Last month, the Red Letter Christians movement went international.
It was ambitious to pull off 27 events in 10 days in half a dozen cities across the UK. But we did it.
In small towns and big cities, 84-year-old Baptist evangelist Tony Campolo and I jumped on planes, trains, and minibuses and joined leaders all over the UK to talk about what it looks like to live as if Jesus meant the stuff he said in the “red letters” of the gospels.
The name Red Letter Christians comes from the old Bibles that have the words of Jesus illuminated in red. For us, Jesus is the lens through which we interpret the Bible — and the lens through which we interpret the world we live in. As you read those red letters, you get the sense that Jesus did not just come to prepare us to die. Jesus came to teach us how to live and how to love and how to transform the world.
We’re not a neo-denomination, because the last thing the world needs is another denomination. There are more than 30,000 denominations of Christianity. And yet, Jesus’ longest recorded prayer is that we would be one as God is one. So we seek that unity that Christ prayed for.
This is why we were in a Nigerian Pentecostal church one night and an Anglican church the next. We were in Baptist and Methodist, Catholic and Mennonite spaces — all uniting around Jesus and justice — which we think have to work together like blades of scissors. So we aren’t para-church; we are pro-church. We aren’t non-denominational as much as we are trans-denominational. As one pastor in my neighborhood put it, “We’ve got to get this thing together, because Jesus is coming back. And is coming for a bride, not for a harem.”
As we traveled the UK, we didn’t just crash in hotels, but we stayed in homes. After all, this movement is really about building up a “web of subversive friends.”
We didn’t just pontificate in conference centers and talk theology in churches. We got into the neighborhoods and streets where the action happens. Red Letter Christians is not a think tank. It’s a revolution.
Nearly every time he opens his mouth in the gospels, Jesus talks about the “Kingdom of God.” The word “Kingdom” was the same word used for “empire.” And the Kingdom of God that Jesus talks about is not just something we go up to when we die, but something we are to bring down while we live “on earth as it is in heaven.” We are to bring God’s dream to earth.
The Kingdom of God is not just an abstract theological idea, but it is something that needs to demonstrated. Our faith is not just taught — it is caught.
Love is contagious. The world will know that we are Christians not by our doctrinal statements or our t-shirts or our bumper stickers, but by our love. Love has to be seen and felt and experienced, and our church communities are meant to be demonstration plots for the Kingdom of God.
We caught a glimpse of it in Newham (East London) in the community that Dave and Sally Mann have built, with roots going back five generations. On a reclaimed field that used to be overgrown with weeds, we saw 500 kids playing football together and community gardens and a resurrected community center that rose from the ashes of a fire.
Just as Jesus lived in real neighborhoods like Bethany and Nazareth and Capernaum, we visited towns all over the UK — Luton, Manchester, Newham, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Liverpool, and others — to hear the stories of what God has done there and what God is doing. We heard the stories of redemption and healing and miracles of each place.
There are lots of theologians who talk about “exegeting the Bible,” a fancy way of saying we need to read the Bible in the context it was written and listen with first century ears. But we also believe in “exegeting” our neighborhoods — to consider what it means to live out the gospel in the time and place in which we find ourselves.
And we know that means talking about the reality of the world we find ourselves in. As one of the great thinkers of Christianity, Karl Barth said: “We’ve got to read the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.”
A reporter said to me, “It seems to me that you are simply Christians who are thoughtful and kind… which is exceptional in my experience with Christians.”
VIEW: A Week in Pictures: Launching a New UK Network for Jesus & Justice
We’re not partisan, but we are political in the best sense of the word. Policies are meant to make sure that people flourish and live well together. It is impossible to keep the great commandment “Love thy neighbor” and ignore the policies that affect our neighbors.
So we talk about things that matter. Welcoming immigrants. Caring for the homeless. Living responsibly on the earth. Interrupting the patterns of violence.
One of the ways we launched RLC in the UK was by hosting public “Beating Knives” events to address the epidemic of knife violence. There were 40,000 incidents of knife crimes in the UK last year, nearly the same number of gun deaths we had in the U.S.
Inspired by the prophetic vision of beating “swords into ploughshares,” we hosted several events where we transformed knives into more beautiful, life-giving things. One of them was a Phoenix made from knives that is now traveling the UK sparking discussions about restorative justice, de-escalation training, and workshops on alternatives to violence.
For too long Christians have used our faith as a ticket into heaven and an excuse to ignore the world we live in. We have promised people life after death, when many of them are wondering if there is life before death. They need to see Christians who care about the world we live in as much as the next one.
Just as Jesus put flesh on the gospel, our desire at Red Letter Christians is to make Jesus’ love real and public and prophetically relevant.
What does the gospel of Jesus look like in Luton? It looks like a bunch of people beating 500 knives taken off the streets into a Phoenix, a sign of hope that we can rise from the despair of knife violence.
What does the gospel look like in Newham? It looks like nine acres of abandoned land reclaimed by a community there and now turned into football fields where 500 young people play sports each week, and old folks too. (I learned what walking football is.)
What does the gospel look like in Manchester? It looks like a bunch of clergy and civic leaders gathered in Piccadilly Gardens, one of the most criminalized spaces in the UK, where white supremacists have gathered under the banner of hatred and fear. But we are reclaiming the space for love and community — sharing food, games, stories, and hope donning t-shirts that say, “Love over fear.”
The gospel looks like Christians and Muslims in Birmingham City Centre beating knives at the same anvil and forge, calling for an end to hatred and violence and fear… with a few random alpacas looking on! (A brilliant project of Newbigin House in Birmingham.)
We know that the last thing folks in the UK need is a couple of Americans coming over trying to solve all your problems. After all, we’ve got plenty of our own to work on, as you know. But what we saw in the UK is what we see in the U.S. and around the world: We need an awakening of compassion in our countries and a revival in the church.
The church is losing young people not because we have made the gospel too hard, but because we have made it too easy.
But what we sensed and now know to be true is this: We need a movement of Christians who care about life before death as much as life after death.
That’s what Red Letter Christians is about. We want to see people commit their lives to Jesus and to justice. We want to build up a generation of Christians who don’t just want to escape this world, but who want to transform it. We want to create a web of subversive friends committed to the upside-down Kingdom where the last are first and the first are last.
Sign up now for the Red Letter Christians UK mailing list. We are just getting started, but we know the kind of movement we want to be. Join this revolution of love.