Izzy Friedman was what you might call an unforgettable character.
Izzy lived on Deer Isle, Maine, where my mother was born and raised. He owned a clothing store on the island. It was probably the only one.
An outgoing man, Izzy was always excited to see people enter his store. And Izzy was always anxious to please his customers and get a sale. He was nothing if not enthusiastic.
Izzy Friedman was a natural born salesman. You might say he had the gift.
On occasion, customers would attempt to return clothing that didn’t fit. But first, they had to get by Izzy.
And one might say that getting by Izzy wasn’t easy.
“What’s the problem here?” Izzy would ask with a big smile.
When it was the fit, Izzy was prepared:
“If it’s too big,” he’d say, “it will shrink. Too small? It will stretch”.
Izzy didn’t claim that one size fits all. It was more like any size would fit anybody.
How often did Izzy’s logic – and his persuasive manner – prevail? That’s hard to say since I wasn’t there. But it wasn’t for lack of trying.
A lot of churches and ministers today are like Izzy Friedman. They want customers and they want sales. Numbers is the game.
Is the Gospel of Jesus Christ too big? Is it too cosmic, too powerful, too holy, and too supernatural? They can shrink it. Is the Gospel too small? Is it too narrow, too intolerant, and too dogmatic? They can stretch it.
Whatever the problem, whatever the objection, whatever the reluctance, these religious salesmen aim to please. They’ll make the Gospel fit. They have to – it’s the only way to get people in the door and keep them in their seats.
Too many churches and too many pastors in America have tried too hard for too long to make Christianity palatable to the postmodern taste. They have used smoke and mirrors, sound and light, and tricks and gimmicks.
They have shrunk, stretched and twisted their message.
As our culture has slouched toward Gomorrah, these shallow attempts at popularity have appeared increasingly pathetic and desperate. People have ended up either cynically rejecting or naively embracing the latest church fad.
Truth can easily get lost in that shuffle – or worse -sacrificed upon the altar of what is mislabeled as “relevance”.
The contemporary church too often longs to be loved by the world. It seeks a credible acceptance of the Christian message – a message too willingly “tailored to fit” the “seeker’s desires”.
We work overtime to find new marketing techniques to sell Christianity to a world grown increasingly hostile to its claims. Tragically, the more we seek to win the world by becoming like the world the more the world holds us in mocking contempt.
That is the sad irony of all this. It cannot possibly succeed, not in the end. Clever tactics may fill a church but they empty the heart and mind of the rigorous truth of the Christian faith. The unsaved have no lasting respect for the apologizing and groveling Christian.
Bait and switch is a poor substitute for authentic Christianity.
The Gospel of Christ – the story of Jesus’ unchanging love and saving grace; his death and resurrection; his perfect humanity and sovereign deity – doesn’t need to be redesigned, reformatted or repackaged. It needs to be preached without compromise and without apology.
We don’t need more accommodation in the evangelical pulpits of this country – we need more courage.
We need more Jerry Mitchells – my friend from California who has been holding forth the Word of Life and preaching and teaching the whole counsel of God at the same church for over a quarter century. Jerry knows God doesn’t pay attention to polls – and neither does Jerry. A gifted communicator, Jerry might have more people at his church if he’d only compromise the truth – just a wee bit. But he’d rather have the approval of God than the praise of men.
May the good Lord increase his kind.
There’s nothing wrong with using technology and crafting creative and appealing strategies. It’s good and necessary that churches upgrade and update their methodologies. But let’s be careful that these methods are our servants, not our masters; our means, not our end.
When he bowed before his Father in the garden, Jesus prayed for us. He asked God to make us “holy by your truth; teach them your word, which is truth” (John 17: 17, NLT). Jesus added that you and I, as his disciples, would be hated by the world because we do not belong to the world. “The world would love you as one of its own if you belonged to it, but you are no longer part of the world” (John 15:19, NLT).
So why should the church mimic the world? Why do we seek so often to fit in when we should stand out?
Jesus warned us against seeking “the approval of others … Popularity contests are not truth contests … Your task is to be true, not popular” (Luke 6:26, The Message).
Now that’s the right fit!