Fake News and Other Traps Damaging the Church
Be careful out there.
With populist nationalism on the rise, there is fear among citizens that the operational aspects of democracy are being debilitated by elements such as “fake news,” corporate lobbyists and voter apathy, resulting in a fairly intense polarization. Similarly, evangelical Christians in America are witnessing an ever widening divide within our own community. Many are losing faith in the evangelical church and find it increasingly difficult see eye to eye on matters of politics or orthodoxy.
As believers, we need to be very concerned about the state of our Christianity because the issues that threaten to invalidate our system of democracy are the very issues that threaten to invalidate the American Church. The truth is single-item issues like abortion and gay marriage are not threats. Christians who don’t know their Bible, who worship God with their lips but shy away from holiness, are. Our country has never needed the Gospel more than now, yet instead of rising to the occasion, the Church is busy building its media empire and bickering amongst ourselves. The parallels between our floundering democracy and our floundering Church are striking:
‘Fake news and alternative facts’ meets ‘false teaching and alternative truths’
“Fake news” and “alternative facts” have become popular phrases recently, and unless voters can learn to differentiate between truth and fiction, our democracy is in serious trouble. Unfortunately, the same malady is debilitating the American Church, and we’re losing our ability to discern what is scriptural truth and what is seeker-sensitive interpretation.
For example, there are some very influential evangelical voices who are choosing to adjust the principles and laws of God regarding family and sexual ethics to fit the latest norms of secular society. Everyone should feel welcome and safe in church, and everyone should feel convicted of sin and challenged to pursue holiness as we grow in our relationship with the Lord; these two things are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps we need to revisit how we define the terms “welcome” and “safe.” Jesus certainly made sinners feel welcome and safe, but He never let them continue in their sinful patterns. His command was, “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:11)
‘Lack of voter knowledge and understanding’ meets ‘lack of Scriptural knowledge and understanding’
Democracy does not work if a nation’s citizens do not have access to information or take the time to understand the issues. We’ve never had such easy access to information, yet we have never been so uninformed. Part of the reason is the proliferation of fake news, but many of us also just don’t take the time to read and digest what we’re consuming. We want bullet points and catchphrases, but it’s impossible to get a nuanced understanding of anything based on these alone.
One of the biggest threats to the American Church is Christians who don’t know their Bible. Much of our understanding of Scripture today comes from a book we read, or from a few choice Psalms and “key verses” that serve as the basis for our understanding of God. We may be able to recite the Gospels from memory, but how regularly do we study the Law and the Prophets? Jesus said that He did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. (Matthew 5:17). If we don’t know what the Law says, how can we know who Jesus is?
‘Corporate lobbyists’ meets ‘prosperity-gospel preachers’
We cry foul when wealthy lobbyists in Washington unfairly wield their power to the detriment of the “little people,” yet we seem blind to how deeply wealth and power have corrupted the Church. Why is it that we continue to flock to megachurches, eat hungrily from the hands of prosperity-gospel preachers and buy Christian-living books that aren’t much more than humanistic doctrine camouflaged as biblical exhortation?
The outrage is palpable when a president we didn’t vote for does stuff we don’t like, yet where is the corporate outrage when ministers of the Gospel get investigated for financial fraud? Or when televangelists prey on the vulnerable to fund their ministry empires? Or when a celebrity minister continues to hold a position of spiritual leadership even though she’s on her third marriage and has publicly denied the trinity? There is only one instance in the whole New Testament in which Jesus gets violently angry, and it’s when He encounters the money changers in the temple. He overturns tables and drives the merchants out, saying, “How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!” (John 2:16) He’s still asking that question.
‘The cult of personality’ meets ‘the cult of charismatic church leaders’
In January of this year, a Florida pastor was caught in adultery with one of his parishioners, but in his “confession speech” to his congregation he said he won’t resign from his pastoral position because “God has already forgiven [him].” His congregants stood up and applauded.
This story is far from unique. What is it about charismatic leaders that have us so entranced that we willingly overlook their corrupted character and continue to follow them? The term “grace” is not a euphemism for enabling our sinful nature to continue unchecked. Grace is what allows us to hit pause and properly deal with our sin. Only after the restorative process has been completed should a leader step back into a position of influence. Every person’s story in the Bible is about character over gifting, process over destiny. What makes us think that our leaders are exempt?
‘A culture of consumerism’ meets ‘our consumerist attitude towards God’
How does it help us that today’s church events are branded and marketed as if they were products to be consumed? If we need the stage design, the lights, the eye candy and the app to keep our attention on the Lord, then what is the point? We don’t consume God, He consumes us. There are at least eight references in the Bible to Him being a “consuming fire,” but do we allow His fire to burn us? Because that would mean allowing every part of us to be placed under His Lordship and held accountable to His Word. Fire doesn’t consume discriminately. God wants all of us, but as long as we go through the Christian walk expecting it to be about us and what God can do for us, we’re missing it.
That’s the crux, isn’t it? As long as we’re the ones doing the consuming, we decide the terms. We don’t have to deal with our sin beyond what’s sufficiently uncomfortable to feel holy for a minute. We don’t really have to pursue God in any genuine or transformative way. We can choose to live this way, but then we also have to relinquish any notion of being agents of change in our culture; and we have to accept that the world will not care about what we have to say. We’ll stand in front of a holy God on judgment day and risk hearing Him say, “Away from me; I never knew you.” (Matthew 7:22-23)
The Old Testament prophets spoke harsh reality to the people of God, but they also offered redeeming hope. God’s promise to His people has always been that if we return to Him wholeheartedly, He will forgive us: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14) But if we do not humble ourselves and seek His face, He will come and remove our lamp stand from its place. (Revelation 2:5) Which will it be?