October 19, 2020

Can Christian ‘Hospitality’ Hinder Gospel Ministry?

Consider this quote from Tim Keller:

“The church has got to become such that every part of its life is hospitable to people who are not believers or don’t know what they believe. So they can come into the groups and into worship, into virtually everything we do and not feel confused or offended or kind of badgered, so that they can have multiple exposures to the gospel in myriad different ways because it’s the only way they were going to have deep world-view change. They need multiple exposure from multiple perspectives and the only way that’s going to happen is if every part of the church is changed so that it is hospitable to them.”

Then I read the following Scriptures:

  • “. . . we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23a)
  • “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

Taking the biblical context into consideration, particularly for the latter text, (where Jesus is specifically referring to his disciples), I don’t think it is beyond the pale to apply the principle to our modern day lives. The early church was warned to expect opposition to the message of the gospel and, my goodness, did it come. A quick perusal of the New Testament confirms that! The book of Hebrews is a case in point as we read that many of the early Jewish converts were under enormous pressure to leave the faith and return to the ‘old ways’. They faced enormous persecution, and the pastoral advice was to hold fast, remember that Christ is better, and that they had not yet resisted ‘to the point of shedding blood’. Food for thought in our mollycoddled age!

Offensive Message

Now, I am sympathetic with what Tim is trying to communicate (at least as I have understood him). The church does need to be a hospitable place where people with legitimate faith questions can feel able to come and engage in meaningful ways. Nor am I not suggesting for one moment that we are to be inhospitable.

However, my concern (and I suspect it’s Tim’s too) is that in an effort to be inclusive to those outside the faith that we (inadvertently, perhaps?) somehow lessen the offense of the gospel. That in our efforts to win people, we downplay the heart of the message which calls people to a place of repentance for their sinful, wilful rebellion against Almighty God. I just don’t see how unbelievers can spend time with authentic Christians, in whatever context, and not be offended by the gospel. I think that if they’re not being offended then they’re not being exposed to authentic gospel living. I think if people walk away from a Christian community feeling good about themselves and their spiritual condition, then they have not understood what is at the heart of our lives. They have not understood what Jesus meant in John 18, when he had to “drink the cup of God’s wrath” for the sins of His people.

The gospel is, at its very core, offensive to unbelievers. It is deeply confrontational. A Holy God confronts a sinful person about their spiritual standing before Him and the consequences of such for all eternity should they remain unmoved toward repentance and faith in His name. Authentic Christians living in authentic community annoy people. In fact, they do more than annoy people. They stir up self-righteous hatred. Pick up any history book and log on to most any Christian website on the suffering church and you will soon see the bloody cost of authentic gospel living (how many of the early disciples were martyred) and the price still being paid in blood today by believers all over the world.

Engage Their Worldview

Of course, we must put effort into effectively engaging with worldviews. Tim calls it the ‘baseline cultural narrative’. In other words, we need to answer the question for people about what is wrong with the world and how we go about fixing it. In order to do that effectively, we need to engage with people and seek to understand their thought processes. That is (or should be) a given for all serious missiological thinkers.

I suppose my overarching concern is this: once we get past all the cultural baggage (on all sides) and get down to the ‘nitty gritty’, people are lost sinners, headed for eternity, to be judged by a Holy, loving, and just God, and the only means of rescue for wretched sinners is through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord. I am not quite getting how we make that sound more palatable. In fact, my worry is that in our efforts to make unbelievers more comfortable with Christianity and our culture (however it looks in our own particular contexts) we sort of get embarrassed by the ‘hard’ bits.

Now, we are constantly looking for ‘cultural gaps’ in order to bring the gospel to bear in our specific situations here in the scheme of Niddrie. For instance, many people here go to ‘spooky church’ (the local name for mediums and spiritist meetings). They go to connect with the dead or to receive some ‘good news’ or a ‘future reading’. Our approach is not to belittle what they are doing, nor even attack it, but to seek to understand their motivation behind attending. I remember one young lady being surprised after a conversation we had.

Her: You Christians don’t believe in all this stuff, do you?’

Me: ‘Don’t kid yourself love. We deffo believe in it. It’s very powerful stuff.’

It was a great gateway into a gospel conversation. It resulted in her coming to a couple of meetings and being introduced to various members of our church. She went out for meals with people. She went to the cinema and hung out with people. We didn't ‘Bible bash’ her or badger her or try to impose our belief system upon her. We merely shared life with her and acted in accordance with our own community’s beliefs. I remember her being very moved and affected by community life.

Offended by Sin

But the rubber hit the road when the term sin came up quite naturally from the pulpit and in general conversation. That’s when the mood turned ugly. That’s when her hackles began to rise. Why so? Well, because (in her opinion) she was not a sinner. That, despite our continuing offer of friendship, was the end of her involvement with us. Sadly, she continues to go to the ‘spooky church’ because (her words) it makes her ‘feel better about herself’.

My point is that, yes, we can be great observers of culture and worldview. We can even be masters at finding the cultural ‘connection points’ and we can be wonderfully hospitable in myriad ways but, sooner or later, people must face up to the full gospel of Jesus Christ. There is no hiding it or soft soaping it.

People are sinners, rebels, and they wilfully suppress the truth about the reality of God in the world. Jesus came to earth to do a dirty, ugly, bloody, messy, wonderful job. He loved the poor. He showed kindness to the outcast. He is our example of perfect, sinless hospitality, but they still took great joy in nailing him to that tree when they understood who He claimed to be and what He stood for.

Our job is simply to proclaim the good news of His death and resurrection in ways that are meaningful and understandable for our particular cultural contexts. Our job is to love people. Our job is to be gracious and hospitable to all.

But we must not, we dare not, flinch from the task the master has given us. Christian community is tied together by many things: love being over all. But it is a fact that what binds us is a message that is still foolishness to those that are perishing. It is offensive. It is considered narrow, homophobic, bigoted, unreasonable, outrageous, judgemental, and outdated. It is the gospel. It is what we gather around. It is the glue that holds us together. It has been entrusted to us to live out and proclaim.

The reaction? We leave that to God. Some will hear joyfully and believe, but many will react with anger and horror and reject both the message and the messenger.

We press on.