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The Most Important Question?

Leaning back against the soft cushions, book held loosely in one hand, chocolate chip cookie in the other, coffee cup perched delicately on my knee, I snuggled in and looked forward to a quiet afternoon of reading. Does it get any better?

credit: atomicjeep (flickr)

The doorbell rang.

Of course.

Normally I would have ignored it, but I was staying at my parents’ house for a few days, and I thought I should at least see who it was. So, with a sigh, I thumped my cup on the table, set aside my barely tasted cookie, jammed a bookmark in its place, and hoisted myself out of the comfy confines of my parents’ couch.

Opening the front door, I was greeted by three older gentlemen in their Sunday finest. One even held a black leather Bible in front of his red tie. Another fiddled with several small pamphlets that looked suspiciously like evangelistic tracts. And, the third stepped forward with a warm smile: “Hi, we’re from First Baptist Church. You filled out a visitor card last Sunday and we’re following up to see if we can answer any questions for you.”

“Oh, I don’t live here,” I responded. “My parents moved to town a few weeks back and they’ve been checking out a few churches in the area.” Looking for a quick end to the conversation I quickly added, “If you want to leave some information, I’ll make sure they get it.”

But, these were men on a mission; they wouldn’t be dismissed that easily.

“Do you know Jesus?” Pamphlet Man asked. It probably wasn’t quite that abrupt, but that’s how I remember it.

Fortunately, I was just about to graduate from Bible college, so I was well-prepared for difficult theological questions like this. With a little smile, I looked him in the eye and confidently replied, “Yes.”

That was four years of college tuition well spent.

But, they still weren’t done. Leaning closer with his Bible clutched in both hands, the third man asked, “But, do you know where you’re going after you die?”

And there it was. The question that trumps all other questions. What could be more important than knowing the answer to a question about your eternal destiny?

Still a bit annoyed that I wasn’t back on the couch with my book, I nearly said, “Disneyland.” But, he didn’t seem like the type to appreciate a joke about eternal destinies. So, instead, I gave him what he was looking for. “I know that I’ll live forever in heaven after I die,” I said, “because I believe in Jesus with all my heart and trust him as my Lord.”

That’s what they needed—assurance that I’d reserved my spot in Heaven forever. So, they gave me some material about the church, shook my hand warmly, and went on about their business.

Too bad. They missed an excellent opportunity to explain what I’d gotten wrong.

Valery Everett (Flickr)

Where did we get this idea that the whole point of the story was to make sure that we make it into heaven, and that our primary concern should be where we go after we die?  Do you know that if you read through the entire New Testament, you’d end up with only a handful of verses that have anything to do with what happens to us after we die? They are there, and we shouldn’t neglect them. But, why make them such a central part of the story? Why make that the most important question you can ask someone?

Interestingly, that’s the one question Jesus almost never asked. And, he asked a lot of questions:

  • Do you really think it’s that impressive if you’re nice to people who are just like you?
  • Why are you anxious about little things like clothing?
  • Why do you spend so much time considering the flaws of other people and ignoring your own?
  • Why are you afraid?
  • Why do you think about evil things all the time?
  • Do you believe that I can do this?
  • Who is truly a part of my family?
  • Why did you doubt?
  • Who do people say that I am?
  • What could you possibly give in exchange for your life?
  • Can you endure what I will have to endure?
  • What do you want me to do for you?

Those are all great questions, just a few of the ones Jesus asks in a single book (Matthew). And, notice their focus: living faithfully in response to the Gospel today. As far as I can tell, in the entire book, Jesus only once asks a question about a person’s eternal destiny (Matthew 23:33). Instead, he focuses almost exclusively on making people think about what they are doing right now.

Jesus came to announce the arrival of the Kingdom. That’s not a message for some far off future, but it’s good news for right now. It has obvious implications for the future. We’d mess up the Gospel just as much if we thought that this story was only about the here and now. That would rob the story of purpose, hope, and direction. But, the mistake we more commonly make is thinking that the most important question we can ask is about where we’ll be in the end.

What’s the most important question that you can ask? It’s not, “Where will you go when you die?” That’s a fine question. And, it’s one that’s worth discussing. But, the most important question? I don’t think so. A far better question is, “Who will you follow while you live?” Answer that question, and the other will take care of itself.

[This is part of my series on unpacking the Gospel.]


Bait-and-switch evangelism

“Okay, I’ll go back. But no Jesus stuff this time.”

