Something Worth Dying For

A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
May 22, 2011

The Fifth Sunday of Easter

Acts 7:55-60 

I don’t really know what to say. 

I had it on questionable authority that yesterday was going to be Judgment Day, that the Rapture was going to occur, and all true Christians were going to be caught up into the air to be with Jesus.  The fact that I’m still here and you’re still here says something—either about us or about the reliability of that information.  I’m hoping that it’s the latter.  But I did spend some time yesterday morning wondering why I was writing a sermon if there wasn’t going to be anybody around to hear it.  And then I began to think that if all the predictions were wrong at least I would have an excuse for showing up empty handed.  But in the end I wrote a sermon because I realized that every day is judgment day for somebody, and in today’s reading from Acts it is judgment day for Stephen.

We don’t really know much about him.  He was one of the seven chosen in Acts, chapter 6, to wait tables in the early church, to make sure the widows of the Hellenists got as much as the widows of the Hebrews in the daily distribution of food.  But it quickly became apparent that he had other gifts.  He is described as being “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5), “full of grace and power,” who did “great wonders and signs among the people” (6:8).  Does that sound like anybody else you’ve read about it in the Bible?  As you read on, the parallels become even more apparent.  Stephen is arrested on false charges, brought before the Jewish council, accused of blasphemy and condemned to death.  Unlike Jesus he makes a long speech in his defense and instead of being crucified he is stoned, but in the last moments of his life he cries out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” and then breathes his last. 

I could probably preach a whole sermon on the similarities between Stephen and Jesus, but what struck me as I studied this passage last week was simply this:  Stephen was willing to die for his faith in Jesus.  He was the first Christian martyr, but not the last.  Through the centuries hundreds of thousands of people have died for their faith in Christ.  In some countries Christians are still being persecuted and killed, but not in this country.  In this country we have the freedom to worship as we please, and we thank God for it Sunday after Sunday.  I’ve heard those prayers, offered by deacons in small country churches: “Thank you, Lord, for the freedom to worship as we please.”  I wonder, however, if it hasn’t made us soft, if we haven’t begun to worship exactly as we please, and if we haven’t concluded that a faith you don’t have to die for is probably also a faith you don’t have to live for.

Last week I talked about the Golden Age of Richmond’s First Baptist Church, during the 1950’s and early 60’s.  It was that time just after World War II when everybody seemed to be going to church and a lot of people were going to First Baptist.  As I said we had more than 2,000 people in Sunday school in those days, and the church sanctuary was full even on Sunday nights.  But it wasn’t just this church.  As I’ve told the story elsewhere, “the war was over; soldiers and sailors came home and married their high school sweethearts; they moved into houses with white picket fences and began to have babies—lots of babies.  Those years between 1946 and 1964 have come to be called “the Baby Boom.”  A lot of those parents wanted their babies to grow up in the church just as they had.  They came by the hundreds, by the thousands, and soon churches were scrambling to find enough nursery space, and then enough Sunday school space for all those babies, all those children!  And because their parents were coming to church too they needed bigger sanctuaries.  They built them, or added additional services, and for a little while at least those sanctuaries were full, or nearly.”[i]

And then, for a number of reasons, things began to change.  The happy days of the Fifties gave way to the social upheaval of the Sixties (anybody remember them?).  There was the assassination of JFK, the war in Vietnam, the race riots.  In 1966 Timothy Leary encouraged young people to “tune in, turn on, and drop out,” to, “embrace cultural change through the use of psychedelic [drugs], and to detach themselves from the existing conventions and hierarchies in society.”[ii]  A lot of them did, and in the decade that followed the Sixties those babies who had been brought to Sunday school by their parents grew up and went their own way.  For many of them the way did not lead back to church.  Let me pause long enough to say that if cultural forces push people into the church, they can just as easily pull them back out again.  They are like ocean tides in that respect.  The outgoing tide of the late Sixties and early Seventies led to something I have called “the Great Panic,” when church leaders saw sanctuaries emptying out as if someone had pulled the plug from a bathtub, when they began to wring their hands, and wonder what was wrong, and how they might fix it.

