The Gospel for Sale? or On Display?
He's saved, she's not (or the other way around - nothing sexist here)
Many of us who grew up in conservative evangelical Christianity instinctively divide folks into the "saved" and the "not saved." The saved are Christians and our brothers and sisters. The unsaved are headed for hell unless we intervene in some manner to bring them to Christ. As there is rejoicing in heaven when one sinner is converted so on earth there is great celebration when someone prays the sinner's prayer and experiences a conversion to Christ. Now he's one of us.
Admittedly the above is a bit of a caricature. But it is not too far off the image many outsiders have of how Christians think about people. Is it any wonder they give us a wide berth? Yes the true Christian can expect to suffer for his faith, but we're not called to compound the suffering by our attitudes and methods.
Let's call the model I've described above a sales approach to promoting the Christian faith. Our job, then, is to describe the features and benefits of our product, eternal life. We must find creative ways to break down resistance and make people want eternal life. If they come to want it badly enough they will be willing to acquire it by receiving Jesus as personal Savior (by the way, that's a concept foreign to the Bible) and performing whatever other spiritual chores are suggested, i.e. read the Bible, go to church, pray, witness, etc.
I'm going to suggest a different approach, but first some clarification. I have no doubt that millions have come to genuine and permanent faith in Christ and are now enjoying eternal life because someone has shared the gospel with them. In response, either immediately or over time, they have trusted Jesus and "passed from death to life", as Jesus himself put it (John 5:24). And many more have walked down an aisle in response to a gospel invitation, prayed the sinner's prayer and received eternal life. God never allows his saving purpose to be held hostage by our methods.
Might there be some unintended consequences to this approach? Do we really have the right to declare who's in and who's out? Or even suggest it? Do we not communicate to a watching world that we are better than others? Doesn't this model give the impression that gaining eternal life is just a matter of saying the right prayer and doing the right things? Certainly there are far too many who have indeed prayed the right prayer and done the right things but show no real evidence of godliness. Might there be those who have truly believed the gospel, but haven't articulated it the way we'd like them to? True brothers and sisters, unknown and isolated because they don't meet our contrived means of entry.
Are we or aren't we?
The Scriptures speak of salvation sometimes as though it were a past done deal. At other times salvation seem to be a process. Still other times salvation is clearly a future hope. So which is it. Well, it's all three. Theologians call the three stages of salvation justification, sanctification and glorification. A lot of ink has been spilled describing each. These are important and biblically founded features of God's saving plan. His purpose is not only to rescue us from condemnation but to transforms alienated sinners into his friends. It would seem then that an accurate and effective presentation of the gospel should take into account all three. The sales model I've been referencing camps exclusively on the first. "Come, believe and be saved!" True, but then we announce, "You must strive for holy living" and, by the way, "You won't fully enjoy God's promises until you get to heaven." That's the classic bait and switch we all abhor.
Come with me
Wouldn't it be a lot more honest to invite a person to walk with us on a spiritual journey? This model recognizes all three stages of salvation. There's a moment when a person decides to join the journey. There's the journey which implies progress over time. There's the destination, glory.
And there's so much more. To walk with someone is to be in relationship with him. No close the sale and good-bye. There's a relational commitment we make to the seeker. Further, this approach admits that you also are on a journey. You haven't arrived. You don't have all the answers. Not only is this true, but it's also less intimidating to the newbie who's watching your every move. He needs to see you apply the gospel to your failures, confess sin, enjoy forgiveness and serve with energy and joy. It's not about being flawless. It's about being open and honest before a merciful Savior.
Enter Rosaria Champagne Butterfield
This hub had been sitting in my account unpublished for several months. While I was pleased with it's basic content, it needed something to take it out of the realm of theory into real life. Here's a story that does just that.
Ms Butterfield starts her article with this paragraph. "The word Jesus stuck in my throat like an elephant tusk; no matter how hard I choked, I couldn't hack it out. Those who professed the name commanded my pity and wrath. As a university professor, I tired of students who seemed to believe that "knowing Jesus" meant knowing little else. Christians in particular were bad readers, always seizing opportunities to insert a Bible verse into a conversation with the same point as a punctuation mark: to end it rather than to deepen it."
The article titled "My Train Wreck Conversion" can be found in the 2/7/13 issue of Christianity Today. Butterfield, who describes herself as a "leftist lesbian professor", goes on to tell of how Ken Smith, pastor of Syracuse Reformed Presbyterian Church, befriended her. He had responded to an article she'd written attacking the Christian right with an invitation to explore the hard questions with him. Over the next two years Ken and his wife became good friends with Rosaria. The rest is history. You've gotta read the article I've linked above.
Here's the paragraph that so well illustrates my points above. "Something else happened. Ken and his wife, Floy, and I became friends. They entered my world. They met my friends. We did book exchanges. We talked openly about sexuality and politics. They did not act as if such conversations were polluting them. They did not treat me like a blank slate. When we ate together, Ken prayed in a way I had never heard before. His prayers were intimate. Vulnerable. He repented of his sin in front of me. He thanked God for all things. Ken's God was holy and firm, yet full of mercy. And because Ken and Floy did not invite me to church, I knew it was safe to be friends."
Ken and Floy Smith did not sell the gospel. They displayed it. I suspect Rosaria's partner was exposed to the same display. Nothing is said of her conversion. That's not our problem. God will save whom He will. Ours is to display his grace.