Wednesday, May 27, 2009 | By: Zachary Bartels

From the Cutting Room Floor... (Weeks 21 & 22, 2009)

I would be surprised to learn that anyone reading this post had not seen the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. Most of us have seen it many, many times. But have you viewed the scene in which Dorothy and her three friends perform a choreographed number called “The Jitterbug” as they enter the haunted forest. Probably not. That’s because, despite having taken five weeks to film, the sequence ultimately wound up on the cutting room floor like so many other lengths of celluloid to help shorten the movie. (If you’re interested, you can watch this number here).

It’s actually not very impressive. Compared to classics like “If I Only Had a Brain” or “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” the song is pretty boring. To boot, the dancing is uninspired, the video footage is horribly grainy because the film was not properly preserved, and the scene itself adds nothing the overall story. Sure, we all probably wondered what the witch meant when she said she would "send the insects ahead to soften them up." But did we need to see this uninspired sequence to explain it? Meh, probably not.

And yet, even though they are rarely needed, I love watching deleted scenes from movies and TV shows. I also love buying albums full of “B-sides” or otherwise formerly unknown or unnoticed songs. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe it’s because the stuff that doesn’t make the final cut is often better than some material that does. Or maybe I just like the feeling (however manufactured) that I’m “discovering something” that had been "lost" when it was cut because it broke the flow of the show, didn’t fit the theme, or there simply wasn’t time. I also get a kick out of listening to the director’s commentaries, wherein they explain why this is the greatest scene in the world and how much they love it…only to try and explain why they chopped it out anyway.

Depending on your preacher, it might surprise you to learn that sermons—including my sermons—go through the same process if they are properly prepared. Writing a good biblical message on a passage of Scripture requires anywhere from 20 to 40 hours of work. During that time, all sorts of fun and interesting tidbits come to the surface—historical notes, interesting items of Greek and Hebrew grammar, parallels between his text and others (both within and without sacred Scripture.) If a preacher is doing his job, though, most of this material never makes it to the pulpit—only the material that furthers the controlling theme of the message. Even after the sermon has come together, one last sweep is always a good idea to remove any redundant or unnecessary points that might bloat the message excessively.

The past two Lord’s Days, I've been preaching about how the church must be “Gospel-Driven,” not driven by fads, gimmicks, trends, etc. I ranted and raved about how we need to make what God has done (Gospel) the main thing, as opposed to what we should be doing (Law). Law and Gospel are not at odds, but should never be confused. They each have their own function. For example, even though “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is a great principle for living, it’s still Law, not Gospel (as it refers to what we should be doing, not what God has done through Christ).

From the feedback I’ve received, the Holy Spirit worked even through my feeble mouth these last couple Sundays to stir up a lot of questions, discussion, and new trains of thought about what church should look like. You can find these two sermons here (part 1) and here (part 2). As always, all of my sermons are available at www.pastorzach.com.

And, just for fun and for further reflection, here are the “deleted scenes” as it were that--for time concerns and flow of the message--did not make it into the final form of the sermon (for your convenience, woven into a somewhat cohesive article):

In his book Prophetic Untimeliness (2006, Baker), Os Guiness laments the current state of the church with these words:

“The faith-world of John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, John Jay, William Wilberforce, Hannah More, Lord Shaftesbury, Catherine Booth, Hudson Taylor, D. L. Moody, Charles Spurgeon, Oswald Chambers, Andrew Murray, Carl Henry, and John Stott is disappearing. In its place a new evangelicalism is arriving in which therapeutic self-concern overshadows knowing God, spirituality displaces theology, end-times escapism crowds out day-to-day discipleship, marketing triumphs over mission, references to opinion polls outweigh reliance on biblical exposition, concerns for power and relevance are more obvious than concern for piety and faithfulness, talk of reinventing the church has replaced prayer for revival, and the characteristic evangelical passion for missionary enterprise is overpowered by the all-consuming drive to sustain the multiple business empires of the booming evangelical
subculture.”


It should be clear to any Christian with a biblical foundation that Dr. Guiness is right on track here. Our concern for maintaining relevance, popularity, and a positive buzz has overshadowed any concern about whether we are presenting the pure and uncut Gospel of Jesus Christ. Sadly, in our re-editing of the church, it is elements of the Gospel that wind up on the cutting room floor, rather than the more human-centered aspects of our churches. The result is that we focus more and more on practical application, life advice, and the person sitting in the pew (Law) than on the person and redemptive work of Jesus Christ (Gospel). We either assume that everyone already “has a handle on the Gospel” (and therefore needs something else, something better and more advanced) or we use the Gospel to further our own social and personal goals.