What exactly does it take to make a 4-year-old declare that she’s all done with Jesus stuff? Bait-and-switch evangelism.

Here’s what happened.

The Tragedy Begins

It’s the day before Easter. And, unexpectedly for the northwest, it’s a beautiful, sunny Saturday afternoon. So, my little girls grab their mom and head down the street to a church that is hosting an Easter carnival. Holding hands, they skip down the sidewalk with images of Easter egg hunts, candy, and cheap carnival games dancing through their young minds, never knowing what is really in store for them.

(This would be a good place to picture a dark cloud suddenly drifting in front of the bright, spring sun, casting a shadow across our happy scene. Or, just imagine some ominous music playing in the background. Either way, you get the point.)

Arriving at the church, the first thing they see is a big booth set up for face painting. Now, I have to admit that I’ve never understood the allure of face painting. But, for little girls, The thought of having someone smear cheap paint all over their faces in a way that vaguely resembles a flying bug is nearly irresistible.

So, they stop. And the tragedy begins.

Because, of course, this is the Gospel booth. And, from the Gospel booth there is no escape. It’s kind of like the Twilight Zone.

The Gospel Zone

Almost as soon as the girls sit down, one of the volunteers launches into the Gospel story. And my girls sit through it patiently. They’ve heard it before, but they’re too polite to interrupt. And, from the enthusiastic presentation, my wife suspects that they might be the only new people the church has seen all afternoon. She doesn’t want to ruin the fun. So they listen to the story.


That’s right. Apparently they weren’t sure that my girls caught everything the first time. And they really wanted it to stick. So, as soon as they were done with the story, they launched into it again.

The Twilight Zone does not surrender its victims easily.

Emerging from the Gospel booth almost 30 minutes later, they discover that the carnival is over. No more candy. No more games. No Easter egg hunt. They’ve missed it all.

Bait-and-switch strikes again.

The Old Switcharoo

SwordsmanSr via Photobucket

Bait-and-switch evangelism is any time we tell people that they are getting one thing, and then we slip them the Gospel while they are there. Want some candy? Sure, come and get it. Oh, by the way, you’ll have to sit and listen to this story first.

Are we trying to make little kids hate the Gospel?

Why do we do this? Deep down, are we that afraid that they won’t want to hear? Do we doubt the power of the message that much? Do we think the Spirit can’t handle things?

And, what are we subtly communicating to ourselves and to other people about the Gospel when we do this? I’m afraid that we’re hinting that we really don’t think that the Gospel is all that. If I’m really convinced that I have the most amazing story that will transform your life forever, I’m not going to invite you over to my church for a football game and then try to slip it in between commercials. I’m going to invite you over to hear the story.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with parties, carnivals, football games, or any of the various ways that churches can connect with their communities, share life together, and allow the world to see a redeemed community in action. That must be done. And, along the way, we will have opportunities to share the Gospel as an organic expression of living in community together. But, that’s very different from the bait-and-switch.

When we trick people into hearing the Gospel, we annoy them and we undermine the very message that we’re seeking to promote. I’m sure it works at times, but pragmatic effectiveness is not an adequate measure for appropriate Kingdom living.

The quote at the beginning of this post? That came from my daughter one year later. A full year after her experience at the Easter carnival, she remembered what happened the last time she stepped into the Gospel zone, and she wasn’t about to let it happen again.

No more Jesus stuff for her.

The bait-and-switch at its finest.

Flotsam and jetsam (5/2)

The classroom should be a consecrated place—a dedicated space for attending to ideas not normally addressed as ardently elsewhere. Strange, good, and serendipitous things happen there. Questions are newly formed, puzzlement gives way to intellectual pursuit, and insights arrive serendipitously. On the other hand, even after earnest preparations, professors can be greeted with vacant stares, wandering eyes, stupefied silences, or irritatingly inept comments. We struggle to win, keep, and enrich our students’ attention.
The great untold truth of libraries is that people need them not because they’re about study and solitude, but because they’re about connection.
  • Justin Taylor reports on a recent roundtable of pastors asked how they would explain the gospel in two different contexts. And, he shares the following story that Mark Stiles often uses when witnessing to Muslims.
Two men went to the mosque to pray. One was a rich man, the other a poor man. The rich man went through his libations and prayers as he did five times a day. As he was praying, he began to have a sexual fantasy about the young wife who lived next door to his home. But he finished his prayers and went home. The poor man stood off at a distance. He came so infrequently to the mosque, that he couldn’t remember the positions for prayer or his libations. But he looked up to heaven, beat his breast, and said, “Forgive me, O Lord, for I’m a sinner.” Who went home justified? [Mr Stiles says that every Muslim he has asked this question has answered “The rich man.”]

