Why I don’t want to share the gospel

by Kristin on August 19, 2010

in Belief, doubt & hope

Photo by Shannon Kringen

“Sharing the Gospel.”

I’m a Christian, and that phrase makes me squirm and cringe. It’s easy to imagine how so many others feel about it.

Last night at our small group gathering, we were discussing what it really means to “share the gospel,” a topic sparked by chapter 14 in Brian McLaren’s book A New Kind of Christianity. In my opinion, this chapter, “What Is the Gospel?” is the most important one in the book so far. It gets to the heart of all of the issues that get me worked up and stressed out about the current state of Christianity and politics: Sameness and difference. Polarization. Reconciliation.

I could write an entire (probably quite entertaining) post about why the phrase “sharing the gospel” rubs me the wrong way, but McLaren’s thoughts steered me away from the cultural idiosyncrasies straight into the theological meat of the matter: What is “the gospel” really about? And what are we supposed to do with it?

My problem, you see, was all rooted in my definition. I’ve always thought the gospel message was “Jesus died for your sins.” If that’s where you start, then this is what “sharing the gospel” looks like: Verbally telling people that Jesus died for their sins, and if they believe that they can go to a place called heaven when they die.

In other words, you tell people there’s this one way to see things and one way to live, and if they jump on board and do it all just like you, they can be guaranteed an eternity of your annoying company in heaven. (OK, to be fair, I know there are exceptions and variations. Not everyone who seeks to “share the gospel” is heavy-handed and annoying.)

God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven

But McLaren’s definition of “The Gospel” and what Jesus came to do rings so very true to me:

Jesus didn’t come to start a new religion to replace first Judaism and then all other religions…. Instead, he came to announce a new kingdom, a new way of life, a new way of peace that carried good news to all people of every religion. A new kingdom is much bigger than a new religion, and in fact it has room for many religious traditions within it.

Later in the chapter, McLaren takes a look at what Paul is trying to do in Romans: “He is the guy simultaneously defending the right of the gentile Christians to be different and struggling to keep Jews and Gentiles working together as one community.” I love how McLaren puts it: “Jesus’s gospel of the kingdom must welcome Jews in their Jewishness and Gentiles in their goyishness, and Paul wants to show how that can be.” That can be! It’s really difficult, but not impossible!

To me, that thought is extended today to include conservatives in their right-wing-ness, and liberals in their left-ness, homosexuals in their gay-ness, pro-choicers and right-to-lifers…the list goes on and on. All sorts of different people, with differing viewpoints and practices, all under the shelter of a single gospel message.

It only works with love

I have to admit, it’s a tough list for me to accept. Well, it’s important and right in the areas I agree with, and difficult to embrace in the areas I can’t agree with. Also, this is important—I refuse to be OK with it if whatever you need to embrace means you also embrace hatred toward others. All of the current chatter and debate about the building of a mosque near Ground Zero puts that sort of hatred into sharp relief, and I have no doubt it has nothing to do with what Jesus or Paul had in mind.

Ultimately, this “not judging” and “accepting others” works only where there is love, and a common vision of a kingdom of heaven that can exist on earth. That’s why, when it’s all said and done, I don’t want to “share” the gospel; I want to live it. I’m pretty sure it’s the only way to get there.

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  • http://thealchemistblog.wordpress.com Genevieve

    Very interesting and timely, Kristin. Just the other day, a member of my own family told me she’s worried about my immortal soul. Because I’m a bad person? Nope. Because I’d hurt her in some way? No. Because she was in a bad mood. Not even that. It was because a priest had told her that my lifestyle choices don’t jive with Catholicism (big shocker there) and that I am living in sin. Out of a need to “share the gospel,” she felt that telling me she thought I might be damned would be the thing to do. Of course, my response was hurt, frustration, indignation, and defensiveness. It was NOT, “wow, now that she’s shared the gospel, I kinda wanna believe it, too!”

