One of my favorite TV reality shows is "Project Runway." I'm not a fashion maven myself, but I enjoy watching skilled and creative people having to come up with designs on the fly. Drama unfolds throughout the show, culminating in the ultimate question posed by host Heidi Klum: who is "in" as a designer, and who is "out"?
Who is in and who is out? That's a question that makes more than up-and-coming fashion designers nervous, it apparently makes some Presbyterians nervous as well. It's the ultimate question turned Ultimate Question when it comes to where someone is headed for Eternity. It brings up issues of exclusivity and judgement. And it can be crippling when it comes to the topic of evangelism.
After listening to and talking with other Presbyterians and mainline protestants over the years, I've found that some people do not want to evangelize themselves, and don't want the church to evangelize, out of fear that we will be preaching a negative Gospel of exclusiveness and judgement against others. They see some of the excesses of evangelical Christians who place a high emphasis on praying the prayer to avoid an eternity in hell and respond by saying "that's not for us."
But in trying to run away from the problem of an aggressive "in or out" policy, we've run too far in the direction of another problem: saying and doing nothing. We don't want to offend anyone, so we do nothing at all. How's that working for us?
Here's a WWJD question: was Jesus inoffensive? Of course he wasn't! It's doubtful powerful people would have nailed someone to the cross who was just trying to be polite.
So what's the answer? Could it be there is a middle way between completely offending people, and being so inoffensive that we disappear (maybe literally)? What would a middle way look like?
I remember a young woman I knew years ago who would break into tears as she wondered aloud if she was going to get into Heaven. Some Bible verses had her wondering if only a select few would be granted entrance. I was a young Christian myself, and had no answers for her. But I remember feeling uncomfortable listening to her, because I was pretty sure that Jesus had specifically told us not to spend time worrying in general. It also seemed to me that if Jesus said only God knows the time and hour of Jesus' return, maybe there are other facts that are left for only God to know.
Her tears and worries stuck with me for years, however, and the conclusion I came to was this: since we can't know if we are in or out, instead of spending valuable time worrying about it now, let's live like we're already there. In other words, let's live the life of abundance Jesus promised, a life of discipleship characterized by the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galations 5:22).
In Jesus' promise of a more fulfilling life lies the middle way. The Good News is not just for the hereafter, it's for the here and now! We can share the news with non-believers that life can be fuller, richer and more joyful as disciples of Jesus. That is not to say that life is not going to be hard. There are hardships and heartbreaks all along the way. But Paul offers us great hope in Philippians that we can experience contentment regardless of our circumstances (Philippians 4:11-12).
Furthermore, if we all behaved as if we're already headed to Heaven, the world would become a much better place. Maybe that's what the Lord's Prayer hints at, bringing God's Kingdom to the world right now, not just after Jesus' return.
As for the argument about the exclusivity of Christianity, I counter that if everyone is invited, it's not exclusive. There is choice involved; it's up to us to offer the choice without any pressure, manipulation or threats. And if someone says "no" we remain friends and treat all as Jesus would have treated them himself.
One more reality show reference to illustrate the point of living like we're already "in". "The Amazing Race" finished its season just a couple of weeks ago on Mother's Day. For those of you who are fans of the show, I'm guessing you were rooting for the sweet and funny cowboy brothers, Jet and Cord. Disappointingly, they came in second. But something Jet said at the end demonstrated that they ran that race as if they were already "in", and served as a powerful witness to millions of viewers.
"I'm not going to be ashamed of anybody watching our race. There's no point throughout the entire race that my wife, my parents, our congregation, anybody, that I couldn't sit down and watch it with them and be proud of Cord and I and the way - not just the race - but the way we ran the race. That was really a big goal for us coming into it, was to leave here knowing we have nothing to be ashamed of."
There is a middle way, and we as Christians need to adopt that way as an evangelism plan individually and corporately.
I'm in. Are you?
Conference Alert: if you've heard of The Alpha Course and have wondered if it might be a ministry of outreach for your church, do not miss the Alpha Americas Conference next month in Naperville, IL, near Chicago. I have been to several national Alpha conferences and have always found them to be valuable. And if you've never heard of The Alpha Course, check out the website at www.alphana.org. You can also contact me with questions about Alpha; I've been an Alpha Course administrator at my church for more than seven years, and a local Alpha advisor for at least two years.