I am sometimes told, when discussing how to present the gospel to a non-believer or how to formulate a sermon or Bible study, to make sure to, “Keep it simple.” Sometimes the admonition is “to keep the cookies on the lower shelf.”
If the promoter of simplicity elaborates, he’ll tell me that, if we “make things complicated,” people may get confused, reject our message, get lost in unimportant issues, not remember what we said, or fail to benefit from the Bible’s teaching, the gospel’s power, or the truth’s beauty.
But what if “keeping it simple” is really distorting the message? What if our message isn’t really simple? What if the gospel is complex, rich, multifaceted, nuanced, far-reaching, and touching upon an infinite number of other aspects of life? What if the Bible isn’t really a simple book after all? What if God’s word points us to its inspirer – the God who is beyond comprehension, beyond finding out, beyond our finite reasoning, and beyond all we can pull together?
What if “keeping it complicated” really did justice to the subject matter and “making it simple” misrepresents it? What if we can’t “keep” it simple because it never was simple to begin with? What if we’re not “making” it complicated but reflecting the truth as it really is?
Have I made this argument complicated? Good.
I certainly see the need to find ways to state things concisely and easily. Sometimes, you only have a few minutes to articulate what you believe to a sincere inquirer. In those instances, a short booklet or a diagram drawn on a small napkin is the best vehicle for telling people the message of salvation.
But it’s one thing to draw that diagram or read that booklet and say, “This is one way for me to express my faith in a concise way. There’s obviously more but this is a helpful introduction.” It’s another thing to say, “There. That’s all there is to it.”
I have often pondered the best-selling book title, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Apparently, given its popularity, a lot of people think it’s the only book they need to read. But I remain unconvinced. All I really need to know? Really? I have found that the dramas of life, the complexities of marriage, the trials of disease, the confusion of evil, the pain of death, the ever-evolving challenges of parenthood, not to mention the wonder of beauty, the joy of music, the blessing of laughter, and all the delights of worship to be just a few of the things my kindergarten teacher left out of the syllabus.
Do I think the lessons I learned in kindergarten were helpful, foundational, crucial, and building blocks upon which to learn many of the lessons that would follow? Absolutely. Am I thankful for kindergarten? Remarkably.
But am I glad there was also a first grade and a second grade and every other learning experience I’ve encountered since kindergarten? Increasingly so.
If I reflect on this tendency to “keep it simple” vs. “keep it complicated” from a missional perspective, I would have to say, “keeping it simple” hasn’t served the church all that well – at least, not lately. Our world is complex and people know it. In fact, people love it. They reject (rightly, I believe) simplistic answers to complex questions because those answers haven’t worked. Formulas haven’t helped them make relationships work. Short explanations haven’t helped them grapple with long problems. And the people who insist, “it’s really quite simple” seem to be out of touch with reality.
More and more people wonder about the complexities of life and want to explore them. They long to see how seemingly unrelated topics intersect. They are not surprised by mysteries that keep unfolding, revealing more and more levels of wonder. They like movies like Inception.
Maybe we should try to “keep it complicated” because God’s word and his gospel are complicated – not in the “confusing” sense of complicated but in the rich and beautiful and intellectually fulfilling and aesthetically pleasing and awe-inspiring ways. I think it’s worth the experiment – both for the deepening of our faith and the challenging of our friends’ searches.
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Randy Newman has been with the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ since 1980 and currently serves with Faculty Commons, their ministry to university professors. He ministers on campuses and elsewhere in our nation's capital to students, professors and policy shapers. He is an honors graduate from Temple University and has a Masters of Divinity degree from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he is also engaged in doctoral studies. Randy is a Jewish Believer in Jesus and is the former editor of The Messiah-On-Campus Bulletin. He is the author of numerous articles and the books Questioning Evangelism: Engaging People's Hearts the Way Jesus Did and Corner Conversations: Engaging Dialogues about God and Life, both published by Kregel Publications, and Bringing the Gospel Home: Witnessing to Family Members, Close Friends, and Others Who Know You Well, forthcoming from Crossway.
To find out more, visit his blog, Connection Points.