I should preface the following statement by saying that I am generally comfortable with the standard social conventions and greetings of western culture; a handshake, a quick hug and perhaps a peck (kiss) on the cheek, depending on how close the two people are. That said, there is something just not right about a man giving a soft handshake. For a long time now I’ve taken to referring to such an encounter as a ‘wet fish handshake’. Like a wet fish, it is just not pleasant – it is limp, perhaps lazy, seemingly weak and usually unexpected. I don’t want to get into an argument around gender stereotypes, but in my experience a soft, non-committal handshake just seems… not worth it at best or a bit icky at worst – sort of like holding a wet fish, except without the cold and the stench (unless of course you’re outside in winter and your handshake partner hasn’t showered for some time). The reason for this article though isn’t really my discomfort with a certain badly handled (excuse the pun) social convention, but rather a concern I have that, in some ways, for many evangelical churches, the culture and even the means of presenting the truth of the gospel have become a bit like a wet fish handshake – hence the title – escaping the evangellyfish culture.
Having now been involved in a few different churches across my 30 years on this planet I have seen a range of sides to modern evangelicalism and I’ll be the first to admit there are plenty of good people and programs happening in some of our churches. Having said that there are also a number of trends I’ve noticed creeping into some churches over the years that weren’t as prevalent in the early-mid 1990s, but have gained traction the naughties, especially among youth and young adults.
Here I’ve tried to assemble a summary list of things I have noticed, things that I don’t think are doing justice to the mission of the church in proclaiming the truth of the gospel effectively.
- A clever catchphrase or a memorable soundbite does not a good sermon (or preacher) make…
Time and again I have heard sermons from which I have walked away wondering what the point was, where the gospel ‘meat’ was and how the message related to the scripture passage(s) used by the preacher. Many times though, I have heard people raving on the message, which has left me scratching my head. The Instagram posts of text on unrelated backgrounds or photos of the preacher mid-sentence posted to Facebook often contain a clever catchphrase or a soundbite, something that sounds slick, but so often these audio grabs are gimmicks that misrepresent or even ignore the context of the passage being preached. Here are a few examples of gimmicky catchphrases from some very well known preachers that don’t actually mean much OR aren’t necessarily even accurate:
“You can’t fulfill your calling in your comfort zone.”
– Steven Furtick
Uh, really? Tell that to all those fathers who are providing for their families by working a mundane job. Tell it to all the long-term stay at home mothers who have been faithfully investing in the lives of their children for six, eight, ten, twelve, fourteen, sixteen years in a row. Are these people not fulfilling their calling because they aren’t climbing the corporate or social ladder or moving to a different country? To assert that this is so would be both theologically inaccurate, and also offensive.
Here’s another one by the same guy, but there are plenty of others out there with similar one liners that should not be taken seriously.
“You cannot endure what you never enjoy.”
– Steven Furtick
Is that so? Did Jesus enjoy the cross? I seem to remember him sweating drops of blood while praying in the garden for the Father to “take this cup from me, yet not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:40-44). Did Jesus endure the cross? You bet he did (Hebrews 12:1-3), and you’d better be glad he did. Did Job enjoy his severe suffering? Not from what I remember, but he did endure it. You see, catchphrases like this might seem inspired, but they often carry as much weight as thin air when examined against scripture.
These are just a couple of examples. There are many more, but we must be wise enough and read our bibles closely enough to not get caught out by this sort of shallow, catchphrase Christianity.
- Just because someone uses Christian words and sounds positive, that does not make them a Christian teacher. Know your Bible well enough to discern wisdom from heresy and don’t allow heresy to influence your theology.
We need to be watchful and reject teachings (and fal$e teachers) that don’t line up with the whole counsel of God’s word.
Some classic examples come from theological systems such as prosperity doctrine and word of faith, both of which sometimes infiltrate evangellyfish churches, often through music ministries to begin with and then with poor teaching. Basically if you see a book title, DVD series or sermon talking about how you are ‘destined for greatness in this life’ or you can ‘speak things over your life that will definitely come into existence’ or you are able to have ‘your best life’ on this side of the second coming then you’re probably looking at a fal$e teacher. If they’re preaching about something that sinful humans in their natural state idolise (prosperity, health, wealth, fame, success) then there is a good chance they are tickling the ears of the culture, rather than preaching the truth of the gospel (2 Timothy 4).
- Make sure you have a biblical theology of revival, don’t just jump on the band wagon of a pop-culture imitation.
One of my favourite movies is The Princess Bride. It’s not as soppy as it sounds and there are plenty of classic laughs. In it, one of the characters, Inigo Montoya, frequently says to other characters “You keep on using that word… I do not think it means what you think it means…” I feel the same way in 21st Century evangelicalism about the word revival, especially in relation to youth and young adults.
Plenty of youth ministries these days seem to be claiming that by leading this generation they will initiate a revival. For many, this seems to mean longer worship songs, more lights, an increase in the number of synth-pop tunes that get young people jumping on the spot and of course, more conferences. What is important to remember though is that true revival is not decided on and brought about merely by human actions, it is a work of God. I will always remember growing up as a kid in the 1990s at a Baptist church and my pastor preaching semi-regularly about the need for revival. His sermons weren’t just pep talks though, or calls to invite your friends to boost the numbers and make it look like something exciting was happening. They were usually calls to worship and to prayer.
