The moment started innocently enough. I was walking with my wife through an exhibition hall at the Oklahoma State Fair. We were on a date just enjoying our time together. Then a stranger raised his voice from his rather sad display and confronted me: “Are you going to heaven or hell? Without Jesus it will be hell for you!”
I hardly knew how to respond. This man did not know me. We had never met. He had no idea that I was a pastor and that my walk with Christ is at the very heart of who I am.
Part of me wanted to pivot and talk to the man, but a quick glance told me that he would not be open to a real conversation. The anger flowing on his face showed that he had his confrontational gospel pitch, and that was enough for him.
He was not looking for a conversation or to begin a relationship. He was looking for instant conversions that he could count and celebrate. He was a “soul winner.”
I grieve this encounter. No, it did not make me question my salvation or ponder the meaning of heaven and hell. I grieve because I realize that I was just one of many that he ambushed with his graceless gospel.
His call was not a call to life with Christ. It was not about learning what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. His gospel was a fire-insurance faith filled with smoke and sulfur.
I watched as others jumped back when confronted by him. He thought he was calling people to salvation, but instead he was repulsing people from hearing him. And I feared that in the process, he was also repulsing people from being open to hearing an authentic word on the way of God.
The latest Pew Forum report tells us that the fastest-growing segment of religious life in the United States is the “none.” Almost one in five people in our nation identify their religious affiliation as “none.”
The growing perception is that the church’s message and methods are remnants of another era. The power of a transformational gospel seems to get lost amid television preachers more focused on drawing a crowd than drawing people to Jesus.
It gets lost when those on the right view people as “targets” for conversion rather than individuals who need to find forgiveness, hope and love at the feet of Jesus. They continue to call people to fear God rather than to fall in love with God. It is a graceless gospel.
It gets lost when those on the left want to do good but fail to bring a vocal witness of the way to Jesus. They demonstrate goodness but in their silence offer a graceless gospel. We are not called to be good, but to belong to God as God’s children through faith in Jesus Christ.
If we seek to be relevant in this era we must learn to build authentic relationships where we can live out and speak out our story of faith. We live in a land where more and more people live apart from Jesus. They are weary of the institutional church, because they have watched us fuss and fight and trip over moral failure after moral failure.
We are so busy trying to define and enforce a pure theology that we fail to be the people of God in their midst.
We are so consumed by wringing our hands and worrying about our institutional survival and our political influence in the culture that we have failed to be about the task we were assigned on a hillside in Galilee.
If we are to be relevant we must live out and pronounce a grace-filled gospel. Nothing less will do.