by Wye Huxford
WSB Radio in Atlanta has the best traffic reports every morning and afternoon during what often seems to be endless rush hours. If you know anything at all about Atlanta traffic, you know that Captain Herb and his crew on WSB can be a huge help.
The preacher from one of Atlanta's larger churches often buys thirty-second spots on WSB Radio, and sometimes on television stations. (His last name, by the way, isn't Stanley.) He actually says some pretty good things - often focusing on marriage, parenting, and living a meaningful life. But every time I hear one of those spots I instantly think, "He sounds a little smug," and then I wonder how non-believers respond.
I'm not saying this particular preacher is smug. I met him once and he was very personable and cordial. What I am wondering, though, is whether or not you can really talk about the moral and social implications of the Christian gospel to an audience that isn't exclusively Christian without sounding a bit smug. While the gospel and its implications for life make so much sense to us, can we discover a way to talk about it without sounding a bit smug to people for whom they don't make much sense?
Tim Keller, in his book Center Church, says "A missional church, if it is to reach people in a post-Christian culture, must recognize that most of our more recently formulated and popular gospel presentations will fall on deaf ears because hearers will be viscerally offended or simply unable to understand the basic concepts of God, sin, and redemption" (page 272). In other words, we come off sounding rather smug!
Keller goes on to say, "This fact does not, however, require a change in the classic Christian doctrines, but rather skillfulness in contextualizing them so our gospel presentations are compelling even to people who are not (yet) fully persuaded by them" (page 272). Clearly the issue isn't that we have to make the challenge of the gospel go away - but to discover a way to talk about the challenge so that others will listen to us.
There has to be some tension between the content of the gospel itself and our discovery of the most appropriate way to talk about the gospel. And perhaps we could use a reminder that the gospel is, first and foremost, about Jesus. Most of us would probably agree that Corinth was among the most troubled spots Paul ever planted a church. Their theological and sociological problems are legendary. Yet Paul can say, "We preach Christ and Him crucified" (1 Corinthians 1:18-25).
It seems odd to me to listen to the helpful tone of Captain Herb tell me an alternate route followed by the smug Christian voice telling me what is right for my life. Getting your marriage right or your role as a parent right seems a little more complicated than a traffic jam and it will take a little more than the nearest alternate route. But the gospel so often comes across in such smug, you-know-I-am-right tones that unless I really am committed to following Him, the mere smugness of it all closes my ears.
The smugness factor often makes us appear more anti-cultural than cross-cultural. The more cross-cultural we are, the more likely we are to transform the world we live in. The more anti-cultural we are, the less likely others will even hear what we're saying, much less allow it to transform them. Of course our greatest testimony to the world about the uniqueness of the Christian gospel is not a radio ad we pay for, but our willingness to serve others - "labors of love" as Paul describes it in 1 Thessalonians 1 - as we bring God's grace to bear on the daily reality of living in this world.