Okay. Here we go. From the start this probably sounds like another person being critical of Christians and the church. As a passionate Evangelical myself, I certainly understand the feeling that we are so often portrayed in a negative light by the outside world. So, I get it.
As a teenager, over twenty years ago, I devoted my heart and soul to our Savior who rose from death. He changed my life forever and for about two decades I’ve served him through pastoral ministry in a wonderful church in Youngstown, Ohio called Trinity Fellowship. So what’s my beef then? Why am I so angry? Well, for starters, I’m not angry and I’m also not a hater. I’m actually a lover of King Jesus and his church of which I am an undeserving part. Secondly, if I am a hater, I am a hater of the destructive systems of this fallen world that cause so much suffering, pain and death in the lives of people. I know, and so do you, that Jesus alone is the answer to all the world’s problems. We get that. Why is it, then, that the church is so often ineffective at communicating its incredible message – God’s great Gospel – to a world that God is already in the process of redeeming? That’s right. God hasn’t instituted a scorched earth policy in regard to his creation. He’s saving it and is eventually going to resurrect the whole thing into a state of shalom (by “shalom” I mean everlasting peace, prosperity and wholeness). So what the heck is so difficult? Why is God’s message of salvation so tough to share? Well, it’s not. It’s not difficult I mean. The problem isn’t with God’s message. It’s with us, the messengers. And the short answer to this question is: We’ve got issues.
Whoa, did you just say we’ve got issues? Yes. That’s right. We’ve got issues. I’ve got issues. And, unfortunately, you’ve got issues too, probably a lot of them that you don’t even know about. There I said it. You’ve got issues. And I’ve got issues. WE’VE — GOT — ISSUES! Actually, I yelled it right there (notice the all caps). We’ve got issues of all kinds that keep us from being good at sharing God’s great message. Cultural issues … religious (and church) issues … social issues … philosophical and moral issues … relationships issues … personal and political issues, we’ve got them all and I’ll elaborate more on some of those soon. Like I already said, the unfortunate casualty of this war in our midst is our message. It’s the Gospel. Unfortunately, our issues mean that we’re not always good at communicating what we believe in humility and meekness. We’re just not. We’re not always good at showing people the beauty and the attractiveness of God’s good news for the world. So rather than belabor the point any further, here are five major ways we so often get it wrong. If you and I can become successful at correcting some of these biases, God will use us in ways we didn’t expect to grow his glorious kingdom.
1. Too Many Christians Are Tied to Church and Cultural Issues: One of the most notable things about the coming of Messiah is that he was rejected by his own people. There’s a reason for that, however. Two thousand years ago, Israel and especially its religious leaders were tied to their culture and traditions more than they were to God himself. That’s why Jesus said of the Pharisees, “You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (Matthew 23:13). Today, we Christians are the people of the Book. We’re true believers. We are the spiritual and true descendants of father Abraham. We hate the Pharisees. We couldn’t possibly ever become modern Pharisees today could we? Yes we can AND we often do in unexpected ways. Don’t forget, two thousand years ago the Pharisees were the people of the Book. They knew it better than anyone. In fact, they liked it so much they added all kinds of ungodly extra laws to God’s already perfect Law. Like I said, we don’t often realize it but we do the same thing today.
Today passionate Evangelicals pride themselves on being the best “sharers” – That’s what Evangelical means: to evangelize or “share” God’s Gospel. We’re passionate. And since we’re so passionate about how we view our good news, we’ve set up our own culture in order to push that message out into the world. This is what the idea of being counter cultural is all about. It means that we’ve set up our own culture, our own values, even our own language that, to be honest, often looks alien and unintelligible to the outside world. Well, unfortunately and far too often, it is this “culture of Christianity” that is communicated through our church services, social media posts and the advice we give to other people. It’s hard to admit, but much of what we do today as believers is more driven towards getting people to “act, dress or talk” in a certain way – you know – the way “Christians are supposed to” … that is if they are “really saved.” If you, me and others, however, are going to be effective in sharing our awesome faith, we’ve got to drop the act. We’ve got to talk a little differently, maybe a little more like the people we’re trying to reach. Maybe we shouldn’t be so offended all the time about the fact that “they” are sinning “out there.” Trust me, there is sometimes just as much sinning going on inside your own church as there is in the outside world. In the church, sin just looks different so we don’t notice it as much. So in order to be better sharers of our message, we’ve got to drop many of our church issues which have just become a new culture of the Pharisees, keeping people out of the kingdom. I’m just like you. I know it’s so hard to change but as I try, even in little ways, God makes me significantly more fruitful for his Gospel advancement than I am when I’m clinging to a corrupted and dying church culture that does an inadequate job of connecting to a contemporary culture.
