Each summer, my brother and I would go to Christian camp to learn life-changing lessons and meet other kids our age. We would pack our bags, load up in the church youth van, and drive from our small town in New Mexico to a local Christian college in West Texas. Like most teenagers at camp, I was more interested in having fun than in hearing sermons from the youth leaders. In fact, I really couldn’t tell you what most of the teachers taught, or the Christian principles we were supposed to learn. It’s not that the meetings were bad; I just wasn’t interested in the subject matter, and to be honest, they just weren’t very memorable.
I do remember one of the sessions though. Vividly. There were about thirty of us, and we were led into a dark room at the far end of the campus. The lights were off—it was nearly pitch black—except for the array of thirty TV screens of different shapes and sizes set against the back wall. All the TVs were on and playing at full volume. They demanded our attention with movies, video games, and assorted videos playing on repeat. It was like one of those brainwashing scenes in movies where they make the character sit in a chair and watch images flash on the screen while blasting heavy metal. We thought it was so cool. Classic youth ministry stuff.
After a few minutes of sensory overload, the screens were turned off, one by one. The kids in the room began recognizing what was playing on the individual televisions. The movie Home Alone was playing on one, a Budweiser commercial on another (wazzup!), a few music videos here and there, and of course, VeggieTales on three or four.
The last TV to turn off was also the smallest. It sat there for a few minutes, flickering images from a movie none of us had really noticed before. The youth leader let it play a while longer for dramatic effect. We were all mesmerized by its simplicity, especially since we’d just been bombarded with other noises and distractions. The television was playing The Jesus Film, and it was at the part where Jesus was being led to the cross.
Twenty-seven years later, I still remember the point of that class: Keep it simple. Don’t let all the other things distract you from a pure devotion to Christ. You know, it’s true. We clutter up our lives and our churches with all the other distractions around and end up missing the most important thing: Jesus. Paul said it best when he wrote to the Corinthian church:
I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. (2 Corinthians 11:3)
It was the type of wake-up call that the Corinthians needed, especially since they’d been compromised by the world. We need it too. God doesn’t want us to overcomplicate Christianity. He doesn’t want us to add a bunch of extra stuff to our faith. He wants us to keep it simple.
I’m going to share three things I think “keep it simple” means. These three things can apply to us personally, to our families, to our social interactions, and to our churches.
Keep it simple means keep it essential.
When it comes to our faith, there are certain beliefs and doctrines that we don’t compromise. These are often called the essentials of the faith. They’re the fundamental teachings of Christianity. Without these core beliefs, we can’t call ourselves Christians at all. So, this is really a given. We must have good doctrine and correct belief. But Christianity is about more than that. We need to believe in the essentials of the faith, but we also need to live out our faith essentially.
What I’m talking about here is not doctrinal essentials but devotional essentials. Spending time in prayer. Reading God’s word daily. Fellowshipping with other believers. Things like that. Getting back to basics. The temptation is to start adding a bunch of “non-essential” elements to our devotional life. For example, we can get so caught up in the latest Christian books or programs that we neglect the essential quiet time in God’s word. If a new Christian fad or fashion sweeps through social media, we get excited about this “new toy” and forget about the fundamentals of meditative prayer and time alone with Jesus. Keeping it simple means keeping it essential, and keeping it essential means we’re focused on the core elements of our devotion to Christ.
This applies to our churches too.
I really love all the different expressions of Christianity throughout the church world. It frustrates me when pastors make fun of other churches or criticize them for not doing things the same way that they are. There are so many wonderful churches with various worship styles and teaching methods, with large congregations and small. I love it. I’m not here to criticize or put down a church, but let’s be honest, many of our churches need to re-focus on what’s essential. The truth is that churches have added a lot of extra noise and nonsense to the ministry and have strayed from the simplicity that’s in Christ. We can do a better job of cutting the clatter so we can get a clearer picture of our priorities.