    I agree that there is just so much misguided “sharing” going on, and it does give Christians a bad name. But “making Christians of all people” definitely has a strong place in Christian tradition, and I’m wondering to what extent it can really be cut out while still holding the title of “Christian.” This is a complex issue and I’m not saying that non-missionary attitudes don’t have a place in Christianity. But whenever people claim that they have “the truth,” it does tend to imply that they are most right, that others are a little more wrong, and that no matter how hard you try, they’ll be convinced that their “truthiness” gives them a sort of spiritual superiority. How could it not, though? If it’s “the truth”? I’m not trying to poke any sore spots here, but I’d be really interested to know how you and others reconcile the two ideas of having “the one true faith” and being open and tolerant and loving AND respectful of the irreligion or differently-religioned around you. Won’t a part of you always feel, “I’m right and you’re wrong”?

  • http://www.livinginabeautifulmess.blogspot.com Cheryl Ensom Dack

    I love that, Kristin. Like you, I grew up in church, but my religious experience was decidely more “evangelical” than a lot of people’s. I was “witnessing” to neighbor kids, feeling guilty for not “sharing the Gospel” with my non-Christian friends/family and issuing personal invitations to “come to Christ” to whoever I could…and this was as a child. I got literal little “jewels” in my crown broach on my Awana vest for inviting people to chuch or Awana….so awful it’s humorous! I “re-asked” Jesus to come into my heart hundreds, maybe even thousnds, of times. It was all about the “prayer of salvation,” saying it correctly with all the key components included (acknowledgement of Jesus as God and Saviour, confession of sin and inability to be good enough for heaven on my own and a request for Jesus to come into my heart and be in charge of my life) and to MEAN it with all my heart. That MEANING it was the toughest part and why I prayed that prayer over and over; the ABSOLUTE SURRENDER of myself always scared me, not because I didn’t WANT to do it but because I felt like I could never surrender absolutely everything. But I shoved all this pain/confusion/fear/uncertainty down in order to “witness” to others. I became quite skilled at presenting a “Gospel” that was simple, sweet and moving, but behind closed doors I was on my knees, sobbing, BEGGING God to take over my whole heart and mind.

    I love your/Maclaren’s vision of the Gospel as a new way of life, rather than mental agreement with a list of doctrinal truths. I have been recently thinking/writing about this very idea: the kingdom of heaven is not “out there,” but HERE, now, in our everyday life. My most recent blog posts are imagining life without the religious/morl “sorting systems”/polarizaton. As the poet Rumi said so beautifully, ““Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there.” I’m wondering if it is in that field that we encounter the kingdom of heaven.

  • http://www.livinginabeautifulmess.blogspot.com Cheryl Ensom Dack
  • http://www.rickgebauer.wordpress.com Rickopodomus

    Great stuff Kristin…thank you for your boldness and honesty.

  • http://www.inamirrordimly.com ed cyzewski

    Thanks for wrestling through this. These are the kinds of discussions we need to have. I have not read McLaren’s new book yet, though I hope to. I have seen some of the videos he’s done about it and am both intrigued and bit disappointed so far. However, on the plus side I think he’s breaking a theological paradigm that was not sustainable, and I think you’re nailing it in this post. There is a Gospel to share, but there’s a lot of it that we’ve been missing.

    I find NT Wright really helpful in these discussions. I think he deals responsibly with the tensions of living in the Kingdom today and how that relates to the Gospel message.

    If I can blab on a bit, I do find it interesting that missionary Leslie Newbigin writes in The Open Secret that the evangelistic moments in the book of Acts generally occur as a result of someone asking the Christians a question… the questions were prompted by action. To me, that means just talking about my faith is the easy way out. The biblical way means that every moment of our lives is evangelism, and that means it’s both more accessible and much more difficult to do. Does all of that make any sense?

  • http://themoderngal.com The Modern Gal

    After reading the first paragraph of your post, I was determined to say that Christianity might be in better shape if all Christians spread the gospel with their actions more than their words. But you beat me to that notion :)

    “I have no doubt it has nothing to do with what Jesus or Paul had in mind.” Yes, yes and a thousand times yes. I have no doubt that hatred or division of any sort is what Jesus or Paul had in mind for Christianity as a whole.

  • http://comfortjoy.blogspot.com Sharon

    I can’t add anything profound to these great comments. I am so grateful for all of them and for this post, which is very good news indeed!

