Let me start with a confession. I listen to secular radio. Because I prefer the music.
In fact, my preferred radio station plays alternative and indie rock music, and some of it is lyrically offensive to me. But I enjoy the station and I appreciate being connected to and having insight into a world outside the church.
And so I was startled a week or so ago when I heard an advertisement on this secular radio station for a new church being launched this month.
Now for a real confession, one that's much harder for me to make: listening to the advertisement I was tense and unhappy until I realized that the church in question was going to be in a city about an hour and a half away from my own. I was only able to relax and regard this as a positive development when I knew that they were at so safe a distance that they would not be in "competition" with me for the souls in my parish. That's a confession that had better come with some true repentance, I know.
Now let me say something positive about this commercial. I love that it was on a secular radio station. Shame on churches that go "fishing" in the equivalent of the seafood department of the local grocery store. This is a church that has resolved to put on some waders and cast their lines in a wild river.
But I was disheartened when I heard the pleasant lady in the add assure the listeners that this church promised a "judgment free experience." My heart sank. I felt like the weary soldier who dared to hope for a turn in the tide of battle with the arrival of reinforcements, only to find those reinforcements promptly directing their fire at him.
I understand that there are churches that are hypercritical of each other and the lost. I get that. And I know that a lot of unbelievers are nervous that church attendance would make them feel bad and that can be a barrier for them to come to church and ultimately to come to Jesus.
But this is deeply and perniciously wrong for two reasons. First, this promise that they can offer you a judgment free experience promotes the false narrative that most people going to any other church would enjoy a judgment full experience. And that's just not true. In fact, most evangelical churches are trying too hard to avoid judgment, trying too hard to be cool and easygoing about everything, are too reluctant to mention sin. It would be like the new Chinese restaurant in town running adds promising that they would never sneak cat meat into their dishes.
But secondly, and more importantly, if a church could actually succeed in providing a judgment free experience they would also be providing a grace free experience. Such a church, at best, provides good news that is desperately upbeat and well produced, even if it's neither particularly good nor news.
Because grace is sweet and abundant and welcome to the degree that sin is felt to be real and oppressive and dangerous to our future.
I would no more go to a church promising a judgment free experience than visit the emergency room of a hospital promising a "diagnosis free experience."
Judgment must always be in the service of grace, of course, as a diagnosis must always be in the service of a remedy. But where judgment is in the service of grace we must not apologize for it or make any effort to circumvent it.
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