Mennonite congregations that are trying harder than ever to attract new members find themselves in a quandary: They’re entering a popularity contest while burdened with a handicap that limits their appeal.
The handicap is the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Jesus preached this gospel when he said, “Woe to you who are rich.” When he told his followers not to take revenge on evildoers but to love their enemies. When he said the cost of following him was to accept the probability of persecution. When he told his disciples to expect that the world would hate them because it hated him first.
This is a marketing campaign that an image-conscious advertiser would say is sure to fail.
Of course, Jesus offered plenty of incentives, too. But his preaching wasn’t complete without the warnings and woes and the so-called “hard sayings.”
Is our modern translation of Jesus’ message complete? Many Mennonites can rightly claim that their version of the gospel is well-rounded because it includes Jesus’ preaching of nonviolence.
In other words, one of Jesus’ most unpopular ideas is an essential part of a message that we hope can grow to new heights of popularity.
There’s a dilemma for you.
One way out of it is obvious. In our quest for mass appeal, we can skip the gospel’s unpopular parts. We can tell the people what they want to hear. We can fit our churches into the comfortable cultural values of gathering wealth and calling it God’s blessing, of approving war and calling it an instrument of justice.
And our congregations would probably grow in numbers if we did. But we would lose our claim to follow the Messiah who preached peace and offered hope to the poor.
So, is a gospel of peace and sacrifice hopelessly at odds with our visions of church growth? That gospel may not have the ingredients for winning a popularity contest. Jesus admitted as much when he said the way is narrow and few will find it.
But a gospel that challenges people to radical faithfulness in Christ is exactly the word that certain souls are thirsting for. Some of our congregations’ most committed and passionate members are those who were drawn to the Mennonite church by its witness for peace and justice.
Those with ears to hear, as Jesus put it, find that the whole gospel, even the parts that defy worldly wisdom, is very Good News.
That’s why we must keep preaching it and trying to live it. And inviting others to join us.
This article first appeared in Mennonite Weekly Review. Used by permission.