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Guest Column: Shifting to substance

July 1, 1993

Guest Column: Shifting to substance

By By Dr. Robert R. Kopp

I’ll never forget driving down Coatesville, Pennsylvania’s Main Street for the first time about 30 years ago and seeing a big and beautiful, old gray stone church.

Back in those days, I was a lot more into structure than substance.

I was a typical mainline-church-statesman apprentice. I wore buttoned-down Oxfords, penny loafers (Bass only), cuffed khakis, blue blazers with three buttons, and learned how to say nothing eloquently, along with getting that perfect little dimple in my tie just below the knot.

The hardest thing to get was dancing along that razor’s edge of theological duplicity masquerading as esoteric revelation which enabled everybody to feel good without having any idea of what you’re talking about.

But if you learned how to appear to agree with the last person you talked to, you were rewarded with a really big and fabulously well-to-do church; or a career in politics or selling insurance, which is a step above those guys who pick up used cars for a couple hundred bucks and turn ‘em over for a couple thousand.

Anyway, as I got closer to the church, I noticed an enormously gaudy neon-light sign with “Jesus Saves” on it that kind of stuck out just above the front doors like a White Sox pennant at Wrigley Field.

The only thing that seemed more gauche to me at the time is one of those creepy pictures of Jesus looking like a sun-tanned Swede with eyes that follow you around the room.

So I started that condescending to mean-spirited mainline “We’re-better-than-you-ignorant-independent-non-denominational-fundie-roll-and-spit-in-the-aisles-churches” chuckle until I saw the Coatesville Presbyterian Church sign on the front lawn.

It was the start of a profound paradigm shift.

The shift accelerated as I met the pastor, Hans Evans, in Coatesville Hospital not long after that. He was dying. Though I was only doing my professional courtesy thing more than anything else, he ended up sharing the wisdom of his lifetime.

Before I said anything, he asked, “Did you see our ‘Jesus Saves’ sign?” Continuing before I responded, he went on, “Some people don’t like it. But I’ve always believed people should be pointed to Jesus instead of a church.”

Many years have passed since those brief moments at Dr. Evans’ bedside. He was old and dying. I was young and aspiring. When I groused about the pressures of ministry, he noted, “The difference between coal and diamonds is pressure.”

When I lamented the increasingly apparent apostasy in mainline denominations, he urged, “Stay in our denomination; because if you’ve ever wanted to be a missionary, our denomination is the best mission field open to us today.”

Yet what I remember most is that sign-“Jesus Saves”—and how he insisted on substance over structure. The shift continues.

As a young Christian-then-pastor, I assumed mainline denominations were the guardians of the Gospel of Jesus and non-denominational types were outside of orthodoxy consistent with biblical Christology and ethics. Clearly, the roles have reversed in recent days. This shift defies logic.

But it’s obvious; except, of course, to those blinded by their longing for the way things never were or maybe were but are no more.

I think of a friend who began worship for her franchise by saying the Lord had given a word to her for them from Judges 16:20: “And Samson awoke from his sleep and said, ‘I will go out as other times and shake myself free.’ But he did not know that the Lord had left him.”

The editor of a paradenominational publication quoted Isaiah 29:13 in his assessment of the mainliners: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”

When I shared my conclusion, no longer suspicion, that the Lord has removed the lampstand from the mainliners and moved them to the sidelines of religious life in America (see Revelation 2:1-7), a friend cited Acts 7:51 as the cause: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit.”

Fortunately, Christianity is big on redemption. Jesus has always been more about saving than damning. That’s why I have not stopped praying and hoping the mainliners will be born anothen. It won’t happen until they shift from structure to substance. John 3:16-17 is a good place to start.

Dr. Robert Kopp is the pastor of Bethany Presbyterian Church, Loves Park.

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