The pastor was a sought after preacher for his denomination’s conferences. The church he pastored was thriving if all you looked at was the number of people occupying the pews and programs. Then the invitations stopped, in the blink of an eye.
His fellow Jesus followers turned their back to him when he turned his back on hell. The pastor, through his own spiritual journey of study and prayer determined that God’s grace is radically real and Jesus came for the world even if the world didn’t believe or follow. He began to share what he was learning with his congregation. He preached about why he no longer believed people who didn’t “believe in Jesus” were going to hell. He now believed everyone was getting in to heaven; that’s how indiscriminate and extravagant God is.
He was genuinely surprised at the degree and depth of his shunning. A number of pew sitters and program consumers left the congregation, but he was careful to bring people along, to teach and pastor along the way this new theology. Still, the numbers weren’t what they used to be.
The youth pastor noted this phenomenon of people leaving and the lack of newcomers. He said, “It’s hard to fill the pews when we don’t have the threat of hell to hang over people’s head.” He laughed as he spoke, but I could tell he was also still working out and wondering, “What WILL fill the pews?”
A lay member told the story of walking in her neighborhood on a Sunday afternoon with her family and being stopped by a neighbor, who upon hearing what church they went to began to “witness” to her and try to “save” her. “I used to do that type of thing all the time,” she said. “I never realized just how rude and disrespectful it is.” She is also shunned in her community. People avoid talking to her in the grocery store for instance. And she doesn’t live in a small town; it’s just that the prevailing church culture that is the loudest is one in which everyone who doesn’t believe what they believe is going to hell.
The threat of hell has been a motivating factor to “preach the good news” but telling someone “You’re going to hell unless…” doesn’t sound like much good news. It sounds like a threat. It mystifies me that so many people seem to be moved by such threats. However, when I take a second and third look around, it becomes clear that most people are not moved by such threats because most people in our country don’t go to church. And most of those people assume all Christians are the same: judgmental, harping, self-righteous, sour-faced jerks. This is not true.
You are some of the most grace-filled, encouraging, humble, and joyful saints I know. What good news would you have us tell? What good news would you tell to fill the pews certainly, but more importantly, to fill someone’s life with God?