Style Over Substance

Image creation

Two young people face the final interview by a panel of a large IT firm. "X", a quietly spoken young man who had already shown considerable knowledge in his field, and "Y", a young woman who impressed several of the panel with her looks and her use of contemporary IT jargon―used to cover her lack of real knowledge. Which one of them is likely to gain the position?

A recent article stated that 60% of people interviewed for jobs overstate their qualifications, training, or previous salaries. Yet, many of these people, seem to get on in the world! 'Spin doctors' are paid massive sums by large corporations and governments to distract from the real substance in order to convince people to 'buy', or to go along with certain policies. This problem has been called 'style over substance'.

We might smile at the story of a young group of girls in Israel who were trying to copy the British Spice Girls. First they worked up an act they believed would be a 'hit', then they decided that they needed to learn to sing! A recent survey in the United States revealed that the desire for fame now exceeds that for material possessions.

What is influential in the secular world, is increasingly influencing evangelical churches. The more we concentrate on image, the less inclined we are to exercise ourselves over the content of God's will as revealed in the Bible. It would be easy to draw the conclusion at times, that we are more concerned with our public image than we are with real spiritual growth, true worship, and concerned outreach to people who are lost and without hope in this world. The apostle Paul told Christians not to allow themselves to be shaped by the influences of the secular world. Only as we work at renewing our understanding of what life is about from God's point of view, will we be able to recognise what is God's good and perfect will. (Romans 12:1–2).

While it is true that the Holy Spirit alone can open the eyes of Christians to recognise what is happening to them, Christian leadership has been charged with the responsibility of leading God's people in holy living, true worship, and effective Christian service. Many evangelical Christians who avoided the influences of secular humanism when it first invaded the churches, are now succumbing to the influence of the secular.

It seems that we are losing our capacity, or our will to distinguish between what is modern and what is secular. The church is under pressure to 'change or perish'. What is meant by this, is that we must become modern or we will die. Those who resist the kinds of changes that are being forced on them are considered stubborn, selfish, or out of touch with reality. For some, who refuse to move out of their comfort zone these charges may be true; but, many resist some of the changes because they refuse to be pressured into a secularism that is ungodly.

Leaders in the OT were condemned for failing to teach God's people the difference between the holy and the profane—or secular: Her priests do violence to my law and profane my holy things; they do not distinguish between the holy and the common; they teach that there is no difference between the unclean and the clean... (Ez.22:26; 44:23). Yet two theological streams have merged to encourage the adoption of secular methods in today's church.

The first of these comes from the radical, existential theology of the likes of the influential Paul Tillich. Tillich believes God to be a 'dimension of our deep self'. Any difference therefore between some Holy God who exists apart from ourselves, and ourselves, is rejected leaving us with only the profane. This kind of view has been characterised variously as secular theology, or religionless Christianity, or even Christian atheism, to which it inevitably leads.

The second stream comes from the church growth movement which stresses 'relevance' to the 'felt-needs' of modern society as a necessary way to reach today's world. While it is true that we must speak and act in a way that can be understood, the true message of grace and a genuine Christ-like life, is understood in any age. We seem to have forgotten the saying of Bishop Irenaeus, an early church father: "Jesus Christ, in His infinite love has become what we are, in order that he may make us entirely what He is". Jesus Himself is our example. He entered our world into a definite culture, and he spoke a local language; his life exuded love and the grace of God, yet He remained "the Holy one" who demonstrated the deepest anger at the profaning of "His Father's house". Yet, today, many now feel quite comfortable using secular means to 'attract' others into the Church, even where the congregation remains static and the means are for the insiders. Once we start on this slippery slope where does it stop? Having attracted them by secular means, we find ourselves having to keep them by secular means. Is it for non-Christians to determine what kind of worship we offer to God? Where does God's will come into the picture?


Music has become a touchstone of change. Thankfully, there are some delightful modern choruses and songs—but there are many that are not. A considerable number of modern lyrics are not only unscriptural, but they either leave wrong impressions of ourselves and/or God, or else they leave our minds and hearts unchanged. In what way do they contribute to true worship? Do they meet Jesus' criteria of 'in Spirit and in truth'? (John 4:23). Music is often seen as an end in itself, with little concern by musicians to communicate the significance of the message of the songs. On one occasion the pianist and organist were corrected for varying the tempo and volume between verses. The young person making the criticism was surprised when one of the musicians explained that the music should help support the meaning of the hymn or song—not the other way around. The young person was playing without reference to the words.

Frequently, the conflict between those who prefer hymns and those who prefer songs is explained as a 'generational' conflict. Often, the conflict does not stem from this source at all; instead, it lies between God-centred worship and our self-preoccupation in worship. We tend to make big claims about our devotion and love for God, forgetting that true discipleship carries a high cost; it can never be taken lightly.

