I had a disturbing conversation with another pastor this week. He expressed admiration for a book that has recently become popular. He said, "This book really kicks people in the pants so they'll get up and do something." I walked away disturbed for two reasons. First, for the life of me I cannot understand why people think this particular book is so great. It's more of the same message that I've heard all my life in the church: God loves you, you should love God, now show God how you love him. Of course, it is a little more nuanced than that, but that's the basic message.
The second reason I was disturbed is much deeper. I began wondering if the people in my church really need another kick in the pants. Then I reflected on the church in Houston where I led as an elder for eight years, the church in Vancouver where I served on staff, and the various other congregations with whom I have shared life. While I admit that I used to think people needed a regular browbeating in order to get out of the pew and serve God, I now see things a bit differently. Here are the reasons.
1. This motivation tactic produces only short-term results. People will respond because they know that they should. But after a few months they return to their previous life patterns.
2. It uses guilt as a motivator. I have come to see that American Christians have a huge guilt motivation button. Sadly, many pastors assume that pushing it is their duty. That was what motivated me, and it's what I used in too many of my sermons as a way to get people to change. But I just don't see Jesus using this approach. Jesus is not about using guilt or shame. Therefore, I think there must be a better way.
3. The wrong people are drawn to books like this. The people I see gravitating to browbeating books like the one mentioned above tend to be committed Christians, already working hard at growing to be more like Christ. I was introduced to this book when a friend told me that a mutual friend loved it. After reading it, my thought was that our mutual friend was the last person in the world that needed this book. He is one of the most serious, dedicated, Christ-centered people I have ever met.
4. The method doesn't attract the people who need the message. I don't see the browbeating method being a favorite of the single mom with three kids, the struggling couple, the person who wants to know what it means to follow Jesus, or the growing new believer. It seems that this method does not resonate as much with the hurting or marginalized—the exact people who need the message of God's love and restoration.
5. It's not a matter of needing more motivation. Many people are unwilling to take on what seems to be another commitment. They are too busy, committed to all kinds of things that have nothing to do with God. They spend too much time and money on personal preferences instead of thinking about what God wants. When we preach the message of books like this, we are only addressing the surface "fixes" instead of the deeper needs that people have not allowed God to heal. I've found that people actually do want to serve. They want to give. They want to be the people God has called them to be. They're convinced, but they need a deeper fix: learning to depend on God, letting him heal their hurts, and letting him transform their thinking about life, including their priorities.
I've come to see a different way to motivate people to change and serve God. It addresses the deeper issues that cause Christians to sit on the sidelines and miss out on serving God. It's called "the gospel," the good news that God loved us so much that he sent his Son to enter into our death so that we might enter into his life. I have come to see that we need to talk a lot more about what God does and has done than what we are supposed to do. If we actually see what God has done, then we will be transformed from the inside out. Instead of minimizing the grand story of God recorded in the Bible to a list of moralistic instructions, we should hold out the amazing love story of God's sacrifice and work to redeem, restore, and renew us.