The contemporary culture of relativism is making it increasingly difficult for the Gospel to communicate its unique message. Can the term "repent" provide meaning for people who unlike previous generations have significantly more educational and therapeutic methods to change their lives? In secular culture, it’s generally perceived that humanity’s sophistication has outgrown Christianity. Yet humankind continues to hanker for antidotes to its contextual predicaments of emotional discontentment, and thoughts about God remain in the conversation. My conviction is that the Gospel is deeper than merely something that offers feelings of peace, comfort, and hope on a Sunday morning. However, the challenge persists: how to make the grace of God relevant in a culture that’s accustomed to thinking relatively?
Foremost, we must personally value the Gospel. As Jesus taught, “Again, the kingdom of God is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matt. 13:45). Does the Gospel have an overwhelming sense of preciousness to us? Even secular thinkers acknowledge the potency of something personally valued. In Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life, the highly influential psychologist Jordan B. Peterson wrote:
"If I value something . . . I must determine how to value it so that others potentially benefit. It cannot just be good for me: it must be good for me and for the people around me. . . . Furthermore, it needs to work today, in a manner that does not make a hash of tomorrow, next week, next month and next year (even the next decade or century)."1
Love, forgiveness, and emotional well-being are what people will continue to need. Ideologies will always emerge, make promises, and then leave humanity to search for another one. The Good News of the Gospel is universal, timeless, and addresses humanity’s need for love and forgiveness, unlike any other message. It appeals emotionally and intellectually.
Unbeknown to many, a great testimony of personally treasuring the Gospel over ideology is that of Katherine Russell Tait. She wrote a book about growing up with her famous father, Bertrand Russell, and his school of atheism. In college, she found that the Gospel resonated more than atheism and became a Christian. In her own words,
"As I listened, I began to think that what I heard made sense out of everything. Nothing that was said contradicted what I had learned from my father, and I was not offered a faith full of the absurdities he delighted in ridiculing. . . . For me, the belief in forgiveness and grace was like sunshine after long days of rain. No matter what I did . . . God would be there to forgive."2
She married a pastor and together served in missions and pastoral ministry for decades, with fruitful results.
Nowadays, there no longer exists a “shared center” where people understand what we mean by Christian terminology. Gabe Lyons and David Kinnaman noted well that up until “the last few decades, our nation’s leaders frequently acknowledged Christianity as the ‘shared center.’”3 When Christian terms were spoken, it was assumed that people understood them. We no longer have the luxury of a “shared center” whereby people understand Christian talk. I experienced this one Sunday when after speaking at a church I walked into a café. I ordered an espresso and the barista asked me what I had planned for the day. I mentioned that I had finished speaking at a local church and he curiously interjected by asking what I spoke about. I replied that I spoke about how the Gospel can provide “deliverance.” He looked at me quizzically and asked, “what the ‘beep’ is that”?
The solution is not to forfeit the Gospel’s unpopular terms, such as sin and repentance. We must remain on point with the Gospel’s message while being sensitive that people have hardly any appreciation for exclusivist demands. Eloquent theology and sharp apologetics (though important) alone cannot be relied upon to influence people. Paul stated that his mission was “to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1 Cor. 1:17). A fruitful conversation about the Gospel is one that will connect spiritually with people.
Jesus said of the Comforter: “I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:7-8). In Gospel conversation, people often experience a personal sense of “sin and righteousness and judgment.” Through experience and mistakes, I have also learned that tone and temperate passion can contribute to the Gospel’s resonance with people. Note that Russell Tait said, "As I listened, I began to think that what I heard made sense out of everything." It seems like she was persuaded by an intelligible presentation. Accordingly, the Holy Spirit will do its work in the minds and hearts of our listeners and open them to consider that the offer of grace is uniquely special.
The Gospel is our “pearl of great value.” It’s not valued in an ideological sense, but personally by its wonderful work of grace in our own lives. We may no longer have a “shared center” with cultural thought, but an intelligible explanation of the Gospel can still make a powerful appeal to one’s inner being. Humanity is wired with a capacity for God. As Jesus said, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3:20). This personal conviction by the Spirit is indispensable for effective evangelism. This generation can discover and experience that belief in Christ is as Russell Tait testified: “For me, the belief in forgiveness and grace was like sunshine after long days of rain. No matter what I did . . . God would be there to forgive.”
1. (Random House Canada: Toronto, 2021), 9-10.
2. My Father Bertrand Russell, First Ed. (HBJ: New York, 1975), 186-88.
3. Good Faith: Being a Christian When Society Thinks You’re Irrelevant and Extreme (Baker Books: Grand Rapids, 2016), 55-56.