Another trend in Christian music is the vagueness of the message of some of the songs. Are we directing our worship to God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, or to the Holy Spirit? In some cases it is very difficult to know. Some of our songs can have a wide religious application that is not distinctively Christian. Christian songs and choruses are not a modern phenomenon—the church has been singing them for over a hundred years. What is new, is that they are being seen as a substitute for hymns, where formerly they were seen only as complementary. Choruses that are here today and gone next month, do not help us remember the great truths of the Bible. Further, some choruses are not true to Scripture. While, unfortunately, the shallowness of other song messages is the only 'truth' some Christians ever learn.

Music is not the only problem. This is the age of 'edutainment', of drama and clowning. We do not dispute that drama may help demonstrate a point if well used, but if not, it may actually distract from the true content of the biblical message. Too often, great liberties are taken with imaginative interpretation, so that the real message of the passage is actually changed. Our celebration is meant to be joyful, but this does not mean that the joy of the Lord is the same as empty, light-hearted secular entertainment. Paul warned against 'foolish talk that isn't appropriate'! (Eph.5:4). What is appropriate in one kind of meeting, is not necessarily appropriate for worship. What is disturbing, is that there is a lack of discernment to recognise this.

Contemporary worship is being made to suit us. While we claim to worship God, He is not the ultimate centre and the focus of our worship. We expect God to be pleased with the kind of worship we feel comfortable offering Him, and not the kind that He expects of us. This was one of Israel's problems in the OT. They claimed they were worshipping Yahweh, but were doing so the pagan way; and God would have none of it. (Deut.12:4). In this age of 'idols' and 'images', we need to be careful that we are not making God in our image instead of the other way round.


One helpful way of understanding the contemporary trend is to see it as a shift from focusing on God, to focusing on ourselves—while paying lip-service to God. Without realising it, we have become the centre in many 'worship' services, and God is invited to enjoy our performance, like an indulgent father at a school concert! God is holy and majestic, and we have to prepare our hearts to worship Him. A holy God is a distant and uncomfortable memory for many. A whole generation is becoming desensitised to who He really is. Not only are we losing touch with what God wants of us, but, how He wants things done.

Let's stop and think about the implications of some current practices: Has God, the Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, left us on this earth to work things out for ourselves? Has he given us no plan, no directions, apart from telling us to 'love one another'? This is the message of the Bible in a nutshell, we're told; so, why worry about the rest of the Book! Having dispensed with the real significance and demands of that love, we fall back on our own wisdom—very much influenced by the world—where 'style over substance' rules.

Once the substance of the Bible is set aside, why should we surrender everything to God? If It is all up to us, then everything is under our control? Why should we give God our tithes and offerings? Why should we commit ourselves fully to the Church and its mission? Isn't it just another organisation, like Rotary, or Lions, or…? One pastor was heard saying that he couldn't encourage his congregation to read the Bible for themselves, let alone any other (Christian) literature, because people were too busy! That's a perfectly logical conclusion if we view the Church merely as some kind of organisation that we join as volunteers.

The Lord's Day

However, for those who see the Church as a community of God's people, called and redeemed by Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit to grow in Christian maturity and service in the world, then surely, Sunday services are an opportunity for helping us discover what true worship is all about: a time to be refreshed, and to be equipped to serve the Lord more effectively throughout the week. A genuine concern for the welfare of people in

the pew, should lead us to use Sunday services to 'feed' people with food for the soul—something substantial—instead of offering them empty husks, and trying to entertain them with banalities.

Recently a young mother stated: 'I stayed home from church last Sunday, and I felt so relaxed as a result. Being Mother's Day, I was able to visit my mother and mother-in-law without feeling pressured.' Heb.10:25 exhorts Christians to maintain their worship together carefully as a means of encouraging each other in the face of the influences of the secular world. If Christians receive little spiritual food, spiritual encouragement, or substantial encounters with God, how many will want to set aside each Sunday for church? Someone has sadly quipped: 'Sunday has become a time to celebrate recreation instead of re-creation.'

Hollowness in teaching

Early in my ministry, a young man who was attending an Institute of Technology, came to me after the service one Sunday evening, to tell me that he had to work very hard during the week to pass course requirements and didn't come to Church to think! Whether this thought is expressed as blatantly as this, or not, many Christians have a similar attitude when they come to the Bible.

With a declining confidence among many believers in the relevance, integrity and power of the
Bible as the Word of God, it is becoming less and less significant in sermons, in our beliefs, and therefore, in our lives. When a high profile denominational leader can say that the Gospel isn't big enough to deal with the social problems of the world, we have the end result of our rejection of the Word of God, and therefore, of God Himself. If God doesn't have the answer to the needs of this world, how likely are we to have it? What incredible arrogance!