As I’ve told the story in a little book called When the Sand Castle Crumbles, “It was about this time (1975) that a couple of youth ministers from Chicago decided to start a new church, and they started by doing a survey, by going around and asking people why they weren’t coming to church anymore.  The people said the music was outdated, the sermons weren’t relevant, and they didn’t like to dress up on Sundays.  So, Bill Hybels and Dave Holmbo started a church called Willow Creek that met in a theater, where people could listen to contemporary Christian music, sermons that were edgy and relevant, dramas that brought home the central point and, best of all, they didn’t have to dress up.  The church was a phenomenal success.  In fact, within just a few years, more than 15,000 people were attending every week for services that weren’t exactly Christian worship in the way that we know it, but were certainly seeker-friendly. 

Soon everybody was trying to emulate the success of Willow Creek.  Community churches began to pop up everywhere, featuring contemporary worship that included live bands and talented singers; gifted speakers who strolled out onto the platform wearing golf shirts, peppering their sermons with real-life illustrations, and talking about things like how to deal with the stresses of everyday life and how to raise happy, healthy children (you know, the things people are really interested in).  Some of these churches used drama, others used video, but all of them tried to make a break from the old way of doing church—from the hymnbooks and prayer books, the pipe organs and priests.  And again, people responded.  They seemed to like this new way of doing church.  They came in droves.  Experts called this phenomenon the “Church Growth Movement,” but not every church could afford to grow in this way, and not every church was good at it.  Some were, and while they became megachurches others continued to decline.  For nearly two decades now we’ve been living with that model.  Everybody knows the three or four megachurches in town, but they also know that on almost every street corner there is a small church struggling to survive.  What they don’t know is that these days even the megachurches are starting to struggle. 

Last week I watched a video from a conference for the next generation of church leaders that began with a man being shot out of a cannon.  He landed in a net inside the coliseum, pumped his fists a few times, ran up on the stage and said, “This conference is very, very good.  God bless you!”  The man who introduced the human cannonball had his face painted blue and white, like something out of Braveheart, and announced that—for anyone who had missed it—they were going to show the whole thing again on giant screens in super slow motion.  This is the next generation of church leaders, mind you, who seem to be learning that if you want people to come to church these days contemporary music and drama won’t do it.  It’s not enough to preach in a golf shirt and talk about how to raise happy, healthy children.  No, these days if you want people to come to church you have to paint your face and shoot somebody out of a cannon, and if you want them to stick around a little longer you have to show the instant replay on giant screens in super slow-mo.  

There was a whole series of articles in Leadership Journal recently about this epidemic of entertainment in the church.  Chuck Swindoll said, “We live in a time with a lot of technology and media.  We can create things virtually that look real.  We have high-tech gadgets that were not available to previous generations.  And we learned that we could attract a lot of people to church if we used those things.  I began to see that happening about 20 years ago,” he said.  “It troubled me then, and it’s enormously troubling to me now because the result is an entertainment mentality that leads to biblical ignorance.”[iii]  John Ortberg said, “The danger of ‘special effects’ is that we begin to demand them, and to demand more and more spectacular ones.  Our attention can be arrested by deeply dramatic moments.  But our character cannot be reformed by dramatic events alone.  That demands a longer, slower, less glamorous process.”[iv]  But the article that really troubled me was the one by Drew Dyck, who talked about how this entertainment emphasis grew out of youth programs.  He said that instead of stressing the confirmation of the Christian faith—which was youth ministry’s original reason for being—the focus shifted to attracting more and more kids to the ministry.[v]  And guess what?  You can attract a lot more kids with pizza than with Bible study.  So, a lot of kids came to youth group, but when they went off to college they stopped coming.  Why?  Josh Riebock summed it up in a single sentence: “There are a lot more fun things to do at college than eat pizza.”[vi] 

