Judah Smith: The Good Cop, Bad Cop Gospel
"Some of us are passionate about telling people about Jesus, but we freak them out because we never learned how to smile."
This feature is an excerpt from Judah’s new book Jesus Is ___: Find a New Way to Be Human.
There is a poetic passage in Isaiah 52:7 that says, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the messenger who brings good news, the good news of peace and salvation, the news that the God of Israel reigns!” This verse talks about how wonderful it is to be the person who carries good news to people who need to hear it. Messengers with good news have beautiful feet. They have happy feet.
Most people reading this book are probably not pastors, but since I am, I’m going to pick on my own species for a minute. I was studying the passage I quoted from Luke 2 in preparation for a Christmas message a couple of years ago, and suddenly it hit me: my primary purpose as a preacher is to declare good news, news that produces great joy in people.
It was a paradigm shift. Not that I would stand in the pulpit and scream at people before that—I’m a nice guy—but I think I was afraid of preaching too good of a gospel. Sometimes preachers feel that we have to balance the good news and the bad news. We try to offset the really good passages with something more ominous.
I’d better not make it too good, now, because people will abuse it, we think. People will misuse it. People will misunderstand it. If I tell them that God has finished the work, that he has redeemed and accepted them, that he loves them and is not mad at them, that he forgives all sin, past, present, or future, they might start acting crazy. I’d better keep it balanced.
Then we start preaching, and we wax eloquent about the goriness of sin and the sneakiness of the devil, and we run out of time before we get to the good news. So we try to squeeze it in during our closing prayer, but by then it’s too late.
It’s sort of like doing the good cop, bad cop routine, only we play both parts. Our congregation doesn’t know what to expect from their bipolar pastor when they show up. Last week the sermon was about love and grace, and this week it’s about fire and fear and foul spirits. And our people are thinking, Wow. Guess somebody woke up on the wrong side of the bed today. If they invited a new person this week, they apologize. “He’s not always like this. Usually he’s funnier. And . . . happier.” And they determine to pray for their pastor because he’s clearly under a lot of stress.
Understanding that the gospel is good news should help us all be a little more cheerful, a little nicer to hang out with. Preaching and evangelizing are nothing more than sharing good news with people. Some of us are passionate about telling people about Jesus, but we freak them out because we never learned how to smile. We dangle them over hell and then wonder why they don’t want anything to do with our gospel. If you say you preach the gospel but there is no great joy, I’d say there is a problem with your gospel.
I don’t want to be a person who cares more about whether a guy smokes or does drugs than whether he feels loved. I don’t want to be a pastor who preaches love and acceptance but avoids the teenage gang member who hangs around outside the church. I don’t want to belong to a church that treats a woman differently because she happens to walk into church in a dress that shows off a little too much skin. You know, cleavage does not intimidate God. Smoke that, religion. Maybe that’s the only “nice” dress she owns. Maybe everyone she knows dresses that way. Maybe she’s desperate, and she’s thinking that if she doesn’t find some authentic love and joy today, she might end it all.
I’m not advocating sloppiness or sensuality in church, but I am advocating a church that reflects real life, a church where real people with real problems can come and find hope and joy. I want people in my church to welcome everybody: the gay, the straight, the rich, the poor, the good, the bad, and the ugly. I want my church to be a place where people can come in from all kinds of backgrounds and issues and shortcomings and addictions and bondages, and we don’t have to get them all fixed up before they sit on the front row.
That’s the gospel. It’s good news for everyone.