Hollowness in publications

This hollowness and superficiality is also seen in a great deal of Christian material that is being published. The outward presentations are constantly challenging the artistry of graphic designers, but between the covers, there is often little of biblical substance. No wonder! The two largest Christian publishers in the USA are now owned by secular corporations, where the primary concern is profit.

John Tigwell, late of Scripture Union, has commented about similar trends in Australia. He said, "The few of us who try to publish Australian material for Australian Christians, are so often caught by the prevailing culture that everything has to be 'easy' and 'cheap'; 'user friendly' has often meant 'don't disturb me'."…Christians are being bombarded with the lowest common denominator in 'Christian' thinking.

Gene Edward Veith of WORLD Magazine, has pointed out that "whenever a trend emerges in the secular arena, wait six months and a Christian version will appear in religious bookstores." For example, 'the pop culture of celebrity worship; motivational speakers, or positive-thinking gurus whose thoughts are only remotely connected to the biblical world view; self-help books that are carbon copies of secular views on self-esteem and assertiveness training.'

Veith goes on to say "(US) polls show that many Americans are interested in the Bible, in so far as it can give 'practical principles for successful living'. Consequently, Christian publishers sometimes domesticate (the Bible) into a rule book for a contented, prosperous, middle-class lifestyle."

In an increasingly secularised Christian publishing world, the concern is to make a profit, not to help the Christian community discover what God has said, and what He requires.

When Satan has emptied the Christian mind, he is ready to take it over (Mt.12:43-45//Lk.11:24-26). That is why we have been commanded to love the Lord our God with all our heart and mind (Mk.12.30). This is not an optional extra for those who are academically inclined. In loving and serving the Lord we are to use all our God-given faculties. Peter tells Christians who are facing an antagonistic world, "Prepare your minds for action…" (1 Per.1:13). When Paul was addressing the Ephesian elders in Miletus, he said, "Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard." (Acts 20:30,31a).

God's wisdom or ours?

If we neglect God's Word, the Bible, we have no other word from God. And if we can no longer trust God's Word as reliable, then all of Christendom collapses, and we need no longer play games at being Christian. On the other hand, if we have become so wise that we select what is, and what isn't God's Word in the Bible, we put ourselves above God. God's rules for successful living have not changed. They were given to the children of Israel as they were about to enter the Promised Land. "Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful." (Joshua 1:8). In every age, our understanding of 'success' and 'prosperity' needs to be re-defined by what God has to say about them.

Before Jesus began His ministry, He faced Satan's temptations to fame, self-display, and shortcuts to 'success'. Have we succumbed to these temptations? Paul reminds us that the weapons of our warfare are not worldly, but mighty to the pulling down of strongholds? (2 Cor.10:4-5). Do we appreciate the effectiveness of doing things

God's way? Or, are we striving with our own wisdom to do what only God can do?

If we are to love God with our whole being, as we have been commanded to do, we need to be helped in this direction, we need less distractions, and more lifting up of Jesus Christ as the only solution to the human problem of sin and self-preoccupation, so that God is given the opportunity to draw people to Himself. (Jn.12:32). It is not

entertainment, but challenge, encouragement, and strength given through powerful and faithful preaching of God's Word that transforms sleepy, out-of-touch Christians in every age. Being in touch with God, who is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is the key to the kind of contact with the world that doesn't lose its distinctive message. The issue is not of making ourselves more relevant to our age, but making God relevant to people's lives.

Christmas and Easter are times when we are constantly reminded that God's ways are not our ways. At Christmas time we see how the Lord of Glory came to occupy a manger in a cattle shed, away from all the 'pomp and circumstance' of the world. At Easter, we remind ourselves how the same Lord of Glory allowed Himself to be crucified ignominiously, forced to listen to the mocking taunts of a whipped-up crowd. It is in the cross, we see God's ultimate contempt for all the images of self-respect and acceptability that we long for, so desperately.

Well has this modern songwriter captured the biblical contrast in the following song.

  1. How deep the Father's love for us,
    How vast beyond all measure
    That He should give His only Son
    To make a wretch His treasure.
    How great the pain of searing loss,
    The Father turns His face away
    As wounds which mar the Chosen One
    Bring many sons to glory.
  2. Behold the Lamb upon the cross,
    My sin upon His shoulders,
    Ashamed I hear my mocking voice
    Call out among the scoffers.
    It was my sin that held Him there
    Until it was accomplished,
    His dying breath has brought me life,
    I know that it is finished.
  3. I will not boast in anything;
    No gifts, no power, no wisdom,
    But I will boast in Jesus Christ,
    His death and resurrection.
    Why should I gain from His reward?
    I cannot give an answer;
    But this I know with all my heart,
    His wounds have paid my ransom.

Jer 9:23–24; 1 Cor 1:31