by Mark Atteberry
By definition, a platitude is a trite remark, uttered as if it were fresh or profound. I heard a classic just an hour ago. I was driving home from an appointment and heard a radio preacher assure me that my life had value. He said that no matter how bad I may feel about myself, I am definitely worth something. Why?
Are you ready for this?
“Because God don’t make no junk.”
Any minute I expected him to remind me that God moves in mysterious ways and that there are no atheists in foxholes.
The first time I heard somebody say God “don’t make no junk,” I was wearing bell-bottoms, sporting long sideburns, and driving a Pinto. Hearing it again for the umpty-thousandth time did not invigorate my spirit. It didn’t stretch my mind. To be honest, it made me change the station.
One reason platitude-speak seems to be thriving in our culture is that many of those who specialize in it are very winsome and eloquent. They have that special “something” that enables them to draw people in. Some of them are so engaging they could stand up and read an insurance policy and make it sound like the Gettysburg Address. And since many of them have huge platforms and are surrounded by the trappings of success, you have a prescription for blind acceptance.
The Kool-Aid guzzling masses assume somebody that eloquent and that successful must have the hand of God on him. And if he has the hand of God on him, then what he’s saying must be profound.
There’s also the fact we live in a culture that thrives on sound bites. We’re accustomed to having every idea shrunk down to the size of a five-second clip. A presidential candidate, for example, can give a 40-minute speech, but no more than two or three sentences will air on the evening news. And you’re only going to get the clever quip, not the substantive policy statement.
In fact, just listen to the pundits at the conclusion of any major political speech or debate. The first thing they do is review the zingers, those “gotcha moments” where the candidates came up with pithy comments or clever comebacks.
This mentality lends itself to platitude-speak throughout our culture. Without even realizing it, many political, business, and church leaders buy into the notion that the quality of a presentation rises or falls on how clever or catchy it is.
That platitudes bore us and stunt our spiritual growth is hardly debatable. Even worse, they make it harder for us to connect with the world.
Today I did a Google search of the words religious platitudes and came up with 393,000 hits. Most of the Web sites I looked at were full of ridicule from unbelievers and skeptics mocking the cliché-ridden rhetoric so common in the modern church. One site even had a “Platitude of the Day” section. (Today’s platitude is “Let go and let God.”)
I understand the cynicism that fuels such backlash. Nobody is interested in stale bread. We insult the very people we’re trying to influence when we offer them tired rhetoric and expect them to be impressed.
One of the reasons Jesus connected so well with people is that he was not a quipster. He did not sound like everyone else. On the contrary, his messages were fresh and relevant and thought provoking. Often, when he spoke, his disciples were left to mull over what he’d said, which was a spiritual stretching exercise for them. Even his enemies said, “We have never heard anyone talk like this” (John 7:46*)! Jesus talked differently because he understood his mission was not to be a popular orator, but to “explain mysteries hidden since the creation of the world” (Matthew 13:35).
Let me offer three simple suggestions on how we can avoid platitude speak and ensure the depth and substance of our preaching and teaching.
First, choose real study over plagiarism. When Max Lucado’s book 3:16 was released a couple of years ago, I heard a preacher say, “That ought to keep me in preaching material for at least the next couple of months.”
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with borrowing ideas and insights from the great thinkers and communicators of our time. But if a preacher’s idea of studying is retyping a chapter out of someone else’s book, both he and his church are going to be as shallow as a toddler’s inflatable swimming pool.
We can do better than that.
Second, tackle the tough topics. I saw one of the most famous preachers in America interviewed on one of the morning news shows. He was asked why he never speaks on topics like homosexuality and abortion. His answer was that to do so would alienate people, and he wasn’t in the alienating business. He said he felt God had called him to draw people in, not drive them away.
The interviewer nodded and smiled, obviously pleased with such a tolerant, inclusive attitude.
I can’t help wondering what that preacher thinks when he reads Acts 20:26, 27. In those verses, the apostle Paul said, “No one’s damnation can be blamed on me, for I didn’t shrink from declaring all that God wants for you.” That statement has staggering implications. How is Paul not saying we are responsible for the damnation of people if we edit and dilute the gospel before we preach it?
Third, get out of the way of God’s Word and let it do its work. At the risk of sounding hopelessly out of touch with the modern world, sometimes I think we’re more in love with PowerPoint slides and movie clips than the Bible. We’re so desperate to be culturally relevant, to show the world how clever and “with it” we are, that we’re willing to let something we largely disapprove of (the secular movie industry) help us with our preaching.
I know guys who show clips from R-rated movies on Sunday morning. Granted, they’re carefully selected so as not to include nudity, violence, or profanity. Nevertheless, I have to wonder if a scene from Saving Private Ryan is really preferable to a few well-chosen Bible verses.
Yes, I know Jesus used stories and that’s what we’re doing when we use movie clips. I get all that. I’ve even done it. But I cut way back on that sort of thing the d ay one of our members told me we had the coolest church he’d ever seen because I showed a clip from a Superman movie.
I asked him if he remembered what the sermon was about and he said no, he just thought it was cool to see Superman in church. I’m glad he thinks our church is cool, but I wish he could find a better reason for feeling that way. Perhaps it’s my fault for not giving him one.
If you’re a preacher, teacher, counselor, or just someone who loves to share your faith informally, I plead with you to engage your brain and become more than a plagiarist, more than a clever quipster. If you’re going to hand out bread, put out a little extra effort and make sure it’s fresh. And please start immediately, because today is the first day of the rest of your life.
(See what I mean?)
*Scriptures are from the New Living Translation.
Mark Atteberry has served as senior minister with Poinciana Christian Church, Kissimmee, Florida, since 1989. He has written six books, including Free Refill, The Samson Syndrome, and The 10 Dumbest Things Christians Do. His latest book, So Much More Than Sexy! (Standard Publishing) was published this summer.