Christmas, as many ministry teams tell their congregations, is the time to invite non-church goers along to church. I’d done just that. As I sat next to my guest, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit excited. It had been a lovely welcome, everyone had been friendly and gracious. The kids’ minister had us in laughter, the prayers were lovely and inclusive and the music was vibrant and upbeat. My guest smiled over at me. “Nice that it has a relaxed vibe,” she commented.
And then the sermon started. Halfway through she glanced at me and whispered, “What’s this all about? I don’t get why this God of yours is all about punishment and judgement.”
I’d been feeling pretty bummed out about what I was hearing too. Not because it was a ‘bad’ sermon. But for the average person who may have wandered back to church after a long time away? I understand why she asked what she did.
Whilst I knew it was a bit of Old Testament scene-setting in order to relate the gift of Jesus at Christmas time, there’s enough of my ‘before Christ’ (BC) PR persona left to recognise a message totally missing its mark. God & Jesus lost in translation.
You see, the sermon didn’t close the loop. It set the scene, but didn’t make enough of the climax. Jesus, grace and joy deserve an ending of fireworks. Not a damp squib that leaves the listener with echoes of brimstone.
When will pastors understand that the church has done such a disservice to G&J over the years – has lost them so often in translation – that a newcomer is going to hear the ‘negative’ stereotypes one thousand times louder than anything else? You say ‘sin’ and ‘punishment’ and ‘obedience’ three times in a sermon, then please make sure you are saying ‘love’, ‘Jesus’, ‘free gift, not works’ and ‘grace’ at least ten times each to balance it out.
It’s basic message adoption principles: our brains are wired to hear the negatives, so offset each one with at least three positives. Please. Just in case there’s a brand new visitor cautiously finding his or her way back to church that day.
Please don’t pre-suppose knowledge. You may have 99% ‘old faithful’ in the pews, but that 1% newcomer who really needs to get the message – they may not be ready to unpack it. Forget the cliff-hanger sermon series for the next week – because they may not come back. I understand the power of a sermon series, I do. But build it well. Let each week stand alone. Remind, wrap up, and make sure you’re covering off on the grace, goodness and joy each time. Just in case.
I tried to do a fast crisis PR repair job for G&J in the car park before my friend climbed into her car and drove away. But how do you explain it’s a misconception when a 20-minute sermon ‘sort-of’ reinforced the misconception?
I can try to explain that when the word obedience is used in a sermon, it isn’t because we have a growling, arrogant, up-Himself, punishing God who demands our grovelling to feed His gargantuan thundering ego saying, “I MADE THE WORLD, SO OBEY ME, PRAISE ME, AND GROVEL BEFORE ME, MINION, OR ELSE!”
I can explain when God talks about obedience, it is from the context of His not being human, but of Him being God. He is so much larger, wiser, holier, cleverer and smarter than I. Because He’s God and I’m me.
So being obedient to his precepts means I submit to Him being just that: larger, wiser, smarter, cleverer, more lovely and amazing. By submitting (being obedient) I relax in the total and utter security that He has my back. That He gets the agenda far better than I do. That He loves me with a breadth and depth I cannot imagine, and He only wants what is best for me. So given He has my back, I can relax and trust Him implicitly. Why would I resist (be disobedient) when the other option is me trying to go it alone and quite often making a mess of it?
Of course it means I have to humble myself. Take a hard look inward. It requires growth.
So where does this leave me sharing what I’ve learnt about G&J? I often only get one shot talking about this ‘Jesus loves you’ business with someone. Whilst it’s always God’s will not mine, I really do want to facilitate the best introduction possible.
It takes guts for me to spill my heart to a non-believer. I risk ridicule. I have horrible images of being seen as some shiny-suited, dodgy TV evangelist. I have to be ready to take tough questions on the chin. Yet that’s OK because G&J have my back and for every snigger, for every person who may scoff at my faith, there may be another who unexpectedly finds peace and hope and love.
Pastors, please be aware, for every guest one of your church members brings through the door, they’ve most likely spent weeks before praying, laying the groundwork, having coffee, gently unpacking their guest’s misconceptions of religion and trying carefully to get Jesus front and centre. Anyone who’s doing evangelism well isn’t spraying and praying out a scatter-gun of church invitations. It’s a hand-reared, personal pitch.
So if you’re standing on stage preaching and people in your congregation have invited new guests along? No pressure, but please don’t stuff it up.
Now, all my readers who are pastors may leap to their own defence by citing the great sermon postscript: “But we always say, at the end of each sermon: if you’re new here today, have any questions about what was in the sermon, or want to talk to someone about Jesus and his great gift, come and see me or xyz on the ministry team.”
I’m sorry, it’s a terrible engagement technique so please don’t think it covers you for any sermon misunderstandings by any new listeners.
There’s absolutely no way I’d have wandered up to a stranger my first day in church, especially if my head was overflowing with their sermon’s berating notions of sin and punishment, and asked to discuss it further. Like my guest at Christmas, I’d have been sprinting to the car park as fast as my legs could carry me.