We do not have to choose between retributive and restorative schemes of divine justice. The righteousness that brings judgment also fills the universe with God’s shalom….There can be no reconciliation without recompense otherwise the disorder, destruction, and decay of evil prevents peace from lasting. The incarnation and the cross achieve both: juridical judgment and relational peace wrought in the atonement.

The Rejected John 3:16 Super Bowl Ad

If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s the proposed John 3:16 Super Bowl ad that Fox rejected because it was too religious. A lot of Christians are up in arms about the “censorship,” “intolerance,” and “unfairness” that Fox’s decision supposedly represents. Yet, I seem to recall lots of Christians expressing similar outrage when atheists began running pro-atheism ads on buses and billboards. So, what exactly do we want? Is it okay to run overtly religious ads in public spaces or not? Because it sure seems like we’re trying to have our cake and eat it too.

(By the way, that always strikes me as an odd saying. Why would I want to have the cake if I wasn’t going to eat it?)


What it means to be “unreached”

Here’s a powerful video on what it means to be “unreached” by the Gospel.



Flotsam and jetsam (10/27)

They text their friends all day long. At night, they do research for their term papers on laptops and commune with their parents on Skype. But as they walk the paths of Hamilton College, a poster-perfect liberal arts school in this upstate village, students are still hauling around bulky, old-fashioned textbooks — and loving it.

Though I shared some of the frustrations, I came to a place on day five, when I finally realized: We all feel marginalized in some way. That’s the human condition. Extend grace. Move on. At the end of the day, it’s not about you or me. In the church and in ministry, we will all encounter moments when we feel marginalized and unintentionally marginalize others, but we must learning to work and serve together without resorting to the “It’s not fair!” refrain that can divide and undermine our reputation to the world around us. We must learn to display what it means to madly love God and one another in spite of our sense of inequality.

  • Roger Olson answers the question, “What is an evangelical theologian?” offering his usual emphasis on evangelicalism as a sociological  movement rather than some particular set of theological commitments.

Thus, my answer to whether Brian McLaren is an evangelical theologian is: “Of course he is. What else would he be?”  Brian’s whole shtick (I don’t mean that in any demeaning way) is only of interest to evangelicals.  His publishers are mostly evangelical publishers.  He speaks mostly in evangelical institutions.  He pastors an evangelical church.  To a very large extent he has no constituency outside of evangelicalism.  What does it even mean to declare him “not an evangelical theologian?”

As I look back on this book I see both strengths and weaknesses. The epistolary form is a wonderful choice. The tone is humble and helpful. The majority of what Smith teaches lines up well with what I believe. But as a Baptist I had to disagree with, well, a good portion of it. And looking at the endorsements, I can see that others disagreed with him as well. Two of the book’s endorsers, Tullian Tchividjian and Michael Horton offer caveats within their blurbs (Tchividjian: “No one will agree with everything here, but what I appreciate…” Horton: “Most of the time I cheered ‘Amen!’ as I read these letters, but even when I disagreed, I appreciated…”). In fact, conspicuous by their absence from the list of endorsers are any of the Baptist leaders of this New Calvinism.

How Do We Work for Justice and Not Undermine Evangelism?

That is the question that The Gospel Coalition has been asking this week, soliciting responses from Don Carson, Ray Ortlund, Russell Moore, and Mike Wittmer. In sum, they responded as follows:

Don Carson:

  • By making sure that we actually do evangelism.
  • By being careful not to malign believers of an earlier generation.
  • By learning, with careful study of Scripture, just what the gospel is, becoming passionately excited about this gospel, and then distinguishing between the gospel and its entailments.
  • By truly loving people in Jesus’ name.

Ray Ortlund

  • By changing the question to, “How can Christians neglect the work of justice in the world without undermining evangelism?”

Russell Moore

  • By aligning our mission with the mission of Jesus, which included not just personal regeneration but also disciple-making.
  • By understanding the gospel accounts in terms of redemptive love for the whole person, both body and soul.
  • By understanding the gospel as a message of reconciliation that is both vertical and horizontal, establishing peace with both God and neighbor.

