“I’m bored,” the young man says, setting his golden harp down on the soft, white mound next to him.
His companion sits up quickly, sending small puffs of cloud scattering in every direction, several catching on the shimmering halo that had slipped slightly to one side at her sudden movement. “Stop saying that. You’re going to get us in trouble.”
“But I am bored. There’s nothing to do.” Reaching down he fiddles absently with one of the harp strings, sending soft notes through the golden light and causing the small cloud puffs to float rhythmically around his head. “All we ever do is play these stupid harps and sing.”
“Shhhh. Someone will hear you!” she says, glancing around in a futile effort to see if anyone was close enough to hear. Futile, of course, because in this place, someone always hears.
“What are they gonna do? Kick me out?” Jerking his head, he slaps at the swirling could puffs, looking every bit like an angry camper trying to disperse a swarm of hungry mosquitos. “I almost wish they would.”
She just stares at him, too stunned to reply. After a long silence, she whispers, “You want out?”
He responds with a deep sigh, “I don’t know. Four thousand years is a long time to sit on a cloud playing a harp. A little change might be nice.” Staring down at his white robes, he adds, “I know the other side is for bad people. But maybe they’re at least having some fun.”
I’m sorry to say that the way most people describe Heaven sounds rather boring to me. Ask what they’re looking forward to about Heaven, and many people will say something about finding lost loved ones—sometimes even lost pets—the end of pain and sorrow, finally being able to dunk a basketball, run a marathon, or possibly even fly through the clouds. And these are all great things, I suppose. But I’m guessing that after a few thousand years, they’d all grow a bit stale. I love my friends and family, but after a millennium or two, I can pretty much guarantee that I’d be hiding in a closet every time I heard one of them coming around the corner. It’s possible that I just have an unusually short attention span and get bored easily. But 4,000 years of the same old thing sounds boring.
The problem is that our idea of eternity is badly confused. Ask us about Heaven, and we start describing some ethereal city in the clouds. When people do that, I always ask, “Where are the trees?” After waiting a few seconds for that to sink in, I’ll add, “God made trees, so apparently he likes them. Where are the trees in Heaven?” Then, while they’re scrambling about for an adequate answer, I’ll follow up with, “And don’t forget dung beetles. God made those too, so we should figure out where the dung beetles will be in Heaven.” Finally, pausing for effect, I’ll add, “And the fleas.” That always gets their attention. Trees are okay. Everybody likes trees. But dung beetles sound rather disgusting. And who wants to believe that there will be fleas in Heaven? That can’t be right. Heaven is holy and spiritual. Surely there won’t be fleas in Heaven. (By the way, in case you’re wondering, the logic of this argument cannot be applied to cats since they were the result of an evil scientist’s failed experiment and were not actually created by God. It’s true, Google it.)
Since we see Heaven as a wholly spiritual place, we have a hard time conceiving of it having any room for such earthy things as insects. But “earthy” is exactly how the Bible describes our eternal destiny. The focus of the Bible is not on our eternal destiny up among the stars somewhere, but a new city coming down on a new earth completing the plan that God has had in mind since the beginning (Rev. 21).
Our picture of “Heaven” is wrong because we’re looking in the wrong place. Rather than gazing up in the clouds trying to picture what heaven will be like, look down at your feet. Take your shoes off and dig your toes into the damp soil. Reach down and tip the little pill bug over on its back. Watch its squiggly legs kick in the air. Then, turn it over again and let it scurry away. Nearby, see the earthworm wriggling deeper into the freshly turned earth. Look closer and examine the tiny grains of dirt, each a different shape and color, yet combining to form the lush hue of fertile soil. It even smells brown. Turn over the small rocks and explore the exquisite glories that hide in even the most innocuous crevices of creation. I can’t tell you what the new earth will be like. The Bible gives us very little detail. But I can say that this one’s pretty amazing. And, whatever God has in mind for our future, it will not be any less than this.
Who came up with the idea that we’d be disembodied spirits living in some spiritual universe forever? The Bible never says anything about that. Indeed, the Bible describes our future lies as resurrection to a true physical body, appropriately fitted for our new life (1 Cor. 15).
And our picture of eternity is out of whack because we’re selfish. Once again we find that we tend to twist the story so that it’s primarily about us—no more pain, sadness, loss, or loneliness. We can be happy forever. It sounds great. Why wouldn’t it? It’s all about us. For deeply selfish people, this sounds like the ultimate paradise.
