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The Disappearing Jesus

By Rick Lawrence
Vibrant Faith Executive Director

I was talking with a junior high girl who’d just served as a leader in a churchwide worship experience during Holy Week. This girl had spent several days leading people from her congregation into a deeper relationship with Jesus through an interactive devotional experience. She was giddy with excitement. I told her I like to ask people to describe Jesus to me—just because I’m curious about how they see him.

“So,” I asked, “what are some words you’d use to describe Jesus to someone who’s never heard of him?”

She scrunched her forehead and tried to wrestle that question to the ground. Finally, she offered this hopeful response: “Well, I’d have to say he’s really, really nice.”

She was ready to leave it right there, so I asked: “Remember that time Jesus made a whip and chased all the moneychangers out of the temple? Does that story change the way you’d describe Jesus?”

She scrunched her forehead again. I’d created a kind of intolerable dissonance in her. Finally, with a tone of desperation, she landed on this: “Well, I know Jesus is nice, so what he did must have been nice.” I nodded and thanked her for thinking through her response. And then I got an idea. What if asked young people all over the country the same question? Maybe I could find some common threads in their responses. So I asked videographers in five major cities to stop young adults randomly on the street and ask them a simple question: “How would you describe Jesus?” When I got all the raw footage back, I quickly discovered my experience with the junior high girl was not an aberration. Without fail, the first and favorite descriptive word for Jesus was always “nice.”

These comments were profoundly sad for me. Sure, Jesus was “nice” to the people he healed or fed or rescued. But he would never be voted Mr. Congeniality. He was definitely not nice when he was blasting (over and over) religious leaders or calling his lead disciple “Satan” or an innocent Canaanite woman a “dog” or when he told the rich young ruler to sell all his possessions and follow him if that ruler wanted to “inherit eternal life.” In Matthew 23 he told the Pharisees they were “hopeless”—not once, but seven times in a row—and then he planted three exclamation marks at the end of that diatribe, calling them “manicured grave plots,” “total frauds,” and “snakes” (The Message).

The point is that a merely nice Jesus is no Jesus at all—he’s like a declawed version of Narnia’s Aslan. And if Jesus isn’t really Jesus to you, your connection to the church will devolve into a fragile cultural commitment, not a real relationship with a real person. In the latest Gallup survey of religiosity in the U.S., “Americans’ membership in houses of worship continued to decline last year, dropping below 50% for the first time in Gallup’s eight-decade trend. In 2020, 47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, down from 50% in 2018 and 70% in 1999.”

My friend and pastor, Tom Melton, once told me: “We don’t really believe Jesus is beautiful; otherwise, we wouldn’t describe our relationship with Him as so much work.” We “work at” our relationship with Jesus, and urge others to do the same, because the declawed Jesus we’ve settled for requires us to work if we want to maintain a connection to Him, or worship Him, or serve Him. The false Jesus of our conventional narratives arouses no passion in the people we serve, making it so much easier to simply slip away from church. Their passivity toward Him is a natural result of the descriptions they’ve heard of Him—the tips-and-techniques bastardizations of the things He said and did.

A declawed Jesus is not strong and fierce and big enough to walk with us into the fiery furnaces of our everyday life. We’re facing big challenges and struggles, and we’re looking for someone or something that can help us through or give us the courage we need to survive the blows we’ve endured. “Nice Jesus” isn’t hard enough or tough enough or real enough to walk with people into the dark alleys of life—and that’s exactly why they’re asking us to have a deeper, more real conversation about him. If the only Jesus they’ve experienced in the church is a Mr. Rogers knockoff, they’ve naturally turned to “lesser gods” that promise better results, including:

  • humanism
  • drugs and alcohol
  • affluence
  • video games
  • social networking
  • sexual experimentation
  • spirituality
  • sports
  • academic achievement

It’s clear that despite our best efforts—all our training, commitment, resources, and creativity—many in our congregations are just not getting who Jesus really is, or they’re not getting enough of who he really is, or they’re getting, literally, a fake Jesus. As a result, few of them are living passionately with Christ in their everyday life. According to Dr. Christian Smith’s research for The National Study of Youth and Religion (youthandreligion.org), nine out of 10 American young people (and also their parents) don’t have what social researchers call a “devoted” faith. That means…

  • their faith in Christ is not central to their life;
  • they don’t know the basics of their faith (my own research finds that four out of 10 of Christian teenagers say “a good person can earn eternal salvation through good deeds,” and almost a quarter of them say Jesus “committed sins while he lived on earth”); and
  • they don’t see Jesus making an impact in their everyday life—he’s just a church thing.

We need a renovation of revelation about who Jesus really is. And the only way to kick-start that kind of movement is to slow down and pay better attention to the things He says and does…

  • To lead others to discover Him for the first time, even though they assume they’ve known Him their whole life. 
  • To invite them into experiences of Jesus, not just discourses about Him. 
  • To ask more “Why?” questions about Him, and fewer “How?” or “What?” questions.

Finally, we will naturally infect others with our passions. If our own love for Jesus has slowly diminished to warm embers, we need a little lighter fluid poured over our coals. Maybe it’s time to clear our devotional decks and spend a month reading, then re-reading, the Gospel of John. As you do, ask Jesus to “clear the decks” in your relationship with Him, so you can encounter Him anew. To “taste and see” His beauty with a clean palate.

Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith. He’s the general editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible, and author of 40 books, including The Jesus-Centered Life and the new daily devotional Jesus-Centered Daily. Coming in September, The Suicide Solution.

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