Someone said to me recently, 'Isn't religion just driven by guilt?'
It got me thinking (not for the first time) about the whole topic of guilt - and in particular how, as Christians, we communicate our faith.
I think evangelicals generally are far too inclined to use guilt as the starting point for their message. (I call this the 'bad news first, good news good' approach.) It's driven by the central place evangelical theology gives to penal substitution ('Jesus died to take the punishment for our sins'). For many evangelicals this simply is the gospel.
It's not that there isn't truth here; but it's not the whole picture. A lot more happened at the cross. Jesus overcame violence with love. God demonstrated His enormous will to forgive. Satanic and systemic evil was unmasked, exhausted and undone. The great story of God and His people came to its climax and turning point. (And don't forget the resurrection!)
But there's another thing about guilt - the distinction between guilt as an article of theology (i.e. 'we all stand guilty before a holy God') and guilt as a feeling.
Which brings us to what is perhaps the biggest problem with the old school evangelical 'guilt first' approach: our society just simply doesn't feel guilty anymore. (Possibly because of the retreat of religion in public consciousness - how's that for chicken and egg?) Some evangelicals just shout louder about guilt - witness the hysteria-tinged outcries from the Christian right recently.
But I think there's a better way. Start with a call to belong. Emphasise church as friends, as brotherhood and shared lives. Make it open to all. Proclaim God's crazy grace. And live it out, joyfully, unpredictably: no prejudice, church for all. Guilt? - Leave it out!
As people come and belong, they will discover, bit by bit, the wildly loving God who is behind it all (and through and within and over and under it all). In time - and I say it with care - the right kind of guilt will come: the desire to be deeply reconciled with God, to know Him, to live clean.
That's when baptism comes into its own. A bath and a door into the family - all in one.
'Twill be grace that teaches our hearts to fear, and grace our fears relieves.
But let's not start with a browbeating. People find it hard enough to believe in a man raised from death who also happens to be God without us having to place in their way something even more difficult to believe: their own guilt.