A year into my ministry in Brussels, I had a revelation that was both liberating and terrifying at the same time. After spending hours listening to secular university students, career-minded young adults and parents, I came to this realization: Jesus Christ, as I was accustomed to sharing Him, had nothing to offer these people. The Gospel story that I was hoping to share with them was one they had no interest in hearing. In fact, the problem I was aiming to help them solve was one they did not believe they had. Let me explain.
For 20 years, I lived in the Southern half of the U.S. where I was surrounded by a Judeo-Christian culture that taught each of us that there is a big, almighty, holy God, and you are not Him! Even if you didn’t believe in God, there was a worldview inherent in your thinking, whispering to your conscience that bad actions made you a bad person, good actions made you a good person and in the end God will judge us all. To those with a guilty conscience, I was well trained in how to share the good news of God’s grace. I had illustrations, diagrams, even handouts ready to tell the justification by faith narrative; while we were yet sinners, Christ died on the Cross and through faith in Him we can be free from the punishment of sin, the power of sin and ultimately we will be free the presence of sin. Jesus offers salvation for the sinner!
Then in 2012, I moved to Europe.
In a culture where Christianity is no longer the predominant metanarrative that defines people’s worldview, you realize fairly quickly that nobody thinks they are a sinner. Sure, they might not be as hard working, kind, or charitable as the next guy, but at their core, they are good people. As a pastor in Sweden said to me, “In my country, there is no longer even the concept of shame.” That is a far cry from the Europe of Martin Luther, who literally had panic attacks when he thought about himself in comparison to a Holy God. Tim Keller rightly says, “How many secular people are having panic attacks today when they think about God? Not many.”
I found myself wondering, “How do I get these people to feel bad about themselves so I can tell them how to get better?” And yet, I knew enough not to go down this road. I have seen many Christians take this approach with neighbors, family members, and friends. All with disastrous results. When Christians make it our mission to tell people they are sinners, we become the bearers of bad news, not the “Good News People” we are meant to be as followers of Jesus.
So why do well-meaning Christians take this approach? Why was I trapped in this feeling of hopelessness in my efforts to share Jesus? The answer is simply this: If the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem starts to look like a nail. If the justification by faith narrative is the only Gospel story you can present to people, then you arecompelled to get them to feel like sinners before you have anything to offer them.
Justification by faith is absolutely true, but it is not the only aspect of The Gospel. People have other issues besides their sinfulness that The Gospel seeks to address. So rather than trying to convince them they have a need they don’t think they have, how can we let The Gospel speak into the many realities in their life that already keep them up at night?
All of this led me to ask, “What other Gospel stories can I tell?” For the past year, I have kept a journal where I simply list Gospel narratives that make more sense in a secular culture. I am just scratching the surface, but here are my first 20.
- Jesus offers to make something beautiful out of our brokenness.
- Jesus offers a better ending to your life story than the one you are writing.
- Jesus offers rest from your efforts to achieve significance.
- Jesus offers identity apart from your performance (or family history, self esteem, beauty, etc.)
- Jesus offers radical inclusion of those on the margins of society.
- Jesus offers to create value from experiences that are evil or worthless.
- Jesus embraces mystery in a world that expects certainty.
- Jesus offers a Kingdom in which those who are at the bottom in this earthly Kingdom are on the top in His Kingdom. (e.g., the poor, the weak, the powerless, etc.)
- Jesus answers the questions science cannot answer about the origins of life.
- Jesus offers us something to live for that is greater than ourselves.
- Jesus offers us work in this life that will remain for eternity.
- Jesus offers the freedom to be authentic rather than hide behind a mask.
- Jesus offers justice and equality to those who are suffering.
- Jesus offers reconciliation and healing to relationships that are beyond repair.
- Jesus offers renewal to things that are old and resurrection to things that are dead.
- Jesus offers complete healing to the sick, if not in this life, then in the next.
- Jesus offers freedom to those captive to addictions.
- Jesus models excellence in a world of cheap knockoffs and short cuts.
- Jesus offers inner peace in the midst of a life of chaos.
- The idols in our life cannot keep the promises they make no matter how much we worship them. Jesus can. (money, power, success, etc.)
So, how do I know what Gospel story to tell people? As René Laennec, the inventor of the stethoscope, once said, “Listen to your patients. They are telling you the answer.” We have to learn to listen to people’s longings, their insecurities, and their sources of identity. We have to learn to observe their idols because people worship what they value above all in their life. How are the things they worship fulfilling their promises? How do they respond when they are let down by them? If we observe the idolatry, we will begin to understand how The Gospel intersects with people.
My ministry goal in this year ahead is to be a better listener to those around me to see how I can offer them a new story about the Eternal Jesus.
(My many thanks to Alan Hirsch and Forge International for their books and messages that have challenged me in the past four years. Much of what I have written is not new to those familiar with Hirsch. I simply pass them along in order to share my journey to these new places of ministry.)