I worry we, like Pontus Pilate, are too quick to wash our hands. – Dorena Williamson
In his article, “Isn’t it Time for a New Mission Story?” activist and author Craig Greenfield makes a startling observation about missionary work among Buddhist cultures. “[U]nder Buddhism”, Craig asserts, “for a god to ‘love the world’ would be shameful and strange. Love implies attachment. According to Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, attachment to things causes sin. Buddhist religion teaches you to detach, not attach or love, in order to escape reincarnation and enter Nirvana. So, whoever this god is that is being described as ‘loving’, to a… Buddhist, he is full of unholy passion and therefore must be a sinner.”
Craig’s overall point is very simple: the best person to reach a Buddhist is a local who has grown up under the same worldview. Western missionaries often think of themselves as the enlightened saviors coming to reveal the beauty of the gospel; but because they cannot contextualize to the deeply entrenched ideologies of the region, they end up proclaiming a strange belief filled with foreign concepts that make little sense to the people they are reaching.
This is quite an uncomfortable idea to contend with. As a pastor who is also a lifelong Adventist, the love of God is the most beautiful and profound truth I have to talk about. I have said it multiple times in sermons as well—I have nothing more profound to declare to you than this one thing: that God loves you. Consequently, Craig’s article took a stab at the one thing I feel is the foundation of all Christian thought and theology. To think that there is a group of people out there for whom the love of God is repulsive rather than attractive is beyond me.
The same issue applies in our Western context as well. While Western countries once enjoyed a majority Christian population, this is no longer the case. More and more people increasingly identify as “nones,” meaning, they have no religious affiliation or even background. And yet, Adventists continue to preach the gospel today the way we did in the 1950s. We use the same frameworks, examples, explanations and emphasize the same points. But what if the world has changed so much that, like a Buddhist, a traditional approach to the gospel can come across just as foreign in our emerging secular milieu?
Now, of course, this is an uncomfortable realization. For many of us—especially Adventists—a background in legalism, fundamentalism, and behaviorism has given us the kind of baggage that responds most meaningfully to a traditional approach to the gospel. We love to talk about grace, the free gift of justification, and we emphasize—until we are blue in the face—that salvation is free, free, free! And this is a message we fundamentally adore. After decades of living under the bondage of Last Generation Theology and its explicit perfectionistic soteriology, most of us find great joy and satisfaction in the works of Morris Venden, George R. Knight, Bill Liversidge, Martin Weber, and Marvin Moore. Their writings, frameworks, and explanations have been immensely liberating to so many of us suffocating under the burden of legalism.
However, what if I told you that this same gospel of free grace that we so passionately love makes very little sense to emerging secular culture? What if I told you that we actually have to change our approach entirely because this perspective, while intensely meaningful for us, is essentially boring to the secular man? Would you believe me? I hope so.
Just last year I was leading a Bible study at a cafe in my city. At the table were two Adventists and one secular man. We dove into the gospel and, as the conversation progressed, it became dominated by the two Adventists. They were both suffering under the burden of false teachings like perfectionism and needed gospel relief. I took the time to explain it to them but the questions just kept coming. There was so much mess to clear out that it was going to take some time. About a half-hour into the conversation, I glanced over at the secular guy as he let off a giant yawn, his eyes glazed over. He was bored.
I snapped back to reality and realized I was spending so much time undoing legalism for the Adventists, that the secular guy was lost. He couldn’t understand what was so complicated. Jesus died for our sins and offers us eternal life free of charge. What’s there not to get? Can we move on now?
The secular man had no concept of legalism, perfectionism, fundamentalism or any of that baggage Adventists often bring to the table. Consequently, the gospel approach that we often take to relieve a person of those burdens made little sense to him. In fact, he found it utterly meaningless. I was reminded that the gospel must be reframed entirely for emerging secular culture or else, we risk preaching a message that they simply cannot grasp. In the remainder of this article, I want to highlight three perspectives that are common in gospel presentations that make no sense to secular thinkers. In the next article, I will offer a framework that has been successful in my local context.
Saved by Grace not Works
As I already mentioned above, secular people don’t have the theological baggage Adventists tend to have. As a result, the gospel perspective on being saved by grace and not works is one that we like to emphasize over and over again. However, without the background of trying to earn God’s love or salvation, most secular people I have studied with find the whole idea of salvation as a gift really easy to grasp. I have never had a mountain of follow-up questions related to the free gift of salvation. So long as you have approached the conversation the right way [see the next article in this series] the entire concept makes good sense and they are happy to move on rather quickly.
