Thursday, September 11, 2008

Part 3: Closer Look at the UCC's God Is Still Speaking Ads

The United Church of Christ is putting itself on television again and thereby launching a new phase of its "God Is Still Speaking" (GISS) advertising campaign. What is the theology behind the campaign and its three commercials, "Steeple," "Bouncer," and "Ejector"? That's the subject of this 5-part series. These observations are taken from a paper I presented at the 2006 National Gathering of Faithful & Welcoming Churches and again at a 2007 regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society.

The slogan, "God is still speaking," is the result of the UCC's belief in an all-embracing, inclusive God. But this portrayal of God is overstated and distorted.

In a PowerPoint presentation for Still Speaking trainers, that once appeared on the now defunct, slide # 1 presents four Scripture passages (Isaiah 56:3-8; Luke 15; 16:1-8; John 10:14-16) that testify to God’s inclusive nature. Later, slide # 4—answering the problem posed on the previous slide that people feel alienated from church—says this: “Key Remedy: Our growing understanding of the reach of God’s love.” Below that headline is the following claim: “We did not add multiculturalism to our brand. We took multiculturalism as a living breathing example of God’s love and made it a brand” (emphasis theirs).

From these two slides, it is evident that justification for the message of radical invitation in the GISS campaign rests in the nature of God (the depth of His loving reach toward all people) and in the recognition (illumination) of God’s revelatory—and modern day—work of multiculturalism.

In application, a reflection resource for the “Steeple” ad says it is a:
Simple affirmation that each person is a child of God and should be welcomed as a member of the household of God (Eph. 2:19). Although just about every church would view itself as welcoming, it’s the radical, inclusive, non-judgmental embrace that sets the UCC apart.
--“God is Still Speaking,” 30-Second TV Commercials Theological Reflection.
This “simple affirmation” however contains a significant assumption—that each person is already a child of God. How can that be? Earlier in Ephesians 2, the Apostle Paul declares “at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world” (2:12). If—as the resources claims—“everyone is a child of God,” it happened before they ever entered the church—without knowledge of the redemptive work of God (2:13-16) and without any affirmation of faith directed toward Jesus (2:8).

It’s noteworthy that nowhere in the GISS material are people outside the church ever described as sinners in need of redemption. Instead, they are consistently described as “alienated.” This is not just an anthropological marketing description of the unchurched, it’s a theological description as well—for “each person is a child of God and should be welcomed as a member of the household of faith.”

No one should deny that God’s nature is not to include (2 Peter 3:9). We agree with theologian Walter Brueggmann that the “deepest impulse of the Bible is toward inclusion.” But we declare that God’s desire for inclusion must be held in balance with God’s holiness that stands in judgment of sinners and works for our salvation (Matthew 22:1-14; Matthew 25).

Knowledge of God’s character requires examination of the whole counsel of Scripture. John 3:16, the best known verse in all the Bible, makes plain that while God invites all, whoever does not believe in God’s Son will “perish.” Jesus warns in Matthew 7:22-23: “Many will say to me on that day, `Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, `I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'” And while Jesus invites many into the kingdom, he also tells some, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire…” (Matthew 25:41).

We contend that the better method for seeking the character of God is found primarily in God’s past revelation of Scripture—and once there, integrate its whole, not just a part. Donald Bloesch summarizes our view:
As Christians we proclaim an exclusive message with an inclusive goal—to include the whole world in the church of Jesus Christ outside of which there can only be ruin, lostness, and despair…The God of Scriptures is both infinitely loving and irrevocably holy. He cannot tolerate sin, but he embraces the sinner. He loves us even while judging us, and he judges us because he loves us. His love is not the sentimental love that overlooks our failings, but a searing holy love that equips us to deal with our failings. His is the love that does not let us alone, but pursues us even into the darkness (Nahum 1:8) so that we will finally return to the tried and true paths (Jeremiah 6:16).
--Donald Bloesch, The Church, p. 239, 134.

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