There are things to be said for “tough preaching”.
You know the sort. The sermons or books or mission week talks that set out “the gospel” as clear as day. They put it bluntly, they don’t shy away from the hard-to-hear bits, they’re not worried about causing offence. The gospel, as they proclaim it, is this:
“You’re a sinner. Rejecting God has consequences. You deserve hell. Jesus died to take the punishment for your sin. Accept him and get heaven. Reject him and get hell.”
As I say, it has its benefits. Clarity and focus, where some Christian messages seem to meander around a few niceties and never really say anything. Definite purpose, where sometimes we’re left wondering why we bother with all the events and services and talks. Persuasive passion, where some speakers seems nervous and apologetic about the ‘good news’ they’re supposed to be so keen on.
The only problem is that it doesn’t seem very… good.
I was under the impression that the good news was something to do with love. I thought we wanted those who aren’t interested in faith to know that they are ridiculously, unconditionally, indescribably loved by God. Of course that’s not all there is to it, of course there are implications of that love – what it means for who we are, how we live, how we treat others, what God’s love means for the rest of creation, for our future, for relationship with him, how it’s shown supremely in Jesus’ life and death and resurrection… of course there’s a whole story to tell.
But if we want to hammer one point home, surely it’s not “believe this to avoid hell”. Surely it’s,
“you’re loved by God more than you could ever imagine.”
The mission week held by Oxford University’s Christian Union this year was called “Born Loved”. I was excited. Although I love the CU, have been part of it for all of my three years at Oxford, and have invited friends to talks and events over that time, our mission weeks certainly have a bit of a reputation for that bold, sometimes offensive preaching. They cause a stir, with some people accepting the message and finding relationship with God, but others vehemently opposing the whole concept as well as the content. I was excited, because with a title like “Born Loved”, surely this would be the year that my friends might realise that the Christian message is not primarily about sin, judgement and guilt, but about a crazy, overwhelming love for them.
I wasn’t convinced. I didn’t go to every talk. But of the evening talks I did hear, and the feedback I’ve heard from others, the key message that many took away was “You need to know about hell, because you’re heading there if you don’t repent and believe”. Bold, sure. Brave, yes. But the best use of 5 evening events? The best way to present the good news of Jesus? The most true to his own life and teaching?
What if we put the same energy, passion, and focus into convincing people that they’re loved?
What if we took the benefits of that tough, unashamed, bold preaching from mission weeks and evangelists, and poured it into telling the world that God is love?
We’d have mission strategies to help us organise the millions of people who aren’t yet sure that they’re loved. We’d have booklets and tracts aimed at different age groups and cultures to find relevant ways to express God’s love. We’d have people working on memorable catch-phrases and alliterative headlines, so that once they’d heard, no-one could ever forget that they’re loved. The preachers on the street with their megaphones would stop shouting about death and judgement and doom and gloom, and start shouting about the extravagant love of God. In fact, we’d all be shouting it from the rooftops and whispering about it among friends. Our “good conversations” with non-believers wouldn’t just be the ones where we had a chance to explain the finer points of Trinitarian doctrine, they’d be conversations where a friend walked away a little bit more convinced that God loves them completely.
More than that, we’d show it.
Everything we did could be missional, not just the bits that might get people into church, but absolutely everything through which we could demonstrate and live out the love of God. We’d love neighbours, friends and enemies with our generosity and grace, not only so that they’d ask, “why are you doing this?” and we could share the gospel, but because our actions themselves would BE the gospel, they’d be embodiments of the love of God.
We’d keep going, unashamedly and tenaciously until no-one at all could possibly doubt that they are loved. Sure, we’d find opposition. We’d find those who don’t want to know, we’d find those who resist, who are determined to think that God is against them not for them, or that God is against others who are not like them. We’d find some who have been told so often that God can’t love them, by the voices inside them or out in the world, that they’ve believed it deeply. As anyone who preaches a strong, bold message knows, it would be difficult.
But it would be worth it.
I know there are many, many people already living their lives like this, dedicated to declaring and demonstrating that God is love, and that he is love for us. But some of us have grown up to think that a passionate and faithful preaching of the gospel is one that focuses on avoiding hell more than it focuses on the love of God. If that’s the case, we’ve lost sight of what is good about the good news. We’ve forgotten the strongest, most powerful message we could ever preach – because if the story of Jesus shows us nothing else, he proves that love is stronger than hell.