  • http://divinest-sense.blogspot.com Jen Rose

    Oh, sharing the gospel. Witnessing. Whatever you call it. Forever my biggest problem. I’m really bad at it. :)

    I used to feel guilty all the time because I never “led anyone to Christ” in my life. I’m just not that person… I always preferred to live out my faith quietly, answer anyone who asks, and leave it at that. And then you have the hyper-evangelists that tell you not sharing is not an option, that it’s your job… it’s frustrating. So what you’re saying and what McLaren is saying resonates with me. Thanks.

    Recently, I’ve started attending a new church. I really love it and think it’s the place I’ve been looking for… the communityexcept perhaps for the part where I’ve already been “witnessed” to twice. Like, “Hi, my name is ____. What’s your name? Do you know Jesus?” :) I guess the biggest lesson I’m still learning is to understand how important it is to them and not let myself get cynical about it. It’s hard sometimes.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking words!

  • http://takingtheyoke.blogspot.com Ray Hollenbach

    Hi Kristin: I’m glad your small group is reading McLaren’s book if it forces you reconsider the gospel. For better than sixty years Evangelicalism has reduced the gospel to a formula, a set of propositions, and asks “outsiders” to agree with these “truth statements.” Amazingly, even Satan would agree with the statements! We have ignored the Biblical witness regarding the gospel; many of our ills flow from this incredible shrinking gospel.

    Ed Cyzewski recommended N.T. Wright, your group is reading McLaren–may I suggest a truly radical step? The New Testament presents the “Gospel of the Kingdom of God”–something radically different from “the plan of salvation.” Here’s a New Testament survey in under fifty words: John the Baptist preached the gospel of the Kingdom of God; so did Jesus; Jesus taught about the Kingdom after his resurrection; Acts opens and closes with the Kingdom; Paul defines it, and Revelation celebrates it.

    I’m stirred up! Jesus and his Kingdom is the central passion of my life. I have seven different posts about the Kingdom at my blog, but this one speaks directly to your point: http://takingtheyoke.blogspot.com/2010/02/hearing-gospel-for-first-time.html

    There–now I’ve gone and quoted myself, thereby destroying all credibility. But I can’t help it! It changed my life!

    Peace to you and your small group, and thanks to Brian McLaren for opening the door.

  • http://projectmonline.com Kathleen Quiring | Project M

    Yay! I’m glad to run into someone else who agrees with McLaren on these issues! Anyone I’ve talked to immediately tells me how “dangerous” and “heretical” McLaren is for making suggestions like these.

    I think you’ve tackled this gracefully, and especially appreciated the sentence, “I refuse to be OK with it if whatever you need to embrace means you also embrace hatred toward others.” Nicely said!

  • Kirstin

    Awesome post, Kristin. Usually I skip over the more theologically oriented posts on your blog (having walked away, I’m just less interested in the Christianity stuff than your other topics), but you hit this one out of the park.

    I once heard my agnostic/Jewish husband reprimand a friend of similar background who was ragging on “bible-bashing” Christians. “No, they’re not all like that!” he insisted, and went on to describe my extended family, particularly my grandmother–all of whom are devout in their brand of evangelical Protestantism but who, as my husband pointed out, draw on their faith as a real and powerful source of peace, kindness, and ethical mindfulness. I just about fell over–I hadn’t realized he’d noticed. In fact, in my state of cynical apostasy, I hadn’t really noticed myself.

    They would never try to convert my husband, and they’re making their own peace with my decisions, but we’ve both been the beneficiaries of an important kind of witnessing. It feels to me like the kind of witnessing that you and your readers are actively promoting, to the greater glory of a God we all can believe in, regardless of how we frame and understand our worship. Yes!

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Genevieve, hearing a story like yours makes me want to say “Give me that relative’s phone number! I need to have a word with him/her!” I get really angry, then I want to cry because it’s so hurtful on so many levels. Even the people who think they *must* share the “good news” in this way with everyone who isn’t living a “righteous life” are being hurt. Anyway, you’re right that “’making Christians of all people’ definitely has a strong place in Christian tradition,” but I still wonder if we can’t just shift our foundational definition of what that means, what it looks like. It’s very human to think “I’m right, you’re wrong,” but our human tendencies are what Jesus was pushing back against, always holding out for the possibility of a different way, a better way. Sometimes I think it’s very possible, other times it feels hopeless.

