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Selling an Offensive Gospel

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No one wants to be offensive. Least of all Christians, whom one might think would be the least displeasing people of all. Christians try to love their neighbors. What’s not to like?

Nothing, if that were all there is to Christianity. But there’s also the belief that faith in Jesus Christ is the only way to be saved from sin and death. “Salvation is found in no one else,” said Peter, referring to Jesus, in Acts 4:12.

This is where Christianity gets offensive. It makes an exclusive claim: No other faith shows the way to a right relationship with God. No other religion, no other philosophy, tells the whole truth about who God is and what God wants for us.

Is this offensive? To someone who believes another religion or philosophy holds exclusive truth, it probably is. And it probably also is to someone who thinks no religion or philosophy has the right to claim it owns the whole truth.

This latter view – that all religions and philosophies are equal paths to truth – is an article of faith in a culture sometimes described as postmodern. Because postmodern people shun the notion of one truth, Christianity is more offensive today than ever.

That is, unless Christians adapt their beliefs to eliminate the gospel’s offensiveness. Christianity without its exclusive claims fits just fine into a postmodern world view: Your truth is as good as mine.

But an inoffensive Christianity is not the faith of the biblical prophets and apostles. When Jeremiah called for the people of Jerusalem to repent, he found that “the word of the Lord is offensive to them” (Jer. 6:10). Paul wrote that he was persecuted because of “the offense of the cross” (Gal. 5:11) and that he would continue to preach not to win people’s approval but God’s (Gal. 1:10).

The gospel’s offensiveness presents a problem for our church-growth goals. You can’t sell the church by offending people.

Compounding the dilemma, the gospel’s offensiveness isn’t limited to the claim that Christ shows the only way to salvation. How can we attract economically secure Americans to a gospel that warns, “woe to you who are rich” (Luke 6:24)? How can we attract citizens of a nation at war to a gospel that commands us to love our enemies? So as not to alienate our target audience, we’re tempted to skip the offensive parts.

Inoffensive Christianity is marketable. It is socially respectable. But it is not true. If we treat the gospel as a product to be sold, we cheapen it.

Jesus said people with “ears to hear” would listen to him. He might have meant that a receptive spirit is required for people to hear his message as good news. These people would hear Jesus’ challenging words and be moved to repentance rather than resentment.

Others, without such a spirit, would take offense. But Jesus did not change his message for them.
A church could do market research to determine what version of the gospel would appeal to the most people, and then preach that gospel. That church might become the biggest in town, but it would not be the most faithful.

In a world of slick marketing and false promises, people don’t need another calculated sales pitch. Presented with a message of unusual honesty, those with ears to hear will recognize the truth.

This column was reprinted with permission from the Mennonite Weekly Review.