I’ve been learning this lesson on priorities for our church. Currently, we’re about a year and a half into a new church plant south of Tampa, Florida. Church planting isn’t easy, and it’s always good to start with a clear vision of why you want to plant a church and what makes your church unique. Our church has adopted the motto, “keep it simple,” and the church is growing. We’ve found that people are hungry for an authentic expression of Christianity without all the bells and whistles that have been added over the years. At our church, we stick to being relational, Spiritual, and Biblical. We try to keep things as simple as possible so we don’t miss out on what’s truly important: Jesus.
Keep it simple means keep it authentic.
As a kid back in the nineties, I loved skateboarding. My friends and I would skate all the time. We watched the videos, had the gear, and learned the tricks. My friend Preston had a halfpipe in his backyard, and we were there every day. Everything we did revolved around skateboarding. We embodied the skateboarder’s creed: “skate or die!” There was one thing I realized about my skate days that I’ve applied to my Christian life today: authenticity. Although I wasn’t really that good at skateboarding, I was committed to the culture. It was something I truly loved and not something I did just to be cool. In fact, because we were so committed, it was easy to identify when someone wasn’t. We called them posers. A poser is a kid who outwardly looks like a skater but is only there for social status. He has all the right clothes, knows all the right words, and hangs out at the skate park, but he’s just there to impress everyone else. They look like the real thing, but the closer you get, the more you realize they’re faking it.
Christianity is full of posers, and if we’re honest, some of us are faking it with the best of them.
I think this is why it’s so easy for people and churches to get caught up in all the extracurricular content. They are afraid that if you minimize the distractions, and get right down to it, there’s nothing authentic about their Christianity. It’s much easier just to pretend and be part of the show.
You know, the best skater in our town was this poor kid named Jake. He didn’t have the newest gear, and he didn’t dress in the latest skate fashion, but he loved the sport. When Jake dropped into Preston’s half pipe, you immediately knew that he was the real deal.
Keep it simple means keep it exceptional.
Occasionally when I’m sharing our “keep it simple” church vision with other pastors, they misinterpret it to mean keep it boring or keep it low quality. But the reality is that keeping it simple means keeping it exceptional. There’s nothing more exciting than Jesus. There’s nothing of higher quality than Him. When you present a beautiful diamond to someone, you display it on a simple black background. You don’t need a bunch of other stuff around it that would distract from the main thing. You have a quality product that doesn’t need extra flash to make it better. It’s like the old saying “less is more” which is used to express the view that a minimalist approach to artistic or aesthetic matters is more effective.1
In Christianity, less is more.
For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 1 Corinthians 2:2 (ESV)
This doesn’t mean that Christianity should be simplistic, however. There are some very complicated topics in our faith that need to be addressed, and certain points of theology that take decades to comprehend and appreciate. We don’t need to “dumb down” the gospel just because we don’t want to take the time to dig deep. It was Jesus Himself who said we should love God with our minds (Matthew 22:37), but Jesus also said that we get worried and troubled about many things, and only one thing is necessary (see Luke 10:41-42). In other words, keep the main thing the main thing. Sit at the feet of Jesus.
This should lead us to spend more time on the important things in life while minimizing all the extras and distractions. When we focus on a few key things, we’ll become much better at those things. Focus on a pure devotion to Christ. Keeping it simple should lead to exceptional faith and ministry and not the other way around. Don’t use simplicity as an excuse for laziness, but instead press into the exceptional life God has called you to live.
When I think back to all those TVs in that youth room, I remember the emotion of seeing that single tiny screen with Jesus carrying his cross. The image wasn’t bigger, or louder, or flashier, or better produced than the others. It was simple, but there was something special, even compelling, about it. As all the other screens faded to black, the simple message of the power of the cross of Jesus Christ was communicated louder than anything else that day. It’s that message we need to re-discover amid a church world full of complications and distractions.
1 ArchDaily Team, “Less is More: Mies van der Rohe, a Pioneer of the Modern Movement,” archdaily.com, March 27, 2021, https://www.archdaily.com/350573/happy-127th-birthday-mies-van-der-rohe.