Did he enjoy what we offered him? Did he receive what we gave him? Was he the object of our attention? Was he the focus of our hearts?" We must learn to worship instead of being entertained.
Last Sunday I sat with about a hundred people from eight or nine different countries in the world. The only words in that service that I understood were the ones I spoke. The service was led by our Ukrainian brothers and sisters, so everything was in Russian. The special music was done by a group from Estonia, so that was in Estonian. And some of the conversation was from our Romanian friends, and they speak something that's a little closer to Spanish than any of the other languages, but since I don't know Spanish, I didn't understand it either. Half of the sermon I understood—the half I gave. Even when we prayed, the prayers were in Albanian, Ukraine, Romanian, and Russian. I didn't understand a word, but I worshiped. I worshiped at a level I sometimes never reach in my services here, because it wasn't about me. I was just in the company of a bunch of saints who are so deeply in love with God that they've risked their lives to be Christians.
We overcome the philosophies of our culture when we seek to be the people of God instead of merely drawing a crowd, when we seek the pleasure of God instead of merely our own self-gratification, when we seek to honor God and worship him instead of being entertained, we seek to obey and honor him rather than be safe and self-satisfying.
During that amazing prayer time, someone brought in a notice that one of our students was taken out of his Sunday morning church service and arrested. He'd been placed in jail for the next two years because he's leading a church that's making a difference in his city.
For the next several days, in the midst of prayers I could not understand, I understood that these saints were not praying for freedom for this student. Yes, they were concerned that he be set free, but the prayer was primarily that God would be honored and that the witness of the church would somehow move forward.
We are so tempted in our utilitarian, pragmatic spirit to want God to always be plain and understandable and life to always be simple; we don't want anything to go wrong, because somehow that doesn't fit the American culture. And if you're a Christian, surely things ought to turn out right. Why would you give your life to Jesus if not so your life would get better?
We all struggle with difficulties in life we don't understand. And the temptation is to try to explain God in some way that will make sense of our struggles, but we can't. That's not our job. Our job is to honor him and obey him and trust him, because it's not about us. It's not about what works. It's not about what makes us feel better. It's about what God deserves.
So if you are interested in coming to a church that makes you feel better when you go home, there may be better places for you than here. But if you want to come to a church where your life will be challenged to follow Jesus no matter what it costs you, we'll try to make this place that place and support you in every step of it.
Christ came to this earth, not because it was useful. He came because he had to die. If you want to get yourself correctly aligned with God, you've got to make him King of your life. He must be your center—your focus. Let's focus our attention not on ourselves, but on the throne of God.
Chuck Sackett preaches at Madison Park Christian Church in Quincy, Illinois, and teaches Ministry and Bible at Lincoln Christian College and Seminary in Lincoln, Illinois.