A certain sermon I heard a little while ago has stuck with me.
It began with a reference to “Toy Story.” Yes, “Toy Story.” The cartoon with talking toys.
The Pixar film, as the pastor explained, contained many examples of friendship. Friendship is important, you see. It’s good to have friends. In case anyone thought friendship was bad, he was standing up to boldly declare otherwise. Remember that Randy Newman song called “You’ve Gotta Friend In Me” from the movie? He did. He quoted it at length. Then he handed out juice boxes and graham crackers and we had nap time on the alphabet rug.
I have no problem with a sermon that draws on art or literature outside of Scripture to illustrate a theme contained in it. But of all the poems, novels, songs, films, paintings, sculptures that may reveal some divine truth, he went with “Toy Story”? Oh, but “Toy Story” is relatable, you say. Really? Relatable to whom? Kindergartners? Well, are we in a Kindergarten class or a church? It certainly is hard to tell anymore. Just add a few boxes of crayons and a couple glue sticks and some of these churches would be indistinguishable.
Of course, this dissertation on the theological significance of Buzz Lightyear was pretty standard fare. The message preached from most pulpits in America is just like this: superficial, childish, empty, and seemingly designed to insult the intelligence of anyone who hears it. Christianity is dull and lifeless in this country because that’s what the church and its leaders have done to it. They’ve made it into something so bland, generic and inoffensive that it no longer bears any resemblance to the faith of our Christian ancestors. Even the church buildings themselves reflect this trend. Most of them look like shopping malls or government buildings. Sleek, gray, ugly, secular. But inoffensive. Inoffensive in the same way that the DMV is inoffensive.
Indeed, the primary goal of the modern church is to avoid offense, at whatever cost. And this is precisely why they’re dying. The problem is not merely that they’re boring people. After all, there are those who are bored watching anything that doesn’t involve explosions and car chases. The problem more specifically is that they’re starving people. There is no substance, no meat, in the message being preached. The congregants sit there and slowly starve to death.
Your flocks are starving, churches. You are starving them.
John 21 tells us of a conversation between Our Lord and St. Peter. Three times Our Lord tells the apostle to “tend” or “feed” His sheep. You are not feeding us when you serve up a bunch cliches, platitudes, and vapid pop culture references. The sheep need something real. We need to be guided. We need to be taught. We need to be empowered. We need to be called to repentance. We need to hear about sin and redemption and Heaven and Hell. We are confused. We need explanation. We need to be told how to navigate the spiritual minefield of modern culture. We need something to hold onto. Something to think about as we return to our daily lives. Something real. Something true. Something unsettling. Something dangerous. Something incredible. Something religious.
We are getting killed out there. Don’t you understand that? We drag our sorry, beaten carcasses into church each Sunday (and fewer and fewer even bother to do that anymore) after another week languishing in Sodom, and what do you have to say? Friends are good? Really? Is that it? The Disney Channel could have told me that. What else do you have? Nothing? Could you really have nothing to say to us? Then what are you doing? Why do you exist? Tear down the buildings. Turn them into parking lots. At least they’ll serve a purpose again.
The troops are suffering massive defeats in battle, and when they consult their commanding officer, what do they hear? “Yeah, it’s rough out there, guys. So let me tell you what I learned about teamwork from watching Guardians of the Galaxy.” I spoke to someone at an event recently and he told me that a pastor at his Methodist church actually gave a sermon about lessons from Spider-Man. I guess he was trying to tap into the superhero craze, taking his preaching cues from Stan Lee instead of St. Paul. Millennials must love that! Well, this millennial didn’t. He left mid-sermon and found a new church that very day.
A woman emailed me last week to complain that her priest has given three homilies — three, in a row, Sunday after Sunday — on “inclusivity.” Yes, the brave warrior for Christ stood before his church and fearlessly waged war against the great spiritual danger of non-inclusiveness. This is the real problem we face, you see. There’s not enough including going on. It’s not that our families and marriages are falling apart. It’s not that millions of babies are being killed. It’s not that America is full of porn addicts. It’s not that our children are being sucked into a heathen culture of decadence and moral degradation. It’s the lack of inclusiveness. The road to Hell is paved with people who weren’t appropriately inclusive. That’s what this priest thinks, anyway. A priest who became a priest for reasons that are as unclear to me as they likely are to him.
Speaking of courageous sermons, there’s a non-denominational church not far from me, attended by some family members, where the congregation was treated to several weeks of sermons on the issue of racism. The white churchgoers nodded along while the pastor explained that we shouldn’t judge people based on the color of their skin. Everyone felt grateful for the opportunity to profusely agree with him.
Racism may still be a problem in America, but it’s most likely not a sin that tempts the people sitting in the pews of a church in a liberal north eastern suburb in the year 2017. It’s more likely that they struggle with lust, selfishness, materialism, and worldliness. I guarantee not a single person in the church would disagree with the notion that people of all races are equal. But they almost certainly disagree with many other fundamental Christian teachings, which is why their church ought to be focusing especially on those.
