Is the Christ of your faith and of your teaching captivating? Is he beautiful? Or is the Christ you preach flat and uninspiring? As pastors, parents, and friends, how we answer these questions not only impacts the shape of our own faith, but also the faith of those God places in our lives.
As mentioned previously on Rooted, pop singer/songwriter, Katy Perry, recently accepted an award at the Human Rights Campaign Gala. In her speech, she told the story of her journey away from the flat Christianity of her youth, into a world of freedom and acceptance – a world she describes as truly magical, a place where people can be their “true authentic selves.”
Many of us have heard stories similar to this: an individual walks away from the faith in which they were raised. But this “faith” was often sterile at best and characterized like Katy Perry’s, as limited to that which was taught on a felt-board.
For those unfamiliar with the reference, the felt-board was once a common tool in many churches used for teaching Bible stories to young children. It consisted of a flat board with a generic scene on which felt cutouts of familiar Bible figures were placed. Even if you never experienced it, you can likely appreciate the inevitable boredom and lifelessness illustrated by the singer in her acceptance speech.
For Perry (and many like her), the Christianity conveyed on the felt-board of her youth could not compare to the story that was eventually presented to her by the world.
The Felt-Board Failure:
In the felt-board world of Perry’s childhood faith, everything was reduced to the most simplistic of presentations. Homosexuals were “synonymous with abomination and hell,” the promise of salvation was reduced to an eternity of “endless fro-yo toppings,” and living out one’s faith meant suppressing doubt.
While the specifics of Perry’s story might not resonate with what some are taught as children, the overly rote and simplistic approach will undoubtedly sound familiar to many.
In the felt-board style of teaching, the world outside the Church is typically unlovable and unfamiliar. Sin and unbelief seem foolish and foreign. This mentality, rather than inspiring a sense of care and concern for those outside the church, instills an “us vs. them” framework where Christians are perfect and unbelievers are messy.
This is the antithesis of the gospel I know.
In felt-board teaching, Christ is reduced only to an uninspiring example of how we are to live. While the narrative of Jesus is taught, little time is afforded to explore the depth and beauty of his miraculous action on our behalf. Even less attention is given to how undeserving of Christ’s sacrifice we were and are, dead in our bondage to sin. For the sake of simplicity, the Gospel is hollowed-out, and faith seems dependent only on one’s ability to live a moral life.
This faith is inevitably doomed when it collides with a complex world in which unbelievers are not always that different from believers, where everyone daily faces the reality of personal sin, and where passion (not just intellect) shapes our every decision. In this real world, the hollowed-out Gospel and flat faith taught by so many in the church is exposed not simply as unrealistic but also dangerous to our very souls.
The 3-Dimensional Solution:
The author of Hebrews addressed the danger of a flat faith. After professing faith in Christ, the audience now stood at a point where Christ didn’t seem to be worth following anymore. For some of them, Christ was too difficult. And in the midst of the difficulties he caused, the simplicity of their old way of thinking (the Law) looked tempting. To help them fight their temptation, the author built up a detailed and rich narrative of both the world and the Christ we serve.
In that detailed narrative, the “us vs. them” mentality was never presented. Rather, the reality of unbelief was immediately addressed within the faith community. And rather than tip-toeing around the possibility of personal sin, the author of Hebrews hit it with full force. For him, this unbelief is not merely a problem of intellectual submission. It is the rejection of the Promised Land, accepting instead eternal restlessness (Hebrews 4:5). It is forsaking lasting purity through Christ, and embracing the bloodied corpse of a sacrificial animal (Hebrews 10:3-4). It is rejecting a message that is certain, of an all-beautiful and infinitely loving Christ.
The world of unbelief in Hebrews is far from flat. And while it could seem scary, the fear it produces is not the primary motivation given by the author. One must simply observe how he portrays Christ.
Throughout Hebrews, Jesus is clearly more than a mere rule-giver who shows us the way to Heaven. He is more powerful than the angels (Hebrews 1:5-13), and more impressive than the revered Moses (Hebrews 3:1-6). Jesus is the perfect Priest and simultaneously the perfect bloodied sacrifice who removes the burden of all our sin, once and for all (Hebrews 7:26-28).
This awe-inspiring Jesus offers us the Promised Land that Joshua could never fully deliver. He offers us the perfect eternal Sabbath rest we so desperately need, and the undeserved love and acceptance we could never in a million years earn by our own merit. This is 3-dimensional faith.
At no point in time is the Christ-following world of Hebrews flat or uninspiring. It is painted with redeemed imagery from the Old Testament, pointing toward Heaven itself. And it is only in reflection upon that breathtaking beauty that the author returns to the high call of all disciples:
“Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:13-14).
This call, of course, is no small challenge. But it is a challenge that is given with complete confidence in light of the portrait already painted of Christ and the world in Hebrews 1-12.
The call for all believers today is the same as it was in Hebrews. The question we must ask is this: am I presenting an equally vivid world in which that calling is given, or is the world of my message overly simplified in an attempt to scare individuals out of moral failure? Do I give an honest description of how drenched in sin we all are – a truth that not only inspires genuine love for the lost, but also a profound appreciation for Christ’s rescue on the cross? Let us strive to follow the example of Hebrews. Let us present the world and Christ as they truly are. Let us rightly see sin, but also rightly see Christ. Let us recall his majesty. Let us recall his blood. His love. For in holding to that fully multi-faceted Christ, we recall the one whose incomparable beauty outshines the brief sparkle of this world.