May 16, 2008

Show the difference

Posted in Commentary, Sin and Grace, Theology, Uncategorized at 2:08 pm by Matt Porter

It’s time to wrap up my thoughts on the gospel, at least for the time being. I probably have too much to fit into this post, but I’m going to try to pare it down to something less than novel-length.

So, apparently there are plenty of bad ways to give the gospel. What exactly should we do, then?

Number one: Live honestly. Stop sounding like we totally get this God thing, or like we never have any doubts about it, or like we have the life down pat. Admit that we’re fundamentally broken people, not somehow better people just because we’re saved. Be frank about our failings. And be able, in spite of all that, to express our faith that God is somehow working in us. Because the gospel is less about dramatic outward change than gradual inward change.

Number two: Live on earth, regardless of our heavenly citizenship. Yes, we all know we’re going to heaven when we die. So is that all the gospel is? A one-way ticket to heaven? Does the gospel have no implications on our daily lives here on earth? If it’s all about the future, who can blame those who decide they have enough to worry about now? That view puts us on the same level as those annoying people who nag you to make a will or buy a cemetery plot—we use the uncertainty of death as a bargaining chip, and that’s uncomfortable enough that most people don’t even want to consider it. Any sales pitch that starts with “If you died today,” is doomed. If we can’t make a connection between the gospel and our everyday lives, we should resign ourselves to remaining as popular as funeral directors and undertakers.

Number three: View others as people, not conquests. I’m beginning to hate the phrase “the lost.” It immediately splits humanity into us and them, as if there was nothing all people have in common. It also puts us into sales mode, with “we have something they need.” I don’t care if “we” do have something “they” need; that should not dominate “our” interactions with “them.” No one wants to deal with a salesman who sees customers in terms of potential sales, but at least he’s brutally honest about what he wants. What’s worse is the salesman who is attentive to his customers, but only in order to manipulate them into a sale. Guess which kind Christians are usually like? “Let’s hold a fair so we can force people to hear the gospel!” “Let’s host a Boy Scouts pack so we can get people into church!” “Let’s hold a children’s play so we can preach at all the captive family members!” “Let’s hold a big concert and give away pizza so we can give those kids a vivid sermon on hell!” Let’s use Program X or Method Y to get people to come to us, then bait-and-switch them with the gospel. Viewing life in terms of Them and Us seems to lead us to dishonest approaches to the gospel. It’s like giving my dog pills wrapped up in cheese. It’s like giving medicine with a spoonful of sugar. We’re trying to distract people long enough to slip some gospel down their throats, and people resent that we think they can’t see through it.

Number four: Give the gospel for someone else’s benefit, not yours. How many times have we heard “God’s going to hold you accountable for all those thousands of people you walked by and didn’t witness to”? Or “You need to carry around a stack of tracts so you don’t have some gas station attendant’s blood on your hands. He’s going to stand before God and look around and see your face, and he’s going to be screaming while the angels drag him off and throw him into the lake of fire to burn forever, ‘Why didn’t you give me a tract? Why didn’t you tell me?'” Yeah, makes great horror stories. This particular tale has probably contributed to more littering than any other story I know. At least one person has mass-distributed tracts by chartering a plane and dumping them out the back over the city (no permit, of course). I’m sure he relishes his war story about being persecuted for the faith. (Because it’s so unreasonable to arrest someone who dumps paper all over the neighborhood.) On a recent field trip, I removed two tracts from where they were left in a Chick-Fil-A. Gasp! Why would I prevent someone from seeing the gospel? Well, because they were left on top of the two urinals in the men’s bathroom. Not even the certifiably insane are going to take a pamphlet from the toilet, and some poor worker is going to have to clean it up. Net effect for the gospel: one irritated worker and several customers weirded out from connecting Jesus with toilets. None of this ridiculous behavior is for their benefit; it’s for ours! It’s all about saving our own butts. It’s motivated by the fear that God, some day in heaven, is going to bring the hammer down on us because we missed some minuscule opportunity to spread some fragment of the gospel in some unlikely manner, and now our mansion is only going to have 47 rooms instead of 53. (And don’t get me started on the whole mansion thing…) When we tell stories like the one above to get people to hand out tracts, we can’t say it’s love motivating us. That’s like telling your wife you’ll beat her if she doesn’t cook your dinner, then saying she cooks for you out of love. We try to give the gospel like it’s a vaccination, but by vaccinating others, we save ourselves from God’s wrath.

Number five: Care about people, not souls. This goes along with number three above. We don’t interact with souls; we interact with people. “Caring for their souls” is just Christian double-speak for “try to shoot them with the gospel gun.” How many sermons do we see in the Gospels? And how many times do we see Jesus healing or casting out demons or raising the dead or feeding the hungry or comforting the broken or loving the unlovable? People didn’t rush to see Jesus’ miracles because they’d heard him preach; they went to hear him preach because they’d seen his miracles. The way he lived (“How is it that thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me, which am a woman of Samaria?”) gave credibility to what he said (“Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did”). I’m sure there is a post and a half more to say about that; I’ll leave it for another day.

Number six: Be normal while being a Christian. Why is there this stereotype that Christians walk around with glazed eyes quoting large passages of Scripture while wearing burqas and abstaining from movie theaters? Maybe because Christians have sequestered themselves from the world. I’ve already written about this, and I’m sure I’ll hit it again and again, because it is such a major part of fundamentalist Christianity. Let me word it the way Jesus did:

Hearken unto me every one of you, and understand: There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man. If any man have ears to hear, let him hear. (Mark 7:14b-16)

So what does that leave us? How are we actually going to give the gospel? That is giving the gospel. Giving the gospel is not “witnessing” or giving a pre-planned step-by-step 1-2-3-pray-with-me presentation of the Romans Road or the Hebrews Highway or whatever method is your favorite, because the gospel encompasses a billion times more than “making a decision.” We love to collect decisions because they’re easy to quantify and make us feel warm and fuzzy inside, kind of like we’re good Christians. What we don’t seem to understand is that persuasion and conversion are the job of the Holy Spirit. If we lived in the light of the gospel, as I’ve written above, we’d have ample opportunities to talk about our faith, because we’ll be asked about it. Although the verse in 1 Peter about being ready to give an answer for our hope is in the context of persecution, the basic concept applies. We don’t demonstrate the gospel by our standards or our doctrine or our big talk, but by our reaction to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. (Isn’t there something in the Bible about faith without works being dead?) When we’re like Jesus, we won’t have to go out and hunt down people to share him with—they’ll be tracking us down on their own.

Thus endeth the series on presenting the gospel, albeit rather abruptly, I’m afraid. Stay tuned for several exciting posts! Okay, they’re not really exciting, and you might wish you’d changed the channel, but I’m sure they’ll give you something to talk about. That’s all. Carry on. Go about your non-blog-reading lives. 🙂


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