Tattoo removal wasn’t a booming technology then, but, if I had to guess, this man started to see that tattoo as emblematic of an old life he’d left behind. He didn’t need a tattooed pastor (necessarily), but he needed a church that didn’t see his tattoo as evidence of a life too far gone, of someone too rowdy to be loved with the call to repentance and faith.
I think about him often when I see people in the local coffee shop or walking down the streets with tattoos. Some of the markings are of blood-drenched skulls. Some of them are slogans of a hedonistic quest for pleasure. Some are threatening others, demonstrating their fearsomeness. Some are pagan, or even occult. I am chastened by how rarely my first thoughts are rooted in my grandmother’s gospel wisdom.
Not everyone with tattoos is an unbeliever or has lived a hard life, of course. But the larger point remains, how many people don’t listen to our gospel message because they assume they don’t “look” like the kind of people who would follow Jesus?
And, shamefully, how many times do we filter out our gospel preaching to people who would, upon baptism, be able to pose nicely for our Sunday school booklet illustrations? How often do we assume that the good news of Christ is a message just like a political campaign or a commercial brand, targeted toward a demographic of a certain kind of buyer?
The Gospels consistently tell us that the preaching of Jesus drew in those who had hard stories, who had made bad decisions or faced horrible situations that seemed to have wrecked their lives forever: prostitutes, Roman collaborators, leprous outcasts, the demon-possessed, and on and on. That’s because, he tells us, the Spirit builds the kingdom not with the noble or the powerful but with the lame, the marred, the hopeless (Lk. 14:21-23; 1 Cor. 1:26-29).
If we’re really carrying the gospel to the whole world, this means there are going to be people listening whose bodies carry messages contrary to the Word of God. So did our hearts and psyches.
That young woman with the Wicca tattoo, or the old man with the Hell’s Angels marking, they may wonder, as they feel the pull of the gospel, “How can I enter with this visible reminder on me of my past?” That question is the same we all had, regardless of how “respectable” we looked when we came to Christ: “Deep is the stain that we cannot hide? What can avail to wash it away?”
Jesus will build his church, with us or without us. But if we are going to be faithful to him, we must share his mission. This means we don’t just talk about lost people, we talk to them. And we don’t talk to them as enlightened life-coaches promising an improved future but as crucified sinners offering a new birth.
If the Spirit starts breathing this burden into us with power, we’re going to see churches filled with people who never thought they fit the image of “Christian.” We’ll see that the markings on the flesh, whatever they were, count for nothing, but that what counts is a new creation (Gal. 6:15).
We’ve come not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. We’ve come to call not just those who look like whatever Christians are assumed to look like, but the whole world. If the church is powered by the gospel, then sometimes the Body of Christ has tattoos.