Tuning into Christian TV recently, I winced at the appeal to viewers to help ‘reach the Lost’. Not on account of the request for money so much as the glib definition of all non-Christians – and sometimes non-Evangelical Christians – as ‘Lost’. ‘Lost’ in the sense that they are drifting towards hell – unless someone can persuade them to recite the Sinner’s Prayer in time. I recently met someone from an extreme church background who still finds it difficult to hear the word ‘hell’, such was the trauma it induced in her as a child. I grew up in the more gentle Anglican church, but still absorbed the idea that people I knew may be damned unless I could convince them to invite God into their lives. For a sensitive, introverted youngster, it was a grotesque burden.
Aside from the theology of heaven and hell itself, Saved-or-Lost thinking leaves no room for those who may be journeying spiritually and living more congruently with their convictions than some fully signed-up Christians. And it takes no account of those whose religious labels may have been arrived at arbitrarily – such as the influential Mormon government policy adviser I once interviewed, who had an abusive upbringing and spent most of his early adult life in jail. A profound spiritual experience in his cell one day convinced him that there was a God – and that he himself was loved. Impressed, his prison officer introduced him to her Mormon temple, where he was baptized; 30 or so years later he works tirelessly alongside disadvantaged young people, convinced that God has called him to encourage them to make something of their lives. Yet I wouldn’t mind betting that his Mormon tag would still define him as ‘Lost’ in some Christian circles.
Interestingly, the Bible itself seems to contain shades of grey… characters intriguingly described as ‘god-fearing’ despite being neither Jew nor Christian. Cornelius, for instance, had as real a faith as any of Jesus’ disciples, lacking only a context for what he already knew and experienced – something that evidently surprised and challenged Peter to the core when he visited him. What if Christians everywhere were to assume that the same was happening today – that many of those without a religious label may still have an authentic spiritual awareness that only needed affirming and contextualizing? What if they found themselves counted ‘in’ spiritually, rather than assumed to be ‘out’…?
I may just have glimpsed the possibilities during a 3-day event with US motivational guru, Tony Robbins. Held in London’s ExCel Centre, ‘Unleash the Power Within’ was high-intensity, featuring lunatic dancing and more every 30 minutes or so, to keep the endorphins flowing! Then suddenly, just as we acclimatized to those racing endorphins, everything changed. Tony reflected thoughtfully on the various personal breakthroughs delegates had experienced over the 3 days, and the ‘miracles’ that had enabled them to attend, and stressed the importance of earthing these experiences in gratitude. To God. For the next half-hour, he told us, there would be space to do exactly that. For most, he expected this to mean engaging in prayer – anyone who found the idea of God problematic could substitute whatever they personally found meaningful. And with that, Tony’s image disappeared from the various screens around the centre, and was replaced by a symbolic lighted candle.
Gone were the familiar thudding clubby sounds as pure strains of evocative, worshipful music began to permeate the stadium. I was nervous. This was the secular UK – no-one would pray – obviously – and the half-hour would be prematurely and embarrassingly wrapped up. My eyes were shut tight, not in spiritual connection, but just because I couldn’t bear to watch 12,000+ people shuffling awkwardly as a strong event limped to an undignified close.
Then it happened. Inching an eye open just a tad, I noticed that the wild Irishman to my left had disappeared. No, actually – he was on the floor. Prostrate on the floor, in fact, engaging earnestly and emotionally with his God. I glanced to my right, wondering about the young party girl I had chatted to. Her cheeks were wet with tears and her arms raised as she, too, unselfconsciously reached for spiritual connection.
Taking in the whole stadium now, I realised that everyone was either praying prostrate on the floor, had their arms raised in spontaneous thanks to God, or else were kneeling or standing with hands folded, rapt in prayer. The spiritual connection was palpable – in fact, a response of this kind, together with all the tears, shining eyes and hugging that followed, would have been written up as spiritual revival had this been billed as a Christian event. No religious jargon, no spiritual hoops to jump through or subtle pressures of any kind – just the affirming, grace-filled suggestion that their God was already quietly rooting for them, and that they had free access to him. Who knows where this experience may have led once they returned home?
Of course, Tony Robbins is a powerful motivator, and maybe more went into the simple invitation to pray than I picked up at the time. But however it came about, his open, uncomplicated invitation paved the way for many to connect with the still small voice within, some perhaps for the first time – and led to deeply moving, positive experiences that permeated the remainder of the event.
The only downside I can think of has been that the event left me more sensitive than ever to the exasperating inadequacy of those ‘Lost’ and ‘Saved’ labels…