Today we celebrate the second inauguration of President Obama, but we do so without the benediction of pastor Louie Giglio. In the controversy that erupted after his selection to and withdrawal from that honor, it became clear again how much the gospel has been sidelined, not in the culture, but in the church.
Given the ubiquity and gravity of sex in our culture, it's not surprising that sexual ethics was at the center of the controversy. Giglio was initially invited by the President's inauguration committee in part because of his work against sexual trafficking, and then encouraged to withdraw because of his sermon condemning homosexual behavior. The national indignation, especially of those sympathetic to the LGBT community, about this sermon was matched by the indignation of many evangelicals at the pressure applied to Giglio to withdraw.
As these things go, the specter of "persecution" was raised. It nearly goes without saying—and yet it must be said again—that Giglio is not going to jail, let alone was he manhandled or murdered for his faith. We can continue to be grateful that we live in a nation where one of the worst things that can happen to a Christian for articulating a Christian ethic is that he is pressured to not pray at a national event.
What Is Our Gospel?
That being said, the incident raises the question about the exact nature of the gospel we have communicated to this culture. David Kinnaman's UnChristian signaled that many Christians have concluded the big problem is that the evangelical church has aligned itself on the wrong side of some social issues, or with social issues that have little or no cultural cachet—and thus they move to champion more popular social causes to win a hearing for the gospel. It would uncharitable and unfair to suggest that Giglio and his church have done this, but if other evangelicals are like me, it remains a temptation for any who have a heart to introduce Jesus to others. Sometimes it works, as Giglio's invitation to pray suggests. But as a strategy, it will invariably backfire, no matter how much we try to hide our work on unpopular causes, as the fury against Giglio's 20-year-old sermon illustrates. The degree to which we employ this approach merely as a tactic to gain a hearing is the degree to which we will eventually be spurned by the very people we hope to attract.
In the long run, we cannot gain a hearing for the gospel through our admirable ethics or social justice because in the end, we are still sinners, with hearts, as the prophet Jeremiah put it, that remain desperately wicked (Jer. 17:9). When we do live well or accomplish a social good, we will be admired for our moral success, not because Jesus died to save a rebellious world. And when we fail to live up to our values—and we invariably will--well, we will look like every other sinner on the planet. Not much of a witness there, except to our humanity.
In the end, we cannot gain a hearing for the gospel because God has already done so in the preaching of the Cross—there is no more dramatic, arresting, attention getting "tactic" than that. Note the response to such preaching as describe by Paul in 1 Corinthians: some were scandalized, and others thought it foolishness, but for some, it was their very salvation. But in every case, the preaching of the cross made a hearing for itself.