The Gospel According to Taco Bell
Those who believe the good news about Jesus often seem reluctant to share it with others. Why? At the end of the world wars, everyone was excited to share the news of victory or at least the end of the war with those who didn’t yet know. Why not be excited to share the victory of the spiritual war?
Perhaps the answer is because we are missing something. Perhaps what we think of as the good news (the gospel) is not good news at all, but an unhappy substitute for a gospel worth dying for. Is it possible that in pursuit of sharing the message we have lost the message itself?
If Christians were truly happy and overjoyed about our relationship with God above all else, we would not hesitate to invite everyone else to join us in our experience of this life. When I find a tasty restaurant or refreshing drink, I have no hesitation about sharing this good news with others, I know some of them won’t ever use the information, but it makes the world more inviting to know that there is a good place to eat or drink if one feels the urge.
At first glance it looks like Christianity is different than a refreshing drink, but this is only because we think of it in terms of an historical truth and not in terms of an individual daily experience. The traditional “gospel tract” Christian message challenges the uninformed lifestyle of individuals with a call to repentance or change that requires a fundamental shift in their philosophy or worldview. In exchange for abandoning their former approach to life, they receive the promise of joy and eternal life through faith in Jesus. When considered in this light, the message of the gospel appears to be one of such depth that it could never arise in conversation with a stranger who was not experiencing some form of crisis, question, or relational vulnerability.
Motivated by compassion and love (not discounting the influence of fear), many Christians are hesitant to violate cultural sensitivity by expecting others to suddenly be open, vulnerable, and ready to face an existential crisis with a stranger on the street. Thus, there is seldom a fitting opportunity to share the philosophical theories we think of as the gospel in an ordinary day to day setting – unless one happens to lack most ordinary social graces. Those that do dare to share in this way often alienate their audience through their violation of the individual and the surrounding culture. Then they claim with irony that it was the gospel message which was rejected.
However, there is a subtle distinction that must be made between the rejection of a message and the rejection of a method by which the message is conveyed. In western culture, the way in which a message is delivered is so important that the entire industry of marketing revolves around producing more effective methods of communicating ideas.
Certainly the truth of Jesus is of a different nature than a product ‘for sale at your nearest fast food establishment,’ and it is vital to recognize that the power of the gospel is made apparent through weakness and not through ability (1 Corinthians 2:1-5). Yet it would also be wise to note that evangelism methods by the early church were in line with cultural expectations of where and how such messages might be delivered (e.g. through synagogues, public squares, etcetera). There was no invasion of the centurion’s house by the power of the Holy Spirit or open invitation to a free pork roast for all unconverted Jews. When the gospel was rejected it was not because of laughably inappropriate methods of communication, but because the message itself had been clearly portrayed through appropriate channels.
Unfortunately, our contemporary scenario is too often the reverse. The methods used by insensitive messengers makes the message both unclear and even repulsive. Those who would choose a different medium of communication find their efforts stifled by a recognition that the message in its current form cannot be packaged for delivery in our cultural context. It feels like trying to send a telegram and becoming offended because nobody knows how to receive the message.
I will not suggest here that we abandon the message of the gospel, but that we reconsider the form in which it is presented. If Christians want to share the gospel (good news) of Jesus like the gospel according to Taco-Bell, we must first incorporate its message into our experience of everyday life.
Apart from the food critics, nobody wants to hear a random stranger share their philosophy of judging restaurants, but most people are ready to pin photos of delicious plates of food or share location updates from “this amazing taco place.” Occasionally we will watch movies about the terrible ingredients of fast food, but such topics do not normally arise among strangers waiting in line to order their lunch. Even among friends, a conversation about avoiding fast food might not be appropriate for the Taco-Bell drive-through, especially if my goal is to convince someone else that the only appropriate diet is that of a vegetarian. With a stranger, I have even less credibility to demand such a sacrifice. Even if I have their own benefit in mind, they will be offended with my intrusion upon their long-established eating habits.