It is said that Melanchthon one day paid Martin Luther a visit because he was worried for his soul and needed spiritual counsel. He was afraid that he hadn't been a faithful enough Christian to make it to heaven or that the sheer volume of his sin would overwhelm the forgiveness that God had extended. Luther had shared some of the same worries during his days as an Augustinian monk and, therefore, listened to his friend with a patient and understanding ear. After letting Melanchthon go on and on for some time, though, Luther had heard enough and barked, “Oh, stop it, my friend. For the Gospel is entirely outside of you!” This one statement might be the most important thing for our churches to understand today. The Gospel is not something we find within ourselves (not even with the most relevant life advice or the most introspective meditation). All we find within ourselves is Law, which shows us what we do and fail to do and, ultimately, condemns us. The Gospel must come from without. It shows us what God has done for us in Christ and, ultimately, saves us.

Last week, I mentioned the work of sociologist Christian Smith, who did a study of American teenagers, trying to pin down what their religion really was. The findings of this study were heartbreaking. Dr. Smith found that it did not much matter if a teen was a conservative Christian raised in the church or an agnostic with no spiritual training at all—the religion of most every American teenager was the same; Smith calls it “moralistic, therapeutic deism.” Teens tried very hard to keep their beliefs general and avoid anything that smacked of credalism. Under the surface, though, they did have a functional creed and they all stuck to is like moralistic therapeutic deist fundamentalists. Smith identified five points of doctrine in these teens:

  • 1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  • 2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  • 3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  • 4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
  • 5. Good people go to heaven when they die.
Do you see how this “religion” is entirely built on Law (what we should do) and not on Gospel (what God has done)? It’s completely works-based and me-centered. And this is the religion of most American teens, even those who spend every Sunday morning and Wednesday night in a Baptist, Methodist, or nondenominational church and youth group.

One girl (an active member in her theologically conservative church’s youth group) explained her faith thus: “God is like someone who is always there for you; I don’t know, it’s like God is God. He’s just like somebody that’ll always help you go through whatever you’re going through. When I became a Christian I was just praying, and it always made me feel better.” Unfortunately, at the end of the day, it’s not just teens, but adults as well, who want to make religion all about making me “feel better.”

I recently saw a video of a popular political pundit explaining why he had become a Mormon. It was heart-breaking to me. He and his wife had decided that they should be attending church in order to pass down a spiritual legacy to their children. For months, they went to a different church every week (see my previous article on “church shopping”), looking for the "right fit" for their family. They had all but given up when a Mormon friend invited them to his church. They sat through the service and, as they left, their young daughter requested that they come back again the next week because the place gave her a “warm feeling.”

Sadly, it didn’t matter to this man that he was bringing his family into a church with a false christ and a false gospel. Just so long as it had warm feelings. This, of course, is how the Mormons are trained to make converts. They give a prospect a copy of the Book of Mormon and tell him or her to read it for a few minutes and see if there isn’t some “burning in the bosom” as they read. If the subject feels any kind of warm feeling, this is attributed to God and the next logical step is to come and join God where he is handing out warm feelings. I’m not mocking Mormons here. I can’t—because evangelical churches have pretty much taken on the same methodology.

It’s sadly true of many in Bible-believing churches—both teens and adults—that they see the chief end of faith as “helping me feel good and live a better life.” It’s all about Law, not Gospel. About me, not God. Such churchgoers can easily explain how they should love others, how they should be tolerant, how they should help the poor and suffering, but cannot even begin to explain the Atonement.

Now, don’t get me wrong. All of that “what we should do” stuff (Law) is good stuff. It is the fruit of the Gospel and the fruit of the Spirit and it should be present in the lives of all Christians. But it’s not the main thing. The main thing is the Gospel. The main thing is what God has done to secure our redemption. The main thing is finding Jesus in all Scripture. The main thing is God in Christ, hanging on the cross, reconciling the world unto himself.

There is a lot of things (even good things) that our churches could lose and still remain Christian churches. Whether for redundancy, focus and streamlining, or plain old time concerns, any number of ministries or emphases could land on the cutting room floor like the Jitterbug song. But there’s one thing that can not be truncated, re-edited, removed, or replaced: the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When that happens, the rest of the story has lost all meaning.

Soli Deo Gloria,
             Pastor Zach

1 reader comments:

E. said...

I'm so thankful for those sermons, this article, and the books and discussions that informed them from Guinness, Horton, and others. I hope and pray that during our lifetimes we will see a true revival, based on the message of the Gospel and not prompted by warm fuzzies, bestselling books, or terrorist attacks. I'm so glad that you and other faithful preachers are out there faithfully proclaiming God's message and not fretting over marketing plans and creating buzz.