Selling the Gospel is easy. In North America we are awash in a culture that is narcissistically individualistic, market-driven, and pleasure-focused. To sell the gospel, all you have to do is mimic the market, offer a sleek presentation, and promise people their best life now (and all the great stuff – literally – that comes with it). There are thousands of McChurches that testify to the ease with which Revered Huckster can package the gospel and sell it to practically anyone.
But this is not how disciples are made. Followers of Jesus cannot be manufactured. As Eugene Peterson notes,
It is not difficult in such a world to get a person interested in the message of the gospel; it is terrifically difficult to sustain the interest. Millions of people in our culture make decisions for Christ, but there is a dreadful attrition rate. Many claim to have been born again, but the evidence for mature Christian discipleship is slim. In our kind of culture anything, even news about God, can be sold if it is packaged freshly; but when it loses its novelty, it goes on the garbage heap. There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sing up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness. (1)
We have all seen megachurches, religious personalities, and gurus rise and fall. Think of how quickly the Crystal Cathedral fell apart after the elder Robert Schuller retired. Getting people excited about a product is easy. A gifted, charismatic leader can draw a crowd (for good, or for ill). But if the orientation is not toward discipleship, it will never last over the long haul no matter how successful the selling has been. This is something the early church knew and practiced.
One way that some friends of mine are taking discipleship seriously is reclaiming the small group experience of the early Methodist Class Meetings and Band Meetings. These offer exactly what Peterson tells us is a hard sell: “apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness.”
Such transformation, not wrought in an instant but given by grace over a lifetime, is the only purpose of the church. C.S. Lewis puts it beautifully in Mere Christianity when he noted,
… the Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became Man for no other purpose. It is even doubtful, you know, whether the whole universe was created for any other purpose.
Selling the gospel is and always has been easy. Getting people to sign up to follow Jesus over the course of decades is what the church is called to do.
I’ll close with a prayer from Stanley Hauerwas, emeritus professor of Christian Ethics at Duke Divinity School, whose petition matches the intention we have named above:
Spirit of Truth, direct our attention to the life of Jesus so that we might see what you would have us be. Make us, like him, teachers of your good law. Make us, like him, performers of miraculous cures. Make us, like him, proclaimers of your kingdom. Make us, like him, loving of the poor, the outcast, children. Make us, like him, silent when the world tempts us to respond int he world’s terms. Make us, like him, ready to suffer. We know we cannot be like Jesus except as Jesus was unlike us, being your Son. Make us cherish that unlikeness, that we may grow into the likeness made possible by Jesus’ resurrection. Amen. (2)
- Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (Downer’s Grove: IVP Press 2000), p. 16.
- Hauerwas, Prayers Plainly Spoken (Downers Grove, IVP Press 1999), p. 26.