If I want to get someone to change their mind about fast food in a five minute encounter, all I can do is plant the seed of an idea. I might mention that a certain taco shop has meat that tastes like cardboard, or I could compliment the freshly chopped salsa of another local establishment. In doing so, I become vulnerable with the other individual and share my life with them. By exposing my opinions to the critical analysis and response of a stranger, I entrust them with some level of responsibility and investment in our relationship.
If the connection is made and the time is right to talk about food, they may carry the conversation deeper by sharing their own opinions and experience. As our relationship and interpersonal credibility grow, the fast-food philosophy held by each one of us may begin to expose itself in purer form. However, the emphasis on the philosophy cannot outpace the development of the relationship, or I will lose the chance to win a convert to my obsession with Taco-Bell (in theory). The objective must be participation in the process of discussion rather than the outcome of a total conversion. By redirecting my focus from the outcome to the individual, I have demonstrated to the other person that they have value…and that in itself is a good thing!
It is in this way that the method itself can become the medium through which the message first pierces through the barriers that people place around their hearts. By personalizing the message with my life and becoming vulnerable with others through a relationship, the message becomes increasingly apparent. More importantly, for the sake of this exploration, it has become the kind of message that can be shared in almost any contemporary social setting.
Most people are willing to ask and answer simple questions like “How are you?” or “How’s your day going?” If I have just eaten at Taco-Bell and thought it was amazing, my answer might include something that says as much (e.g. “my day’s awesome…I just had the best taco ever!”). If I respond in this way to a stranger, they may not even care about tacos, but they will become fascinated by my passion for this particular experience and how it seems to improve the quality of my life. They could care less about how Taco Bell makes a profit or the history or its founder, but my personal expression makes an instant connection.
What if someone asks me the classic small talk question when I have just come from an amazing encounter with God through prayer? What if I just learned something new about what it means to be a child of God? Such things affect my life right now, producing joy and passion that someone else might be interested in. They could care less about how the church functions or why Jesus is the only way to the Father.
It seems apparent from these observations that if we are going to make the gospel accessible to others through a casual exchange, our understanding of the gospel must transform from the passive knowledge of some historical event to some extraordinary part of everyday life. Very few people care for an informal conversation about history and philosophy, but interpersonal connection becomes a possibility when I share something that affected my life today.
What if the good news of the gospel is nothing more complicated than celebrating the process of my restoration from fallen humanity into a person that is filled with the Holy Spirit? What if I am like Jesus and filled with joy above all my companions (Hebrews 1:9)? What if I simply know how to live and walk with God and share this experience with others simply by right of who I am?
I can share me, but the depth of God’s truth must first encompass my life if others are going to see the gospel through this. Unless I can see the image God clearly, the mirror of my life will not clearly reflect who He is to others. The gospel must become part of who I am; otherwise I will only share me. If I become one with Christ, though, every time I share me, I share Him. In fact, this is my gospel: the good news that my sin no longer separates me from God, and the joy of walking every day in His presence. It looks different for me than it does for anyone else.
The good news is that I am loved. The good news is that I have peace. The good news is that I know who I am: I am a son of God. The good news is that God makes everything work out for good for those who love Him. The good news is that I have something worth living for…and so can others.
This version of the gospel is not a bite-sized repackaged philosophy or worldview that I need to thrust upon someone else in a few minutes before they run away from my lack of social grace. It is my life…and that is a gospel I can share anywhere!
“How is your day going?” “What’s new?” These kind of questions make a connection with people on the sidewalk, at the bus stop, or in the mall and deserve a response that reveals the truth about who I am and what God is doing in my life. If I am truly enjoying an active relationship with Him, my answer to the simplest of questions will reveal that my identity is so wrapped up in the gospel that one cannot know me without also knowing about Jesus.
“Acquire the spirit of peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.”
-Saint Seraphim Sarov