    Cheryl, the “little jewels in your crown” image is astounding! Wow! While I did ask Jesus into my heart multiple times, always thinking it hadn’t “worked,” my United Methodist upbringing wasn’t very evangelical (unless you count going out of your way to do acts of mercy and love). But then I went to a Christian college, and encountered this idea that on “judgment day” God would ask me why I hadn’t told various people about him. It’s very confusing. I love how you summed this up—a “vision of the Gospel as a new way of life, rather than mental agreement with a list of doctrinal truths.” And the Rumi quote! Thank you! (I will definitely check out your post, too!)

    Rickopodomus, thank you for reading and letting me know what you think!

    ed, I’m definitely not an all-out fan of McLaren’s book. In fact, I was fairly frustrated by the few chapters leading up to this one. No matter how we feel about it, though, the fact that it can get us talking and thinking is important. I really love what you shared from Leslie Newbigin. It makes perfect sense that the best way to express our faith is “both more accessible and much more difficult to do.” Thanks for giving me even more to read and ponder. :)

    The Modern Gal, yeah, my headline was a bit of a predictable gimmick, but sometimes gimmicks do the trick! When I think about how far we’ve gotten (in my opinion) from what Jesus really hoped/hopes for us, it’s hard to imagine how it happened and what could fix it. From what I can tell, though, we just don’t think things through much on our own—it’s so much easier to just repeat what we’ve been told, and even to conflate and alter it, when its convenient. We’re all guilty of that, to some degree.

    Sharon, thank you! It’s good to find some words and ideas and community that make you feel less alone, isn’t it? That’s why I’m thankful for this community here, every day.

  • http://www.karenmaehr.blogspot.com karen

    Oh that picture …. cringe. Any more, I call myself a believer of scripture and refrain from using the term Christian as it has become so maligned. I don’t associate with any church doctrine – nor is a brick & mortar church required for salvation. (Not that there aren’t great churches out there! No offense intended.) I am a student of scripture, a believer in the gospel of grace, with an understanding of where I am (mankind is) on the timeline of God’s Plan. If it’s in the KJV bible, I’ll listen and test it against my understanding. There’s so much junk out there – I prefer my quietly determined path to grow in wisdom and love, and to share it (the gospel, knowledge, encouragement, etc.) in a gentle manner, trusting the work of the Holy Spirit far above my own.

    It’s a process. It’s definitely a process.

  • Eddie

    I agree with your thoughts that the gospel must be shared in love, and I agree with your point that Paul fought for the non-exclusivity of the kingdom…

    However,

    as members of the body of Christ we are to love everyone where they are, true, but I would caution against throwing out all ethical commands and the concept of “holyness.” In the context of reaching non-believers, I absolutely agree that this should be done delicately and gently, but once someone is adopted into the family of God, he/she begins a process of striving to live more and more like Christ intended. This means loving our neighbors, taking care of the poor, and forgiving our enemies. This also means abstaining from sexual immorality, lust, greed, and adultery. The church is NOT meant to allow everything and anything! Yes, we are not to condemn anyone, and we are NEVER to act in anger or hate towards another person. But the true joys of the kingdom are realized only as the church is transformed through ongoing grace as we choose to submit to the rule and reign of the King. There is no “Kingdom” without the authority and reign of a “King.”

    Of course, I absolutely do not think that evangelism should begin with pointing out people’s sins in a hateful and aggressive way, but as people draw closer to Christ we should NEVER hide or avoid the ethical exhortations that Jesus and the Epistles present.

    It is important to recognize that this is a very delicate balance, but we must try to live in the tension between liberal and legalist. We must demonstrate God’s grace and love while also demonstrating his ethics and commands to our brothers and sisters in the church.

