This week Volkswagen got caught cheating. They created software that detects when testing is taking place and changes how the car operates so it can meet environmental standards. When the test is over the engine resume emitting up to 40 times the allowable pollutants. The scandal has already cost two high level jobs and will cost billions of dollars, countless jobs, and many years to repair the damage. Ironically VW recently passed Toyota as the largest car company in the world; it is impossible to know how far they will slide in the coming months.
The mistake VW made was telling a story that did not match reality. Rather than admitting that they couldn’t make a diesel engine that met all of the required specifications, they invented a narrative of success. They convinced the public that their German engineers could do things no other engineers in the world could accomplish. The disaster for VW isn’t that their cars don’t pass tests, the disaster is that their leaders can’t be trusted to tell the truth.
We run the same risk as Christian leaders. We can be so committed to seeing our churches grow that we will “do anything short of sin” to attract people. Sometimes we present a narrative that simply doesn’t line up with realty. We preach a Gospel that says if people will simply pray a prayer their whole lives will change; their marriages will improve, their kids will behave and their finances will flourish. They will find purpose and meaning and answers to all of life’s difficult questions. We point to examples of people who seem to live the kinds of lives everyone wants, and imply that our brand of faith guarantees the same results.
It works well until the deception is exposed.
Jesus faced the same temptation. People wanted to hear that Roman domination was ending, Jewish prosperity was returning and Jesus would make it all happen. As Jesus healed the sick, raised the dead and fed the hungry thousands of people dropped everything and followed him. They thought they found the key to the happy life everyone wanted. The momentum of this new Jesus movement seemed unstoppable.
Then one day Jesus turned to a crowd of thousands and said, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you cannot have eternal life in you.” (John 6:53 NLT) The people were stunned. What did he mean, “eat the flesh” “drink his blood”? This wasn’t the Good News they came to hear.
Another time Jesus told the crowd, “Don’t imagine that I came to bring peace to the earth! I came not to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34 NLT) The people were looking for peace and prosperity. Jesus was their ticket to the good life. How could he talk of bringing a sword?
When people heard Jesus say challenging things like this they began to drift away. Jesus wasn’t what they thought he was, so they left and looked for another feel good Messiah.
Jesus wasn’t just doom and gloom, however. He also said things like:
“My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life.”
“Come to me and I will give you rest.”
“Peace I leave with you.”
“I will send another Comforter.”
Jesus did not tell people what they wanted to hear, instead he presented a true narrative of life as it really is. He presented the good, the bad and the ugly. He didn’t promise a life that simply doesn’t play out in a lost and fallen world. Many, many people turned away from Jesus because the narrative he told wasn’t the narrative they wanted to hear, but the men and women who stayed carried his message to the end of the earth. I love what Peter said when Jesus asked him if hew would leave as well, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life.” (John 6:68 NLT)
When, as Christian leaders, we present a Gospel that is too good to be true we commit the same mistake VW made; we tell a story that doesn’t match reality. We create a narrative that may attract followers but doesn’t grow disciples, and when life doesn’t match the story we sold the followers they will turn on the church expose us as the hucksters we’ve become.
Our job, our only job, is to preach Jesus Christ and him crucified. We are called to tell the truth; the good, the bad, and the ugly. Our narrative is Christ’s narrative; “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33 NIV)
I don’t know when, or if, VW will recover from this scandal. My concern, however, is that if we, as Christian leaders, don’t learn from VW’s downfall the damage to the cause of Christ will be much more catastrophic. Let’s agree to speak the truth in love and leave the increase to God.