Note: Last week, I mentioned I wanted to examine some of the things I got in my evangelical days that were gifts to me. This is the first one.
It was the summer I turned 14, and I was at Bible camp. There were trails, and archery, and swimming (which the girls had to do with shirts on, lest we be led down the path to lust). There were Bible things, too, like sword drills, where we would be given a Bible reference and race to see who could find it the fastest.
And because we were low-church Protestants, there was lots of preaching. So much preaching.
There was a guy, I forget his name, who was a specialist brought in to relate to us young people. He was hip and cool, in a smarmy sort of way that youth ministers often are. He would talk to us every night and he only had two themes.
The first was that we needed to change, or repent. That our souls were in danger, and that if we did not change, were were bound for eternal torment. Apart from our accepting Jesus into our hearts, we were going to burn in hell.
But the secondary message that week was that the world needed to change. Not in a culture war sense – it was a little early for that discussion to make its way into my world – but in an individual sense. We were taught that the majority of the world were not Christians – not real true ones, anyway – and that if they did not change, they were also bound for hell.
“If you love someone, the most loving thing you can do for them is to get them to accept Jesus as their savior”, this guy said. “Because if they don’t, they will burn in hell for eternity. And it will be your fault, because you didn’t even try.”
No one was exempt from this. Our friends, our parents, our teachers… we were taught that apart from our telling them the truth about Jesus, they would burn in hell, and we would be responsible. I remember sitting around that campfire, crying huge, snotty tears for “the lost” – those people who would be punished eternally, for those who I could have reached and did not, for the times my “witness” – how I acted in public – showed my lack of concern for their soul.
If you did not grow up in this world, I want to assure you: We believed. We believed that there would be a literal day of judgement, when we would be weighed and found wanting. That God was angry at the world, and nothing but the blood of Jesus could save us from God’s wrath. And that crying for “the lost?” It was real, too. We wanted the whole world to be saved, and everything was geared to that, and around that.
Now, I want to say a couple of things about this:
The first is that I no longer believe that God is angry at me or you, and apart from the intervention of Jesus, I would burn in hell for eternity. I just don’t. There are things God is angry at – things like injustice, racism, hunger. But God isn’t angry at you.
I also want to say that putting the responsibility of the souls of our friends on us (that their eternal salvation depended upon our telling them about Jesus) was manipulative and just wrong.
But I also want to say that I think those of us who moved from more conservative spaces, like the one I grew up in, to more progressive understandings of the work of Jesus lost something irretrievable when we gave up the evangelistic impulse.
Around that campfire, we prayed – hard – for those who believed differently than we did. We cried over the thought that they wouldn’t. We studied what they believed with vigor and devotion so that we could “give an answer.” We sought evidence that would reinforce our arguments, and we went to classes to learn how to convince skeptics of our positions.
We actually cared, and saw it as central to our faith, that other people would change. And to a large extent, we believed that our primary job was to convince them to change.
I see none of that in the progressive church.
Understand, I am not saying that I think we should have some progressive tracts, or go door to door talking about hell. But I am saying that, in the progressive groups I am in, there is little concern about other people changing. Instead, what I hear most often is about how “we” are right, and “they” are, at best, wrong, or at worst, stupid, or inbred.
I have been in many progressive spaces where they taught us to protest, to name the injustice we see, to call out the oppressor. And I think that is right, and good, and we should do that.
I have never been in a progressive space that taught me to convince a member of the alt-right of our position.
I have never been in a progressive Christian space that sought to teach me what the anti-environmentalist believes, and the fallacies in their thinking.
I have never been in a progressive Christian space that prayed for those who persecuted others, and where people cried real tears because we believed that we could play a part in their liberation.
I have never been in a progressive Christian space that seemed like it accepted any responsibility for changing the mind of anyone. Or for even trying.
And frankly, I have never been in a progressive Christian space where we were convinced that the soul of the oppressor was dependent upon their changing, and that we could play a part in that change.
I’m not just talking specialized training. I mean, at the pew level. Empowering and equipping Mary and Joe in the pews to effect lead people who think differently than they do to change.
I no longer believe that people will go to Hell if they do not accept Jesus as their savior. But I do believe that if the racist, the greedy, the powerful, the ego driven and the rest do not change, they will bring hell down upon themselves and other, more vulnerable people. I believe that if we can convince them to change, what could possibly have a higher priority than that? And that if we choose not to care about their souls, then what does that say about ours?