In a recent post laying out four big challenges facing Christians in the West today, I mentioned the moral revolution in our society that has led many to see a number of Christian beliefs about morality and doctrine to be not only old-fashioned but also dangerous and repressive.
When you track the changes of societal views on a host of issues (Jesus is the only way to God, the existence of hell, same-sex marriage), it becomes obvious that some of these hot-button issues are stumbling blocks for people who might otherwise consider the Christian faith. Dave Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons lay out the statistics:
- Two out of five adults believe it is extremist to try to convert others to their faith.
- 69 percent of all adults in American and 83 percent of atheists and agnostics believe evangelism—one of the central actions of Christian conviction—is extremist.
- A slim majority says that holding the belief the same-sex relationships are morally wrong is extremist.
- Two out of five adults believe it’s extreme to quit a good-paying job to pursue mission work in another country.
Evangelicals believe that part of our mandate is to have an influence in society, to engage well with the people around us. Because we understand our calling to spread the gospel, we willingly adapt certain church practices and methods in ways that make it easier for people to give the gospel a hearing.
Dealing with ‘Defeaters’
But what happens when there are immediate “defeater” beliefs, such as “Christianity is intolerant because you believe Jesus is the only way” or “Christians believe in hell,” or “Christians discriminate against LGBT people because they don’t perform same-sex marriages”? When we come up against these objections, it’s easy to assume that the way to win a hearing is to present the teachings of the Christian faith in the most tortured way possible, almost as if we too are as uncomfortable with our religion’s teaching as they are. We build common ground by acting as if we hold in common an outsider’s aversion to Christianity.
By presenting the image of ourselves as “wrestling” with challenging teachings, we think we come across more human, more vulnerable, and more authentic. We’re convinced we are more winsome when we make it seem as if we’d love for Christianity or the Bible to be different, or we’d love to find a way to interpret these texts differently, but right now, we’re just in the same season of struggle as many people of faith are, as we try to reach the modern world.
Loving Jesus’s Lordship
I believe this approach is fundamentally misguided. There is nothing attractive about people proclaiming the lordship of Jesus who, deep down, resist some of the King’s commands. It’s like saying, “Jesus is Lord, but I don’t like it.”
There’s nothing attractive about inviting people to become part of a community that doesn’t know what it believes, or that is fundamentally uncomfortable with its own teachings. Yet this is the approach that I see among many evangelicals, particularly those of my own generation, who are trying to gain a hearing for the gospel.
I get it. It’s tough to present the beauty of Christianity in a culture in which the plausibility structures are set against you, in a pluralist society that sees all evangelism as intolerant, in an age that sees one’s self-expression (especially sexually) as fundamental to identity. Yes, it’s tough. We can all feel that pressure.
But we do ourselves no favors by backpedaling, by coming up with tortured explanations of why we believe what we believe, or by acting as if our hands are (unfortunately) tied by the biblical text we say is our authority.
The Christian faith goes back 2,000 years, and it’s grounded in the Jewish faith that goes back further still. Globally, it is still the world’s largest religion. Across the world, these truths are embraced wholeheartedly by Christians of every stripe. The reality of our Savior’s words on hell, the exclusivity of the gospel for salvation, the inclusivity of Christ’s welcome and call to repentance to all sinners, the moral teachings that reflect God’s original design for the world—these are not controversial to most Christians in the world, and neither have they been for thousands of years.
Gracious and Confident Invitation
Why not have the grace and confidence to winsomely explain Christianity’s vision and doctrine in ways that invite people into a community, instead of looking for ways to make Christianity more palatable to people with completely different assumptions and presuppositions outside the community?
Why not express our delight in our Savior’s teaching instead of our despair over how hard his commands may seem?
“I am not ashamed of the gospel,” Paul said in an era in which so much of the gospel seemed shameful. Our Savior was pinned naked on a tree like an insect, and yet we feel angst about sharing his tough words about divorce?
Gracious confidence in the power of the gospel and the beauty of the Christian church will go much further than apologizing for what seems difficult in our Savior’s teaching. Why not take our place in the long line of saints who have thrived at the margins as a creative and prophetic minority? Mark Sayers writes:
Creative minorities find themselves withdrawn and distant from what they know and find comfort in. This distance enables them to see the myths and blind spots of their own culture, to reject these myths, and find a greater dependency in God. This dependency on a source of power and truth outside of the dominant culture leads creative minorities to refresh and reinvigorate ailing cultures.
We will not refresh and reinvigorate our ailing culture if we lack confidence in the truth, beauty, and goodness of our faith. Our angst may be authentic, but the solution is not to express our doubts as a mark of our own authenticity, but to embrace the authentic Christian faith and express that, with cheerful courage and faith in the One who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.