They tell me I’ve missed the point of the gospel, I’ve mistaken Jesus’ message.
Their chastening has come when I’ve shared our findings of why the majority of Americans avoid church. The most frequently mentioned reason: church people are judgmental. We suggest in our book Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore that the church may be more effective if it would emulate Jesus’ practice of loving acceptance.
That sets them off. Even when I explain that Jesus’ acceptance didn’t necessarily mean endorsement of a person’s behavior, they still insist I’ve besmirched the essence of the gospel.
In a radio interview recently I explained that Jesus led with love. That provoked the radio host. “Repent!” he shouted. “Excuse me for interrupting you, Thom. But that was Jesus’ first words.” He went on to defend the church’s judgmental reputation as a good thing.
This man represents a widespread school of thought–that the overwhelming focal point of scripture, of Jesus’ ministry, of God, is condemnation. This view seeks to grovel in the problem, rather than embrace the solution, the grace. Yes, Jesus called us to repent, to turn from our sin. But wasn’t his big purpose to love us, to call us to follow him, and to achieve something we cannot–to redeem us from our sin?
We often think of John 3:16 as the succinct summary of Jesus’ mission. But the very next verse clarifies what his mission was not: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” So where do some get the idea that Jesus centered his ministry on condemnation? When I think of Jesus’ encounters with the “unchurched” of his day, I see him leading with love and acceptance. Think of the woman caught in adultery. He led with love, defended her against those who condemned her, and then asked her to sin no more. With Zacchaeus, he led with love, accepted him, exhibited something we call “Radical Hospitality,” then inspired him to change his deceitful ways. With the thief on the cross beside him, Jesus led with love and invited the man to join him in paradise.
Who judged Jesus’ acts of love and acceptance as unacceptable? The religious leaders, who led first with judgment. Jesus did not find their judgmental approach particularly effective either.
At a recent workshop, a religious leader approached me and said, “Okay, I hear you about this Radical Hospitality. But when do we confront people who are living in sin?”
I explained that we’re called to follow Jesus’ example. Lead with love and acceptance. Once we’ve established a relationship, then we can invite people to dig into the scriptures with us, and we can allow God to convict us and inspire each of us to turn from our sins. And thank God for the gift of forgiveness, made possible through Jesus’ loving sacrifice.
So what do you say? What’s the real point of the gospel? And what’s our job? And what’s God’s job?