Many things that are frequently said among my Pastor peers makes me uncomfortable or upset. One thing in particular has been bothering me even more lately.
I think we have overused the sense of urgency. I hear it perpetuated like a mantra. It’s usually something like this, “Jesus is coming back, people are going to hell, and we need to get out there and do something!”
It’s not that I have a problem with the content of it necessarily. It’s that I have a problem with the way it is used to provoke people into a frenzy of emotions. I hear it used to try and put everyone on red alert. I hear it used to try to guilt or manipulate people into bringing others to Christ. “We need to do more baptism” they would say in my tribe. “We need more responses at the alter” they may say in other tribes.
There are two main problems I have with the way this is used as I am hearing it:
- Feelings of urgency and red alert are used to stoke people’s fears and get them to vote or participate in political activism that benefits the party of the speaker(s). I’ve seen this from both sides. Politics is a game of fear-mongering these days. I don’t have to be a good person myself or even do anything great, I just have to make you afraid enough of the other side and you’ll vote for me by default. When we are put into this hyper-alert state of urgency we are more easily corralled into the agenda of others. Cult leaders do this in the extreme and politicians do this in the (slightly) less extreme. Sadly, church leaders do it too. Shame on anyone who would use the urgency of the coming of Christ as a means to a political end. Vote however you think in your conscience, but please don’t try to manipulate others by fear-mongering to get them to conform to your views. That’s not something Jesus would do. Period.
- Feelings of urgency and red alert are also used to stoke people’s guilt in order to get them to “evangelize” for the tribe of the speaker. To clarify, I am NOT against people coming to Jesus. I am against the watered-down, half-hearted Mc-discipleship that often passes for “evangelism.” I put evangelism in quotes because what I often see practiced in relation to it is NOT what Jesus and others had in mind. Trying to guilt someone to accept Jesus into their heart, be dunked in baptism, or whatever else in 20 minutes or less is not evangelism. It’s a cheap infomercial strategy approach to bringing others to Jesus. Butts in pews is not growth. People genuinely turning to and loving Jesus is growth whether those people have never set foot in church before in their lives or have been going to church for 40 years.
I am not against urgency. I am not saying there is no urgency to the gospel. I am not denying that Jesus is coming soon. I think all those things. My run is this: the urgency of the gospel is being hijacked for the agendas of politicians and egoists. To provide more than a critique of the miss-use of the urgency of the gospel I propose the following two biblical models for how the urgency of the gospel is supposed to permeate our existence as Christ followers:
John the Revelator
I am indebted entirely to Eugene Peterson’s excellent book Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination, especially pages 190-194.
The book of Revelation begins with urgency: “…show his servants what must soon take place….” (1:1). The same phrase occurs in the end of Revelation as well: “”show to his servants what must soon take place” (22:6). Of course the reason for this urgency is because of the event which must soon take place which specifically is the second coming of Christ: “Behold, he is coming with the clouds and every eye will see him” (1:7). Jesus commands his followers to stay alert because he is coming and this is urgent twice, again once at the beginning (3:3) and once at the end (16:15). As Peterson so eloquently captures in his book mentioned above:
Isolated from their contexts, these sayings have unhinged the imaginations of many, leaving them easy prey to fear and fantasy. But St. John is nothing if not careful about context. When Jesus promised his return, he did not intend to scare us out of our wits, or license a guild of prophets who would earn a comfortable living by making book on the time. He placed himself firmly ahead of us, as end, just as he had established himself at the beginning. We have a “deep need for intelligible ends.” If we cannot join our beginning to our end, we will live scattered and incoherent lives. The expectation of Jesus’ coming provides a goal that shapes and unifies life in accordance with its origins in Christ, in patterns that are consonant with its completion in Christ. This urgency is liberating, for it compels us to stay awake, deeply and earnestly aware of who we are and what we are doing, keeping us free from trivia, that , like the threads of the Lilliputians, can make prisoners of us as effectively as any ball and chain. So St. John impresses urgency upon us. But, paradoxically, he is not in a hurry. The beginning and ending announcements of urgency bracket an intricately wrought poem that requires contemplative pondering. The pastoral art of involving our believing imaginations in these Lord’s Day visions has proceeded in rhythmically measued and meditative leisure. If St. John had been in a panic, he would hardly have written his message in these complex structures and with these multi-layered symbols. If he had been in a rush, he would have reduced everything to a slogan that could be shouted on the run. Baron Freiderich von Hugel was fond of saying, “Nothing can be accomplished in a stampede.” St. John seems to be of the same mind. He certainly takes his time; he also takes a lot of ours. Urgency must not be misunderstood as hurry.
Mark the Evangelist
The author of the second gospel is also a model of urgency that is not rushed. On 42 different occasions in his gospel the author uses the Greek word euthus which is usually translated as “immediately,” though not always because english translations tend to get bogged down with too many repetitions of it. Sometimes it is translated instead as “just then” or “at once” or something equivalent. See the translation in Mark as Story: An Introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel for a translation that captures the word “immediately” consistently in english.
Though Mark’s favorite word may not be readily available to the eye in standard english translations one can nevertheless see that Mark is a gospel with a sense of urgency. He has a one sentence introduction and skips right over any birth story or childhood narratives about Jesus. We get no mention of Joseph or Mary. Mark wants to keep our eyes focused solely on Jesus. He is also the shortest gospel. His original ending rhetorically leaves the reader(s) with a sense of urgency and unresolved tension. He ends by saying of the women who first saw the empty tomb: “so they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (16:8). So apparently, the opposite of what we’ve been told is true. The more fearful the people are of a lame sci-fi “armageddon” or intricate “left behind” scenario the less likely they are to tell the news about the risen Christ. There is an urgency to the message about Christ. Clearly these women eventually told people as Mark’s original audience would surely have known. So the point is calm down and tell the message about Christ. Or “keep calm and carry on.”
Jesus is coming soon and there is an urgency to the gospel and yet we don’t have to be in a rush. Why? Because the gospel message is too urgent to have its time wasted trying to be coerced from Mc-discipleship programs or seduced by politics and power plays. All authority in heaven and earth is given to Jesus (Matt. 28:16-20). If he wanted to make instant drive thru disciples he could with the snap of his fingers. But he didn’t. He sent his apostles who sent other followers who sent other followers who sent other followers.
The urgency of the gospel is NOT deterred by the slow moving process of genuine conversion and relationship. To the contrary, the urgency of the gospel is propelled and honored by the slow moving process of genuine conversion and relationship. So don’t be manipulated by the politicians and egoists. The gospel is urgent and Jesus is coming soon, but you don’t have to make converts to your political party or populate your Pastor’s new mega-church auditorium. You just have to introduce them to a relationship with the living and real Jesus. The urgency of the gospel is a peaceful urgency. Do it, but do it right. Take all the time you need.