How many of you watched the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle just about a year ago? Do you remember the preacher? It was an American, Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopal Church. I remember listening to that sermon thinking to myself, “Wow, that guy just brought an astounding message.” But in the days that followed, people accused him of “watering down the message.”
With this post, I conclude this series with the topic of church and ministry, and the first one is “we should never water down the message.”
What is watering down? When you water down something, it is usually a drink like coffee or juice, and you are diluting it, not allowing it to have full strength.
Sometimes people say a similar phrase: “We should never sugar-coat the message.” Sugar-coating is when you take something that maybe doesn’t taste so good and you add sugar to it. Like Mary Poppins sang, “Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”
So how do these figures of speech relate to the Bible? We preachers and teachers can water down or sugar coat passages in the Bible.
Was Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon at the royal wedding an instance of watering down the message? Think about the audience he was preaching to. First of all, the audience in attendance at the wedding itself was filled with royals, celebrities, politicians and nobles from across the globe. Then there was the world-wide broadcast audience that one report said numbered 1.9 billion. Let me ask you, if you were responsible to give that sermon at that wedding, to that audience, what in the world would you preach? Curry’s sermon was 13 minutes, and riveting. His topic, very appropriately for a wedding was…can you guess? Love.
He said phrases like: “Imagine governments and nations where love is the way. Imagine this tired old world when love is the way — when love is the way, unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive! … When love is the way, poverty will become history.”
He quoted 1st John talking about God as the source of love. He mentioned Jesus’ teaching that the greatest commands are to love God and love others.
He read an old black spiritual: “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.” One of the stanzas actually says: “If you cannot preach like Peter and you cannot pray like Paul, you just tell the love of Jesus how he died to save us all.” Curry explained, “Oh that’s the balm in Gilead. This way of love is the way of life. Jesus died to save us all. He didn’t die for anything he could get out of it. Jesus did not get an honorary doctorate for dying. He wasn’t getting anything out of it. He gave up his life, he sacrificed his life for the good of the others, for the good of the other, for the well-being of the world. For us, that’s what love is.”
He said all that at the royal wedding! I was cheering, weeping, thinking to myself, “I bet there are a whole lot of people who just heard about Jesus in a way they hadn’t ever heard before. I bet there are a whole lot of people in that massive audience who could be thinking, “That’s different from the Christianity I hear about, I want to give this Jesus guy another look.”
Well, Curry’s sermon at the royal wedding stole the show, if that is possible at a royal wedding, and the commentators later that day and in the days to follow were talking about it nonstop, amazed. When is the last time a sermon about Jesus made the news and was the talk of the talk shows?
Yet at the same time, some Christians accused Curry of watering down the Gospel. When I heard that, I had to do a double-take. There’s no way. Watering it down? I thought, if I have a chance to preach a royal wedding to almost two billion people, I hope I would preach the exact sermon Curry did.
So how could someone say that Curry watered down the Gospel?
One word: repent. He didn’t use the word “repent.” And he didn’t. I verified it. I downloaded the sermon transcript, and I even used Control-F to check the document, so I didn’t miss the word “repent”. No mention of repentance.
We Christians definitely believe that repentance is fundamental to the content of the message of the Good News of Jesus. Jesus himself said it many times. In Mark 1:15, what might be the earliest record of Jesus’ first teaching, we read, “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” Paul also included the idea of repentance in his preaching of the good news. Read Paul’s sermon to the people in Athens in Acts 17, and in verse 30 Paul preached that “God declares that all people everywhere should repent.” So was Curry watering down the Gospel by not including repentance?
In our day and age there is a trend of preaching that focuses on affirmation, and those kinds of preachers can be accused of watering down the message. People love encouraging messages. We live in a difficult and anxiety-ridden world, and people want hope and a reminder that God is faithful and that in him we can find strength for living. I get that. There are loads of place where the Bible does teach that. But the Bible also teaches a whole lot more.
What is not right is when a preacher teaches a section of the Bible that is confrontational or has some accountability, and by what they say in their sermon you’d never know it. Over the years, I have come to the conclusion that the Word of God is so good, so creative, so important, that as a preacher I need to do my best to get out of the way and let it speak. I don’t think I can get out of the way 100%. We all bring ourselves to the text, meaning that we cannot fully divorce ourselves from our personalities, viewpoints, life experiences and cultural assumptions when we are interpreting the text.
But I hope that while I have preached through my unique filter, I have not gotten in the way of the Word of God. My goal is to avoid sugar-coating or watering down. Instead, in every sermon I preach, I want to let the Word of God speak.
Likewise, take a look at the following passages and see if you can discern the theme:
Romans 16:17-18: “I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people.”
