Why this one question will draw people to Jesus

The Gospel Coalition Australia recently launched an evangelistic social media campaign. I think it’s fantastic. Full disclosure: I’m a Council Member for TGCA. But even if I weren’t, I’m pretty sure I’d still think it was great. I hope you do too.

The campaign has also courted a little bit of controversy, which I’ll get to soon. But let me describe the campaign to you first.

Easter 2021 campaign


The Gospel Coalition Australia has released its Easter 2021 campaign – ‘Jesus: History’s Biggest Hoax?’ Rory Shiner explains why he is a fan of this evangelistic strategy for social media, and Karl Faase raises some concerns about how it will be received. Read both articles to get the full picture.

‘Jesus: History’s Biggest Hoax?’ is a purpose-built, Australian-made, evangelistic social-media campaign. It centres around a short, high-production value video outlining the case for the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. You can see it here and on Facebook here.

Based in careful scholarship, it is a winsome and well-argued presentation. If the video fell into the hands of someone asking the question: “Is Jesus’ resurrection historical?” it would really hit the spot.

… We are sharing a public truth of history, not (just) a private belief of the faithful.

Is anyone asking that question? Not many, to be honest. But that’s not the point. I think the video is doing something deeper. It’s framing the way people approach Christianity in general.

As evangelists such as Sam Chan, Tim Keller, and Rebecca McLaughlin have show us, western culture is wedded to a strict set of binaries: public and private, work and home, faith and reason, facts and values. This way of seeing the world is almost completely eccentric to the west. But in the west, it is so widely accepted that we can barely imagine seeing things any other way.

In such a system, Christianity is immediately relegated to the private, the domestic, the faith-based, and the value-oriented. It has no business doing its thing in public, or exercising reason, or dealing with facts. These things are handled elsewhere; they are not roles assigned to faith.

The problem, of course, is that someone forgot to tell the New Testament. There, the claims on which Christian faith is based move promiscuously between public and private, facts and values, faith and reason.

When Christians claim that Jesus rose from the dead, we are sharing a public truth of history, not (just) a private belief of the faithful. This is the space Jesus: History’s Biggest Hoax? is seeking to speak into.

Could a three-minute video turn someone from scepticism to belief? Maybe, but I’d be, well, sceptical.

Here’s what I think is more likely. I could share the video with my old mate from school. I reckon he’d watch it. And, having seen it, I could ask what he made of it next time we are dropping our kids off at lacrosse.

In that conversation, the base will have shifted slightly but crucially. Previously, he will likely have thought my faith centres on something that is either obviously false (dead people don’t rise), or that it’s based on religious ideas, held by me for religious reasons, and impervious to reason and evidence.

But, now he’s seen the video, he will at least know that I think the resurrection of Jesus actually happened. And that the reasons for believing such a thing aren’t completely irrational. Now, as they say, we’re cooking with gas. We are in a place where Christianity can be considered in categories which the fog of western binaries often blind us.

Who knows where things could go from there?! A further chat over a meal? An invitation to an Easter service? Reading Mark’s Gospel together?

I pray that something like that happens, and happens many times in many different ways this Easter season.

Is the TGCA campaign about to make the same sort of error? I don’t think so.

Earlier I mentioned some controversy. Here’s what I meant. The campaign leads with a negative. That is, it raises a question and invites a doubt. Is Jesus history or hoax? In doing so, does the campaign suggest a problem that, until we raised that problem, most people just didn’t have?

This concern was recently raised by Dominic Steele, Senior Pastor at Village Church, Annandale and host of the popular podcast The Pastor’s Heart. You can hear the discussion here with TGCA’s Akos Balogh and Bill Salier.

The critique Steele is making is a powerful one. To misquote a classic Simpsons episode, Steele believes the TGCA campaign looks like the equivalent of a local church putting up a sign saying – “St Cuthbert’s: Where Roving Gangs are Not a Big Problem Anymore”

Why, it had never occurred to me that St Cuthbert’s even had that problem. But now you’ve suggested it to me, I have all sorts of concerns about what’s going down at St Cuthbert’s. A classic unforced error. An own-goal.

Is the TGCA campaign about to make the same sort of error? I don’t think so, for three reasons.

Perception

First, I think the “negativity” is more perceived than real. Jesus: History’s Biggest Hoax?  is not rhetorically the same sort of thing as a Buzzfeed headline: “Local Church’s Bizarre Beliefs: Number 8 Will Shock You!”

The question mark is invitational. The whole premise communicates vulnerability. It says, “Here’s a challenge we’re only too happy to discuss.” And the campaign itself is aesthetically beautiful, warmly narrated, and decidedly conversational. I don’t think the overall impact is negative at all.

Questions

Second, I think it is a question people are asking. Unlike St Cuthbert’s assurances that the gang problem is well in hand, the idea that Jesus is some sort of myth is a pernicious one. Many intuitively believe it to be so, thanks to those western binaries. And it’s a story that appears, like clockwork, at Easter time, normally under the guise of some long-discredited reading of the Dead Sea Scrolls that makes experts groan, but gives the general public another reason to suspect the whole thing is a bit shaky.

It might not be the number one question on people’s minds, but it’s out there. And it’s a question we can address in good faith.

Fake news

Third, unlike church signs, social media is a space where hoaxes are rife. From QAnon conspiracy theories, to Trump’s removal from Twitter, to Facebook’s recent purging of news sources — social media is a world of fake news, unverified claims, and second-rate sources. Anyone trying to communicate truth of any sort on social media does so in a context of hucksters and charlatans.

A title such as ‘Jesus: History’s Biggest Hoax?’ doesn’t look odd in social media land. In the world of fake news, it is addressing the fake news about Jesus head on.

I hope this is the first of many similar campaigns from TGC Australia. Not all of them (or even most of them) will lead with a question like this one. But at this time of year (Easter), in this sort of space (social media), and with this sort of material (warm, intelligent, beautiful), I think it’s a winner!

I hope you do too.

Rory Shiner is senior pastor of Providence City Church, Perth, a council member of The Gospel Coalition Australia and an author.

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