But once again we have to remind ourselves that this story isn’t about us. Sure, eternity will be great. God loves us and wouldn’t have anything less than the best for his people. But that doesn’t mean that this is all about us. The new earth is still about God (Rev. 21:22). And that’s good news. As long as eternity is about us, it will be a boring place to be. We’re just not that cool, and eventually we’ll get bored with ourselves and our own happiness. But God? He’s another story entirely. We could spend an entire eternity pursuing him in his infinite mystery: constantly learning new things, being challenged in new ways, rediscovering over and over again how far beyond us he truly is.
Setting his harp down on the velvety soft grass, he looks over at his companion. “That’s enough for now,” he says. “I’m going to go tend the garden for a while. The corn is almost ready.”
“Thank you,” she replies, “that was lovely.” She moves slowly away meditating on the song, already looking forward to sharing it with everyone at the feast later, so they can all sing it together. But right now, she’s going to the lake for a swim.
A dung beetle watches her pass.
If you haven’t seen it yet, I’m doing a series over at Western Seminary’s new blog on What’s Wrong with Our Gospel? The first post looked at Paul’s Gospel summary in 1 Cor. 15:1-3 and pointed out that Paul assumed that his readers already knew the story of redemption as the proper background for his concise summary. But, since most people today don’t know the story, we need to be much more careful about offering story-less Gospel summaries. And the second post, which just went up this morning, offers a brief summary of the story.
These two posts are really just setting me up for the real focus of the series: three key ways people misunderstand the Gospel when they only hear our story-less Gospel summaries.
Follow along over at Transformed and let me know what you think.
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?
The doorbell rang.
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.
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.]
Timothy Dalrymple just posted a very interesting piece on his experience at Princeton Seminary: The Young Christian’s Guide to Sex at Seminary. It’s a fascinating reflection on the challenges of being an evangelical at a mainline school, and the “outsider” status he felt like he had there. As he describes it,
My Outsider status became clear to me — if not for the first time, at least in a new way — when I sat with friends on the seminary field, stretching before a game of ultimate frisbee. It was still my first semester, and I was getting to know the people and the place. We were talking about the sins that were emphasized in the churches that brought us up. I said that pre- or extra-marital sex was the grave sin against we, in my youth group and Sunday School classes, were most gravely and constantly warned. And, I said, I appreciated that, as it had helped me maintain my commitment to abstain from sex until marriage.
I might as well have said that I believe in eating toddlers with chipotle sauce and a side order of puppies. My friends’ and fellow seminarians’ expressions had gone, suddenly, from benign conversational interest to something that looked like rats and skunks had deposited themselves deep in their nostrils, where they were scratching and relieving themselves and spreading their odors. This, I saw, was the last thing my friends wanted to talk about. And such a “backwards” and “judgmental” attitude (as it would later be described to me) really had no place at an enlightened seminary.
And, he goes on to describe a seminary experience that apparently involved a fair amount of drugs, alcohol, and sex, and that seemed more focused on “the aesthetics, the atmospherics, the experience, the rites and rhythms of church life,” than living obedient lives in “grateful imitation” of the grace we’ve received in Jesus.
I’ll let you read the article for yourself. It’s a fascinating window into one person’s experience.
But, what I really wanted to key in on was an interesting warning that he offers to any seminary student. Dalrymple comments on the fact that seminary was a real low point in his spiritual life, and that he’d heard similar stories from others he went to school with. And, he thinks that the main reason for this was a simple lack of obedience. They’d gotten so caught up in the isolated, academic life of the school, separated from the pressures of having to live out their faith in the midst of other people, that they’d lost sight of the need to live faithfully.
So, he concludes with this thought:
I believe, and believe very strongly, that one way seminaries can improve themselves is to remember the foundational importance of obedience, to remember that we are saved by grace but called to live lives of grateful imitation. When we walk in the footsteps of Christ, we come to know him and commune with him — and to know and commune with the Father. If we want seminarians to see their seminary years as times of extraordinary spiritual deepening and growth, then we need to encourage those seminarians to live lives of integrity and holiness and selfless obedience. They fill fall short. But to the extent they try, they will grow.
I found this fascinating, because I’ve never looked at the struggles of the seminarian from this perspective. I’ve often heard people say that seminary was a “dry time” for them, though my experience was quite different. And, I routinely talk to my students about the importance of staying spiritually healthy while dealing with the rigors of an academic program. And, most importantly, I emphasize the absolute necessity of being involved in ministry while in seminary. But, I really haven’t thought as much about what the lack of simple, faithful obedience as an expression of Gospel-driven thankfulness can do to a seminarian. As he points out, lack of obedience in seminary not only impacts your seminary years, but it has dreadful implications for future ministry: “And how are just-minted graduates going to begin their church ministries when they have just spent 3 years disobeying and straying from God?”
