The Underwhelming God
How to Drive Men Away from Church
Article by Greg Morse, Staff writer, desiringGod.org
“I don’t think I ever really heard the gospel here,” I said trembling to the pastor.
He kindly listened to my concerns and asked follow-up questions.
“The name of Jesus is mentioned during the service and sin is brought up from time to time. And I agree, things like grace, faith, and heaven are spoken of, with different Bible verses being mentioned. But they don’t seem to be spoken of — and I don’t know if this makes any sense at all — in the same way as the Bible.”
As a new believer, I wasn’t quite sure how to articulate it. It wasn’t until reading J.C. Ryle’s classic, Holiness, years later that I found the proper diagnosis of that “vague, dim, misty, hazy kind of theology which is so painfully current in the present age.” He wrote,
It is vain to shut our eyes to the fact that there is a vast quantity of so-called Christianity nowadays which you cannot declare positively unsound, but which, nevertheless, is not full measure, good weight and sixteen ounces to the pound.
It is a Christianity in which there is undeniably “something about Christ and something about grace and something about faith and something about repentance and something about holiness,” but it is not the real “thing as it is” in the Bible. Things are out of place and out of proportion. (Holiness, 29)
The church’s teaching was not positively unsound. I heard no heresy. I also had no reason to question the pastor’s salvation or the genuineness of his heart for people. He was a good man if not a good pastor. But the teaching was out of joint and out of proportion. Each service had something about Christ, grace, faith, repentance, and holiness, but not as the real thing found in the Scriptures. Christianity, if it could still be so called, walked every Sunday through a carnival of mirrors.
Christ in Disproportion
Have you ever been through a house of mirrors at the fair? You walk in and are immediately surrounded with distorted images of yourself. In one mirror, your head is the size of the moon. In the next, your legs look like tree trunks. In still another your entire person looks shrunk to mouse-like stature. It is a house of disproportion.
Some of our churches are theological houses of disproportion. Sin shrinks in stature. Grace inflates and becomes bloated. Christ thins and becomes distant. Man, with his many needs, towers massive and central. Language of traditional Christianity can be found there, but like with the Israelite tabernacle of old, the glory had departed.
If men and women from these churches were to wander among a people where the sinfulness of sin is decried, the pride of mankind assaulted, the hopelessness of sinners apart from grace unapologized for, the mercy of God in Christ magnified, the Son of God exalted, and the awesome weight of God trumpeted to men with force to shatter pews and raise dead bones to life — were they to wander into such a place as this, many might wonder aloud, Where am I?
No God for Men
With the pulse in some churches beating so faintly, do we really wonder why men are such an endangered species in some churches?
When the real has departed, the enterprising nature of men is often the first to sense it, and the first to give up on it. Strong pleasures entice him, strong passions move him, strong feats and strong enemies dress him for battle. A man’s blood, even in this fallen world, pulses for dangerous things, strong things, things to live and die by. Anything less than this in our Christianity tells men we do not mean what we say.
What? A god not worth obeying? A savior not worth following? A heaven not worth dying for? A gospel not worth sharing? An eternal truth not worth defending? A mission not worth all my strength? This cannot be the real thing.
They sit unimpressed and even contemptible at the disproportionate god who lacks so much glory and godness, as Charles Meisner postulated of Einstein’s experience in church:
He must have looked at what their preachers said about God and felt that they were blaspheming. He had seen much more Majesty than they had ever imagined and they were just not talking about the real thing. My guess is that he simply felt that religions he had run across did not have a proper respect for the author of the universe.
Is Any God Worthy?
Severe disproportion reveals that, despite all our pious talk, God is not really with us. Instead, we can actually blaspheme him by depicting him as a small planet orbiting us.
When we do, men sit in the pews hearing advice from a shrink but not hearing the word of God emanating from that flaming bush shaped as a pulpit. He feels no inexplicable urge to take off his shoes, cast off his sins, or run to refuge in the Savior. Instead, he hears five tips to be a better father. Seven ways to rise above anxiety. Three R’s for squeezing the most out of this life.
He went hoping to encounter the living God, to hear from him, to find the Reason of all, the Other whom he cannot escape. Instead, he meets nothing more than principles to improve his psychology. The open Bible serves as mere decoration. Nothing seems to be at stake. Coming thirsty, he leaves thirstier; this deep well held no water. He leaves with a sigh — thinking he has met the Underwhelming God. He is still left to wonder, Is anything or anyone worthy?
All Must Be Overturned
We will see more men of God in the church as we introduce men to the real God.
Strong must meet the strong in battle. Men, even half-awake, ache for honor, glory, and immortality. To relieve it, the devil offers strong drink, sex, status, and gold. Hazy, foggy, dim theology which makes man big and God small will never be able to meet this ache. And we shouldn’t wish it to.
If Christ is worth anything, he must be worth everything. If Jesus lived a perfect life and died for the sins of the world — and rose from the dead to reign — nothing can be left the same. My thoughts, my actions, my wallet, my pleasures, my family, my voice, my sin, my very life cannot be left unconsumed. It was a simple statement of reality for Jesus — the God-man, Groom, and Savior of his people — to say things like, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37).
This, as if anything else could be worthy of the name, must be Christianity. The kind that turns the world upside down (Acts 17:6). The kind that consists not only in talk but in power (1 Corinthians 4:20). The kind that travels a narrow path and lives radical lives of love. The kind filled with the Spirit, with whole lives bowed before a God worthy of all. This God and his gospel stir men and women to great things for, and with, their King (Matthew 28:20).
Dare to Love Doctrine
We do not make peace with anything less. We do away with disproportion by returning relentlessly to the word of God. Ryle looks us each in the eye and exhorts,
For your own soul’s sake, dare to make up your mind what you believe, and dare to have positive distinct views of truth and error. Never, never be afraid to hold decided doctrinal opinions. And let no fear of man and no morbid dread of being thought party-spirited, narrow, or controversial make you rest contented with a bloodless, boneless, tasteless, colorless, lukewarm, undogmatic Christianity. (328)
A vegetarian theology, devoid of doctrinal meat and served with the sparkling water of religious platitudes, is not hearty enough to make stout Christianity which leaves an imprint on this world. It is bloodless, boneless, tasteless, colorless, lukewarm, allergic to depth and substance. It may borrow Christian terms and phrases, but it does not carry appropriate weight and proportion to the realities it puts forth.
May our churches not settle for something about faith, something about grace, and something about Christ. Let it never be questioned by those in our midst whether or not all have heard the mighty gospel of our glorious God.