There probably weren’t any neo-Nazis or Klan members in attendance, but there were, I’m guessing, fornicators, adulterers, gossip hounds, moral cowards, gluttons, and heretics. This pastor was careful to avoid all of those areas, though, for fear that he may say something that would accidentally spur someone to repentance. But it is harder and harder to avoid talking about sins that hit close to home for the modern Christian, considering that he has such an extensive and diverse resume of them. If a pastor is going to attempt to condemn any evil at all, and he has resolved to do so without mentioning any of the evils that his own sheep may have actually committed or be tempted to commit, he has an increasingly limited supply of sins from which to choose. He’s basically left with racism and pollution. On that latter point, the Pope is all over it.
It’s not that this stuff is outright heresy (although there’s plenty of that going on as well), but that it’s nothing. It doesn’t even have enough substance to be heresy. It’s just rhetorical flatulence. Vapor in the air. A soft breeze with a slightly putrid odor. Christianity in America is so hollow because our fearless leaders have decided that it’s better to keep people in church by putting them to sleep than to draw them deeper into their faith with the full force of unvarnished truth. So, they drone on about friendship and tolerance and recycling, while Satan prowls about devouring souls. And Satan has never had such an easy time finding souls to eat — it’s a veritable soul buffet down in Hell — because most Christians never hear about Satan or Hell in the first place.
People need to be woken up. They need to be offended. Offend us, pastor. Make us uncomfortable. Make me look at my reflection and see the things I’d rather not see. Pull me out of my comfort zone. Make me angry at myself, or at you for making me angry at myself. Can you stand to have people angry at you? If not, I believe you have chosen the wrong profession — and the wrong religion.
Here is a good example of how this can work: A couple of years ago I heard a blessedly offensive sermon at a church in Pennsylvania while I was on vacation. It was about the important and neglected topic of reverence. The point was that we are often too casual in how we approach Our Lord, in or out of church. The men in the congregation were admonished because many of them couldn’t even be bothered to put on pants and a nice shirt, and some of the women came dressed like they just stumbled out of a college bar at 2 AM (my phrasing, not his). It was explained that their lackadaisical, slovenly attire is a symptom of a far greater problem. Many Christians have a lackadaisical, slovenly spiritual life. Their outfits only reflect that fact.
I say this was offensive to me because, as I listened, I looked down at myself and remembered that I was wearing a t-shirt and shorts. And flip flops, God forgive me. Oh, I had a reasonable explanation. I hadn’t remembered to pack formal attire, you see. I began to feel embarrassed and angry at him for making this sweeping statement without considering that some of us may have a good reason to be dressed like beach bums. I knew I’d have to walk down the aisle like a scolded schoolboy, wearing exactly what I’d just been told not to wear. I was offended. I had an excuse and it was outrageous that this guy hadn’t prefaced his remarks by specifically exempting me, personally, from everything he was about to say. How dare he assume that I lack reverence just because I wore pool clothes to church. I don’t lack reverence! I’m, like, so reverent! You wouldn’t believe how reverent I am!
But I couldn’t convince myself. He was right. I had no excuse. I’d been chastised and I deserved to be. As I thought about it, I understood that this isolated incident was not so isolated. I often lack the appropriate reverence and humility when approaching God in church or in prayer or in any situation. There is little of the solemn and the sacred in my faith life, I conceded. He nailed it: this wardrobe malfunction was a symptom of a deeper problem. I left that day resolved to do better, and, though I still am far from perfect in this or any other regard, I believe I have improved by the grace of God. And it all started with getting a little offended.
Sure, I could have stormed out of church, my sandals flapping furiously as I walked, and never come back. I could have whined about that mean “judgmental” man who had the audacity to criticize my behavior. I could have been so offended that I left the faith entirely and never returned. I could have spent the rest of my life telling stories, as people often do, about the self-righteous old Puritan who caused me to leave Christianity, through no fault of my own. But, had I gone that route, it would have been no great loss to the Church.
I heard a story about a priest who recently watched some of his parishioners — including choir members — leave his church in the middle of a sermon because he preached against abortion. That did not dissuade him, nor should it. Let the cowards leave. Let them run out of the church in tears. Let them have their temper tantrum. Let the weak and the selfish declare and separate themselves. If there are only two people left sitting in the pews, all the better. At least we’ll know where we stand.
Whoever does not want to be challenged, whoever insists that they are above reproach, whoever wants only sweet nothings whispered in their ear, whoever wants a comfortable Christianity, does not want Christianity at all. They are not limbs on the Body of Christ. They are malignant growths. They are toxic. Cut them out. We pray that they return to the faith, but not until it is the faith they truly desire. If they are sitting there hoping to have their ears tickled and their preconceived notions confirmed, it is the duty of any pastor or priest to disappoint them. And offend them. There is no other way to tell the truth.
To see more from Matt Walsh, visit his channel on TheBlaze.