    I would love to hear thoughts…

    • http://www.facebook.com/fatimagabriela.proanogranda Fatima Proano Granda

      You nailed it Eddie. Once we are sealed in Christ, we have to turn away from sin..there is no other way..Romans 12:2 says “do not conform any longer to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind”

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Jen, see?!? Just the fact that you feel the need to say you’re “really bad” at witnessing is proof that we’ve fallen into a really predictable, narrow definition of what “sharing the gospel” means! I highly doubt, for instance, that you’re “really bad” at living your life with grace, authenticity, and love, so I hope you will be able to cut yourself some slack. :) I was very relieved when, in college, I heard the term “relational evangelism” for the first time, and I heard people saying there are many ways to share God’s love and message—you just have to find the way that fits who you are. (Btw, wouldn’t you love to come up with a witty response to the “Do you know Jesus?” question? I’m glad you found a church that otherwise feels good, though.)

    Ray, I love it when you get all “stirred up!” Your survey of the NT is brilliant—I’m going to share it with my small group. One of the things we talked about when we were together the other night was how many of us were raised saying the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday, but it was years before we were taught/shown the meaning of “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” This seems to me like one of the most exciting, hopeful lines in the Bible! I’m looking forward to reading your “Kingdom” posts. (Btw, McLaren’s is actually the first book our small group has studied aside from the Bible. We went through Acts—very slowly—and Mark before that.)

    Kathleen, thanks for saying that! It’s a really tricky line to walk, isn’t it? To do it gracefully seems almost impossible at times. McLaren suggests, in his book, that we be convinced of what we think/believe about issues, and then we keep our convictions to ourselves (ch. 15 p. 155 if you have the hardcover). This is a nice idea, but it isn’t always practical, especially when we’re working for justice, or when my convictions and yours inherently clash in ways that are impossible to ignore. And when you see hatred being spewed, I think it becomes wrong to keep your convictions to yourself.

    Kirstin, I bet there are lots of people who tend to skip over my “belief” posts—that’s the nature of my attempt to write a halfway normal blog! :) So that’s OK, but I’m glad you read this and weighed in. Your perspective is the very sort I’m most interested in (I always love hearing from Genevieve on these topics, too). The way you describe your extended family is a great model for us all: people who “draw on their faith as a real and powerful source of peace, kindness, and ethical mindfulness.” And this vision is very exciting to me—doing it all “…to the greater glory of a God we all can believe in, regardless of how we frame and understand our worship.”

  • http://www.rebeccasramsey.blogspot.com/ Becky Ramsey

    I’m in love with this post, Kristen. So, so good.
    Many folks around this part of the country love to hand out religious tracts, and I collect them, mostly for the awfulness. It makes me sad that the focus people find is on avoiding eternal punishment, rather than being immersed in the source of Love.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    karen, sorry about the photo (hehe). It sort of freaks me out every time I open up my blog—don’t know whether to laugh or cry! Anyway, I like how you describe your faith. This is something I’ve struggled with, too (a while back I wrote a post titled “What do you call that other kind of believer?” I always feel torn between claiming the term Christian in hopes that I can help shift/broaden people’s understanding of what that means, or just trying to blaze a new trail using new language and structures (or lack thereof) all together. Yet another “halfway” place for me to reside. :)

    Eddie, thanks for your honest response and tough questions. This is something I struggle with and think about a lot, and it isn’t easy to succinctly put my thoughts into words, but I’ll try! This sentence of yours gave me pause: “The church is NOT meant to allow everything and anything!” I think it’s true that as a community of believers (not as a Church structure or authority), we’re meant to talk to one another, and challenge each other to live more Christ-like lives. I also think it’s true that many of our actions and inactions deeply sadden God. Unfortunately, the church has become known for determining that certain “sins” sadden God the most, and that if we focus enough of our energy and attention on them, we can let all of the others slide. Here’s an example: Let’s not spend time talking, as a community of Jesus followers, about the so-called sin of homosexuality—let’s talk about ALL of our relationships, and ALL of the ways we deeply hurt, let down, and even abuse one another. I simply refuse to believe that a healthy, committed, loving relationship between two people of the same sex saddens God more than the verbal abuse, adultery, etc. that might be taking place in a heterosexual relationship down the block. Beyond the issue of marriage/relationships, there’s a whole myriad of problems that are essentially left alone by churches everywhere, from gossip and social injustice to people being killed in other countries so we can all keep driving our big gas-guzzlers and living our so-called “safe” and “free” lives. OK, I’m starting to write a whole post here—time to summarize!
    1) The Bible isn’t a rule book, and the Church (pastors, elders, etc.) isn’t here to enforce the rules;
    2) As a community of Jesus followers, yes, we should be talking to one another about our choices and our lives, using love and Jesus’s life as our litmus test and guide;
    3) If we’re going to talk about specific issues, as a community, let’s put ALL of the issues on the table—every single thing we do that gets in the way of love and peace. We’ve got a lot of work to do, and in my opinion we’re wasting our time and energy on the wrong things.

