Why is John 3:16 So Popular?

Though I think I’ve known that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten . . .” for as long as I can remember, I have the distinct impression that seeing people on TV with John 3:16 plastered across their chest or or on a piece of cardboard is my first exposure to the notion of Chapter-and-Verse. That is to say that, at least for me, the whole John 3:16 craze was much more educational and practical than it was spiritual. I’m willing to confess, though, that I’m likely in the minority.

But why the craze? Even if the vast majority of people were not the precocious sort that I was growing up, didn’t they already know about God’s love? Hadn’t they heard about Jesus’ role in it all? And if not, what makes the folks wearing the shirts, or the body-paint or the sandwich-boards think that a community ignorant with Jesus’ love would be any more familiar with the peculiar way in which Christians denote specific passages of scripture? Why is this the “John 3:16” movement at all? Why not the “God so loved the world . . .” movement or the “. . . all that believe shall not perish . . ” movement?

OK, maybe neither of those would have fit nicely on a standard piece of poster-board. And, while some of us have the girth to contain several chapters of body-painted holy writ, the average person must be somewhat more efficient. However, I believe the real reason that the chapter-and-verse approach trumps the other has to do with the very root of the problem, itself.

You see, I don’t actually believe that most of the folks watching the Sunday Game-of-the-Week had a deep understanding of whether or not and how God loves them. Neither do they have a sense of Jesus and/or his role in all of it. But they do know chapter-and-verse notation. That is, they know the outward forms of religion without understanding the content, much less the deeper meaning. At the end of the day, “John 3:16” is both easier to write in a limited space, and easier to digest when you see it flash before you on the fifty-yard-line.

This is not to say that the whole effort was wrong-headed or harmful or anything of the sort. Conversely, like the Gideons and their efforts to put a copy of the scripture into as many hands as possible, I think this type of approach can yield some movement in a community. Consider, for a moment, God’s approach in the parable of the sower. Too often, however, we stop at offering the mere forms of religion without encouraging or even helping people to go deeper to the actual relationship with God that lives right below the service. It’s kind of like giving someone a bible without actually suggesting that they open it up, or offering to help them with the hard words.

And that, my friends, is some of what I’m up to in writing these reflections, here. Yes, I tend to dwell a bit on the forms of religion. I do so because that’s what most folks are interested in and it provides a wonderful jumping-off point – a place for conversation to begin. But, my hope is that jumping off will only be the first stage in a longer and broader conversation about deeper and more important issues. The forms are but the doorways, the real fun begins just inside.

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