Keith Green often said that a Christian is a person who is “bananas for Jesus”.
So as someone who often feels more like a quince for Jesus, or at times is experienced by others as a “prickly pear” for Jesus, I enjoyed a recent article by Jared Wilson on The Gospel Coalition site about why preachers need to preach like Keith Green sang. You can read it here.
Green is still popular enough many years after his death to have a Facebook page dedicated to him and quite a few followers on it.
I would frame Wilson’s desire for our preaching like this: Our preaching should be like the sun; warm and enlivening.
Sadly, much of our preaching today – amongst conservative evangelicalism at least – is more like the moon; clear, bright and cold.
We sure could do with turning up the temperature in our sermons, and allowing them to be a source of light to our people rather than simply a pale reflection of it. If you’ve got an orthodox theology and practice of preaching, they are God’s words you’re speaking, so cut out the sleep-inducing lecture style you assumed was preaching from your college days, okay?
As Wilson points out, Keith Green was nothing if not fervent in everything he did in his short life. And like Wilson I grew up in my youth (slightly older than he) listening to Green and being drawn in by the intensity of both his music and his lyrics. He did nothing by half measures.
Green’s music came at a time in my life when, quite frankly, some fervency was needed. I had attended a Baptist Church in which I had come to expect that worship of God was slightly dispassionate, and the only thing to arc up about was heresy, or even the whiff of it.
But when my parents split up, everything was on the table. Hence I found myself at an old-style Pentecostal AOG church. You know the kind; it would put the more-marketable Pentecostal-lite stuff we see today, in the shade. Back in the day before the Pentecostals realised they could flex some muscle culturally and politically, the average Pentecostal service was fervency-central.
Those churches in the late seventies and early eighties garnered the misfits, the downtrodden and the outsiders, you know, the types who can’t fund a big church planting organisation.
In that setting God threatened/promised to show up at any time and do some damage to us or call out some secret sin (usually of a sexual nature), so keep your nose clean! There were words of knowledge that were way beyond the “I think God is saying we should have a merry Christmas” kinda stuff that comes out today. It was heady stuff.
In short, it was nothing if not fervent. And that is where, thanks to a friend from school who took me to that church and remains friends to this day, I encountered Keith Green for the first time. I don’t need to repeat what Wilson says in his article to show what a lightning bolt Green was in the whole evangelical scene. He certainly was for me.
But I do want to add a caveat. And it’s an important one. While I want evangelical preaching to capture the fervency of Green’s singing, I do not want it to uncritically capture some of the theology of his singing. Don’t get me wrong, Green was bananas for Jesus”, and he wanted the church, especially in the West, to be as equally as bananas. Because it didn’t appear to be. Jesus was front and central for Green and he lamented the fact that the church was distracted by baubles.
But as Wilson intimates, albeit briefly, if we dig down into Green’s theology, we see it needed a fair bit of work (which all of our theology does btw). It’s a minor point in Wilson’s article, but an important one. And since Green was such an influential figure it’s doubly important.
And it’s probably where Green’s fervent call for the church to change was not met with actual change over the long haul. And I say that, not to simply be theologically orthodox, but to be theologically pastoral.
Here’s why: You see, in the end, in and of itself, fervency as the means to living “bananas for Jesus” only took me so far. A few years of it, a couple of years in my late teens of living my very own Judges cycle (i.e., sin, self-judgement, repentance, restoration) and I was pretty much worn out by fervency.
As a late teen, with a split family, having grown up in a tight church, now doing an Arts degree at uni and dating a lovely non-Christian girl, you can see where all of this was headed. Fervency wasn’t strong enough to keep me from doing what I wanted. It would for a time, but it had no staying power.
Fervency, of the type that Green sang, and of the types the churches I then frequented, never empowered long term change. Indeed it often led to a “rend your garments and not your hearts” attitude. And it wasn’t simply that Green had no theological depth or no calls in the light of grace in his songs – he did.
But the ecclesiological and theological context into which he sang his songs was the slightly moralistic legalism (outwardly at least) of American mainstream evangelicalism in the seventies and early eighties, where the cultural drift towards post-Christian individualism was well under way. He was seeing a disconnect between the statements of the church and the practices of the church. No wonder he was fervent. Change was needed.