1 Thessalonians 2:3-6: “For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. On the contrary, we speak as men approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts. You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness. We were not looking for praise from men, not from you or anyone else.”
2 Timothy 4:2-4: “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.”
Paul is clearly saying, “Don’t water it down. Say what it says.” If it is an encouraging passage, I want you to hear the encouragement. If it is a confrontational passage, I want you to be confronted. If it is a passage about the Gospel, I want you to know the Gospel of Jesus. If it is poetry, I should be talking about how to interpret poetry. If it is theology, we should be talking about the ideas the author conveys. And on and on it goes. Let the Word speak.
To that end, I invite and welcome you to be like the Bereans. In Acts 17:10, Paul was on one of his missionary journeys, preaching and trying to start new churches in the Roman Empire, and here is what we read:
“As soon as it was night, the brothers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea. On arriving there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.”
We need to know the real thing, we need to study the Word, like the Bereans. Do not check your brain at the door, do not just wholesale buy into what I am saying. Fact check me! And if you find I was wrong, please talk with me about it. I welcome those conversations. There have been times when I got it wrong. There will likely be more. So I need to hear from you. I need to be teachable too.
I say all this to emphasize the idea that we should not water down the message, which is exactly what the idea of fact-checking is all about. Could it be said, then, that this phrase “we shouldn’t water down the message” is a good one? I think it is a good one. But as with all these phrases we have been fact-checking in this series, there might be an exception to the rule, or another way to look it.
Let me ask you this: What are times when it might be right or helpful to water down the message? I would say in the sense I’ve already described, “never,” but I would like to suggest at least two occasions when it might seem like we’re watering down the message, but we’re actually not.
First, there are times when we update the method, staying faithful to the message.
Sometimes we have used one particular method to convey one particular message for so long, that we tend to equate the message with the method. For example, when Faith Church was considering stopping Vacation Bible School a few years ago, there was concern about this. We had done VBS for so long that it seemed wrong to stop VBS. Why? Well, VBS was a method of sharing the message. But it needed to be considered: are there other ways to share the message? Do we have to use VBS? Of course there are other ways. And thus we have Good News Club at Smoketown Elementary, which is actually more than double the amount of days that we have VBS. 14 per year, versus 6 during VBS. And then we have Summer Lunch Club, which is 27 days in the summer, which is 5x more than VBS. By canceling VBS and adding Summer Lunch, we changed the method, but we kept the message, and in fact, increased the amount of time we were interacting with the community. I would submit to you that we made the right choice.
The second occasion when it might seem like we’re watering down the message, but we’re actually not, is when we consider the audience. The royal wedding is a great illustration of this. Jesus certainly interacted differently with different audiences, and he didn’t preach repentance in every occasion. So what was Bishop Curry’s occasion? A wedding! Thus he talked about love, as is very appropriate at a wedding.
But does the fact that he didn’t mention repentance mean he watered down the Gospel? I can’t answer that question for you. It’s an opinion. I remain in agreement with what I said before, that given the same chance, I would hope I would preach the same sermon, and that means not mentioning repentance. In so doing, I don’t think I would be watering down the message one bit. Again, the audience matters, how we talk to a close friend, a stranger, a family member at Christmas dinner means we should check our audience before we talk about the Jesus who loves them.
My conclusion is that there are definitely preachers who water down the message, and we should be like the Bereans and search the word to see if preachers are staying true to the teaching of Jesus and his followers. But do so with humility and grace. We Christians can be so harsh, so accusatory. Let us instead be known for our gentleness, our kindness, our love. There is definitely a need to preach repentance, but when we do, let’s do so with love.
And when we live like that, perhaps we will be seen as a healthy church. And that goes to our next phrase:
We are growing because two families from across the road just joined our church.
There is a lot of talk among Christians about what is a growing church. We Americans love to talk about organizations growing. In our culture, to be seen as successful, you have to grow, and growth is almost always defined about more people involved and more money coming in.
So is church just about numbers? Or is there more to it? Can a church be growing numerically, but at the same time be growing less healthy?
Let me say that a large church can be a very healthy church, and a small church can be a very unhealthy church.
But the opposite could also be true. A church that is increasing in numbers could be getting less healthy. Just as a church that is decreasing in numbers could be getting more healthy.
So how should we evaluate the health of a church? Let me recommend some ways:
First, look at how a church spends its money. Our budget. What should our budget include?
- The people who approve the budget should be giving to support the budget.
- The budget should be very outreach oriented.
- The church should be paying its bills in a timely fashion.
- The church should be good to our employees, generous to our community, supporting mercy and justice locally and around the world, as well as supporting church-planting, missionaries.
At Faith Church over the last three years, we’ve been having a huge financial focus on our building. There is a time for that. It is a healthy thing to care for the building so it can be used for God’s Kingdom. We don’t want to let it crumble, and we praise God for how he provided for our capital campaign.
