Liberal theology’s ‘fluffy bunny’ interpretation of ‘God is Love’ has helped advanced the secular society and pluralism against the evangelical Christian Church.
The clear solution? Evangelicals and fundamentalists need to reclaim this Christian battle cry and adopt a more pragmatic and positive image of having a Christian faith - namely, that its cool to be a ‘born again believer’.
The root problem which evangelicals and fundamentalists face is one of their own making. They are perceived to be Bible-thumping fanatics who will impose an Oliver Cromwellian-style, Puritan version of radical Islam’s draconian Sharia Law upon the community.
That sort of Puritan spiritual discipline may have been needed following the great spiritual awakening in north east Ireland following the 1859 Revival which saw tens of thousands of people become ‘born again’ or ‘saved’ Christians.
For the next 100 years in Ireland, this strategy of Puritan discipline worked effectively. Perhaps one of the most visible signs of this Puritanical discipline was the chaining of swings in a public park in north Antrim to ensure the children could not play on them. This guaranteed a very strict Lord’s Day observance agenda.
But the coming of the internet, the digital revolution, as well as the abundance of additional TV channels, and especially the explosion of social media, resulted in the secular society unleashing a radical alternative to the seemingly boring and traditional litany - and even activities - of the various Church denominations.
In the Catholic community, the iron rod of the Irish bishops was smashed as a result of the various clerical abuse scandals; within Protestantism, the boring traditionalism of mainstream Presbyterianism, Methodism and the Church of Ireland saw pew numbers slide as more Protestants, especially among the young, defected to the more worship-expressive Pentecostal denominations and churches.
As secularism, especially from the LGBTQ+ lobby, increased their presence through an intensive propaganda campaign, evangelicals and fundamentalists increasingly found themselves being wrong-footed in terms of getting their ‘born again’ message across.
As liberals within the Church of Ireland, Methodism and Irish Presbyterianism used their ‘God is Love’ agenda to reach a compromised accommodation with secularists and pluralists, but more especially with the LGBTQ+ lobby, evangelicals needed to face the bitter reality, that screaming about hell was not working in many circles, and that a new witness strategy was required. Content would remain the same, but they could have to rethink communication.
The reclaimed ‘God is Love’ evangelical strategy must be based on the New Testament text of St John 3 and verse 17. While the previous verse 16 (For Go so loved the world …), traditionally represents the core of the evangelical Salvationist position, verse 17 must now become the main 21st century method of combatting the secular society with a radical evangelical alternative.
Verse 17 - in the latest version of the New International Version, states: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
Put bluntly, the days of the judgemental finger-pointing and spreading unsubstantiated church gossip by evangelicals must be confined to the theological dustbin of history.
The success of this non-judgemental approach was proved recently when I heard the testimony of a Dublin woman, now in her fifties and single, who has been a ‘born again’ Christian for 15 years after many years addicted to heroin and a lesbian lifestyle.
It has been one of the most powerful testimonies of John 3:17 in action by Christians. The woman came from north inner Dublin, from a family of nine, four of whom were on drugs. She began to suffer serious sexual abuse from the age of seven, and started stealing her neighbour’s drugs at the age of 10/11 to block out the pain of the sexual abuse, which was not being committed by a member of the family.
She also began drinking alcohol at this early age, and was seldom in class in terms of schooling. She would join her boyfriend on robberies to fund her drug habit.
At 16, she found herself in jail, with her boyfriend getting a five-year jail term for armed robbery. At 17, she discovered she was pregnant. Losing her boyfriend to jail was a bitter blow as when she was with him, the sexual abuse would stop.
But she was introduced to heroin while in prison, also at 16, by a prison pal who had AIDS. She said heroin was very easy to acquire in a Dublin prison. She left home as soon as she was released and also took nothing to do with her new born son.
During these jail periods, she would be sentenced to terms of a few months to a year. She would come out of jail a heroin addict. She also learned criminal techniques in prison because she was mixing with other inmates who gave her ideas on how to commit crimes to feed her addiction.
She had lost the security of her boyfriend, but met a girl in prison. Upon release, they went raving. Her gay friend was someone who made her feel secure because she felt lost in life. It was as if there was a hole in her life, and her gay friend filled that hole. This prompted her to enter a gay relationship with the girl which would last 19 to 20 years.
During this time, she was also in and out of prison; the heroin and gay relationship became a way to escape her lifestyle. She had tried to kill herself in prison, and would hide her problems through drink and drugs.
She did say that it seems God was nagging at her, but she still had this emptiness in her life in spite of the drugs, drink and gay relationship.
Ironically, she then went to London with her former boyfriend in a bid to get off heroin, but ended up on ‘crack’. The situation in London made her worse.
She mostly always managed to get cash for her drugs and for 13 years she mixed her methadone from a clinic with heroin. Her life was brutally simple: “Anything you can get your hands on, you take,” she said.
She described herself as a lost child; continuing to attempt suicide on a number of occasions as she was confused over her sexuality.
The key question to her was ‘how did God step in?’ In this very emotional interview, she said she was back in Dublin where she robbed and assaulted a prostitute to get money for drugs. She remembered shouting: “God, if you’re real, help me!”
A week later, she ended up in a recovery home and then a Christian centre which was a real culture shock. She then spent the next two months coming off heroin without any assistance.
She said: “My mind was twisted; I was paranoid and off my head. God kept me off the heroin. I needed to renew my mind. The Holy Spirit spoke to me and told me I was a homosexual junkie. I called out to God and He helped me.”
She then travelled to a Christian centre in the United States known as The Ranch. There was a strict regime there. Even the staff got up at 4 am to pray before the day’s activities began. At times, there would be up to 80 people being helped at The Ranch.
After breakfast, there was prayer at noon, lunch at 1 pm, Bible study at 6 pm. This 24/7 structure was described by her as “the best”, and she realised the only way forward was with God. She was at The Ranch for 12 months, before returning to Dublin.
“God has transformed my life, and I am now looking for a man. I attend a church in Dublin and I am studying for qualifications. I needed God to find me someone that I can confide in and get things off my chest. You need to open up to this person because if you hold on to your hurt, it will only fester and get worse.
“I got saved at the age of 35 or 36 with the help of my sister. So many people are trying to find themselves today when all they need is Jesus. Christians need to love these people and not be judgemental.”
That final quote is how the modern evangelical movement can implement its strategy of John 3:17. The challenge to this modern movement is do they have the courage to follow this route?
Listen to religious commentator Dr John Coulter’s programme, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 9.30 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM. Listen online at www.thisissunshine.com