2. Too Many Christians Are Tied to Doctrinal Issues: I love doctrine. My father always referred to himself as an “amateur philosopher” so I guess I always gravitated towards the intellectual side of our faith. For over twenty years I have committed myself to knowing, learning and digesting as much as I possibly could about the Bible and what it all means. At times I pushed myself over (yes over) the brink of sanity in my pursuit of trying to understand God. For those of you who have gone to seminary you know what that’s like (lol). In terms of my theology I’m Reformed and Covenantal. I wear those badges with honor. If you wear those same badges or others like them, you know why doctrine is so important to you too. Through doctrine you came to know the extent of God’s grace. You came to know about the “true” Gospel. That’s what Spurgeon said. He said the doctrines of grace are the Gospel. Yet, within this community of doctrinal grace and elsewhere there seems so often to be an incredible lack of grace in the area of relationships. I think this is true to the point that it often seems like many bloggers, seminary students and Bible nerds (like me) are more concerned with converting people to Calvinism or (insert your theology here) than they are to Christ himself. What a joke! And it seems like many of these people and leaders can even be incredibly rude. That’s right, rude! Unfortunately, the average unchurched person doesn’t want to attend our class on “How to Be a Jerk.” I would also imagine they don’t know or care about many doctrinal issues. Sure, some care. But many, many don’t. Are they unimportant? Are they of a lesser faith because they don’t care. At this point in my life, I think they might actually be more like Jesus than I am. And many of these people do want to know about Jesus. They want to know how he is relevant to their everyday lives. They want to know how he can help them sleep better at night or have better relationships with their friends, their families and their communities. In my experience, people are often very interested in Jesus when I frame the discussion in a certain way … not by just trying to triumphally intellectualize them into the kingdom. Remember that he (Jesus) said that his true disciples would be known by their fruit – not their doctrine. When Reformed, Armenian, Dispensational, Catholic, Baptist, or (place your theology here) are not as tied to elaborate doctrinal issues, but are instead tied to the true Gospel – that Jesus died as an atoning sacrifice and rose again three days later – far more people will be interested in what we have to say.
3. Too Many Christians Are Tied to Social Issues: Once again I feel like I’m attacking a sacred cow of our community. Whether it’s abortion, environmentalism or social justice we Christians attach our faith to things. And we should. Our faith should inform our practices in every area of our lives. However, as is our tendency, we can get very attached to things … in a “clingy” kind of way. In my view, for example, liberal Christians seem to be tied to a misplaced understanding of freedom on the issue of abortion. It’s a lie. I guess in one sense, a woman should have the right to “choose” or “decide” for herself what she does with “her” body. The problem with this thinking is that it’s not just her body for whom she’s making the decision. I understand that. It’s morally wrong in my view. It’s taking the life of a defenseless person, a soul who needs our help to make it in this world. I get it. I’m assuming you do too. I’m also not saying we shouldn’t stand up for the cause. It’s a good and righteous one. What I am saying is that whether we agree or disagree with abortion, gay marriage, extreme environmentalism or issues of equality and social justice, our views need to be shared with humility and lots of grace. To social liberals, salvation looks like social freedom. To some environmentalists, salvation looks like a natural environment free from the influence of mankind. But not everyone who holds these views is extreme and it can be terribly bad to generalize everyone’s concerns as the same. They are not. And people need to be listened to, respected and loved. That’s the way God treats us. So why are we so quick to toughen up, roll our eyes or tune out altogether. Making laws either for or against things can never be the final solution for salvation from all of our problems. Christians are so quick in their attempts to legislate good behavior but that’s not how things worked with us. God first gave us the Ten Commandments but they couldn’t make the Israelites or us good people. God knew that. His perfect Law was just a tutor carrying us to the days of fullness and perfection in the New Covenant. Ultimately, God had to change our hearts with his Spirit so that we desired the things he requires of us. In a modern sense, I think we all know that legally prohibiting someone from committing murder won’t keep them from committing murder in any sense or at all. We have extensive laws defining and punishing these and other heinous acts, and we should. Yet people still commit them every day either spiritually (in their hearts) or in their fullness (through their actions). The issue is first a heart issue. And unfortunately, as it pertains to the church, when our social rhetoric becomes louder than our Gospel language people tune out. They don’t hear us saying, “Jesus is the Savior of the world.” They only hear us saying, “Women’s rights aren’t as important as those of men” or “We want to take away your freedom.” In reality, we’re preaching true freedom and true equality among men, women, different races and all social classes. In Jesus, we are all the same and we’re all blessed. However, our passion to save often prohibits people from hearing through the noise. So if we tone down the rhetoric just a little and look instead to transparently share Christ, maybe they’ll start making better decisions for themselves on their own without your trying to force them.