But when Keith sang as God in the first person in one of his most well known songs: “If you can’t come to me every day, then don’t bother coming at all”, that’s a big pastoral cross for people to bear.
And it’s a cross that people don’t have to bear. Why not? Because God would not say that to us. God didn’t need Keith filling in the theological blanks that Keith thought God might have missed. Ought we come to God every day? Yes. What will drive us to come to God every day? The fear that he might throw His hands up when we don’t and say “Look, just don’t bother!” I think not.
Change by fervency can never break us out of the cycles of sin and insecurity that quite frankly, takes more than fervency to break. I had to move beyond fervency, which is why I needed the both/and rather than the either/or.
My personality type is naturally drawn to a fervency that can, if not careful, give me a “coulda/woulda/shoulda” gospel – one in which I needed to knuckle down harder, be a little more fervent for Jesus, and it will burn sin off. But it didn’t – and still doesn’t -, at least not by itself.
I am a fairly intense, emotional person, so to offer me simply a flattened out emotionally-light, but theological sermon won’t do it either. Those who sniff at fervent churches that are light on theology should do some research among Pentecostals.
If they did they’d discover that most Pentecostals consider it a very poor trade off to exchange a fervent Sunday church worship service for one that ticks all the theological boxes, but is cool as a cucumber. At their best they see fervency and theological robustness as conjoined twins. So should we.
Theologically orthodox sermons should be hot as chillis not cool as cucumbers. If we’re talking about the wondrous gospel story that begins in a garden in Genesis and ends in a city in Revelation, then dispassionate sermons are a crime against new humanity.
In the end what empowered the change in my life – what helped burned sin off and what continues to do so – was passionate, fervent preaching that centred deeply and often on the finished work of Christ on my behalf, and that called me to live in the light of that finished work. That’s preaching that is bananas for Jesus.
That’s gospel preaching. I learned that the gospel is not the first stage of my Christian faith, a mere booster rocket to be jettisoned once I get into the stratosphere of discipleship.
No, the gospel is what I put my (banana plant) roots down into and grow up into, as Colossians 2:6-7 states:
Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.
I distinctly remembering hearing such gospel preaching for the first time. I was on a bus trip taking the long 700km drive down to Esperance from Perth.
Life had taken a few turns for the worse, and so was the bus and I was feeling slightly queasy. I was jaded, weary from what was going on in my life. I started listening to a series of cassettes on my Walkman (let the reader understand) of a stunning set of sermons from a local bloke in Perth on Romans 6.
It called me to be what I already was – a new creation in Christ;. It called me to live up to the identity that had been won for me by the perfect life of Christ, his sacrificial (yes, PSA) death on my behalf, and the empowering role the Holy Spirit, gifted by the risen and reigning Christ, would work in my life. And it was “banana” fervent from go to woah.
There was a “therefore” to it; a solid base upon which to build the Christian life that could be fervent, but which moved beyond fervency and its inability to bring lasting change.
In short, it was the sun. Warm and enlivening. And something clicked. Not everything changed at once. Sin still beset me. In this body of death sin still besets me. But seeking such preaching over time ushered in a long-term liberation that short-term fervency offered, but couldn’t deliver.
Since then I have been able to revisit Keith Green’s music and appreciate it in the light of a more liberating theological framework.
I wish my preaching were as fervent as Keith Green’s singing. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. And I’m certainly not as talented a preacher as he was a singer. And I also want to call God’s people to change. And I wish I were as bananas for Jesus as he evidently was.
But I want to call people to change in the light of the fact that because of Christ’s work – his fervent work on their behalf – they have already been changed. They have been transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light, and that there is a great big THEREFORE attached to that. It’s a liberating “therefore” that empowers change over time in a way that fervency cannot.
So if you’re reading this and you’re fervent, then good on you. Just make sure that it’s a liberating gospel fervency you have.
And if you’re theologically down the line but you’re not fervent at all, then you’re probably not as bananas for Jesus as you think you are, or as you should be.
Oh, and the lyrics to one of my favourite Keith Green songs that does bring good theology and fervency together:
My eyes are dry
My faith is old
My heart is hard
My prayers are cold
And I know how I ought to be
Alive to you and dead to me
But what can be done
For an old heart like mine
Soften it up
With oil and wine
The oil is you, your spirit of love
Please wash me anew
With the wine of your blood