Drew Dyck concludes: “If our strategy is to win young people’s allegiance to church by offering better entertainment than the world, then we’ve picked a losing battle.  Entertainment might get kids to church in their teens, but it certainly won’t keep them there through their twenties.”[vii] He quotes David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Research Group, as saying, “Imagine a group photo of all the students who come to your church in a typical year.  Now, take a big fat marker and cross out three out of every four faces.”  Kinnaman’s research indicates that as many as 80 percent of those raised in the church will be disengaged by the time they are 29.[viii]  That’s a heartbreaking statistic, but it’s not the only one.  Young adults and median adults are dropping out of church at an alarming rate, too, and many of them because there are “a lot more fun things to do” then sit in a worship service. 

Maybe I’m preaching to the wrong people.  Maybe you are the ones who will come to church no matter what.  But then again maybe some of you in this room are this close to dropping out, maybe some of you at home are already picking up the remote to change the channel, to see if you can find something a little more entertaining.  Honestly, my first impulse is to do whatever it takes to keep you from doing that, even if it means riding a unicycle around the balcony railing and juggling hymnbooks.  But in the end I know that my job is not to give you what you want, but to give you what you need.  I think I learned that lesson right out of college, when I was a youth minister in Kentucky.  I wanted to have the biggest and best youth group in town and one of the first things I did was to weigh every kid in the group because it sounded so much more impressive to say that we had a 1,136 pound youth group than to say we had a group of fifteen kids.  I did everything I could to increase attendance: we started our own radio station, held the “World’s Biggest Kite Contest,” and made regular trips to the amusement park. 

But I remember the day it changed for me, when I called to invite one of our youth to something we were doing and he said no thanks, that he and his friend were planning to go to a movie.  And that’s when it hit me that I could never compete: that these kids had all the entertainment they needed and a whole lot more, and the only thing I could give them that they weren’t getting everywhere else was Jesus.  So, I made up my mind to give them exactly that, and to keep it up even if the youth group withered away to less than a thousand pounds.  In one way or another, that’s what I’ve been trying to do ever since. [ix]  You see, every day is judgment day for somebody.  And even if it didn’t come for you yesterday, some day it will.  Drew Dyck says, “In the end, pizza and video games don’t transform lives.  Young people are transformed by truth clearly presented.  They’re drawn to a cause to live and die for.”[x]

Aren’t we all? 

I don’t want to go to church because it’s the Sunday morning thing to do.  I don’t want to go because they have the best entertainment in town.  I want to go because it’s a place where I can count on somebody to tell me the truth about Jesus without watering down his demands or making the Christian life look easy.  I want to go because it’s a place where someone will engage me in honest and open spiritual conversation, where someone will challenge me to seek out the deep places of prayer, to immerse myself in the study of Scripture, and to lose myself in service to others, where someone will dare me to love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love my neighbor just as much as I love myself.  That’s how you form the kind of faith that Stephen had—a faith worth dying for—and even though they can help no church can do that for you.  You have to do that for yourself.  What I want to know is will you?  Will you make up your mind right now to live and die for Jesus, or will you walk out that door and look for something more fun to do?  Will you pick up your remote…

…and change the channel?

—Jim Somerville, 2011

[iii] Chuck Swindoll, “The Problem with Pizzazz” (Leadership Journal, Spring, 2011), p. 23.

[iv] John Ortberg, “What Does God Think of Entertainment?” (Leadership Journal, Spring, 2011), p. 31.

[v] Drew Dyck, “The Red Bull Gospel” (Leadership Journal, Spring, 2011), p. 33-34.

[vi] Josh Riebock, quoted by Dyck (above) in “The Red Bull Gospel,” p. 34.

[vii] Dyck, “Red Bull,” p. 34

[viii] David Kinnaman, quoted by Dyck, “Red Bull,” p. 34.

[ix] This story is from When the Sand Castle Crumbles, p. 19.

[x] Dyck, “Red Bull,” p. 34.


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