So I’ve been wandering all over the intellectual plain to say this: We need a better story.
Our churches need better stories. And we individually and as families need better stories.
We church leaders need to learn how to tell better stories — and how to inhabit the stories of our listeners so we can help them find their own better stories.
If God made us to be relational beings, defined far more by whom we love and who loves us than by what we know, we need to learn to communicate in our relational, story-driven world.
The truth, though, is that most of us are so consumed with Enlightenment thought that when it’s time to lead a church through change or to persuade our own children to change, we can only manage to express ourselves syllogistically — that is, logically. And we are all quite good at building a logical case for whatever we want. That’s how American schools teach us to think.
But it’s not how people are. Of course, there are some people who respond to logic, but most people do not — and that means we struggle mightily at, say, evangelism because we don’t know how to persuade the lost to believe in Jesus except by logic. And yet God made them relational, story-driven beings. Hence, we need a better story.
I’m borrowing here from an excellent article by Mark Love.
Let me start, though, with a scene from last night at Starbucks. I was sitting uncomfortably close (within my introvert perimeter) to a young couple having a very passionate conversation about God. She was a winsome evangelical. He was a skeptical something-or-other. She was giving this her all, because it seemed to me, they were serious about each other, but she could only marry a Christian. This was an all-or-nothing moment for her and she was pulling out all the stops. And she was getting creamed.
She was not getting creamed because she lacked the intellectual ability or because he was a better debater. She was getting creamed because she had a story that’s tough to defend. It wasn’t just that he disagreed with her. He was offended by her view of God.
Did she not know God? Did she not understand the reasons for her faith? In fact, she was very knowledgeable — but also very unpersuasive.
Her story was predictable. All of us are sinners, and it takes only one to make us unacceptable to God. And there’s hell to pay, literally. God can’t simply forgive us our mistakes. He has to have a victim before he can forgive, a blood sacrifice. So, he sends his own son to die for us, to appease his otherwise unappeasable wrath.
For the young man, this made God a monster. It failed for him precisely at the level of being moral. God really can’t forgive me for a mistake unless someone dies? With all that’s wrong with the world–disease, war, hunger, slaver–God is obsessed with who I sleep with? He kept telling her that he was a good person who cared for others and took care of the earth and cared about global issues of justice. God was going to send him to hell for pre-marital sex? (He did seem a little pre-occupied with sex).
She taught a very traditional atonement theology, surely the one she’d been raised on. To her, it made perfect sense. In her Christian community, it was doubtlessly considered obvious, even axiomatic. But as soon as she stepped out of her culture into another, the story lost its power.
Mark suggests telling the same story very differently.
Now let’s try on a story that doesn’t begin with the individual as the issue. What if she had started this way: we live in a world that is totally screwed up. Sex-trafficking, poverty, disease, environmental disasters. We’ve made a hash of it. (He agrees).
No longer is it a story about me and my sins. Now it’s about the Creation and its brokenness. Of course, I’m broken, too. We all are.
And being a really good person isn’t the answer. We’re both really good people and know a lot of other really good people and we fix some things and some don’t get any better and some get worse (He agrees). Even science, which makes our lives better in so many ways, also threatens to wipe us from the face of the earth (He agrees).
Humanity isn’t 100% evil, in desperate need of forgiveness. Rather, humanity is not up to the task. Where do we fit in? We aren’t doing that great of a job, even when we try very hard to make the world a better place. The problem to be solved is the brokenness of the world, us included.
And my question is, where is God in all of this? (And he agrees and hopes you have a satisfying answer). The Christian story says that God has revealed his power in a story of selfless love, which is the opposite of what the Bible calls sin and identifies as the root of this whole mess.
“Sin” is no longer about just morality. Sin is a failure to love as God loves. It’s much bigger than premarital sex and weak church attendance. It’s a problem of the heart but also of purpose and mission.
God’s solution to the problem is not power as “control over” the contingencies of this life. Rather, the Christian view of the world is that God suffers with us, joins us, endures with us, and works for justice through paths of faithful love.
Why does God let good people suffer? Well, God came to earth in the form of Jesus to suffer with us so that he could teach us how to overcome. Rather than ridding the world of problems, he wants us to become like him in overcoming the problems.
Love, not as an emotion, but love as a way of always acting for us. And ultimately, this is the power through which all things will be made whole. The death of Jesus on a Roman cross is a demonstration that there is no power or circumstance that places us outside of his love. And his resurrection from the dead says to us that the powers of sin and death don’t have the final word.
Jesus didn’t destroy evil by removing it from the planet. He destroyed evil by withstanding its cruelest blows. He suffered and endured. And having personally overcome, he will help us do the same. His resurrection assures us that in the end we’ll emerge victorious.
And the church is a group of people who live by the power of this selfless love, which the Holy Spirit gives to us, and who live in resistance to all other powers that would shape life in distorting or unjust ways, who live as a sign of God’s future where all things will be made whole.
The church is no mere study club and no mere attendance-taking proctor. The church is a community of people committed to becoming together like Jesus, to establishing an alternative society in which the life of Jesus is lived by all that points toward a better future in which sin is defeated.
This takes more than just good people or moral people. Christians hardly have that market cornered, but it takes people who share a commitment to this way of being in the world. And when you live this way with others, you learn to recognize the unmistakable ways that God shows up, like those moments of power when we learn to forgive each other the way God lavishly forgives us.
God forgives us so we can draw near to him. We forgive each other so we can draw near to each other. Forgiveness is not the end but the beginning. It allows us to become close enough to truly love and be loved — to be truly known and to truly know — and in so doing, create a better world. Indeed, in so doing, the church becomes a preview of heaven. (Seriously. No, I mean it. Really.)
And when I live in this story, I find myself being transformed by the love God. The way this world gets on you and in you and contaminates you and weighs you down with shame and guilt and condemnation is defeated. And this transformed way of life survives everything, even death.
(There’s lots more, but this is a blog).
It’s a better story. It’s better because it assumes an understanding built on love, not laws and rules. It’s better because it’s relational. It’s better because it is much closer to what the Bible actually says.
And it’s a story that’s far more likely to win converts because it’s not about fleeing from an angry God. It’s about being drawn toward an infinite love.