This morning I have listened to a podcast and read an article on the same theme: Christians who desire not to be defined by the things they are against. I didn’t go searching for themed material today, these things came together organically as I went about my daily habits of listening to a podcast first thing in the morning and reading throughout the day.
Early this morning, I listened to Justin Brierley interview Christian evangelist, Kevin Palau, and Sam Adams, the gay mayor of Portland, OR, on their unlikely friendship. Later in the morning, as I was waiting on hold on the phone (for along time I might add), I read an article in Relevant Magazine: Don’t Be Defined By What You’re Against. I will add that the verse of the day on the Bible app is Psalm 90:12 (“So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”)
While these three sources of material may not seem like thematic material, I assure you they are. Beginning with the interview, the evangelist, Palau, explained the motivation for engaging with the City of Portland in civic service. Palau recognized that Christians were known in the community primarily as people who were opposed to certain things, and not anything positive – let alone as followers of Jesus.
Palau also recognized that Christians were distrusted by the community, and so he set out to regain the community trust. The first thing Palau and his church did was to respond to the needs of a local public school that was failing. Not only did they show up; the showed up in such force that people took notice. What was supposed to be a day of work turned into an ongoing labor of love.
Palau and his church were so successful in making a positive impact that they inspired churches around the community to adopt schools, and the schools, in turn, embraced the church involvement. The involvement caught the attention of the mayor of Portland and his chief assistant, Sam Adams, who would later become mayor himself.
Palau and Adams are an unlikely pair to become friends, but that is what they are today. Adams is the first openly gay mayor of Portland. Palau is an evangelical evangelist. Adams confirms Palau’s concerns by agreeing that he previously only knew evangelicals for what they stood against, but now, he says, there are more things they agree on than disagree on.
Adams recognizes that they have some fundamental disagreements on key issues for both of them, but those areas of disagreement are no longer the defining characteristic. They now join hands on addressing areas in which they agree and have formed a long-term friendship as a result.
Palau has built a bridge without compromising his faith. As a result, Adams and the community no longer view evangelicals only for what they stand against; they also see what evangelicals stand for. The community now knows that the Gospel means more than calling out sin. It means meeting peoples’ needs, loving people and offering hope. The Gospel isn’t primarily a what, but a Who – Jesus, who transforms people who follow him.
The same Jesus who preached the Gospel of salvation from sin met peoples’ needs everywhere he went, loved people and offered them hope. Following Jesus means demonstrating the Gospel in the same way he did. We can’t pass by on the other side of the street.
Ultimately, our demonstration of Gospel love, Gospel justice and Gospel hope is a way to introduce the Risen Lord to those who need him, and it opens doors to hearts when the message is spoken out of relationship and trust. We have to get close to people to establish that relationship and trust, and that means finding common ground, as Palau and Adams did.
Instead of leading with our differences, we should lead with our connections and similarities. Paul became a Jew to the Jews and a Greek to the Greeks. When he addressed the crowd of intellectuals in Athens at the Areopagus, Paul quoted pagan poets and philosophers. (Acts 17) He spoke their language and met them where they were.
Jesus didn’t shy away from the messiness of personal relationships with people. Recall that the self-righteous, religious people of his day accused him of cavorting with sinners. I submit that, if we aren’t being accused of spending too much time with sinners, perhaps we are not following Jesus as he instructed us.
The writer of the article linked above wrote:
“Try asking someone you know who isn’t a Christian what it means to be a Christian. You might find that their answer has little or nothing to do with following Jesus, but they probably know what things Christians typically view as sinful.
“In building our platform on what we are against we have often neglected to establish a foundation of what we are for. As a result we are not often known by our love and grace to the community outside our walls.
“What if we changed our approach? What would the Church look like if the first impression we gave outsiders was not one of judgment? What if we were known for our compassion, our connections, our graciousness, helpfulness and concern, rather than our separateness or our rules?
“I’m not saying we should condone sin. I’m merely suggesting that the policy to judge first and ask questions later may not be the most effective one, or even the most biblical one.”
As the writer points out, we would do well to follow the example Jesus set with the woman caught in adultery. He didn’t judge her first; he loved her first. He treated her with kindness and grace, affirming her intrinsic value, offering forgiveness she didn’t even ask for. Only after freeing her from her situation did Jesus commission her to “go and sin no more”.
Jesus lead with love and grace. He didn’t lead with hellfire and brimstone. That isn’t to say that sin doesn’t matter. It just means that we need to lead with love as Jesus did.
People can’t draw close to Jesus without being convicted of sin, but they have to get close enough first. Love is the draw. Jesus healed people, he set people free and he loved them; then they became followers. This is not to condone sin or to look the other way. It is to hold Jesus up and let the Holy Spirit do the work of convicting in the context of love.
What people need is an encounter with Jesus, but how will people ever come to know Jesus through us if all they know of us is what we stand against? How will people see Jesus through us if all they know is what we stand for, and not who?
“The primary responsibility of every Christian is not to stand against sin. It is draw near to Jesus, to know Him and to be known by Him. Christians stand for Jesus.”
And, if we do that, we will be a City set on a hill, a lamp set on the lamp stand illuminating Jesus, the Savior who delivers people from sin and death. Then people will see Jesus who died for all of us while we were yet sinners.