Seeker-friendly. That title alone is enough to induce a bitter taste in the mouths of a lot of Bible-believing Christians. While no one will argue against increasing accessibility for those who want to be saved, that goal has been pursued in a lot of unhelpful ways. Too often, churches have compromised or abandoned their message in order to avoid accidentally offending someone. Too many preachers have focused so hard on making their hearers feel comfortable that they neglect to actually say anything of substance.
In reality, there is an inherently offensive dimension to the Gospel. Self-righteous, independent humans don’t like being told they’re lost sinners who must cast themselves on the mercy of a God they’ve never seen, and thereafter obey Him. People overly concerned with being nice and inclusive chafe at the idea that there is only one Way to the Father. Naturalistic intellectuals will scoff at the idea that some God-Man will come in the sky and set up a thousand-year kingdom. God Himself, speaking of the first coming of His Son, said, “Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense…” (Rom 9:33). He knew that many pride-blinded sinners would not be willing to receive Him.
Thus, it is more than fair to say that the Gospel — undiluted and straightforward — is offensive to the unredeemed human heart. It may even be fair to say that a presentation of the Gospel that does not strike that chord of, “Wait… what?!” very well may have missed the way Scripture speaks of it.
Truth is often offensive. Messengers and leaders in the Body of Christ ought not to shrink back from being truthful for fear of bothering someone.
However, and equally importantly, not all that offends is truth. Messengers and leaders in the Body of Christ (especially the younger ones) do well to take this seriously.
One of the things that got me thinking about this was a big internet kerfuffle I recently stumbled into, revolving around the lyrics of a particular modern worship song.* A lot of people love it, and a lot of people are made to squirm because of it. I don’t care for the song much myself, but that has a lot more to do with my particular poetic bent than with making any kind of theological case out of it.
The short version of the argument was that a lot of worship leaders will refuse to play the song, or else edit out the bothersome lyrics, to avoid outcry in their congregation. The blog I was reading thought that to be a great tragedy, and was very energetically defending the song’s lyrics.
I didn’t mind that so much. Although I disagreed, I could appreciate where the writer was coming from. Everyone is different, and there’s no reason that lyrics which made me cringe would be just fine — and even deeply stirring and beautiful — to someone with a different poetic sensibility. Whatever floats your boat (as long as it’s not heretical).
What began to trouble me, though, was to see the language shift from defending the lyrics to questioning the faith, maturity, and integrity of people who didn’t like the song. The blog post moved from the subtle, and arguably correct statement, “If you have problems with a certain aspect of Jesus’ personality, you’re probably going to have problems with these lyrics” [statement paraphrased to avoid disclosing specifics], to the overt and harsh statement that, if a person was uncomfortable with the lyrics, they were “probably uncomfortable with the real Jesus” [direct quote].
The blog’s comments echoed similar sentiments. Assertions were made about whether these religious critics would also disdain certain classic hymns. People were reveling in the “discomfort” and “tension” that was so transformative to their lives. One commenter chimed in, “I love controversial [sic].” Another declared that the post was not just a brilliant defense of these lyrics specifically, but of genuine worship as a whole.
To the majority of the people in the discussion, the lyrics were not being evaluated for their scriptural basis, the glory they brought to Jesus, their ability to usher a corporate gathering into worship, or even for their aesthetic quality and nuance. When push came to shove, the plumb line was how shocking and uncomfortable they were. The fact that they made whole congregations shift uncomfortably in their pews meant that this was a great song. And the fact that other people couldn’t appreciate that offense signified not just artistic differences, but spiritual dullness, immaturity, or even hypocrisy. Some went as far as to say that a worship service that didn’t offend people must not be real worship.
All this over one person’s poetry.
I was stunned. Of all the arguments I was expecting to hear put forth, “offense = good, truthful and justified” was not one I was prepared for. But as I thought about it, I began to see how this happens quite a lot in Christian circles, especially among young people who are eager to be on the cutting edge of radical Christianity.
Lots of things are done and said under the banner of “the offense of the Gospel” that have nothing whatever to do with what that term actually means. It’s right to say that preaching truth is apt to offend people; it is not therefore also right to conclude that anything which makes people squirm is therefore preaching truth. It is right to present the truth despite the fact it might offend; it is not therefore right to present it in such a way that is designed to offend.
From preachers using swear words in their sermons for emphasis (with a halfhearted apology and an “I’m just being honest”), to songwriters using intentionally confusing and disturbing lyrics; from Christian artists making grotesquely graphic pieces to prove that they aren’t religious, to theological debaters on internet forums snarkily telling their opponents exactly where to stick their circular reasoning, offensiveness cannot become the goal. Making other people fume may or may not have any lasting fruit once the dust settles. Inciting offense is not something you’ll find listed in the Sermon on the Mount.
Though people will often appeal to biblical authors as precedence for offensive messages, one can no more build a case for being brash from them than one can build a case for being seeker-friendly. The apostle Paul said some decidedly undiplomatic things in his letters (See Rom 2:1; 1Cor 4:7-14; Gal 5:12, to name a few); but he also said that he would become all things to all people (1Cor 9:22), would never eat meat again if it would prevent a brother’s offense (1Cor 8:13) and stressed the importance of speaking the truth in love (Eph 4:12). The apostle John recorded some of Jesus’ most controversial sermons (John 5, 6, 8), but also penned the much-beloved epistle on how we ought to love one another (1 John). Jesus Himself often clashed with the Pharisees and had harsh words of rebuke for them (Matt 23:1-36), but in the same chapter mourned brokenheartedly for the soon coming destruction of Jerusalem (Matt 23:37-39). Jesus’ words sometimes offended multitudes (John 6), but people also marveled at His gracious speech (Luke 4:22).
None of these men shrunk back from speaking the truth that would cause people to recoil in offense. But none of them valued being offensive. They valued truth.
We can’t judge truth by whether or not people walk away offended. The same Gospel that saved more than three thousand people in Acts 2 got the preacher killed in Acts 7. A singular miracle and message convinced half of Jesus’ audience that He was demon-possessed, and the other half that He was from God (John 10:20-21). People left in droves when Jesus claimed to be the bread of life (John 6), but they marveled at His gracious words when He made the shocking claim of fulfilling Isaiah 61 (Luke 4). Paul’s messages infuriated the Jews of Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-9), but you’d never know it from the thoughtful reception he received in Berea (Acts 17:11).
The truth of the message did not change with how well or badly it was received. Offense is no gauge of a faithful representation of the Gospel. It is not as simple as an “if A, then B” equation.
This is challenging because it undermines our attempts to solidify concrete methodologies and/or definitions of success. A message is not necessarily a successful one if we make everyone happy. It is not necessarily a successful one if we make everyone upset. We can’t rely on being either shocking or upbeat to get the truth across. Just as Ezekiel was to speak whether the people heard him or refused him (Eze 2:7), we are to be truthful in love whether people are glad to hear it or gnash their teeth at it (Acts 2,7).
This is also good news because it means our success as a messenger of truth doesn’t hinge on the reaction of fickle hearers. God isn’t evaluating whether people walked away smiling or stinging (…well, He is, but that’s between Him and them, not Him and the preacher/author/artist). He’s simply asking if we are reaching for being a faithful witness, emulating His Son in that way. Our job is not to make sure people feel uncomfortable. Our job is to have the Word of the Lord and speak faithfully (Jer 23:28).
Offense isn’t the point. Truth is the point. If we stay anchored in that, seeking our success as defined by God’s pleasure in us as we seek to be true to Him, we will be able to be strong, clear messengers of what is on His heart in this hour.