Researching on ministry to young adults, I came across this critique of how we normally pitch the gospel:
Let me ask you two questions that reframed the way I approach reaching millennials. First, what are the most common components of the gospel message you hear when it’s preached?
I asked this question to evangelists while leading a seminar on “The Gospel & Emerging Communication,” and they responded with the components you’d expect: “God will forgive my sins; I will not go to hell but to heaven; God will make my life better; God wants to change my behavior; I can be individually reconciled to God.”
The follow-up question I asked next is the second question I’d like you to consider: “If a millennial (holding the seven values mentioned above) heard you preach these gospel components, what thoughts, questions, and responses might be elicited?”
Just then, the evangelists had an epiphany about how the common gospel message could be interpreted by millennials. Here were their responses:
* This gospel is selfish. It impacts people on an individual level, reconciling them to God and improving their personal lives.
* This gospel is naïve. We’re portrayed as escapists who just want to get to heaven, producing no earthly good beyond moralism.
* This gospel is impotent. It doesn’t acknowledge the needs of our society or offer any solutions.
(James Chambers, Reaching Millennials with the Gospel)
Reading the above was an a-ha moment for me, too. As a boomer I understood the roots of why our generation preached the gospel the way we did. There was a deep sense of our personal responsibility before God. And we wanted to be sure that everyone understood that salvation was through faith in the grace of a living God. There was no way we could earn our salvation. I still hold to these fundamental convictions. But could it be true that the way we present the gospel leaves us open to the misconceptions that Chambers points out?
I thought of the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1–10
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (NIV)
Zacchaeus was a man of wealth and power. As a tax collector he would have been seen as a collaborator with Rome and hated by his fellow Jews. He was also short, but a man of wealth and power could easily have paid for a place where he could see the passing Jesus clearly. Yet he didn’t do that and so his quest for Jesus was something personal. As many rich and powerful people have discovered, money and power cannot meet our deepest needs.
In the mystery of salvation, Zacchaeus seeks for Jesus only to discover that Jesus is also seeking for him and offers to enter his life. The things that Zacchaeus did leads Jesus to conclude:
“Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.”
But what did Zacchaeus do?
First, he responded to Jesus’s invitation and welcomed Jesus into his home/life. Although the term repentance is not mentioned, Zacchaeus has obviously turned from a life where he defined his own spirituality (I am sure in the context of the Judaism of the day) to one where he embraced God’s Messiah.
Next, we see him acknowledging his wrong doing — recognising the fact that he has cheated people and will now pay back his victims four times what he cheated from them.
Third, we see his concern for the poor — he gives half his possessions, which must be considerable, to the poor.
The evidence for his salvation was a restored relationship with God and with neighbour. We shouldn’t be surprised by this because in various parts of the gospel, we are reminded that the commandment to love God and to love neighbour are inextricably intertwined. Indeed, when asked specifically about how one was to inherit eternal life, Jesus affirms the answer by the expert in the law — to love God and to love neighbour as one’s self. (Luke 10:25–28)
Therefore I am wondering if there is a way for us to frame the gospel where to repent is to return to God and to neighbour, and to be part of God’s agenda on earth while we await the return of Christ to usher in the new heaven and the new earth? We do this not because we are responding to external criticism but because we take seriously the teachings of Jesus in the gospels. Clearly, Jesus is not presenting the gospel as a personal ticket to heaven when we die. At the heart of the gospel is the invitation to turn to God, but can we really do that without also addressing the needs of our neighbours? Interesting the things you learn as you seek to minister to different generations.