Re Branding Christianity

Last August the BBC web site carried a report under the heading, ‘Dutch rethink Christianity for a doubtful world’. The report opened with a statement by a pastor of the PKN* church in the Netherlands, “Make the most of life on earth, because it will probably be the only one you will get”. It then went on to relay a number of similar quotes from other clergy to deny the divinity of Christ, the resurrection and almost everything else the church has traditionally believed.

The report quotes a study by the Free University of Amsterdam which found that one in six of the clergy of the PKN were either Atheist or agnostic.

Included was a very telling quote from a Professor Hijme Stoffels of the UV University Amsterdam; “Christian Churches are in a market situation. They can offer their ideas to a majority of the population which is interested in spirituality or some kind of religion.”

On his web site Albert Mohler commented, “All this is familiar, at least in general terms, to anyone who has been observing mainline Protestantism, in either the United States or Europe, for the last half-century or more. The central doctrines of Christianity are first sidelined and hardly mentioned, then revised, and finally rejected. Behind that process is the argument that the world has changed, and that Christianity must change with it.”……….“A church that lacks the doctrinal conviction and courage necessary to prosecute an atheist pastor for heresy is a church that lost its Christian identity a long time ago. The doctrinal experimentation embraced by these Dutch churches is hardly limited to the Netherlands. Nevertheless, the Dutch situation makes one point transparently clear, this is a laboratory for the destruction of Christianity.”

As Mohler states, the idea that the church must market itself in a way which appeals to the mass of the population is not limited to the Netherlands. In the UK, the United Reformed Church, another church formed by the merging of three historic denominations is about to embark on an advertising campaign to counter falling membership. The ‘Zero Intolerance’ campaign stresses that everyone is welcome. The campaign assures that no matter what your life style, sexual orientation, doubts or ethnic background you would be welcomed. The initial drafts of the campaign material were quite offensive to other churches, implying that they were unwelcoming and judgmental.

Although the statements about the welcome offered by other churches were insulting, it is the underlying premise of the campaign which is at fault. Often repeated in the advertisements is the statement, “Jesus never turned anyone away”. The statement and conclusions drawn display a superficial knowledge of the Gospels. Jesus was generally polite and willing to talk to people although at times He could be very pointed even rude. The gospels are packed with examples of those He effectively turned away.  He did it by challenging them to change their life style. The rich young ruler had to sell all his possessions. The comfortable lawyer had to be prepared to rough it. The adulteress had to stop her sin. The member of the religious hierarchy, proud of his high birth, had to be born again. Even to the disciples He spelt out that if they were to follow Him they had to deny themselves and take up their cross.

This is of course where the stereotype of the unwelcoming church originates. The church welcomes everyone, but if it is true to the Gospel, it will also challenge them. This is not out of hate, but in response to the love of Christ working through us. Following the example of Jesus, we challenge people because we long for them to be saved. Those who are unwilling to repent will accuse the church of being unwelcoming. There are many who crave the comfort of religion but are not willing to renounce their past lives. They ‘Hate Church’ because it preaches what is for them the unacceptable truth. The URC has identified a market for a non challenging brand of religion. There will be many who gladly take up the offer. But it is not the gospel which first and foremost identifies us as sinners in need of a Saviour.

*Note: The New Protestant Church of the Netherlands [PKN] was formed in 2004 out of the merger of three former denominations and claims about 2.5 million members.