I propose a new church-growth model: Preach in such a way where you try to offend as many peoples’ sensibilities as possible. Throw as many stumbling blocks in front of religious people as you can. Unashamedly hold out the apparent foolishness of Christian dogma to the skeptical.
For the uninitiated, adherents of church-growth seek to apply the scientific method to make disciples. At its best, church-growth is dedicated to removing as many barriers to the gospel as possible in order that a church can “just connect someone to Jesus.” So, a practitioner might study a particular cultural context of any given neighborhood or region, determine what aspects of Christianity might resonate best among the people there, and champion that aspect. Or a practitioner might attempt to scale evangelism as one does in factory production. X number of gospel conversations should net Y conversions. Or, disenfranchised by both as being decidedly inauthentic, a practitioner might advocate lifestyle evangelism as the means for church growth, stating they’ll preach the gospel with words if necessary. The evangelical industrial complex has birthed entire enterprises dedicated to so-called church growth.
This is a noble, but perilous pursuit. In reality, all of these models neuter the gospel of its power. Scrubbing the gospel to make it marketable actually empties Christianity of its distinctiveness. I can anticipate an objection: “It is good that we ‘should not trouble those who turn to God’ with all the trappings which accompany Christianity today because at #compass.church we want people to find the right way.” I’m suggesting that one can repackage Christianity to such an extent that the way one finds is not the way that leads to life.
Often, the so-called “trappings” causing the stumbling of an American unbeliever are not Acts 15 obstacles. Some in the early church initially struggled to integrate Gentiles into predominantly ethnic and culturally Jewish congregations. They believed the Gentiles should undergo circumcision and submit to the ceremonial law, in effect becoming religious Jews. James reported that Simeon reminded the council that Abraham had been called out from the Gentiles and that God had prophesied He would redeem Gentiles. The council resolved to not make Gentiles take upon themselves the particular markers of Jewish identity and that rejecting Gentile idol worship would be sufficient. The council resolved to remove the stumbling blocks of circumcision and law-keeping, which were their own cultural markers, in order that the Church would not find itself opposing both the work and word of God.
The Apostle Paul seems not only content to keep stumbling blocks in his message but scandalize through his bullhorn: “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:1–2).
I’m guessing everyone in evangelicalism would agree that they want their people to know Jesus Christ and him crucified. What evangelicalism needs is to rediscover how scandalous a crucified Christ really is. I want to shine a spotlight on the word “scandalous.” 1
Americans are obsessed with scandals. We say we hate them, but in reality, we love watching talking heads discuss the latest Washington or Hollywood scandal. But the cross is not scandalous in the same way that a president’s forays with mistresses might be. No, the cross is scandalous because it offends our sensibilities: God took on flesh in order to die on a cross.
When we state the sentence as a whole, it makes total sense because we are two millennia downstream from the first sermon about the cross. To remind ourselves of how otherworldly this confession is, I’m going to break these pieces up into phrases and force us to look at them.
“God took on flesh” has offended the sensibilities of human beings long before Mary asked, “How can this be?” Since the garden, human beings have sought to become like God. Adam wanted to be like God. Given that he was already made in the image of God, his desire certainly stemmed from a desire to dethrone his Creator and take the seat. Similarly, the ancient Greeks and Romans dedicated themselves to divining the human physic and form. Men would become like the gods through heroic acts. For all, the bonds and limitations of humanity were something to be escaped. For the earliest Christians to preach that a god—God Himself—reversed that order to take on flesh baffled sense.
“To die on a cross” was the delusion of delusions to the ones who first heard the audacious claims of the strange sect from the backwater, distant district called Palestine. There are a number of Roman documents which deride the claims of the earliest Christians as “sick delusions,” “senseless and crazy superstitions.” 2 Martin Hengel wrote, “The heart of the Christian message, which Paul described as the ‘word of the cross’, ran counter not only to Roman political thinking, but to the whole ethos of religion in ancient times and in particular to the idea of God held by educated people.” 3 In other words, it was radically uncontextualized and counter-intuitive.