Mike Wittmer

  • By recognizing that Christians need to stop the perpetrators of evil and violence.
  • By recognizing that Christians need to seek justice to help the victims of oppression.
  • By understanding that we do both of these ultimately because we love Jesus – we do these things, and we tell them about Jesus while we do, because they matter to him.

Reading through these responses, I have to say that I resonated with Russell Moore’s the most (though Carson’s was pretty good). Moore was the one who made the clearest connection between the Gospel as the good news of God’s redemptive plans for his entire creation, and the things that we do in the world as those who have been transformed by that Gospel and now act as its witnesses/messengers in the world. So, social justice dovetails with evangelism in that both are necessary aspects of those who live as messengers of the Kingdom. As such, neither necessarily undermines the other. But, both can become obstacles to the other when we lose sight of their unity in the Gospel.

Wake Forest church uses WTF to attract college students

A church in Wake Forest has decided to build its logo around the acronym WTF (to them it means “worship, teaching, friends”). A picture of the church has recently received lots of attention on the web, with most people assuming that the church is clueless and has no idea what the acronym actually stands for. But, according to the church’s blog, they’re well aware of its usual meaning, but have used the acronym as part of an intentional strategy to market the church to college students. (Don’t you love it when we use the words “market” and “church” in the same sentence?) So, the church is pretty excited about all the attention that they’ve received from this photo.


The Gospel for Real Life

Continuing our series of reviews on books about the Gospel, today I’m going to look at Jerry Bridges’ The Gospel for Real Life: Turning to the Liberating Power of the Cross…Every Day (NavPress 2003).

According to Bridges, the book focuses on combating the problems that many Christians face in their spiritual lives because they’re operating with either a truncated understanding of the Gospel or a utilitarian view of the Gospel, or both (p. 14). So, Bridges sets out to provide an explanation of the Gospel that is neither truncated nor utilitarian, and he is partially successful.

In seeking to offer a less truncated view, Bridges does a nice job unpacking a very traditional (and pretty reformed) understanding of the cross as lying at the heart of the Gospel. Most of the first hundred pages or so really serves as an explanation of the atonement, with strong emphasis on substitutionary atonement and justification. But, he doesn’t stay there. Once he’s finished unpacking the atonement, he does move on to discuss the gift of the Spirit, adoption, assurance, sanctification, and the eschatological telos of the whole story. So, to some extent Bridges succeeds in staying focused on the cross at the heart of the Gospel, while avoiding the truncated Gospel by showing how other important aspects of the good news are connected to the cross.

Bridges is also concerned to avoid the utilitarian Gospel. Having attended far too many churches where baptismal testimonies focus on “how great my life is now that I’m a Christian,” I can definitely sympathize with this desire. So, Bridges directs our attention throughout to the nature and character of God as the focus of the story. But, he does not make the mistake of thinking that this means he can’t say anything about what the Gospel does for us.

Nonetheless, the book has at least four significant weaknesses that made it pretty disappointing. First, although one of Bridges stated purposes was to protect people from having a truncated view of the Gospel, he was only partially successful. That’s because although he did a nice job centering the Gospel in the cross, he did very little to place the cross in the broader biblical narrative that provides the only context in which it can be properly understood. He talked about sin, of course, but said very little about God’s creative purposes, his covenantal faithfulness with Israel, his promises, or even the kingdom. Without these, the good news simply will not be fully understood for being the really good news that it is.

Similarly, although Bridges focuses much of the book on the atonement, I would have liked to see a more robust presentation of all that the cross means. Bridges includes discussions of reconciliation and ransom in addition to substitutionary atonement. But, what about victory, revelation, and healing, among others? If we’re going to celebrate the cross as the heart of the Gospel, let’s make sure we celebrate all of it.

And, unfortunately, as with many books that make the cross central to the good news, Bridges evidences very little interest in the incarnation, the resurrection, or the ascension as having any real role to play in grounding the good news. There seems to be a hesitation in some circles to discuss these as part of the Gospel story because of a concern that they will detract from the centrality of the cross. But, surely we can recognize the significance of all Christ’s life for the good news that he brought into the world, without losing sight of the atonement in the process.

And, connected to the lack of discussion about the kingdom was a corresponding lack of any real talk about the church. The good news that Bridges brings is largely centered on the salvation of the individual. That’s not Bridges exclusive focus, but it’s close. Once again it seems that a legitimate concern to protect one important aspect of the Gospel (its individual aspect) caused him to neglect something else (its corporate aspect).