Some might push back and say that this perspective is so central to the gospel that it needs to be pushed as much as possible. Now, I do agree that we need to make sure it’s clear. Legalism is something that is very natural to the human heart. All of us are trying to be saved by our own works. For the religious person, that may take the form of religious piety. For the secular person, it may take the form of self-help books, activism, and behavior modification. However, the difference is that for a secular individual salvation is about making this world a better place and their works are about the transformation of society for a more just and equitable future. Thus, legalism in the secular sense is nowhere near the same as legalism in a religious sense. There is no anxiety about whether or not your works are good enough to grant you eternal life. The absolute best a secular person can hope for is that their works are good enough to grant the next generation a platform to continue to thrive, and this doesn’t appear to have the same level of existential impact that religious legalism brings with it.
In religious legalism, there is concern over one’s eternal state that is not present in secular thought. You worry if your works are good enough to earn you entry into heaven. You worry if you have confessed, repented, or behaved well enough by obedience to God’s laws and standards. If you haven’t, the threat of eternal damnation and death torments you. Even if you don’t believe in eternal torment, you still know that you are missing out on eternal bliss because you couldn’t get your act together on earth. These variables are present not just in the experience of many conservative Adventists, but in the New Testament environment where Jesus had just abolished the Old Covenant. Greek converts were being harassed by Judaizers who wanted to bring them under the terms of the Old Covenant. Likewise, Hebrew believers had to learn to let go of the Old Covenant restrictions, as well as the extra burdens the Pharisees had been imposing on them. They had to learn to see God with new eyes by abandoning the eyes of legalism and embracing the eyes of love. Thus, Paul’s letters—specifically Romans and Colossians—are of immense value to anyone whose religious experience has been damaged by these law-centered perspectives.
At the risk of being annoying, allow me to repeat once more—the contemporary secular mind is not steeped in this kind of atmosphere. Therefore, any gospel approach that leans exclusively or primarily on the “saved by grace, not works” motif is bound to fly over their heads every time. However, this does not mean that we ought to ignore this truth because it certainly is at the heart of the gospel. It simply means that we need to reframe the way in which we bring it up and explain it. But before we can do this, we first need to identify another perspective that secular thinkers struggle to wrap their heads around: sin.
Saved from Sin
For Christians of all stripes, the primary means by which we introduce the gospel is by presenting a problem and a solution. The problem we introduce is sin and, of course, the solution is Jesus. Some have described it as introducing the disease before you introduce the cure. As effective as this approach has been, its day is over. To the secular mind—particularly Millennials and Zeds—it sounds no different to the marketing sales pitches they hear almost every day of their social-media-bombarded-lives.
Previous generations were not as overwhelmed with marketing as younger generations (described as “literally attached to smart phones, tablets and laptops”) are. This means that younger generations can spot a sales pitch a mile away, and the truth is, they aren’t interested. Virtually every young person today knows that the way you sell a product is by solving a problem (or creating one if there isn’t any). Once the problem has been identified or manufactured, you can then turn around and offer your unique solution. For Christianity, the problem is sin and the solution Jesus. How convenient.
Perhaps this is why emerging generations prefer New Age and Buddhist perspectives when it comes to spiritual things. There is no sales pitch in these approaches to life. There is a recognition of the human soul, its emptiness and need, and these systems emerge as non-coercive, personalized and malleable pathways through the angst. Unlike Christianity with its clearly defined formulas, Buddhism, for example, allows the practitioner to determine his own path. A traditional Christian might see this as evidence that the secular man just wants to do his own thing and be in control of his own life. But the more astute student of the culture will see this as evidence that the secular man is searching for meaning, not sales pitches drowning in manipulative marketing techniques packaged in Christian jargon.
This is why, in the segments on the nature of man and absurdity, I suggested that we need to begin the conversation in Genesis 1, not Genesis 3. Our story to humanity must begin at the Imago Dei, not the fall. We need to celebrate and uplift the beauty of the human being rather than profit off of its moral fall—a perspective that is also difficult to comprehend in our mostly relativist society. Thus, while it is true that we are saved from sin, the very idea of being saved from sin needs to be reframed to speak more meaningfully to the secular language of being.
Once Saved Always Saved
Adventists don’t believe in once saved always saved. However, a long history of legalism has left many of us sympathizing with the concept. As a result, over the years I have met many Adventists—including pastors—who want to emphasize eternal security so much that they end up centimeters away from a once saved always saved (OSAS) theology. Once again, this is a perspective that might appear attractive within a religio-centric community trying to undo the damage of legalism within its midst. But from a secular perspective, OSAS is repulsive. The fact that Adventists don’t believe it makes little difference because most secular people do not have the theological insight to differentiate the nuances. If we are emphasizing eternal security over against anything else, as far as the secular man is concerned, we are teaching OSAS.