If you’ve been to a Bible college or a seminary, I’d be curious to know what you think about Dalrymple’s post. And, was your experience at all like his? Was it a spiritual low point for you? If so, why do you think that was?
Don Carson and Tim Keller posted an excellent piece today: Reflections on Confessionalism, Boundaries, and Discipline. The post wass written primarily to explain The Gospel Coalition position on disagreement and correction among board members. But, it’s really an excellent read for understanding how boundaries and confessions work in any movement.
You should go read the article, but I wanted to highlight a couple of things that I found particularly interesting.
First, they use the distinction between an “boundary-bounded set” and a “center-bounded set” to describe their movement. This language has been around for a while now, and it differentiates between groups that try to establish clear in/out boundaries (e.g. confessional churches), and those that build their commitments on some central agreement(s) but leave lots of fuzziness around the edges (e.g. evangelicalism as a whole). This distinction has been around for a while, so it’s not unique to Carson and Keller. Indeed, Roger Olson recently used the same distinction to argue that evangelicalism is a “centered set” movement. So, what’s interesting here is that although Olson has been rather critical of groups like the Gospel Coalition for having an overly narrow and closed-minded understanding of evangelicalism, it would seem that Carson and Keller actually view the movement in very similar ways.
I also appreciated the discussion toward the end on the relationship between the doctrine of the Trinity and the Gospel, in which they draw a distinction between whether the Trinity is essential to the Gospel and whether having an orthodox view of the Trinity is necessary for salvation. As they rightly point out, those are two different issues:
In some discussion or other, we might claim, rightly, that the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity is irrefragably tied up with the gospel. Someone might object, “Surely not! Is an orthodox view of the Trinity necessary for salvation?” In reality, these are two differentiable issues. To say that the doctrine of the Trinity is tied up with the gospel is to make a claim about the structure of the gospel, about what the gospel is, about its content.
Ignoring for a second that they actually used the word “irrefragably,” this is a great point. Doctrines like the Trinity and the Incarnation provide an essential shape and structure to the Gospel. Without them, the Gospel is undermined in critical ways. But, that doesn’t mean that someone who rejects them necessarily rejects the Gospel. It just means that they’re operating with an understanding of the Gospel that has some real weak spots. But, fortunately for us all, the standard of salvation is not how well we understand orthodox theology, as important as that might be.
[Yesterday marked the anniversary of the death of Heinrich Bullinger, famous Swiss reformer who led the church in Zurich after Zwingli’s death. So, I wanted to commemorate that with a prayer from Bullinger. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find one in English, though here’s one in German. So, I’m actually cheating a bit this morning. Rather than posting ia prayer, here’s an excerpt from the Second Helvetic Confession and on the Gospel in the Old Testament].
And although the teaching of the Gospel, compared with the teaching of the Pharisees concerning the law, seemed to be a new doctrine when first preached by Christ (which Jeremiah also prophesied concerning the New Teatament), yet actually it not only was and still is an old doctrine (even if today it is called new by the Papists when compared with the teaching now received among them), but is the most ancient of all in the world. For God predestinated from eternity to save the world through Christ, and he has disclosed to the world through the Gospel this his predestination and eternal counsel (II Tim. 2:9 f.). Hence it is evident that the religion and teaching of the Gospel among all who ever were, are and will be, is the most ancient of all. Wherefore we assert that all who say that the religion and teaching of the Gospel is a faith which has recently arisen, being scarcely thirty years old, err disgracefully and speak shamefully of the eternal counsel of God. To them applies the saying of Isaiah the prophet: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” (Isa. 5:20).
Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia by Mark A. Noll and Carolyn Nystrom.
I teach a church history survey class every year. It’s one of my favorite classes. But, every year I have the same frustration. There’s just not enough time to do much with the history of the church around the world. With just one semester to cover 2,000 years of church history, my goal is to make sure the students understand the narrative that leads to where they are today. And, that means telling a story of church history that is almost exclusively focused on the western church, leaving out the rest of the world in the process.