4. Too Many Christians Are Tied to Political Issues: Despite our best intentions, politics is like anything else. It has people in it. Therefore, it’s prone to problems. And the noblest of political views is subject to irrelevance and hypocrisies of all kinds. This is especially hard for us to understand in this country because of our beginnings through which we see our freedoms as the product of divine influence. Today, both left and right are concerned with their own understandings of this freedom. People are passionate about their views and they are so zealous because they see their cause as right, as divine. This sense of politically informed morality, however, often causes people to act in awful ways to get what they want. This is true of both the left and the right. Again, getting back to church life, we far too often bring these political issues into our churches, our pulpits and our rhetoric. Is God more concerned that someone becomes a Christian or a Republican? For sure, God is most concerned with the heart. It’s from the heart that people make better decisions. It’s from the heart that people choose life and love their neighbor. It’s the Spirit of God that changes a culture, not a political philosophy. Conservatives care about freedom and liberals care about equality but God cares about them both. I even think God cares about politics. He just doesn’t want you wearing it on your shirt sleeve all the time or be controlled by it to the point that it destroys your relationships. Instead, clothe yourself with Christ and you won’t alienate yourself from others who have a different political view. Don’t forget that Democrats, Republicans and even (oh my goodness) Socialists, are all human beings in need of God. So be more concerned with God’s kingdom than you are with the outcome of an election, an outcome over which God has complete control. Christ will do far more for you than any candidate or party ever will. And if you can let go a little, your faith and you will seem more reasonable to everyone.
5. Too Many Christians Are Tied to Personal Issues: Everyone’s got issues. That’s the bottom line. I have them. You have them. The church as a whole has them. Remember? I YELLED this point at you when we began! At the end of the day, we are all people and we struggle sometimes just to get through the day. I’ve been there in the past and am often still in that same place with you. The issues that each of us deal with are as diverse as the people who have them. An issue can be anything. Most of our issues, however, are rooted in fear, not faith. Fear, not faith, causes us to be overprotective of our kids, to be unloving towards people who are different from us, and to create rules, ideologies and cultural practices that allow us to stay right where we are. We are so comfortable. God, however, calls us to come out of our comfort zones and live a life of faith. He has called you to stretch yourself, even if it’s just a little, so that you can experience his life a lot more. Whatever your issue is, give it over to God today so that you can be more fruitful in sharing his great Gospel with others.
I think one of the biggest barriers to helping other people is often people themselves. Sometimes they aren’t ready to hear the good news with a right heart. While at the same time, damaged people like me and you make God’s great gospel look mediocre or bad altogether because we just can’t get past our personal problems of fear, control, anger and hurt. The solution is to be a little transparent with your issues and tell others that your Awesome God gives you lots of grace to help you through life’s struggles. Stop making it sound like God only changed your life in the past and you’re perfect now. He’s still changing it today and you need him more now than ever. If you don’t feel that way, you won’t be very effective in winning over others because you’re still in your comfort zone. Try instead getting off your spiritual couch and going on an adventure with God. There’s someone out there waiting for you to do just that!
Faith Application: Recently I lead our church through a study of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. If you haven’t read the book before, it has a lot to say about our personal, cultural, religious and social preferences. In Paul’s time, there were a group of culturally Jewish Christians who were placing unnecessary and heavy expectations on the non-Jewish converts. Among other things, Paul explained to those people that adherence to the law means nothing. “What counts,” he said, “is faith informed love” (Galatians 5:6, my translation). If you’re able, read through Galatians either by yourself or in a group study. As you do, ask yourself how the cultural bullying of the Judaisers in Galatia could be similar to practices and customs of modern church life. Then think about or discuss little steps you might take to demonstrate God’s true Gospel freedom in your relationships with others and I’ll do the same. Also, comment below or leave your own faith application. May God richly bless you!