There’s a new gospel in town, and it has recruited cadres of evangelists. This new gospel heralds peace with God and man, it proclaims enlightenment through acceptance. Yet it’s not acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, but acceptance of a new morality, the embrace and endorsement of what Christians have long understood to be forbidden. It’s a popular and powerful gospel and someone is going to proclaim it to you very soon. They will proclaim it and call for a response.
A recent article at the ultra-popular lifestyle site Lifehacker provides a guide for its proselytizers. The title aptly describes its goal: “How to Talk with Religious Conservatives about LGBT Rights.” Apologetic in nature, it is meant to train people to persuade others to embrace this new gospel. Speaking honestly and as one of those religious conservatives, I consider it an effective bit of writing. If I was going to try to persuade religious folk to put aside their existing convictions to embrace new ones, it is exactly the article I would write. At its essence, it discourages persuasion through arguments and encourages persuasion through narrative. Argue theology and Christians will dig in, tell Christians stories and they will cave in.
As Christians we love stories. In fact, at Grace Fellowship Church we just celebrated a number of baptisms and each person was asked to share the story of how they came to Christ. James and Moon told how they had been Jehovah’s Witnesses, but came to understand they were involved in a cult. Ryan and Maria told how they had been raised in Christian homes and eventually been faced with whether or not they themselves believed what their parents had taught them. Ragu, raised in a Hindu home, had been handed a Bible and alone, in its pages, had found Christ. Jola told of being raised in a religious home but one in which he never once heard the gospel. All six gave testimony to God’s work in their life. They encouraged us not merely with the fact that they are Christians but with the story of how they became Christians. It was powerful. It was beautiful.
We tell such stories to encourage believers and to persuade unbelievers. Our stories serve as ministry to the saved and evangelism to the lost. They add flesh and experience to what may otherwise be mere theology, mere ideas. Ultimately, we hope these stories will lead others to investigate and accept the great story God is telling in and through his world.
This new gospel is hijacking the power of story and Christian respect for story in order to achieve its goals. “I find stories are a lot more compelling than arguments,” says James Martin. “One of the stories I like to tell people is about a gay friend of mine named Mark. Mark was in a religious order and left. He ended up marrying his partner, with whom he’s been together for 20 years. One of the things he has done is care for his partner through a long-term serious illness. I often say to people, ‘Is this not a form of love?’ I just ask that question. So I think it’s less about argumentation than it is about stories, more about what Pope Francis calls a ‘culture of encounter.'”
He knows that Christians are well-stocked with Bible verses sufficient to counter any new idea. But he also knows that Christians are unequipped to counter the power of a good story. Just as we use story to persuade others, story is being used to persuade us. One common refrain among those who have changed their theological convictions in this area is, “But then I met…” or “But then my grandson told me…” or “But then my friend told me about Mark.” Now we are no longer slinging Bible verses back and forth, but being told, being shown, being forced to pass judgment on real people. Here’s how he says it: “If person is closed-minded, or is not listening, there’s not a whole lot you can do. But I tend to believe that people are open to experiences. So a closed-minded person who suddenly discovers that his son is gay or her daughter is a lesbian is really forced to look at that differently, because they’re confronted with a person instead of a theory, and with an experience instead of a category.”
As we consider our culture’s widespread acceptance and celebration of this new gospel, we need to ensure we do not focus so heavily on theology that we leave ourselves unequipped when it comes to story. It is one thing to know and be able to recall relevant Bible verses, but another thing altogether to hear a story or even to witness one. Experience is a powerful persuader. A strong story can overcome weak convictions just about every time. Generals will tell that a good battle plan is one strong enough to withstand first contact with the enemy. In a similar vein, convictions have to be strong enough to withstand first contact with a friend—or a child or a grandchild or anyone else we love who has a story to tell.
If we are going to respond well to the new cultural ethos, we need to know God’s Story—his plan for humanity, sexuality, and marriage. We need to be fully convinced about why it matters so much. We need to be willing to suffer loss to uphold it. Ultimately, we need to know that for stories to be good and true and beautiful, they must align with the Story that is ultimately good and true and beautiful. We need to know and tell the better Story.