To address this weakness, I require the students to do some reading/writing on the history of the church in the rest of the world. And, Clouds of Witnesses would be an outstanding book to use for this purpose. In a series of 17 short essays, the book introduces to key leaders in Africa, India, Korea, and China from the 1880s to the 1980s. The essays are well-written, interesting, and short enough that they don’t bury the casual reader under too many historical details.
I have to admit that I knew almost nothing about William Wade Harris and the influence that he still has on Christianity in West Africa. And, although I’d read more on the East African Revival, the two chapters are Simeon Nsibambi and Janani Luwum were still fascinating. Some other favorite chapters were the ones on Sundar Singh (India), Sun Chu Kil (Korea), and Yao-Tsung Wu (China), all people about whom I knew (and still know) too little.
Unquestionably, the greatest benefit from reading a book like this is the opportunity to see and be challenged by how different experiences in different parts of the world have shaped and colored Christianity. From a political activist in South Africa wrestling with the injustices of apartheid, to a Hindu convert striving to live faithfully in a hostile environment, and a Chinese Christian struggling to reconcile the Gospel and communism, they’re all struggling with what it means to be Christian in their cultural context. So, at every step, the thoughtful reader faces several important questions: (1) How I can learn and be mentored by what Christians have learned from different cultural contexts?, (2) How do you recognize when culture is having a negative impact on the Gospel? and (2) In what ways has my own cultural context shaped, positively and negatively, my experience of Christianity and the Gospel? The opportunity to reflect on those questions alone is worth the price of the book.
Clouds of Witnesses does have a few weaknesses, but they are ones that stem entirely from the nature of the book. First, to keep the book from getting too long, the authors had to restrict themselves to just a few key areas of global history. Sadly, then, there are no chapters on Christian leaders in South America, the middle east, eastern Europe, or the Pacific Islands, all of which lie outside the narrative that most western Christians know. Second, since the chapters are introductory and short, they never provide enough information and they feel somewhat “superficial” in places, just skimming over the relevant information. It’s hard to see how the authors could have done otherwise in a book like this, but it’s worth noting. And finally, the focus of the book is on providing the details of the various stories, not on discussing or evaluating them. So, although the book provides ample opportunity for serious reflection on the relationship between history, culture, and the Gospel, it does not try to provide any direction for that discussion. Again, that’s not the book’s purpose, so this isn’t really a fault. But, if you’re hoping to use the book for that purpose, you’ll need to do some work on your own.
Clouds of Witnesses is a fascinating book that is well-worth reading. Designed to be a companion volume to Noll’s The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith, Clouds of Witnesses can still be enjoyed on its own. And, although I think it could be used as a supplemental textbook in a church history class, those who have little or no background in church history will still be able to profit from this book. If you need more exposure to the story of Christianity around the world, particularly in the last couple of centuries with the explosive growth of Christianity worldwide, Clouds of Witnesses is a great resource.
[Many thinks to IVP for providing me with a review copy of Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia.]
One New Man: The Cross and Racial Reconciliation by Jarvis J. Williams (B&H, 2010).
Evangelicals have worked hard over the last several decades to pursue a theological understanding of the human person, dealing with issues like fee will, gender, and mind/body, among others. But, on issues of race and ethnicity, we’ve been relatively quiet. I’m sure that’s partly because evangelicalism has a spotty track record on racial issues in general, making this a challenging topic for us to address. But, I think it may also stem from the fact that most of the books offering a theological perspective on race/ethnicity tend to be highly technical (i.e. nearly unintelligible to the uninitiated) and often do not spend much time on biblical/exegetical issues, which tend to be the primary interest of evangelical thinkers.
With One New Man, Jarvis Williams takes an important step forward in evangelical thinking about race/ethnicity. He offers a short, accessible work that deals extensively with the relevant biblical material. Its core argument is that humanity’s fall into sin involves both horizontal (God) and vertical (human) alienation, and, correspondingly, the Gospel promises both horizontal and vertical reconciliation. So, to understand racial reconciliation, we really need to understand the Gospel.
With this emphasis on the Gospel as it relates to racial reconciliation, it should come as no surprise that the structure of the book follows the story of redemption. After a quick introduction, Williams explains that the reason for racial reconciliation lies in the tragedy of the Fall and its impact on humanity (chapter 2). So, the only possible solution to the problem lies in the reconciliation offered to all people through the atonement (chapter 3). This doesn’t just reconcile us to God, but creates the possibility, even the necessity, of racial reconciliation as we all become “one new man” in Christ (chapter 4). Finally, Williams offers a short chapter on the practical application of these insights in churches today (chapter 5).