    Becky, I’m sort of curious to see these tracts, and sort of glad I haven’t been exposed to them! Do they tend to address sinfulness is a general sense, as in “we all sin,” or do they reference/list certain types of sins (either directly or within the context of Bible verses)? Anyway, you expressed it best: “It makes me sad that the focus people find is on avoiding eternal punishment, rather than being immersed in the source of Love.”

  • Dave in Dallas

    I have no problem with the gospel message of “Jesus Christ died for our sin”. The problems come with sharing it well. Salvation is through Christ alone. It is not a bargain. It is a gift. Share this good news with love and it works fine. This includes both living in Christ example of service to others, and letting it be known that the grace of God is the source of any good we accomplish. Jesus Christ changes lives. In recognizing my own sinfulness, I feel compelled to share this message of hope.

  • Eddie

    Kristin, thanks for writing me back. I couldn’t agree more with your points!! The community of all believers (the church) should not single any sin out, and as you said “let’s put ALL of the issues on the table.” I also agree with you that many American Christians waste time on the wrong things. Indeed, we have a lot of work to do to create an environment of peace and love as we attempt to live the kingdom here on earth.

  • http://www.jpmdasein.com Jeff

    Thanks for the conversation. I’ll avoid self-promotion here, but did want to say thanks for the discussion. It is refreshing to eavesdrop on your thinking and conversations.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Dave in Dallas, you make some really good points about how important our approach is when we’re sharing a message. I want to clarify that I’m not proposing that we toss out the “Jesus died for our sins” message, I’m just beginning to think that’s not THE gospel message—that we’ve become hyper-focused on what will happen to us when we die, rather than on what we’re doing to bring about God’s kingdom while we live. And it isn’t that McLaren (author of A New Kind of Christianity) has decided he likes this kingdom message better than the salvation message. He presents a biblical case for this other way to understand the gospel message. I’m not a theologian, but McLaren’s argument in this chapter makes a lot of sense to me—you should definitely check it out.

    Eddie, thanks for being a part of this dialogue—I appreciate that you raised good questions and then checked in again after I responded. I always think these types of conversations and exchanges—reaching understanding—are part of that new earth we’re trying to build.

    Jeff, thanks for stopping by (and for letting me know)!

  • http://themoderngal.com The Modern Gal

    You’re right about it being easy to repeat what we see and hear. It takes a kind of courage that few people have to want to interpret and live differently from the masses.

  • Dave in Dallas

    In my view, salvation includes both the here and the hereafter. In the former it means being the person God intends one to be, and in the later it means enjoying this relationship for eternity. Our time, Gods time.

  • http://blog.rvreyes.com Raquel

    You express your ideas so well. Thank you for the great writing.

  • http://www.karenmaehr.blogspot.com karen

    News of the extremist in Gainesville, FL reminded me of this post of yours. Had to come back to read it. More fodder for another post? Would be interested in your take on the situation.

    Take care, Kristin! — karen

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Raquel, thanks for the encouragement! Often I do wonder, as I’m writing, “What am I trying to say?!?” It’s good to know that it gets through clearly to others—I hope more often than not!

    karen, ah yes, the Gainesville extremist. I briefly mentioned this news story in my “Why church?” post, because it seemed wrong not acknowledge something that has received so much attention. At the same time, that world-wide attention has made me really angry and frustrated—I just want the whole thing to go away. Ultimately, this is what rings of Truth to me: “[Jesus] came to announce a new kingdom, a new way of life, a new way of peace that carried good news to all people of every religion.” (McLaren) Maybe eventually I’ll feel like saying more, but for now I’ll take a deep breath and leave it at that. :)

  • http://www.shannonkringen.com shannonkringen

    thanks for using my photo. i appreciate that you found it useful.