In today’s evangellyfish culture, we have a millenial generation keen to sign up for a cause, to put their name to something, to be part of a squad, a tribe, a team – to belong. None of these things are bad in and of themselves, but thinking that a large gathering of young people constitutes a revival is somewhat misguided. True revival happens when hearts are focused intensely on getting intimate with God and when the Spirit breathes on the teaching, worship, prayer and fellowship of believers who have a focus on taking the gospel out of the four walls of the church and into the lives of their cities.
In the following video Tim Keller outlines a Biblical theology of revival. It is important to note that when the early church began to take off, it happened as a result of people repenting, being baptised, devoting themselves to solid teaching and fellowship, breaking bread, devoting themselves to prayer and sharing in Christian community (Acts 2:37-47). The normal operations of the Spirit that intensify during revival, as Keller points out, are repentance, conversion, assurance of salvation and sanctification. During such times, ‘sleepy Christians come alive, nominal Christians come to saving faith and non-Christians have their hearts dramatically turned towards God.’
Keller also has an audio sermon on revival, which is worth a listen and can be summarised in the following way:
Revivals have spanned nations and denominations. Distorted views of revival, such as heterodoxy, dead orthodoxy and emotionalism, become obstacles to an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. When a church has an assurance of God’s love, reflects a theological and intellectual balance, exemplifies understanding, participates in anointed worship, exhibits compassion, and reaches out through evangelism, it can become spiritually dynamic and inspire revival.
– Tim Keller: Blueprint for Revival; Introduction 1
In short, it is great to long for revival, but true revival is more than an attractive worship experience and an emotional high experienced by a significant number of crowd (oops I mean audience… oops I mean congregation) members. It is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit that touches the hearts of many. So don’t get caught up in chasing revival, talking about it all the time and working hard to make it happen, instead get caught up in your devotion to God and your love for the lost and allow the wind of the Spirit to blow where God wills.
- Guess what Christian; you aren’t the centre of God’s universe, God is… and he should be the centre of yours too.
Too often we think of ourselves (humanity) as the creatures God needed to create to be happy – to have something to love. Wrong. God was and is in a perfect relationship of love within the trinity. We are an overflow, not the central point. We also often think of ourselves as the ones who say yes to Jesus, making him feel lucky to have us. Think about it, how do you describe your conversion experience when giving your testimony? Is it all about the people who led you to Jesus? Is it about the fact that you got yourself to a point where you made an intelligent decision for Jesus? In other words, is it all about you? If it is, that’s a problem because without God acting first, no one can come to him (John 6:44). We would do well therefore to remember that and to give Him the glory He is due.
- If your church’s worship songs could just as easily be sung to a member of the opposite sex, rather than to God, that is a problem.
It should be clear when we worship who we are worshiping. 1 Peter 2:9 (ESV) says
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
The Psalms too are obviously full of commands to praise God for who he is and for what he has done. It doesn’t mean every song has to be a 12 verse theological treatise, but it should be clear that we are praising the one true and living God. For this reason our singing should go beyond ambiguous love song lyrics to actually remind our souls of the nature, character, wonder, wisdom, power, goodness and love of God.
- There is more to the Bible than the classic sunday school stories.
I love a good sermon as much as the next guy, but I have heard that many sermons over the last few years on ‘getting out of the boat’ (trusting Jesus in the storms of life) or ‘overcoming giants in your life’ (aka David and Goliath) that it seems many prefer to continually preach the same messages on repeat, rather than digging deeper into God’s word. Sermons like this often mean well, and contain some solid truths, but they also often ignore the deeper theology that ties the whole counsel of scripture together. People forget, for example that David fighting Goliath points forward to Christ, a representative who people weren’t expecting who ultimately stands in the gap for his people and doesn’t just win, but destroys the largest enemy we could imagine, just as David cut off Goliath’s head.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t preach the classic stories of David and Goliath, Jonah, the tower of Babel, Jesus calming the storm and so on – we definitely should, but the messages coming from our pulpits should go beyond a retelling of a sunday school (children’s church) lesson and dig into the character of God, the types and shadows found in the Old Testament and fulfilled in Christ in the New Testament and so on. We should study, think, consider, question and learn our Bibles, not just repeat stories that make us feel warm and fuzzy as we try to project a few points onto our own lives directly from the Bible (often times while ignoring the original context).
In summary, there are plenty of good things going on in many churches today, but the evangellyfish culture has a habit of turning radical Christians into wet fish – churchgoers who may belong to a Christian group of some sort but are luke warm on doctrine and more passionate about bums on seats than about truth being preached.
At the end of the day, the evangellyfish culture doesn’t take God seriously enough, as J.I. Packer talks about in this video.
When we do take God seriously, we move beyond the latest ‘wet fish’ trends and into deeper communion with God and a greater love for the lost. It takes dedication, time, willingness to study and a commitment to prayer.
That is the culture I want to be a part of.