Are we preaching the wrong gospel for today's world?

(Photo: Unsplash/Brett Jordan)

When it comes to preaching the gospel to 21st century people, are we getting the message right? And will the Covid pandemic change our thinking?

For many years, we have focused our appeal around guilt, pointing out that men and women need to repent of their sins and turn to Christ.

But would our gospel message have more appeal, and resonate better with today's generations if we emphasised shame instead of guilt?

Guilt says 'I did something wrong.' Shame declares 'I am profoundly wrong.' That feeling of shame is one experienced by many in today's society.

Rebecca Winfrey, a theological and pastoral researcher for a homelessness charity, explains: "God is intimately concerned about relieving the shame of his people. Never has this been more relevant than in today's culture, in which shame is rife and yet largely unrecognised."

In 'The Cross and Shame' (Grove Books), she says: "In Victorian times people had a very strong sense of right and wrong beaten into them at school, and a very strong sense of their duty to do the right thing.

"But now the moral frameworks have shifted, shame is much bigger than guilt in most people's concept of what is wrong with themselves."

I believe the Covid pandemic could also make the situation much worse, with people experiencing the 'shame' of debt, redundancy or bankruptcy, or maybe the perceived shame of not being actively involved on the 'front line' of fighting the virus, or facing mental illness.

Brené Brown has spent two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy and her TED talk – The Power of Vulnerability – is one of the top five most viewed TED talks in the world with more than 50 million views.

She defines shame as "the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging".

Her advice is: "If we want to fully experience love and belonging, we must believe that we are worthy of love and belonging."

In his earthly ministry, Jesus showed people on the margins that they were worthy of that love and being connected with wider society.

In his interactions with the Samaritan woman at the well, with the tax collector Zacchaeus or the woman accused of adultery, he shows compassion and affirms the dignity and worth of the individual – addressing their shame – before implying any guilt.

Jesus's death by public crucifixion was designed by the Romans to be painful, humiliating and shameful. Having been subjected to profound human shame, the resurrected Christ brings mankind redemption from its dehumanising impact.

In the Hebrew scriptures, Adam and Eve experience shame after they have eaten from the Tree of Life in Eden and have to clothe themselves with fig leaves. The Exodus is an account of the Jewish people being released from the shame of slavery into the freedom of their worth in God's eyes.

Writer and documentary maker Jon Ronson has chronicled the surge in online shaming in 'So You've Been Publicly Shamed' (Pan Macmillan).

He interviews victims who have suffered from the practice, and writes "Everyday people, some with young children, were getting annihilated for tweeting some badly worded joke to their hundred-or-so followers. I'd meet them in restaurants and airport cafes, spectral figures wandering the earth like the living dead."

The resonance of shame in popular culture is shown in films such as the 2017 movie 'The Greatest Showman' – one of the most successful musicals ever made – show how circus entrepreneur PT Barnum enlisted people from a range of 'shamed' backgrounds and brought them into the spotlight.

Brené Brown's antidote to shame could be summarised as 'I am enough' in a world that is always telling you that you should be more than you are.

Yet, in Christ, we are beyond 'enough.' Paul writes to the Thessalonians of believers "sharing in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ." To the church in Ephesus, Paul writes that "we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do."

The good news of the gospel is that people can obtain their full worth and value, and be free of shame as they turn to Christ.

Rebecca Winfrey explains: "Given that many of the people we are talking to are struggling with shame, we need to speak of God's unconditional acceptance before we talk to people about their guilt."

She encourages church leaders to teach and model true humility, acknowledging their own struggles with shame, and ensure that churches are communities that care for people affected by shame.

New Christians should be taught that, in a secular culture, they could face shame for their faith and to know their intrinsic value in God's sight.

Winfrey recommends healing prayer and Ignatian-style meditation, where people encounter Jesus as they immerse themselves in gospel stories.

Confession and repentance are vital parts of our Christian message, but maybe preachers and pastors should also be addressing the pandemic of shame in our society.

That may be a better way of getting people's attention in a hurting, shame-filled world.

Peter Crumpler is a Church of England priest in St Albans, Herts, a former communications director for the CofE and the author of 'Responding to Post-truth' (Grove Books).