Last Sunday I was at a church where the speaker actually said, “I’m not trying to manipulate you.” Afterwards someone asked, “Why did he need to say that? Was he trying to manipulate us?” She was probably right: it was during “the invitation” where the speaker is after a response from the audience.
We live in a culture of mistrust. We don’t trust our politicians, and they don’t trust each other. We don’t trust banks. We don’t trust churches.
Australians don’t trust each other anymore:
Social trust between people has fallen below 50 per cent — to 47 per cent — for the first time since 2001, when researchers first posed the question. Most believe that people are out for themselves …
— Inga Ting, Margot O’Neill, Alex Palmer and Ri Liu. Party’s over: In a nation of cynics, we’re flocking to the fringe (ABC, 20 Sep 2018).
So, is the church’s message of faith unlikely to work in this climate of mistrust? What’s driving distrust?
Many factors contribute, but self-interest is crucial. Politicians only care about getting re-elected. Banks and financial advisors sell us what makes money for them. And churches need members to keep themselves afloat. Self-interest destroys trust.
It’s time to take a long, hard look at our message. Is there any truth in the perception that we’ve been operating out of self-interest? Have we been using sales techniques to manipulate people into responding to grow our congregations? Have we moved away from the good news of Jesus, substituting a consumer “gospel” that promotes benefits for the individual? Has our “gospel invitation” become an appeal to self-interest?
If we have accepted a substitute gospel, the evidence would be a change of language.
Have we moved away from telling the good news of Jesus? Do the words we use indicate that we’ve sidelined the story of Jesus and why he’s good news for the world, substituting a story about me and my consumer choice?
Please take a moment to categorize the following phrases that we often hear presented as “the gospel.” Is this the language of individual consumer choice, or the language of Jesus’ kingdom authority? Consider carefully:
- Make a decision
- Offer an invitation
- Accept Jesus
- Invite Jesus into your heart
- Have a personal relationship with Jesus
- Invite Jesus to be your personal saviour
- Raise your hand while no one is looking
- Pray the sinner’s prayer
Are these sales pitches contributing to the perception that the church is manipulating people? Is this approach contributing to their distrust, and undermining faith?
Would it be more productive to ask people what’s contributing to their mistrust? What could we do to build a community that practices divine care and restoration? Could we be a credible microcosm of the world restored under the governance of God’s appointed ruler (the good news of Jesus)?
What would that look like? Perhaps we should ask Jesus.
Jesus was enacting God’s reign on earth. He chose these words as his gospel:
Isaiah 61:1-2 (my translation)
1 The Spirit of sovereign YHWH is on me,
for YHWH has anointed me to announce good news for those oppressed.
He has sent me to heal those whose hearts are crushed,
to decree that the exiles can go home
and those who’ve been locked up are free to go!
2 I’m announcing the jubilee year,
when your debt is erased by YHWH’s generosity.
Good news for oppressed people? Healing those who find it hard to trust after their hearts have been broken?
How can we enact Jesus’ good news? Would this be a more credible gospel than the one we’re currently telling?