But why is OSAS so repulsive to the culture? The reason is quite simple. From the outside looking in, the secular man sees a church full of people who gather on the weekend to worship God. They sing songs, quote verses, and preach sermons about the free gift of salvation and how, once you have it, you can’t lose it (or its super hard to). There are smiles everywhere, upbeat music to celebrate the good news, and an altar call inviting people to receive this amazing gift. Isn’t God the best?
But secular individuals see more than this. They see a group of people who sing about how “forever-forgiven” they are while at the same time perpetuating suffering on the earth. They are indifferent to racial disparity, gender discrimination, environmental issues, and coercive interpersonal dynamics. In that audience, thanking God for his forever-forgiveness, are abusive husbands who hit their wives the night before, racists, sexists, bigots, and liars. And even among those who are not actively perpetuating suffering, there is an even greater number who don’t really care. But hey, they are forever-forgiven, so God is the best, right?
Now, lest you be tempted to think that the secular person is being unfair in her or his assessment, let us recall the medieval church with its history of bloodshed, the magisterial protestant reformers with their history of oppression and anti-Semitism. Let us not forget that it was the church that defended slavery in the American south, held its tongue during apartheid in South Africa, and complied with the unjust policies of the Nazi Regime in Germany. It is also the church that now fights to regain political power in the USA, attempts to legislate its morality over the consciences of others, and has developed theological frameworks that have justified male dominance over women and the mistreatment of immigrants. But hey, we are forever-forgiven, so God is the best, right?
Thus, to the secular man, the good news that we so passionately espouse—that if you pray a prayer of surrender to Jesus you have a free ride to heaven no matter what—sounds like the most repulsive, unjust religious loophole that has ever existed. Add to this the fact that Christians say you can’t go to heaven unless you receive Jesus as your personal savior, and you are left with a confusing spectacle in which an abusive and racist church elder can go to heaven because he has his “forever-forgiven” ticket while the kind and altruistic atheist is going to hell. This tension over grace and forgiveness was most clearly exhibited in the case of Brandt Jean’s graceful response to his brother’s (Botham Jean) killer. While many responded with admiration, many others were critical of this “forgiveness” that perpetuates cycles of suffering by releasing perpetrators from justice. Thus, Christian writer Dorena Williamson published a reaction in Christianity Today titled, “Botham Jean’s Brother’s Offer of Forgiveness Went Viral. His Mother’s Calls for Justice Should Too”—a piece in which Williamson urged the church to not “[d]istort the gospel” by elevating forgiveness over justice. Her call was eloquently summarized when she wrote,
Forgiveness, we know, comes from the cross. But there is no resurrection without the horror of crucifixion. I fear we have softened the sacrifice of Jesus because we dare not linger on the bloody and gruesome body of a man tortured by the brutal law of the land, joined with a religious order. I worry we, like Pontus Pilate, are too quick to wash our hands.
In the next article, I am going to share a framework that is more meaningful in sharing the gospel with secular culture. But for now, I hope you can get an appreciation for why the frameworks we are often passionate about may sound foreign and repulsive to the culture while being beautiful and attractive to us. If we wish to make a meaningful connection with the secular world, we must reframe our approach to the gospel in a way that interacts more meaningfully with their values, priorities, and language of being.
 Craig Greenfield, “Isn’t it Time for a New Mission Story?” [Web: https://www.craiggreenfield.com/blog/francischanmissionary].
 Pew Research, “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace,” [Web: https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace].
 Michael Lipka, “A closer look at America’s rapidly growing religious ‘nones,’” [Web: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/05/13/a-closer-look-at-americas-rapidly-growing-religious-nones].
 Daniel Newman, “Research Shows Millennials Don’t Respond To Ads,” [Web: https://www.forbes.com/sites/danielnewman/2015/04/28/research-shows-millennials-dont-respond-to-ads/#5ff04e965dcb].
 Tim Parker, “6 Ways to Sell to Millennials,” [Web: https://www.businessknowhow.com/marketing/selltomillennials.htm].
 Michelle Boorstein, “Amid a Southern Baptist scandal, some evangelical women say the Bible’s gender roles are being distorted to promote sexism,” [Web: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2018/05/22/amid-a-southern-baptist-scandal-some-evangelical-women-say-the-bibles-gender-roles-are-being-distorted-to-promote-sexism].
 Tara Isabella Burton, “The Bible says to welcome immigrants. So why don’t white evangelicals?” [Web: https://www.vox.com/2018/10/30/18035336/white-evangelicals-immigration-nationalism-christianity-refugee-honduras-migrant].
 Dorena Williamson, “Botham Jean’s Brother’s Offer of Forgiveness Went Viral. His Mother’s Calls for Justice Should Too.” [Web: https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/october-web-only/botham-jean-forgiveness-amber-guyger.html].