But, probably the biggest disappointment in the book, especially given its subtitle, was the fact that it actually had very little to say about what the Gospel has to do with real life. He did address sanctification and the Spirit-empowered life of the believer. But, everything remained at a pretty high level of abstraction. What does the Gospel have to do with doing housework or selling cars, raising kids or watching football? If this is the Gospel “for real life,” then let’s talk about real life and how the power of the Gospel touches and transforms every aspect of our existence. That’s what I was hoping in find in this book, and in that I was disappointed.

Why we need “thick” Gospel narratives

I’m going to be honest here. If I hear one more person talk about the ABCs of the Gospel, the Four Points of the Gospel, the One Minute Gospel, or the Twitter Gospel, I think I’ll have to go home and vent my frustration on one of the two cats who seem to think they live at my house. (Unfortunately, my wife and daughters agree with them.) And, why do I find this so frustrating? Because there is simply too much in the Gospel to unpack in such short Gospel summaries.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with summarizing the Gospel, the NT authors do it all the time (of course, they assume we know the story they’re summarizing). And, a good summary of the Gospel can be very helpful at times. The problem comes when that’s all we do.

This is where I find the idea of “thick” vs. “thin” narratives helpful. (Does anyone know who first developed this language? I know Brueggemann used it quite a bit, but I’m pretty sure he wasn’t the first.) Our typical Gospel presentations are thin narratives. Such thin narratives provide just enough detail to make it a coherent story, but they leave out most of the detail that makes it a really compelling story. That would be somewhat akin to summarizing Les Miserables as a story about a guy who fell, experienced grace, and sought personal redemption through serving others. That’s technically correct, but you’ve lost all the power that’s in the story. A “thick” narrative, on the other hand, tries to unpack the story in all its rich detail. That way, when you get to the climax of the story, you really know what’s going on. Why it’s good news.

We need to spend much more time telling “thick” Gospel narratives. I don’t know about your church, but we hear about the Gospel quite often in mine. Unfortunately, it’s usually summarized in 5-10 minutes. Occasionally we’ll get a whole sermon on it (especially on Easter). But, I don’t think anyone at my church has ever tried to present a truly “thick” Gospel narrative that helps people understand how it all fits together.

I’ve been doing this recently with the high school group at my church. I’m working through the story of the Gospel in eight weeks. By the time we’re done, I’ll have spent around five hours telling them the story of the Gospel. And, we really don’t have anywhere near enough time to get it all in. But, when we’re done, they’ll have a much thicker narrative for the Gospel. They certainly won’t have the whole story. So, I hope they’re coming to appreciate that they could spend a lifetime filling in more details. But, they’ll have more of the narrative than they did before.

In case your curious, I’m presenting it around the standard Creation/Fall/Redemption narrative (after, that is how the Bible tells the story). But, I think we need to be careful here as well. A Creation/Fall/Redemption approach could easily be a “thin” narrative as well. It’s easy to assume people understand all three parts of this story and how they fit together. I actually find that that is generally not the case. Many Christians know the creation story, but don’t really know what it has to do with the Gospel. And, the same is true with other parts of the story (especially the history of Israel).  So, I’m trying to provide a thicker narrative all the way through. (You’re probably getting a sense now for why 5 hours is not enough time.)

Here’s the outline:

  • Week 1: Introduction and explanation of why everyone (non-Christians, new Christians, and old Christians) need to understand the Gospel more than they do.
  • Week 2: Genesis 1:1-25 and God’s plan to manifest his glory throughout creation as an expression of grace.
  • Week 3: Genesis 1:26-2:25 and God’s plan to create human persons through whom in particular he would manifest his glorious presence in creation.
  • Week 4: Genesis 3 and the fall of Adam and Eve as well as the horrible consequences that resulted for all of creation.
  • Week 5: The rest of the Old Testament (seriously, I only have eight weeks) and God’s faithfulness to his people, plans, and promises in the Garden and throughout the history of Israel.
  • Week 6: The Messiah as the fulfillment of God’s plans and promises for his people and for all of creation.
  • Week 7: How we should respond as individuals and as the people of God.
  • Week 8: How this Gospel transforms the way that we see everything.

So, that’s what I’m doing to try and give the students a thicker narrative for the Gospel. What are you seeing in your churches and ministries? Has your church/ministry done a better job providing thick narratives for the Gospel? If so, what have you been doing?