The Atheists of America have a new weapon against the Church: Billboards!
Growing up in the Philly metro area, billboards were an integral part of any trip down I-95. As a kid, they made car rides a bit more bearable with things to look at. My aunt, who is an insurance agent, became famous when she bought advertisement space on one a few years back, her picture smiling at bad drivers on one of the exit ramps. I remember family vacations crossing from North Carolina into South Carolina and tracking Pedro on the many billboards pointing to the stopover known as South of the Border along the way. Sure, I’ve seen some billboards promoting ideas instead of products, some about getting help for addictions, others sponsored by Catholic groups offering alternatives to abortion, and a few with clichés about God or Jesus. I remember reading them, acknowledging them, and going on my way. To me, billboards have always been those eye-catching, motive-enforced, info-graphics that may keep your visual cortex occupied for a second, but they’re really not much more than shouting paint.
And shouting paint has nothing in common with the transformative power of faith in a living, loving, self-sacrificing God.
As a means of spreading holiday cheer and controversy, the American Atheist Association has decided to purchase billboards in Colorado and North Carolina that read, “Go ahead and skip church! Just be good for goodness sake. Happy holidays!” Of course, some churches and fearful Christians, ready to take up arms in what they see as the “War Against Christmas,” have put up a protest against the billboards that show a smiling Santa holding a finger over his lips. I acknowledge their fright—it’s true, we live in a society that is no longer characterized by Christendom and a time when going to church at Christmas and Easter is barely on many people’s minds. But I think we also have to acknowledge something else too—something that even those who protest these billboards recognize deep down, but have difficulty admitting. We need to admit that the root of the message the American Atheists are communicating on these billboards actually is true; you can have a very merry Christmas without church and without Christ.
We all know it—and it’s okay.
We have to recognize that the atheist billboards are no threat, because they are debunking a picture of the wrong gospel.
Some protesters are afraid that a billboard will influence someone to stray further from Christ. They would argue that separating “true” merriness from Jesus is an impossibility. They would say you can experience a kind of imitation merriness without Jesus, like the store-brand cereal that is shaped like the real stuff and tastes similar but is not the real thing. However, I recognize that I have plenty of friends, family members, and neighbors who really do enjoy a merry December 25th without going to church or really believing anything. You, too, probably know of people who are happy about Christmas parties, lights, movies, and activities. They donate to charities, give and receive great gifts, and always include you in Christmas cards and invitations. They don’t need a billboard to give them permission to “miss” church, and they don’t need one to tell them they can be merry without Jesus.
We have to remember that being merry is not the point of Jesus. We have to remember that being merry is not the point of Jesus. Click To Tweet
If you read the Christmas story in the gospels, the only thing even close to being merry is Mary. Those of us who have studied the archaeology and history of that O Holy Night know that our glorified Nativity sets bear little semblance to the occurrence of the real birth of Jesus and the embarrassing family situation, dampened religious hope, and anxious atmosphere of Roman rule that served as its scenery. If we back up 450 years to the close of Malachi, before the beginning of the intertestamental period when thoughts of a coming Messiah arose in Israel, we get the picture that God himself was not feeling merry. Human beings could and would try to be “good for goodness’ sake” but it wouldn’t last long; history shows us that we just can’t seem to fix ourselves. Sure, we experience glimpses of an unbroken world in our corners of it, but they don’t quite last. Christmas happened not to bring forth a spirit of happiness and merriment across the land, but so God could buy-back, redeem humanity from itself, and welcome us to participate in his redeeming work both now and forever.
As the early Christians demonstrated, this was not a message that could—or should—be forced or enforced. It was not a gospel that connected faith with feeling merry, or church attendance with being good. Rather, the gospel spread because it mattered. It transformed lives, gave meaning, and brought hope when life was dark. It was broadcast through relationships and painted in the lives and service of a community who lived differently and loved differently. Their leaders met people where they were. And Paul’s letters show us how much they messed up. But instead of fighting their cultural opposition, they won it over, one relationship, one person at a time. Instead of fighting cultural opposition, they won it over one relationship & person at a time. Click To Tweet
Perhaps the atheist billboards will provide springboards of conversation for us as Christ-followers to communicate the real gospel to our neighbors. Perhaps we have an opportunity to show how participating in the story of Jesus is far from a billboard religion (or anti-religion). Being “good” is not why people are part of a church community or why they should go to church on Christmas, and being merry is not tied to faith in Jesus. As they tend to do, billboards miss the point—and Jesus’ point.
And our point, as Christ-followers, doesn’t need to involve shouting back at shouting paint.