In the mid-1980’s, I bumped into a college friend I hadn’t seen for a few years. He worked in an inner-city church with multi-lingual immigrants. He had an excellent ministry in may ways, and I was a little jealous. As my friend described the dysfunction and poverty of the people he served–especially the kids–my heart sank. I asked, “So what do you have to give these kids?” When I got his answer, I wished I hadn’t asked.
He said, “Well, Bill, I really don’t have anything to give them except myself.”
My heart sank. I didn’t say it out loud, but I thought WHO WANTS YOU? What good are you? You’re going to leave them someday! You’re going to move or die! Then what do they have? Fond memories? Is that why God called you here?
Sharing the gospel means more than hugging a kid. And I served full-time as a children’s and youth pastor for almost eight years, in the city of Chicago, so I have a little street cred on this issue. I planted a church in Chicago and served with wonderful people for 16 years. The people in our church ran a food pantry (the biggest one in our part of town), a clothing center (pressed and ironed and given free in the name of Jesus), and a ministry to homeless people on Chicago’s lower Wacker Drive, where people lived in cardboard boxes and people from our church brought them food, shared Christ, and sang and prayed. I’ve planted an urban church, eaten at soup kitchens, spoken at women’s shelters (and played piano poorly there), prayed and served and slept overnight at a mission, and ran an urban high school group. This isn’t about boasting… it’s about forestalling the criticism that I don’t care about “social ministry.” I do. But, as my urban-pastor friend, George Rice, once said, “Social ministry only gives your gospel ministry credibility.” And, as my urban-pastor friend, JimQueen, said, “I don’t care how many people you feed, shelter, or clothe, if you’re not getting people saved, you’re not Christian.” AMEN!!!
I am getting jittery about some developments I see, especially among a generation of Christians raised with post-modern… uhhh… let us call it “mega-flexibility.” I speak of one branch only of the emerging church (new school theology)–the other branch I really like (new school methodology).
I know, I sound like an angry old guy, ranting. And I don’t want to. I don’t want to be the guy who’s always complaining about something. I want a positive ministry. I want to build up and encourage. I do have a tolerance for a broad spectrum of evangelical opinion. I can work with and love people I disagree with. I’ve done it all my ministry years. So please take this critique as from a brother who sees friends he loves steering off course–perhaps without even realizing it.
Here are the symptoms of “Mega-flexibility”
- Disdain for personal evangelism because you have an “agenda” or an “ulterior motive” in your relationships. The evangelistic motive poisons the well, and makes lost people doubt your sincerity, they say, so you shouldn’t make it your goal to get people saved. “Just love them.”But isn’t this a Christless gospel? Doesn’t this scrape across the grain of Paul’s declaration “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek” (Romans 1:16, NKJV)? And doesn’t “Just love them” sound like Oprah or Deepak Chopra or whatever guru is out there?I have many wonderful and warm friendships. I try to be loyal to my friends, and expect them to be loyal to me. Isn’t Jesus my friend too? Should I keep him under wraps? I have never met a self-respecting evangelical who wants to cram Jesus down somebody’s throat. Yes, it happens in Starbucks and in so-called intrusional evangelism. I get that. I’m not talking about that though. I’m talking about Christians not communicating Jesus and his saving love WITH THEIR WORDS, the much overused St Francis quote notwithstanding.
- A fondness for the saying, “It’s not our job to get people saved.” In context this phrase means, don’t cram Jesus down people’s throats, which we all agree with. But it goes deeper. It also means don’t enter relationships with the idea of leading a person to Christ. This represents a departure from generations of evangelical faith. The problem with the statement is called equivocation. Equivocation is what happens when you use the same words with two or more different meanings. It’s a slippery way to communicate. Pastors who say, “It’s not our job to get people saved” are using the phrase in two different ways (equivocally), and if they is called on it, they can retreat to whichever meaning suits the need at hand. Equivocation. Don’t fall for it. Here’s what I mean…Meaning 1: It’s not our job to get people saved… because only God can save people. Only God can redeem and forgive. You and I have not died for anybody’s sins, and we’re not the Savior. Meaning 1 merits a big Amen, but that’s not what most young hearers of this line will think. They will think…
Meaning 2: It’s not our job to get people saved… because we shouldn’t be out there talking about Jesus because Jesus turns people off and we should just love them and let them see our love and that will save them… and so you don’t have to, indeed you shouldn’t bring up Jesus, and certainly not his saving work on the Cross… [some even go this far] and people are saved by love anyway, and if they’re sincere, they’ll maybe go to heaven… I wonder how far this train of thought will go before we’ve all become universalists.
Look, friends talk about friends, right? If I’m your friend, over time, you’ll discover that I’m also friends with Dave and Dale and Jim and Gail and whoever else. It’s natural. It’s normal.
Well, I’m friends with Jesus. Should I lock him in a closet? Isn’t it unhealthy to hide Friend A from Friend B? Sorry, I won’t do that. If you are going to be in relationship with me, you will hear about my friend, Jesus. Not in a rude, obnoxious, or preachy way (unless I’m preaching). But in a natural way, as part of my life. Doesn’t it seem disloyal to actually suppress Jesus? To hide him? To not speak of his love and sacrifice? It’s not natural, if you ask me.
And I’m not talking about Jesus this, Jesus that, Jesus everything… Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. That’s weird too. I’m talking about a friend who helps me through every day, and it’s just normal to express that. A friend whose death gave me life and heaven. It’s natural to express that.
- A redefinition of Jesus’ death… This is the part that makes me saddest and maddest. To use theological terms, I see a trend away from Substitutionary Atonement and toward the Moral Example Theory of the Atonement. The Moral Example theory states that the Cross is the supreme expression of love. Jesus didn’t die to pay for our sins; he died to show us the extent of the love we must have for one another. And so the good news we Christians have is not so much about a once for all Savior who died in place of us sinners; it is rather the good news of our self-sacrificing love for others, especially “the least of these.”This posits something the Church has routinely rejected: A Christless Cross. A concept of Cross that centers on US instead of HIM. Ouch. So we say thing like, “All I have to give them is myself.”When we should be giving them the gospel, which is so clearly defined as Christ-centered and Subsitutionary:
Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you–unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, (1 Corinthians 15:1-4, NKJV).
Do a study on the Greek construction of “for our sins” and you will discover that the preposition “huper” plus the genitive “sins” indicates the idea of substitution. Christ died as substitute for our sins. That’s the idea. And that’s the gospel. Any other theory of the atonement must be secondary to the Substitutionary Theory.
Or else, let’s just throw out all theology since the Reformation, which, sadly, too many emerging church leaders are all to quick to do. They say things like, “Christ has been so misrepresented we must start over.” Start over? Really? Ouch. Luther and Calvin and Turrettin and that great cloud of witnesses that did the linguistic and theological work, standing on the shoulders of their forebears, to give us this most precious, utterly unique message of a Savior who loved us and gave himself up for us.
I thank God for the men and women who loved me enough to tell me about Jesus. It thank God for people who believed in the Great Commission and built churches to keep spreading the gospel. I thank God for the people who bugged me to Christ. Now it’s our turn. Keep Christ central to the gospel. And keep the Cross central to Christ.
Beware the Crossless Gospel and Beware the Christless Cross.