Elliot Clark will join Russell Moore, Jen Pollock Michel, and Jason Cook to discuss our evangelism as exiles at our 2019 National Conference, April 1 to 3 in Indianapolis. You can browse the complete list of 74 speakers and 58 talks. The conference is fast-approaching, so register soon!
Whether it’s the Super Bowl or any Saturday in college football, you’ve probably heard it—the postgame praise of God for a thrilling win. It’s a rite in the liturgy of much American sport, almost as scripted as a responsive reading. Fans are conditioned to expect that many victorious athletes, approached by microphone-clutching reporter, will breathe out glory to God for unrivaled success.
As Christians living in a culture increasingly averse to the gospel, we exult in their opportunity to speak for Christ to millions. We also ascribe incredible worth to their evangelism. As powerful personalities and American celebrities, people look up to them. Compared to our own meager evangelistic efforts, professional athletes, we think, surely have a distinct advantage. They have a platform and a voice. When they speak, the masses listen!
But I’m more skeptical about the witness of winners. Not that I question these messengers or their declarations of faith—only the prospects for their soundbites to reach many for Christ. Because there are inherent realities in success that leave me suspicious about its effectiveness in communicating the gospel.
Success Doesn’t Equal Blessing
While praising God for victory is clearly right and good, we shouldn’t be quick, like Job’s friends, to interpret God’s intentions in our experiences. Success doesn’t always follow favor, nor suffering punishment. As the psalmist laments, the inverse is true: The righteous tend to suffer as the wicked prosper. So material prospering—even victory in sport—doesn’t necessarily equal blessing. If anything, such “blessings” can be a curse.
For Christians, even failure can be a gift.
The Corinthian church also had the misconception that success signals God’s approval. Paul’s affliction and troubles, from their perspective, brought his apostolic ministry into question. If God’s hand of blessing was on him, it would be evident through realized triumph. And yet Paul’s argument in 2 Corinthians assumes the opposite. Physical weakness and external opposition were, in fact, the marks of true apostleship. So if Paul was going to boast in anything, it would be his sufferings over his achievements. Thankfully, on occasion, some believing athletes have made this distinction.
Because for Christians, even failure can be a gift.
Success Breeds Success
Ask any college football recruiter, and they’ll affirm: “Success breeds success.” Winning attracts winners. When you achieve success you attract those passionate to prevail. But this truism presents a real danger for any evangelist, especially for the successful. Because, as we know, what you win people with is what you win them to. If the Christian gospel, first and foremost, is a message from the powerful and prosperous, it won’t take long for that dynamic to be reflected in the expectations of followers.
The prospects for the average Christian aren’t Oscars or Olympic gold; more likely they are wooden crosses of loss.
Repeatedly in the Gospels we encounter Jesus’s secrecy about his identity. He didn’t want to attract people to their version of a victorious Messiah, complete with thrones and glory. His baptism is into suffering.
The prospects for the average Christian aren’t Oscars or Olympic gold; more likely they are wooden crosses of loss. That’s why Jesus turned prospective disciples away with caution, calling them to run a price check on following him.
Success Can Be Dangerous
Another reality is that Jesus believed earthly success to be inherently dangerous—it’s easier for a camel to traverse a needle’s eye than for the rich to enter the kingdom. According to Jesus, wealth, fame, and stardom don’t make the gospel more believable—just the opposite! They make the humble, childlike dependence necessary for kingdom entry nigh impossible.
But we question if Jesus really meant what he said. Surely he was exaggerating. So we’re surprised when another superstar Christian athlete has his heart, like Solomon’s, lured away by beautiful women. Or we’re shocked when celebrity Christian musicians, like Demas, fall in love with this present world. Contrary to Jesus, we in the church invest energies promoting “Christian camels”—creating them and cheering them on—as paragons of the faith. We elevate the biggest and greatest among us as examples to follow, while Jesus put forward the little ones and least of these as models for entering his kingdom.
We elevate the biggest and greatest among us as examples to follow, while Jesus put forward the little ones and least of these as models for entering his kingdom.
Just as the widow’s penny says more about the worthiness of God than the tithes of the rich, the testimony of the afflicted carries more weight than exultations from the successful. But we think it’s the other way round. We think people are more attracted by “Touchdown Jesus” than by suffering servants. And we’re overly encouraged when so-and-so professional athlete or TV personality professes faith, as if the gospel becomes more powerful when powerful people proclaim it. As if God is most glorified when he’s most satisfying to the well-heeled and wonderful.
Success Is Temporary
Finally, hanging our evangelistic hopes on the successful is troubling, because the days are coming when they won’t be acclaimed (even in SEC country) for being Christian. Success is always temporary. The applause only lasts so long, and it’ll quickly end if Christian athletes or artists align themselves with churches that espouse faithful positions, for example, on biblical sexuality. How quickly then will the lights of fandom fade!
Success doesn’t make the gospel more believable. It never has.
As we reconsider what evangelism looks like in this cultural moment, we should look again at our evangel. True, we preach a message of glory and victory and a kingdom. But in the Christian economy, the cross always precedes the crown. Shame before glory. Suffering before salvation. Which means that speaking about Calvary from the zenith of cultural acclaim is like preaching Weight Watchers from McDonald’s. It’s not that what you’re saying is wrong or isn’t good. It’s that it doesn’t accurately convey reality.
Most significant, if we remain on the sidelines and leave evangelism to “professional” Christians, if we laud their witness as more significant than ours, we’re guilty of believing the old Corinthian lie that prestige and put-togetherness are what count for Christ. We might decry prosperity preaching, but do we subtly assume that those with the best life now make for Christianity’s best apologists? And do we posture as if notoriety and having a voice are what validate the cross more than suffering and faithful witness? But success doesn’t make the gospel more believable. It never has.
In order to win a hearing, the gospel doesn’t need superstar evangelists or Super Bowl rings.