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In the Beginning, Grace
A couple of years ago, I received a flier in the mail:
A new flavor of church is in town! Whether you prefer church with a more traditional blend or a robust contemporary flavor, at [church name], we have a style just for you! Casual atmosphere, relevant messages, great music, dynamic kids' programs, and yes, you can choose your own flavor!
The "flavors" were described with phrases intended to attract the unchurched: "Real-life messages," "Safe and fun children's program," "Friendly people," and the marketing coup de grace, "Fresh coffee and doughnuts!"
What pagan could resist?
I poke fun, yes, but I also recognize two realities. First, we must not mock the desire to reach the unchurched. Second, any evangelical worth his or her evangelistic salt has from time to time succumbed to the cultural pressure, in personal conversations or creating outreach programs, to say things that make the gospel seem small.
In our better moments, we recall with the apostle Paul that it is the gospel of Jesus Christ that reaches the world. But we often find ourselves thinking the theology of one character in Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood, who said, "If you want to get anywheres in religion, you got to keep it sweet."
A New Evangelical Creed
There are various ways that we "keep it sweet"—that is, try to make the gospel inviting to as many as possible. The results have been mixed. Who hasn't met a new believer who came to faith in Jesus Christ, miraculously, through the most superficial means? For God's mercy on our often foolish attempts at contextualization, we should be ever thankful.
This doesn't excuse us from the hard task of self-criticism as we seek to be more faithful. In fact, in the last couple of decades, our self-criticism has practically ...1