I have a problem with some kinds of Christian evangelism. Especially the kind that invites people to take Jesus “as your personal Lord and Saviour”, to have “a personal relationship with Jesus”. It makes our Lord sound like a made-to-measure suit. What’s wrong with a one-size-fits-all Jesus? As the character Cheryl says in Douglas Coupland’s novel Hey Nostradamus!: “Nothing makes a person less special than conversion – it universalises you.”
And this “Jesus” you take as “your personal Lord and Saviour” and with whom you have a “relationship” – who is he? Is he the challenging and disturbing figure who stalks the pages of the gospels? If so, fine, but I rather suspect that he is often a figment of the believer’s imagination, a projection of the kind of saviour that meets one’s felt needs and desires, a kind of invisible life coach or genie, rather like Casper the friendly ghost. An old hymn speaks of a Jesus who “walks with me and talks with me”, but, really, who sets the pace and does all the talking? I wonder if, at bottom, this relationship is rather one-sided, even narcissistic.
Here are three further flaws associated with this approach to the gospel. One is the way it often targets people in their vulnerability and exploits their guilt. But as Bonhoeffer rightly insisted, Christ meets us in our strengths as well as our weaknesses, and though of course we are all sinners, knowing that is the consequence, not the precondition, of grace.
And the focus of this approach is all wrong. It asks the question, “Do you want to be saved?”, which actually panders to human self-centredness. The proper question to ask is “How can God be glorified?” Moreover, you see a lot of Christians who are concerned about their relationship with Jesus when what they ought to be concerned about is their relationship with other people – and not as potential converts but simply as fellow human beings to whom they should be kind.
Finally, there is the way this approach markets the gospel like some sort of therapy that will make you happy all the time. But it won’t. For not only does faith lead us into experiences that the mystics called “the dark night of the soul”, it also calls us into costly acts of sacrifice and confrontation with abusers of power, both personal and political. The true gospel should carry a Government Health Warning; conversely, some kinds of Christianity should be prosecuted under the Trade Descriptions Act.
How did Jesus himself speak to people? He simply said, “Follow me!” (i.e., get behind me – and keep up!). More specifically, he said, “Take up the cross and follow me.” Ouch! And, of course, there is the New Testament language of “discipleship” – literally, of being a “learner” (so pay attention!); and also the language of “imitation” – of becoming like Jesus in attitude, character, and behaviour. “Bible-believing” Christians, of all people, should be both content and eager to keep to this model of becoming and being a Christian.