By John Pierce

My minister friends can relate to this scenario: Following a sermon, a listener tells the conveyor of the message just how wonderful and touching were the words they heard.

The conversation lingers and then redirects. The early words of gratitude give way to an unrelated venomous, political diatribe that violates most everything the biblical text and message had affirmed.

Drained from the sermon delivery and other tasks of the day, it seems easier to just smile — and then shake one’s head on the drive home, wondering if it was worth it.

The disconnection between what was said and heard can be baffling. Perhaps some just hear what they want to hear.

At other times there are those who take umbrage at any challenge to what they believe  — or believe they know to be certain truth — whether a long-held biblical interpretation or the latest indoctrination from a TV or radio ranting.

American Christianity, as I reminded a congregation recently, is often more American than Christian. It is that mixture of a preferred political ideology with enough theology to make it sound religiously pure.

Churchgoers are not that eager to hear how such positions might actually be at odds with the life and teachings of Jesus that they claim to affirm and seek to follow.

Generally, acceptance of so-called “stepping on toes” is limited to such matters as calls to pray harder and give more — not real, substantive changes of heart and mind.

Challenging hard-held ideologies and poor theology carries a price. And can lead to headaches as well as headshaking.

Something as seemingly clear as affirming a commitment to Jesus as the highest priority can become threatening — when the listener realizes that even nationalism should be penultimate.

Those looking for the road to ministerial success —the way of least resistance — would do well to avoid challenges to culturally-defined faith. Often, there is push back. And such messages don’t draw the biggest crowd.

The way to fill pews and offering plates is to affirm and amplify the widely-held political ideologies of a community — and then equate them with God’s opinion as well. Nodding heads and even applause will likely follow.

This is an easy approach for those ministers who also embrace cultural American Christianity as the real thing.

For others of us, however, there’s that nagging question: Are we called to be successful or faithful?

And it’s hard to just grin and shake your head all the time.

John Pierce

About John Pierce

John D. Pierce is executive editor of Baptists Today news journal (since 2000) and publisher of Nurturing Faith Books. Previously he served as managing editor of The Christian Index and as Baptist campus minister at Georgia Tech and Kennesaw State University. A native of Ringgold, Ga., he is a graduate of Berry College (B.A.), Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (M.Div.), and Columbia Theological Seminary (D.Min.). He speaks frequently in churches, consults with congregations concerning communications and holds interim pastorates.