Substance Over Style

Cornfield Theology
Cornfield Theology
Substance Over Style

Making Disciples

I always look forward to engaging guests at Redemption Hill. Recently, I connected with a husband and a wife after church. I noticed they were engaged while I was preaching. Their Bibles were in their laps, and they were tracking what I was preaching. So after the morning service, I made a point to connect with them. First, I thanked them for coming. And then I asked what they thought of our church. They shared charitable comments. And then I said, “We are a church that will always choose substance over style.” The moment I said those words, their faces lit up as if I had given my wife’s homemade apple pie for the first time. They were delighted and intrigued.

I did not press on their church background, but common sense and a general understanding of Christian culture helped deduce a common trend. Within Christan churches, pragmatism is the preference over principle. You will hear in the sermon life stories, see movie clips, and the Bible is peppered in along the way. Feelings matter more than God’s truth. The smoke machine during worship is substituted for quality theology in the songs. How about this statement to make a point. COVID-19 is not a pandemic compared to the water-down theology in many local churches. God is being replaced to promote the self, causing people to spiritually die left and right because style is placed over substance. Within protestant circles, local churches are off mission. Here is a good reminder of why the local church exists. Our Lord said in Matthew 28, 

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

– Matthew 28:18–20

Ok. The church exists to make disciples. Got it. But Jesus did not stop at what the church is supposed to do. He told us what to do. When a person becomes a disciple of Jesus Christ, the church responds in two ways. First, the church is to baptize. Second, the church is to teach. In particular, elders teach (1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1). And Jesus is specific about what is taught to disciples of Jesus Christ. What Jesus commanded his disciples, those disciples are to teach others. 

Now let me ask a question. Are the majority of churches teaching what Jesus taught? Or is a two-minute clip from the Toy Story being used to communicate a nice moral, and then a passage of the Bible is used to supplement the moral? 

Posters in the Cafeteria

Allow me to elaborate on my point. One of the disadvantages of being a mobile church is that we are at the landlord’s mercy. In our case, it is a school district. Are there times when items are hung up in the halls, which I do not prefer? Absolutely. We are trying to facilitate church, not a 5th grade English class. But am I less concerned about the barely legible posters from a 2nd grader or the content of the songs and the sermon? I hope you get the point. Yes, every Sunday, the goal is to make the space look like a church then a school. But hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ is immensely more important than the orange poster hanging on the wall in the cafeteria. Don’t get me wrong. We want to continue to work toward creating a distraction-free environment. But the substance of what is taught will never be traded for style. 

Christmas Lights at Church

Here is an example of style over substance. What drives me bonkers is how gaudy some churches have become. Last week I drove by a large church in the Des Moines metro and was struck by their Christmas lights. Now, I am not against Christmas lights. Every year the Powers family drives around neighborhoods looking at Christmas lights. The Griswalds have inspired some homes, and others strive for a more classic look. It’s fun, and we all enjoy the moments. But this church took its lights to another level. It was insane. The lights used by this church could fulfill a church planter’s budget for a year. And you know what was interesting as I was driving by the church? My kids noticed the pretentiousness of the lights. They knew the difference between the fun of decorating the house with lights and a house screaming, “Look at me!” 

The Kitty Pool and the Lap Pool

Ok. I’ve railed on how some churches care for style over substance. But I can hear in my head, “Hey, pastor Shawn, what if someone comes to your church and does not understand the substance. What do you do?” Well, I am glad you asked little tiny voice in my head.” As a pastor, I do not compromise on what I teach while being gracious and patient. Here is what I mean. 

I work out at the local YMCA. At the YMCA, there are two pools. There is a kitty pool and a pool used for various swim teams. Each pool serves a valuable purpose. For example, I have witnessed one of my daughters receive swim lessons in the kitty pool and eventually move to the lap pool. Now that she is in the lap pool, she is swimming nonstop for an hour and a half several nights on the swim team. Full disclosure, I would drown after five minutes on the swim team. 

Here is the point I want to make. When a person arrives at our church, I want them to know we will care and teach them regardless of the pool they are in. Everyone starts in the kitty pool, but the substance of what is taught allows a person to put their toe in the lap pool. And it’s not long before they are swimming laps. The substance must not be compromised by style because the substance is what moves a person from the kitty pool, the lap pool, and then it’s not long before they are on the swim team.  

Teaching Substance 

So what does it mean to be a church of substance? A church teaching substance is functionally using the Bible and actively directing people back to God. From the Bible, we see theology. Theology helps us to know God. So, for example, I have a solid conviction to preach expositional sermons. However, I do not preach expositional sermons because it’s what I am used to, or it was how I was trained (neither is the case). I preach expositional sermons because the substance of the Christian faith is found in studying God’s Word. I tell the folks of Redemption Hill, ” I want you to hear from God, not from me.”

But the substance of the Christian faith is more. It is not just about what is being taught and learned. It’s about living. 

The substance is meeting together with friends and studying the Word of God together. It’s praying for one another and walking with one another. It’s pointing each other to Jesus. So when I think of the substance of living out the Christian faith, this passage comes to mind. 

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

– Hebrews 10:24–25

Ah yes. The Christian faith is more than showing up on Sundays to a smoke and light show. It’s more than a two-minute movie clip to draw your attention. It’s not about the cafe at the church (And I love coffee!). It’s about going deep with God and with each other. 

Shawn Powers is the lead pastor of Redemption Hill Church. You can follow him on Twitter at shawn_DSM.