A good friend of mine recently handed me an invitation to think through and identify the core belief or doctrine of Christianity.  In pointing me to a recent article in the Huffington Post (see link at the end) I read an apologist for the Episcopal Church attempt to downplay declining membership rolls by pointing to parallel exits from both the Southern Baptist and Catholic churches.

Before I share what the Huffington Post author thinks is the number one teaching of Jesus, I want to explore why I think she is correct in mentioning shrinking church membership.

There comes a point when all of us get tired of being implored to do more.  We get that at both work AND home.  All of us probably can name ways in which we could do more ‘good stuff’.  So when the church preaches the same message as a predominate theme from the pulpit, we reach a point where we ask ourselves, “Why am I choosing to subject myself to this To-Do List week after week?  Where is the good news? ”

The Baptist version of some legalistic churches often comes across this way by asking:

  • How long are your quiet times?
  • Have you joined an accountability group?
  • Which missions’ trips are you going on this year?

The Catholic version sounds like this:

  • How can you be pro-life and support capital punishment?
  • You need to march for anti-capitalistic, environmentally sound policies.
  • Since you can’t know for sure if you are good enough to warrant entry into heaven, DO this or GIVE X amount of money as penance.
  • You better not miss mass and confession; how else will you know if you are ‘good’?

And liberal Protestantism preaches:

  • Feed the poor, reach out to your neighbors, whoever they are.
  • Fight for judgment-free acceptance of all values.
  • Celebrate the many ways to God.

Hear me carefully.  I am NOT saying that Bible study, small group participation, feeding the poor, mindful use of earth’s resources and kindly serving others here and abroad are unworthy activities.  There is a place for these practices.But what is missing and what leaves people weak, thirsty and discouraged is the lack of Good News preached.

What is Christianity’s main teaching or core value?

That Jesus Christ saves sinners

This proposition presupposes that someone needs saving?

The Bible, throughout its 66 books, teaches that life’s ultimate problem looming over every human being is GUILT (and I’m not talking about guilty feelings, although they are sometimes present but actually judicial guilt.)  If you or I were to die right now and face our Creator and Sustainer, Almighty God, He would rightly judge, “Guilty – you deserve Hell.”   We are born sinful (Psalm 51:5), thanks to our first parents Adam and Eve.

And no amount of the Baptist version of good works, or the Catholic version of good works or the liberal protestant version of good works will SAVE US.

We are up a very dangerous creek with no way out.  And God has our attention.  Now we are ready to hear the GOOD NEWS:

– that Jesus came to save sinners by dying in our place, thus satisfying the eternal sentence against us, thereby saving us from HELL

– that Jesus lived the perfect life, thus giving us the gift of un-earned righteousness, thereby gaining entry for us into HEAVEN

What were Jesus’ first words when he burst onto the scene in Galilee?

  • Love everyone and feed the poor!

Nope, Mark records God the Son’s striking command:  The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; Repent and believe in the gospel.  (Mark 1:15)

Later on, in verse 38 of the same opening chapter, Jesus confirms his mission. Let us go somewhere else to the towns nearby, in order that I may preach there also, for this is what I came out for.

Whether conservative or liberal, all of us church-attenders need to hear what God has already done for us, through Jesus.  The more we learn how much God loves us and what motivated Him to die for us,

Jesus…. as author and perfecter of our faith…. for the JOY set before him endured the cross and scorned its shame and … sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:2)

the more we can drop our drivenness.  It’s from that place of not being good enough that come many of our ‘good works’.  “I must be a good-enough Christian if I do…….”

I promised that I would let you in on what the defender of the declining Episcopal Church declares is the core value in Christianity:

Introspective liberal churchgoers returned to the core of the Christian vision: Jesus’ command to “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” As a result, a sort of neo-liberal Christianity has quietly taken root across the old Protestant denominations–a form of faith that cares for one’s neighbor, the common good, and fosters equality, but is, at the same time, a transformative personal faith that is warm, experiential, generous, and thoughtful. This new expression of Christianity maintains the historic liberal passion for serving others but embraces Jesus’ injunction that a vibrant love for God is the basis for a meaningful life. These Christians link spirituality with social justice as a path of peace and biblical faith.

Where do I think good works fit in?  Aren’t we supposed to have a consistent quiet time, go on missions’ trips, and confess our sins one to the other?  Aren’t we supposed to practice neighbor love, feed the poor, discern and proclaim Biblical truth?  Of course, but ‘good works’ come  AFTER  the primary call of REPENT and BELIEVE what Jesus teaches.

Those who are saved are saved in order to do certain work.  And these activities are not ones that we choose in a vacuum; they have been predestined/planned out by God from before the creation of the universe. (Ephesians 2:10)

God’s order of events prevents boasting on our part.  How can He be ‘rich in mercy’ and ‘give us grace’ if we earn our way into heaven? And if we think we can earn enough brownie points so God will HAVE to let us in, we can easily wear out with fatigue and just quit. Any church, not just liberal protestant ones will lose members over time if their pastors do not feed their flocks with rich gospel-saturated food.

Today in church, one of the readings was from Ephesians 4.  The primary role of pastors and church teachers, those whose calling is true spiritual formation is described.  This job description of those who are to feed us regularly is worth reading:

11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

Sufficient and correct content, delivered in love, builds unity and equips the body of believers to do the work God calls them to do.  I am ONLY motivated to do, when I am amazed at what God has first done for me.  Skip that part, the blow-my-mind-He-did-THAT for ME????, and false manipulative guilt will only motivate me so far.

I will leave you with a prayer that really stokes my love for Jesus.  It’s written by pastor and author JD Greear, from his book Gospel: (page 44)

“In Christ, there is nothing I can do that would make You love me more, and nothing I have done that makes you love me less.

Your presence and approval are all I need for everlasting joy.

As you have been to me, so I will be to others.

As I pray, I’ll measure Your compassion by the cross and Your power by the resurrection.”

For the original essay in the Huffington Post, go to: