Sometimes it Takes an Atheist…

kinnon —  December 18, 2008 — 9 Comments

…to hit us between the eyes with truth about what we profess to believe. Let me unpack a little before you get to the video.

This has been a strange couple of weeks for me. I’m finding myself beginning to question what, for many, would be missional and/or emerging orthodoxy and I do not mean to conflate the two streams. Though there may be much cross-over, they are not the same.

GetOutofProselFree1.gifToo often much of the missional conversation appears to be based upon using that famous St. Frank get-out-of-jail-free cardPreach the Gospel always, if necessary use words.” As I quipped in a note to a friend who is about to publish a provocative post on growth and conversion, “Hey, man. St. Frank said use words IF NECESSARY. I’m just lovin’ on my neighbours, man. I don’t wanna turn them off with any Jesus talk.

This is not me switching my position on the “metrics” around the recent Kimball et al conversation – but it is me saying that a conversion-less Christianity is not good news to anyone – no matter what metrics you use.

We must live missionally in our communities with both deed and word – ever ready to talk about the Hope we have within us. And gee, maybe even be willing to refer to the Bible – well, at least once a decade.

When I read Triple D’s blog this morning, this hit me squarely between the eyes,

“I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell, and people could be going to hell, and you think, ‘Well, it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward’…How much do you have to hate somebody not to proselytize?” *

This is a prophetic wakeup call – from the least likely prophet – an avowed and rather brilliant, atheist, Penn Gillette.

HT EarlMarshall via Dashhouse – from whence the transcribed quote* was taken.



A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

9 responses to Sometimes it Takes an Atheist…

  1. Yeah, St. Francis would roll over in his grave if he knew his name was being used to justify a conversationless Gospel. In fact, St. Francis never said that famously attributed quote. The two quotes that probably inspired it are:

    “It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.”

    “…As for me, I desire this privilege from the Lord, that never may I have any privilege from man, except to do reverence to all, and to convert the world by obedience to the Holy Rule rather by example than by word.”

    Franciscans will tell you that these quotes do NOT negate the essential need for verbal proclamation. Rather, it was simply that Francis saw a world where the words of the proclaimed Gospel only stood as an indictment against a church that did not live them out.

    I agree with you on this one big time.


  2. Someone on my blog called you Mr Blog Ruler of the Universe so I thought I’d better come and find you! I am listening to your daughter’s rendition of The Partisan by Leonard Cohen as I type 🙂

    I wonder, is it just because we have lost our vision that we don’t know what to say? I mean, what exactly do we want to convert people TO? Does not “witnessing” for most people mean “believe in this god who loves you so much and is all powerful because if you dont he’s gonna fry you for all eternity”?

    What about if the “Good News” was “the kingdom of heaven is at hand?” That Christ died for all, as the Bible says? That would be something I would be willing to talk to people about.

    But yeah, I’m really bad at talking to people about my faith. I might print out that Get Out of PRoselytising Free card for my wallet 🙂

  3. Isn’t “To proselytize or not to proselytize” the wrong question? Isn’t it just another man-centered approach to defining the church? Isn’t it the same as whether we use musical instruments or not? Or wear a tie or not, or take communion by intinction or not.

    Here’s reality.
    The church is a human institution created by people who are filled with the Holy Spirit. Let’s not overstate what Scripture tells us. The Holy Spirit descends into people from all over the world. Later after all kinds of community building the people decide to organize the church to meet the needs of people who were being neglected. No institution descends, nor book of governance. All our attempts to tie the church to God is just another attempt to validate that which is human as divine. There is an inscrutable connection between God’s life in us and the creation of the church, but I don’t think it is so clear that we can automatically say that every church is a creation of God.

    Let’s face it. We are worried about the wrong questions. The real question is why isn’t Jesus real enough in me to make the question of proselyzation irrelevant. The answer is that God is not dependent upon us to bring people to faith. Let’s say that conversion as a joint project of God and man. If it is it is asymmetric relation. God has a lot more to do with bringing people to faith than we do, and we can’t really know the full extent of how God uses us in these situations. Do we really want this knowledge? So, the best thing for us to do is love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, and leave the rest to God. I know this seems too simple, or at least removes the responsibility to speak about Jesus to people. If that is the issue, then the real issue is why isn’t Jesus real enough to make talking about him the most natural thing on earth. I’m still working on this too. Oh, Jesus, I believe, help my unbelief.

