A failure of imagination (part 3)

When I first became a Christian in college, the gospel was presented to me in this way. God loves you and wants the best for you. That includes spending eternity in heaven. But you are separated from God because of your sin. You can’t get to heaven, and there’s nothing you can do about it. But thankfully, God has done something about it. He sent his Son Jesus to die in our place on a cross, to take the punishment that was meant for us. And the good news, therefore, is that if you believe in Jesus, you can experience God’s plan for your life and even go to heaven. So, do you believe?

I believed. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but I believed. I prayed the prayer and became a follower of Jesus. Over forty years later, I’m still following, and still believe every word of the above (so don’t get nervous that I’m about to spout heresy).

My only problem is that this way of framing the good news isn’t good enough. The story is too small.

Much, much too small.

To be blunt: that way of framing the gospel is like a marketing pitch. It has the same structure as a commercial dreamed up by an advertising executive: You have a problem and we have the solution.

Much advertising trades in mini-dramas. People are suffering from physical or emotional pain; they’re not successful or happy or popular enough. But not to worry: this drug, this food, this car, or even this deodorant will solve the problem. Sometimes the drama is just implied; the people portrayed are more attractive or successful than we are, playing to all the ways we feel inadequate.

Marketers, in other words, sell products by appealing to an audience’s sense of need and their imagination. Commercials tell mini-stories in which the road to the happy ending leads through some consumer product or service.

Do you hear it in the presentation of the gospel I described above? You have a need, even if you don’t know it. And Jesus is the answer.

Again, don’t get me wrong. I am grateful that God got me by the scruff of the neck, by whatever means. And yes, I believe that Jesus answers our need. But I still have to ask: is our way of telling the story of the gospel big enough?

Let me put it to you this way. Is God just a character in your story, who comes to bring you a happy ending? Or are you, by God’s grace, called to be a character in his story, a story whose happy ending goes far, far beyond the concerns of your life?

Which story, which happy ending is the one we care most about? Because to the extent that we choose the former over the latter, we suffer from a failure of imagination.

Does it matter? You bet. And I’ll suggest some of the ways it does on Sunday, in the final post of this series.

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