Tailoring your message to fit the audience is good planning. Changing the content of the gospel is something else entirely.
When Gianna Jessen (an abortion survivor) spoke at our church recently, she said many memorable things. The one I’ve been thinking about most is to be a follower of Christ you need to be willing to be hated.
Of course, this does NOT mean being hateful. Nor does it mean seeking to be hated. Or having a persecution complex, so you think people don’t like you because you’re following Christ, when they actually don’t like you because of how you’re acting.
I am all for graciousness, kindness, and servant-hearted love as we speak the truth. I seek to practice this with the nonchristians I’m around. But at some point the greatest kindness we can offer them, coming out of a life of humility and faithfulness to Christ, is the good news about Jesus. That good news actually involves some very bad news about human sinfulness, which is what makes the cross an offense, meaning that it ticks people off.
The danger comes when we live in such fear of being mislabeled that we don’t step forward as unapologetic and unashamed all-out followers of Jesus. They can call us Jesus freaks or ignorant or uncool or intolerant or anything they want, that’s fine. We should do what we believe pleases our Lord, regardless of how it pans out in opinion polls. That includes loving others and giving radically and ministering to the down and out and addressing addictions and saying we think it’s wrong to kill children of all ages and helping people find alternatives. We do such things not seeking the approval of our culture, but of our King.
If we seek our culture’s approval, we’ll either never get it or get it only at the expense of failing to represent Christ. We are promised that if we “live godly lives in Christ Jesus” we “will suffer persecution.” If we’re not suffering persecution, at some level, then what does that suggest?
We should certainly be nice, and it’s sad when Christians aren’t. But it’s also sad when we imagine “niceness” has greater impact than it really does. Niceness is not the gospel. Some modern concepts of evangelism are little more than being nice to your neighbor and loaning him your hedge clipper and hoping that somehow he will come to Christ without your actually having to say the WORDS of the gospel that would run the risk of him thinking you’re weird. Our good example is important, but it’s not sufficient. There are actual truths that must be grappled with in surrendering to Jesus (1 Cor. 15:1-6). And these truths are expressed in words.
I’m all for audience analysis and understanding the perceptions of this generation and speaking in a way they can understand. But instead of letting the world set our agenda and the ground rules of what we can and can’t say, let’s ask the Lord how best to take the timeless message of the gospel to these people.
But—and I say this coming out of some of the conversations I’ve had with cool Christians—the answer is not altering the contents of the gospel to make it something everyone can easily agree with. If the gospel becomes nothing more than the reflection of a worldview they already have, it has nothing to offer them. It’s God’s gospel. Given the price He paid on the cross to offer it, He has the right to say difficult things such as Jesus is the only way to the Father and we are hell-bound without Him. That message is not popular and never will be. Our job isn’t to edit the message, but to deliver it.
Among some believers the new definition of a good Christian is holding your beliefs privately, not challenging those who publicly share beliefs that dishonor Christ, and avoiding controversy at all costs lest we be perceived as “those kind of Christians” who hate gays, oppose abortion, favor inquisitions, and love to burn witches. We so much want the world to like us that we end up distancing ourselves from the historic Christian faith, from biblical doctrine (including hell), and from churches (because they’re all hypocrites except us). We end up making ourselves indistinguishable from the world, and therefore have nothing to offer the world.
Sometimes we assume the moral high ground by rolling our eyes at those street preachers, congratulating ourselves that we aren’t like that. Street preaching’s not my thing, but I can give you names of people who have come to Christ through street preaching. It’s more of a stretch to name those who’ve come to Christ through Christians who think it’s not cool to tell people the biblical truth that they need to repent of their sins (a synonym for evils; basically a big insult) and turn to Christ to be saved from hell.
It’s not our job to be popular. We are not contestants on American Idol. And we are not Christ’s speech writers or PR team, airbrushing Jesus so He has greater appeal to people who don’t want to hear what He said about sin and hell. He’s the King, He calls the shots; we’re just His ambassadors. So let’s represent the real Jesus, the whole Jesus, not just the culturally acceptable one.
There is nothing new or postmodern about the gospel turning some people off. That’s always been true, just as it’s always been true that some people are longing to hear it and will deeply appreciate the fact that you had enough courage to tell them about Jesus.
As D. L. Moody said when someone criticized his approach to evangelism, “I like the way I do it better than the way you don’t do it.”
It is not gracious and kind to withhold the gospel from those who, according to Jesus, are going to hell without Him. Sometimes what we imagine to be our graciousness and kindness is actually indifference or cowardice.
“All men will hate you because of me.” Mark 13:13
“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.” John 15:18
This article appeared in the Spring 2009 Eternal Perspectives and originally appeared on Randy Alcorn’s personal blog, January 28, 2009. Visit the blog at http://www.randyalcorn.blogspot.com to read Randy’s latest thoughts on the Christian life, discipleship, books, family, and more.