The most obvious strength of the book lies in its commitment to exegesis. Almost unique among books dealing with race, Williams spends the bulk of his time doing biblical theology and exegesis. That’s a refreshing change of pace for the genre.
But, Williams’ most valuable contribution is in his clear connection between racial discord, racial reconciliation, and the Gospel. For Williams, racial reconciliation is not an optional feature of the Christian life that we can get around to whenever we have some time between evangelistic events and discipleship classes. Racial reconciliation is fundamental to the “good news” that God made available in Jesus Christ and something that all Christians should be working toward.
Another key contribution is the distinction between “racial diversity” and “racial reconciliation.” “Diversity” is the mere presence different races in a single group. “Reconciliation” involves healing the wounds of sin and alienation so that the various groups come together in the true unity made possible through the atonement. And, Williams argues throughout that mere diversity is inadequate given the grand scope of the Gospel.
Finally, Williams offers some very helpful comments at the end of the book for how this can (and should) play out with respect to specific ministry realities. Unsurprisingly, he criticizes efforts that focus on mere diversity (e.g. occasional “joint” worship services or just striving for “multiethnic” churches). And, although he doesn’t mention it by name, he has no use for the “homogenous unit principle” – i.e. the idea that churches are most effective when they target a single demographic. Even at its best, he sees this as yet another reflection of racial discord that belies the life-transforming power of the Gospel.
Given the strengths of the book, I’d like to give it an unqualified endorsements. But, I can’t. Despite these strengths, the book does have some important drawbacks.
First, and most frustratingly, the book’s emphasis on the Gospel leads to a serious imbalance in the material. The two longest chapters of the book deal with sin and the atonement respectively. And, in those chapters, relatively little is said about race in particular. These chapters are just setting the stage by discussing the problem and the solution. But, that means Williams devotes over two-thirds of the book to setting up the discussion. By the time he finally reaches the material specific to racial reconciliation, the book is almost done. As important as I think the Gospel is in this discussion, I would have liked to see Williams spend less time on sin/atonement, work that has been done many times by others, so that he could devote more attention to making the connection with racial issues.
Second, the imbalance contributed to some important oversights. More interaction with other authors writing on race and theology would have alerted the reader to some of the complexities involved in the discussion. At the very least, it would have been good to see definitions of such key terms as “race,” “ethnicity,” and “racism.” Williams seems to view these as terms with relatively self-evident definitions. But that is far from the case, as a quick summary of the relevant literature would demonstrate. And, lacking clear definitions, it becomes difficult to assess Williams’ argument in places – especially in the final chapter where he writes on the practical application of his ideas. (For example, what exactly is a “racist” church? Is mere racial homogeneity sufficient to establish that a church is “racist”?)
Finally, a real problem arises when Williams tries to move from Pauline theology to racial reconciliation today. His discussion of “race” in the NT is really a discussion of Jew/Gentile relations. And, that makes sense given that Paul focuses primarily on these categories. But, he recognizes that “Jew” and “Gentile” in the NT are primarily religious rather than racial/ethnic terms: “The greatest difference was that the Jews’ and Gentiles’ hatred toward one another was not based on skin color, but on religion” (p. 122). But, if Jew/Gentile is fundamentally a religious rather than a racial distinction, how does one connect Paul’s theology of Jew/Gentile reconciliation to the problem of racial reconciliation today, which is a significantly different problem. I’m sure it’s possible to make important connections between the two, but unfortunately, Williams either doesn’t see the difficulty, or simply chooses not to engage it.
One New Man is a great book for seeing that racial reconciliation is a part of the Gospel story. It is neither optional nor secondary. Used in that sense, One New Man will be a helpful resources, particularly for those looking for more of an introductory survey of the relevant biblical material.
[Many thanks to Broadman & Holman for sending me a review copy of One New Man: The Cross and Racial Reconciliation.]
“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
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.
According to Scot McKnight, younger evangelicals are leaving the church in droves because we’re not teaching the Gospel well. According to him, 90% of evangelical children decide to follow Jesus. But, of those, only 22% will still be following Jesus when they’re 35. And, from McKnight’s perspective, the problem is how we present the Gospel.
McKnight’s book The King Jesus Gospel has been getting a lot of attention lately. And, now they’ve produced a very interesting promo video. I don’t usually link to these marketing videos, but this one seemed particularly intriguing. I may see if I can get my hand on a copy of the book to see where he goes anywhere unexpected with the argument (other than just pointing out the importance of “kingdom” in the NT gospel, of course).