But let’s not ever get building-focused. A healthy church is focused outwardly, and we should be able to see that clearly in our budget, by how we spend God’s money.
Next, a healthy church will follow Jesus’ teaching in John 13:33, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.” How do we evaluate that? Love is subjective. But it definitely means reaching out to one another for deep, healthy accountable relationships.
This means will we demonstrate unity, not uniformity. A healthy church will be varied. Think different. Look different. And even believe different. But still love one another.
Faith Church is quite a varied bunch. Except in one way. We are so different in our ages, politics, interests, genders, but we are not yet very diverse in our ethnicity. I would love for us to become more healthy, and that means becoming more diverse.
Next a healthy church cannot be a pastor-centered church, but needs to be a 1 Corinthians 12, “all are part of the body” approach. If the EC Church would yank me out the church, Faith Church should be fine. The church should not be fully dependent on one person.
That means we need healthy spiritually mature leaders like we read about in places like Acts 6 and Ephesians 4, leaders who are fulfilling their biblical role. At Faith Church we strive hard to follow God’s Word, as our Leadership Team fills the role the New Testament writers call “elders,” and our Serve Teams fill the role described as “deacons.”
Next, a healthy church is a Praying church. I love how we pray together on Sunday mornings. Faith Church family, I would encourage you to make Wednesday evening prayer meeting a priority. Can I give you a loving push in that area? I am always amazed at how many people come out on Wednesday evenings when we hold Family Night meals and programs, but not nearly that many come to prayer meeting.
Also, a healthy church is a church that reaches out, sharing the good news of Jesus in both word and deed. Jesus and his followers taught us that the message of the good news has content and we should share that content. Jesus and his followers also taught and demonstrated for us that good news is communicated through deeds as well. In other words we need to have a balanced approach to sharing the good news in both word and deed. And we share Jesus both individually and corporately. We as individuals should be passionately concerned about reaching our family and friends in both word and deed. We also work together as a church family in projects like Summer Lunch Club and Good News Club, to name a few. I’m excited that Faith Church is leading the Summer Lunch Club location at Forney Park, as that will get us outside the building!
Also a healthy church should be concerned about our community, with both a focus on mercy and justice, as we read in Micah 6:8 “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Do you remember the difference between mercy and justice? Remember the babies in the water story? Imagine having a picnic in a park next to a river, and someone starts yelling “There’s a baby floating in the water!” Like the story of Moses in the Bible. Someone would jump in and rescue that baby, right? That’s mercy. To jump in and help alleviate an immediate need. But what if they spotted another baby, and another and another, and the babies just kept coming? We would stop what we are doing and immediately help rescue babies! We would be merciful. What if the babies just kept coming, though? We would set up a baby rescue station, and staff it 24/7, which would take donations, volunteers, and coordination. We’d have to set up a baby rescue organization. That’s CVCCS in our community, when it comes to the issue of people struggling with poverty. CVCCS has become a rather large organization, sharing God’s love and mercy to those in need through its food bank, clothing bank and many programs. It is wonderful, and we need to support it, and we do, which I am so thankful for.
But there is another very important question here: Why are there babies in the water? How are they getting there? And so we start going upstream to find the source of the problem, and we work to stop it. That’s justice. Justice is harder work, I think, than mercy. Justice is more difficult to see, more difficult to address. But a healthy church does both mercy and justice. So think about those in our community in need. We need to be asking the question, “Why are they hungry?” Or for those struggling with homelessness, why? Or for those struggling with finances, why? What is the root? Those struggling with drugs and alcohol, why? What is causing this? Now we’re entering the territory of justice and it is much harder to address these difficulties. But we need to do that work too.
Next we also have a global concern for mercy and justice. We should be learning about and supporting our missionaries, our sister churches in places like India, Nepal, Japan, Mexico and Liberia. We should be learning about injustice around the world and participating in bringing God’s justice to a broken world, just as our missionaries and sister churches proclaim good news in Jesus and start new churches and fight injustice around them.
Finally, a healthy church is a Disciple-making church. There is often confusion about discipleship and outreach, where people equate the two. We need to be disciples who make disciples.
As we conclude this series, we’ve talked about so many phrases or ideas that we shouldn’t say. So what should we say? The magazine Sojourners, which we have in the church lobby, has an article called “10 Things Christians Should Say,” and I think it is quite important that finish this series on that positive note!
- I’m sorry.
- How can I help?
- I don’t know.
- I could be wrong.
- What do you think?
- I love you.
- Tell me more.
- That just stinks.
- Let’s give it a try.
- Or say nothing at all.
Do you need to start saying any of these phrases?