  4. “This is not me switching my position on the “metrics” around the recent Kimball et al conversation – but it is me saying that a conversion-less Christianity is not good news to anyone – no matter what metrics you use.”

    Right on Bill!! You might lose some emerging/missional friends saying that kind of stuff though. Great post. Maybe that guy proselytizing Penn is just one piece of how God may work in his life. Good thing to pray for. If we really do believe Jesus when he talks about the reality of hell, we will definitely warn people as we share the Good News with them. They can’t receive the Good News if they don’t know the bad. I was just reading this morning that the term “hell” is used 18 times in the New Testament, 17 of them by Jesus. We got to tell people how they can be reconciled to God so they too can come out from under the wrath of God that remains on them until they put their faith in Jesus Christ.

    John 3: 36 And anyone who believes in God’s Son has eternal life. Anyone who doesn’t obey the Son will never experience eternal life but remains under God’s angry judgment.”

    2 Cor 5 17 This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!

    18 And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. 19 For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. 20 So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” 21 For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin,[e] so that we could be made right with God through Christ.

  5. Bill,

    Great post; HT Darryl. This is, to me, the next edge of the missional conversation. The need to be missionally engaging disappears if we have nothing to say, nothing to engage the world with. I think Ed would agree with me that I should not be content with trying to reduce my Christianity to loving God with all heart, soul, mind and strength- unless I let God spell out for me what that kind of loving looked like.

    And He has. You cannot; let me repeat that – you CANNOT love the Lord with all your heart soul mind and strength without obeying His commands – including His clear, crystal clear, command to evangelize and make disciples. Jesus not only proclaimed the gospel verbally, warned people about impending judgment vividly, but also trained his people rigorously to go, 2 by 2, and learn to share the gospel verbally.

    And, in Matthew 28, he commanded them- commanded, mind you – to make disciples, which by definition HAD to include verbal evangelistic proclamation, since so much of the world had not heard of him. And He commanded the disciples to teach us to obey EVERYTHING that He had commanded them – including the command to make disciples, to share the gospel. Verbally.

    So the Great Commission is an ever-recurring loop, as it were, a command that replicates to every generation of disciples. It is not negotiable. If you are not proclaiming the gospel – verbally- to those who are not Christians, I cannot imagine how any of the apostles, or Christ himself, would be able to call you missional. To be honest, I would not think they would even call you obedient.

    Let us be honest; too many of us are afraid to share our faith. We KNOW we should tell our neighbours/friends/co-workers about Christ. I also know how hard it is; I have been trying and failing for years now.

    But let’s call a spade a spade. We are afraid. We lack courage to be rejected, belittled, suspected, marginalized. It’s OK to be afraid; Paul was, too. In Eph 6:19 he asks for prayer, so that..’19 and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel,

    So let’s stop justifying and rationalizing this, start confessing, repenting and changing.

    Too much of the present missional talk here in North America only makes sense if we assume a near universal cultural awareness of what the contents of the gospel are. Actually, I would go further: it also assumes a near-universal cultural rejection of traditional forms of Christian expression which have, in the minds of many, distorted the actual gospel. I would agree that our culture has rejected a distorted version of the gospel.

    But I would add, that our culture also rejects the gospel itself. There is an inherent offence to the gospel that transcends our culture and is timeless; Jesus predicted it in John 15:18:“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.

    And again in John 3: 19:
    19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil .

    I think the next edge of the missional conversation needs to be parsing the difference between the inherent offence of the gospel, and additional offences we do or do not add to it by how we relate to the culture.

    The present animus against Rick Warren is a classic case. He has given and raised millions of dollars for AIDS research and treatment of AIDS victims, including thousands of gay people, gaining the approval and admiration of many gay-rights advocates. But now he is being attacked by those same people right now because he opposes same-sex marriage. His lifestyle is as engaging and humble and loving to them as any of us, but his gospel convictions are attracting considerable hatred.

    So how would you, missionally, advise Rick? Is the present animus against him a failure, on his part, to relevantly and winsomely engage the culture – or is it simply the offence of the gospel itself?
    From what I can tell, it is the offence of the gospel itself. And I love his response; it does not bother him.

    And it should not bother us. The culture, absent a massive move of the Spirit of God, will not wholeheartedly embrace the gospel. Nor will it ever wholeheartedly embrace the church that believes and proclaims the gospel. Our job is not to convert the culture, nor retreat from culture. Our job is to confess Christ to the culture, and leaven the culture.

