In the sort of Christianity I grew up with, offending people was not a problem. The gospel is offensive, we’d say – it’s offensive to people’s pride to say that we all need rescuing, it’s offensive to a relativist cultural philosophy to say that Jesus is the only way to God, it’s offensive to a permissive society to say that some lifestyles we want to live are wrong in the eyes of a holy God.
We didn’t mind offending people because the gospel is at odds with the world – the world therefore should feel offended if our preaching was faithful.
More recently, my understanding of what it means to preach the gospel in ‘the world’ has become a little less… antagonistic, I suppose. For God so loved the world, right? At least, the world as he made it and the people he put in it. There’s plenty that we’ve added to the world that the gospel challenges and that we’re meant to rage against – oppressive economic systems, violence and war, greed and inequality, an individualism that leads to loneliness and isolation, exclusion, poverty and corruption.
And wherever we as individuals play a part in those evils, the gospel challenges and changes us. But when it comes to the way we treat one another, there is no ‘us’ and ‘them’, no outside group that us holy types are meant to point the finger at and offend until they realise how wrong they are.
So when Christians start posting on social media their concerns about government legislation meant to tackle extremism and hate speech, and how dangerous it is for Christian freedom to preach the gospel, I’ll admit I rolled my eyes.
If the gospel you want to preach is so offensive that it risks falling the wrong side of the law in the UK, that should at least make you stop and think, no? I can’t get my head around how the Church has claimed as a badge of honour its exemption from equality legislation, designed to protect people from discrimination on the basis of their sexuality, among other things. Can we just look at ourselves? We’re celebrating permission to discriminate?
Jesus words to the Pharisees come to mind: “You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”
I couldn’t imagine how following the Jesus I find in the gospels could look anything like extremism.
This weekend, I gathered with around 2,500 others in a grimy venue in Elephant and Castle, to worship Jesus. The songs were familiar: some of them are played in churches up and down the country, and the band are regulars on the Christian festival scene. But perhaps it was the environment that made the words stand out to me in a new way – after all, my Sunday morning worship is not usually accompanied by a vodka and coke, and a sweaty crowd of strangers.
I heard some of the words we sang.
We lay down our lives for Heaven’s cause.
We are defiant in Your name.
Set Your church on fire, win this nation back.
No surrender, no retreat.
We are Your church, we are the hope on earth.
You have overcome this world, this life.
With You, we are victorious.
I tried hearing them through the ears of the bar staff, the bouncers, the friend who’d tagged along without knowing exactly what they were coming to. I’m sure they had us down as fanatics, as crazed enthusiasts.
And if we were a group of 2,500 Muslims bellowing out the same words, they’d have had us down as dangerous.
But those words didn’t make me cringe and bristle, as I might have expected – my mustn’t offend instinct is not what kicked in. Instead, it awakened another instinct in me, one that I keep quieter sometimes as I argue for a more tolerant, inclusive and accepting Christianity. It’s the instinct to worship Jesus radically, with every fibre of my being running full pelt towards his purposes and his calling, with every breath in my lungs crying out his greatness, every moment of my life lived under his instruction and for his glory.
I don’t know if that will ever take me the wrong side of the law. I wouldn’t have thought so – but I don’t know it. And if it’s ever wrong to preach a radical Saviour who gave his life that we might live, then there’ll be a great worshipping community in prisons all over the country.
I’m absolutely sure that the gospel Jesus calls us to preach and live out is a message of love, welcome, friendship, community, justice, hope – not a message of exclusion or fear or prejudice.
But that the gospel really is good news, not an invitation to hypocrisy and judgmentalism, doesn’t mean I should be any less radical in putting it into practice. Heaven’s cause really is worth laying down my life for.
As I give my life to following Jesus and sharing his gospel in word and action, I never want to do it with anything less than wholehearted enthusiasm, fanatical commitment, and extreme love.