I think the cross is a subject worthy of fresh reflection within the American church. I believe it has received plenty of reflection to be sure, but I’m not sure our reflections on the cross have been most productive. In my experience, reflections on the cross tend to project our worst fears onto it. So, many people reflect primarily on the medical sufferings of the cross with books such as The Crucifixion of Jesus: A Medical Doctor Examines the Death and Resurrection of Christ, The Crucifixion of Jesus: A Forensic Inquiry, or The Execution of Jesus the Christ: The Medical Cause of Our Lord’s Death During His Illegal Crucifixion. These sorts of books reveal the fact that we project our fears onto the cross—physical torment and pain—instead of allowing the passion narratives to preach to us what we are to see at the cross.
Go back and read the passion narratives. They are remarkably void of any detail related to the crucifixion itself. Matthew and John have the moment of crucifixion of Christ as a temporal clause: “When they crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots” (Matt 27:35; see also John 19:23). Mark and Luke are equally matter of fact: “And they crucified him” (Mark 15:24) and “they crucified him” (Luke 23:33). The only detail recorded by the evangelists is that our Lord was parched upon the cross. Conspicuously absent are the details we have become to associate with crucifixion: the crucified’s tendons being pierced by nails, slow asphyxiation from suspension, and agonizing exposure to the elements. To be sure, crucifixion was a horrific ordeal, and there is no doubt our Lord suffered those things. But they do not appear to be what the Holy Spirit inspired for our edification.
What we do know about the cross is that the ordeal was not primarily about execution but dehumanization. This is critical, I think, to understand why the Corinthians were eager to drop Paul and his crucicentric preaching for the super-apostles who spoke with elegance respectability. Many preachers will attempt to get at the ordeal by comparing the cross to modern forms of execution: imagine wearing a necklace with an electric chair pendant. The point stands, but the electric chair can still be a respectable death of sorts. Death penalty opinions aside, the electric chair itself is not designed to dehumanize a person. It is not done in a public square. A person is afforded last words. A person’s face is covered.
Crucifixion was less an electric chair and more like a lynching. In fact, lynching is probably the closest act comparable to crucifixion. Lynching was designed to inflict supreme shame on an individual and dissuade black Americans from exercising their constitutional rights. 4 The Romans employed crucifixion—much like the Persians and Carthaginians who bequeathed the practice to them—to wage war and break rebellious spirits among a conquered people. 5 The point was not to simply end the criminal’s life but to humiliate anyone associated with a given insurrection or rabble-rousing.
Thus, as Hengel wrote, “No wonder that the young community in Corinth sought to escape from the crucified Christ.” 6 He continued:
When in the face of this Paul points out to the community which he founded that his preaching of the crucified messiah is a religious ‘stumbling block’ for the Jews and ‘madness’ for his Greek hearers, we are hearing in his confession not least the twenty-year experience of the greatest Christian missionary, who had often reaped no more than mockery and bitter rejection with his message of the Lord Jesus, who had died a criminal’s death on the tree of shame. 7
This shame is what the author of Hebrews was getting after when he wrote that Christ “endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb 12:2). The Corinthians would find nothing respectable in the preaching of their crucified Lord. I hope by now the paradoxical nature of that phrase “crucified Lord” is coming into focus. The “stumbling” of the Jews and confusions at “folly” among the Greeks is not because Paul’s preaching was unclear. In fact, quite the opposite was true. No one in their right mind would pledge allegiance to a crucified κύριος.
This fact is precisely why Paul sought to establish their faith through the preaching of such a radically uncontextualized, stumbling-block laden, foolish message. He explained: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor 2:2–5). Paul was utterly unconcerned with the respectability of his message. In fact, he thought that it would be best for the Corinthians if he amplified the very stumbling block and folly with which they struggled. It that sort of preaching, the power of God is manifest: People come to faith in God and are not attracted to the Christian-ish teaching of any particular flavor of the week.
Think of how counter-intuitive this sort of preaching is in our current context. Causing people to stumble would seem to be the worst church-growth strategy on the market today, and yet that might be the problem with the average Christian today.
To make it still more plain: no one is going to object to a cost of discipleship which calls for a laying down of self on account of another. Many nominal Christians are happy to save up for or give to a short-term mission trip to build a room onto an orphanage. That is good, but the Gentiles do that, too. ASPCA is funded by plenty of people forgoing one day’s soy chai latte.
Christ calls his disciples to do something that is hard for us Americans. History has demonstrated that Americans will die for any honorable cause. However, we will hardly pick up and willingly endure shame and humiliation.
A recovery of the shame and humiliation of the cross in our preaching will do more than grow churches. It will disciple Christians for the life our Lord promised us: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15: 18–20).