Over the last 11 months I’ve spent the bulk of my time working to plant a church in New York City. That meant lots of praying, lots of planning, lots of meetings, lots of training, lots of fundraising and lots of other amorphous stuff outside of my control. But mainly it means lots of conversations with strangers, hoping to introduce them to the Gospel. Therefore, since this project started I’ve had the opportunity to talk with people from every walk of life, every social status, every religion or non-religion about Jesus and if there’s one takeaway I have it’s this: Most people DO NOT know the gospel.
I had a hunch this was true before I became a church planter, but that hunch has been confirmed abundantly as I’ve talked to the “Humans of New York”. Often times when I meet people I ask them to tell me what they think of when they think of Christianity. Usually, they say things like “Anti- Same-Sex Marriage” or “Pro-Life”; sometimes they say “goodie two shoes” or sometimes they mention “moral”. What’s never mentioned first (if ever) is “forgiveness of sins”, “grace”, “love for sinners”, or any other way of describing the Gospel. Even more depressing still is the fact that a good number of people I’ve met on the streets came from a church background before they moved to the city (the vast majority of people I meet in Manhattan did not grow up in Manhattan), but all they got from that background was “be a better person”. Not surprisingly, when they get to the city they have no desire to go back to the guilt trip treadmill they came from. Might the percentages of people with this experience be higher in a place like Manhattan? Perhaps, but I can assure you that many of your neighbors have the same view: Christianity is just religious people that probably think they’re better than you.
I have a shirt from CHF that is bright green and says in big bold letters, “Jesus is for losers”. Every once in a while I wear this shirt around town. Usually there are two reactions: 1. A non-Christian says, “Hey man, I like your shirt. That’s right.” 2. A Christian says, “That’s not true.” What does this show? Both don’t know the gospel. Because if they did, they would know that there is no truer statement than “Jesus is for losers.”
What this means is that a good number of strangers I’ve interacted with may not be rejecting “the gospel” at all, but rather are rejecting the legalism they’ve heard growing up. Now, don’t misunderstand me, this doesn’t mean these people already are believers IN the gospel (or for that matter will become believers in the Gospel), but I would say it’s very likely that the God they’re rejecting is not the true God of the Bible. As Tim Keller is fond of saying to skeptics: “Tell me about the god you don’t believe in. Chances are I don’t believe in that god either.”
Consider this encounter I had once with a stranger: Initially, I had seen him running around past me a few times sort of frantically and so eventually I asked him why he was in such a hurry. It ended up he was trying to get copies of the magazine he worked for (an LGBT magazine) out before deadline. Now at this time, I did not tell him I was a Pastor (Sometimes I won’t tell strangers I am one at first, because very often people stop being themselves with me and start acting like Mr. Roboto). So we just talked like two human beings about his background, his upbringing, etc. It turned out he was raised in a very strict Christian home. His Mom was the Church secretary, his Dad an Elder. His whole life, he was deeply involved in Church, even going so far as to attend Bible College for a while. But now he was far away from all that. He was living with someone he shouldn’t be and living a life that wasn’t healthy at all. So I asked him how it all came to pass. He said two things: His Dad, though he was physically present, was emotionally absent. He didn’t spend any time with him, and never shared affection with him at all. He said as a result, his relationship with his Elder Dad was still scarred and awkward. He longed for a real relationship with his father. The second thing he said was really interesting: “I just always felt like if there was a God that he probably turned his back on me because of my sins.”
At that point I couldn’t be silent anymore, I told him that I was a Pastor, that I wasn’t trying to hide that at all, but that I just wanted to have a real conversation with him. I said, “You said that you feel like God must have turned his back on you, but I wanna let you know God has not turned his back on you, but He did turn His back on His own Son for you at the cross. And He did that so that He could be the Father you never had. He did that so that your sin would be paid for, and forgiven. And I promise you, He is the Father you always hoped for.” As I was saying this, he started to cry. He looked at me and said, “Growing up in church, I never heard that before.”
Now, is it possible that this gospel was preached where he grew up? Sure, it’s possible. But the reality was, what he HEARD as the final word from the Christian church was Law. Listen, we know that people can hear the real gospel and still reject it (Jesus is the living embodiment of that), but let us make sure in our interactions with strangers that they actually are hearing the gospel! Let us not assume that the people around us already know that Jesus, the son of God, lived perfectly FOR THEM, died on the cross FOR THEM, raised to new life FOR THEM, and intercedes at the throne of God FOR THEM! Let us declare with confidence that though their sins are like scarlet, in Christ, He has declared them white as snow. You might be surprised to find that sometimes they won’t reject it at all, but maybe, just maybe respond through tears, “I never heard that before.”