    Ed’s point about asymmetric relation is relevant here: God does the converting. I think I use it differently than he – mine is a reformed assent to this idea, meant to inspire contagious hope-filled proclamation of the gospel. But I agree with him still. Too much of the present missional conversation, however, seems to think that evangelism is up to God but cultural renewal/relevance/impact is up to us! I would reverse that; evangelism is our responsibility, along with social action in mercy and justice. BUt cultural renewal is an EFFECT, and all redemptive effects are, in the end, the work of God’s Spirit. In short, we should proclaim the gospel in word and deed contagiously, and leave the results to God. We should also engage in cultural renewal winsomely and enthusiastically – but again. leave the results to God.

  6. Well, that’s the thing, though. What constitutes THE GOOD NEWS we are to proclaim? We just automatically presume it means “tell people about Jesus so they don’t go to hell”. And the church teaches an eternal hell where sin wins out over love, where God is powerless to win out in love over the fallenness of his creation. I just don’t buy that anymore. If our focus is on keeping people out of hell, we will resort to manipulation and fearmongering instead of love. I don’t blame people for not wanting to preach that sort of thing. I think the church is WAY off in that regard, if we think that is what the good news is.

    Better good news has always been to me that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. That God’s love wins. However long it takes. Without coercion. With patience. Is that not good news, considering we seem to be born believing that God hates us, only deigns to draws close to us because of the blood of Christ, that we are lost souls? The world doesn’t need to be told it’s lost. I think it kind of knows that. Why would people listen to Christians proclaim the message of “Jesus died to save you from hell” when Christians are often the most hateful and vitriolic of all people? It doesn’t make any sense.

    Sorry George, I hope you don’t think I am having a go at what you believe. I apologise if my words come across like that – this flat surfaced medium means you can’t see me when I am saying these things, but I put this out there in dialogue form rather than “I’m right and you’re wrong” form. I just very much disagree with much of what Christianity proclaims when it comes to hell. I think we have missed the point entirely.

  7. My point is really that we need a good bit of humility about our convictions and our interpretation of what selected Scripture texts mean. For example most of our conception of Hell is medieval, not biblical. As simple as the words are, I don’t believe there is a one-to-one correspondence between what Jesus told the disciples and what we are to do. We live in a different context in almost every possible way. And don’t believe that we can automatically jump from our English translation of Scripture directly to judgment of what is truth. Even in those instances where it may seem justified, there may well be other Scriptures that modulated how we are to apply the text. This why humility is a better practice.

    Also, it isn’t that I am unwilling to give the reason for my faith (I Peter), but that if I’m a proselytizer, my focus is on my evangelism. I think the relationship comes first, and we speak into the relationship with truth and grace.

  8. Sue, it doesn’t really matter what you think or what I think, what matters is what God has said.

    I take it you don’t think people will go to hell. What’s it all about then, why did Jesus die on a cross. Why does it say that He will save His people from their sins. Why does it say that He who has the Son has life He who does not have the Son does not have life and the wrath of God remains upon Him. What happens to a person at the judgment if the wrath of God is still upon them? What does it mean that the wages of sin is death but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus?

  9. Heya George,

    I don’t necessarily think that people will not go to hell. I just disbelieve that it is for eternity. The word translated ‘eternity’ is most often ‘aion’ or its equivalents and this means ‘age-abiding’, not ‘forever’. I would also question what hell is. The majority of times it is spoken of in the NT, Jesus is using the word ‘Gehenna’, which refers to the local garbage dump outside of Jerusalem. I don’t think much of what we translate as relating to some sort of doctrine can be taken as anything other than figures of speech.

    I do believe he will save his people from their sins. I think he will save the entire world from their sins. I would also question what the ‘wrath of God’ is. We thnk of it as something that is separate from God’s love, as if when he is exercising his wrath he is behaving in ways outside of his character – ie going on a blood-fuelled rampage. All of the experiences I have had of God when dealing with my sin is that it is done in the gentlest of conditions. I can’t imagine that he will deal with anyone else differently – however, I don’t know how that will play out for people who patently refuse to turn to him. I just believe that he will win out in the end. I think love trumps all.

    The wages of sin is death – well, that word translated eternal is again “aionios” which is “age-abiding”, not “forever”. I believe this verse is talking about this particular age now. There are many who are not saved now – most. There are some who are. I believe we are the “firstfruits” of those who believe, but I dont think we are the “onlyfruits” 🙂

    Anyway, if you are interested, there is a whole stack of info at this site: which has a wealth of information on this rather controversial subject, haha 🙂


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