Friday, March 21, 2008

I noticed several years ago in the American church that it had its message backward: We keep telling society to repent, and we tell other Christians how much God loves us. (In the Bible, particularly in the life of Jesus, the harshest invective is reserved for believers, while those on the outside are told how much God loves them and wants them to come home.)

Last Sunday, a friend of mine pointed out something else that's backward: the church's approach to evangelism.

Mark talked about the time, as the pastor of a startup church in a city, he started to prepare for a presentation he was going to give his church members on how to evangelize. His talk was going to draw on the Romans Road, the Four Spiritual Laws, the ABCs of the gospel.

You know the drill: You're a sinner, your sins have separated you from God, Jesus is the provision God has made to reconnect you with himself, and by confessing your sins and placing your faith in him, you can be forgiven and reconciled to God.

He hit trouble when he started looking at how Jesus and the early church used this model to share the gospel with other people. To his amazement (and consternation, since he was doing his talk the next morning), he couldn't find a single instance where anyone in Scripture did this.

What he found instead was this: Every time the disciples told nonbelievers about Jesus, their message was the Resurrection, and their call was to follow Jesus.

That was it. Jesus told people to follow him — sometimes giving them specific directions of what that meant, like "Sell everything you have, give it to the poor, and then, follow me" — but he also spoke of his Resurrection.

All the teaching about what happened on the Cross -- how Christ became our sin, how he died in our place, the mechanism of our forgiveness -- is delineated by Paul, in his letters to believers. When he preached the gospel to a group of nonbelievers, Paul argued that Jesus was the promised messiah, and he preached the Resurrection as proof of that. There's no indication that he spent his time telling people that they were sinners and were separated from God.

I have to admit, Mark makes an interesting and compelling argument that we're substituting mechanism for message. And certainly haranguing people about their sins, real or imagined, doesn't really make them interested in the gospel nearly as much as hearing its real-world relevance in more organic arenas.

It makes me wonder how much we -- I -- have that's still all screwed up. It makes me think of the proverb, "Even a fool is thought wise when he remains silent"; and I remember that Paul himself waited something like 14 years after his conversion on the road to Damascus before he started preaching.

God only knows how many people I alienated over the years, by speaking of what I neither knew nor understood.

St. Francis of Assisi once said to "preach the gospel always, but use words only when necessary"; unfortunately, it was ruined for me some years ago by a Jesus Junk manufacturer who used it to tout a line of often obnoxious T-shirts. (Clearly, you don't need to use words yourself if you have a pithy saying on your T-shirt like "This is your brain in hell ... any questions?"

What struck me about Mark's comments, though, is how pervasive this inversion of the gospel has become in evangelical churches. There's the political power-brokering of the titans in our parents' generation, in lieu of actual engagement with society; there's the endless public moralizing over other people's peccadilloes and our resentment over media depictions of Christians that make us look imperfect; and there's this, making the mechanism our message rather than preaching the message that Jesus himself had.

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