It’s a familiar warning in certain parts of the church these days. They say that there are four steps in the process of a church “losing” the gospel. First, the gospel is accepted and affirmed. Second, the gospel gets assumed and goes unreferenced. Third, the gospel gets confused with other things, many of them good and noble. And then finally, the gospel gets lost. People no longer remember why the church exists and does what it does. The example of the Mennonite Brethren Church is frequently cited as a classic picture of how this happens –
…the first generation believed and proclaimed the gospel and thought that there were certain social entailments. The next generation assumed the gospel and advocated the entailments. The third generation denied the gospel and all that were left were the entailments. (David Gibson – “Assumed Evangelicalism” – Modern Reformation)
I thought about this observation again this past week with the controversy that was generated by something that Andrew Forrest, the minister who is leading the revitalization of Munger Place United Methodist Church over in East Dallas, said about community gardens and co-working spaces (http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/8114/andrew-forrest-every-dying-church-in-america-has-a-community-garden) –
Every dying church in America has a community garden. Every dying church in America has a co-working space. What do I mean by that? I have no problem with community gardens; a garden is a beautiful thing. And I don’t have any problem with co-working spaces. But Jesus didn’t tell us to start a community garden, and he didn’t tell us to start co-working spaces; he told us to make disciples. That’s literally the mission of the church.
The problem is not the gardens… The problem is that we often want to substitute secondary and tertiary concerns for the primary concern of discipleship.
What Andrew is doing here is a reversal of the field that David Gibson mapped out in his assessment of how the Mennonite Brethren Movement lost the Gospel. Andrew is pushing back through that third generation mainline version of the church that has lost the Gospel and only has the social implications of the Gospel, and back through the second generation mainline version of the church that assumes the gospel and advocates the Gospel’s social implications, to a renewed mainline version of the church that believes and proclaims the Gospel and understands that it has some important social implications.
Of course, to do this one must have some real clarity about what the Gospel is. Andrew Forrest certainly does. In that same article in which he names community gardens and co-working spaces as secondary concerns, he explains –
…Neither by background nor by training nor by inclination am I a fire-and-brimstone preacher. And yet the gospel itself makes no sense if it’s just vague feel-goodery. The gospel, as I understand it, is the good news regarding the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
It seems to me that this “vague feel-goodery” substitution for the Gospel takes two forms in the church today. In the traditional/conservative/Evangelical church it takes the form of the subjective experience of the individual Christian – the offer of forgiveness and personal peace of mind right now, and the promise of an eternity in heaven with God when we die. And in the progressive/liberal/mainline church it takes the form of a focus on social action and a passion for social justice – changing the systems and structures of society so that people can thrive physically, relationally, emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, and spiritually in this world. Personal spiritual experience and a conscientious engagement with social issues are neither unrelated nor unimportant to the Gospel, but, in the words of Andrew Forrest, they are “secondary and tertiary concerns for the primary concern of discipleship” which is what Jesus told us to do.
Graeme Goldsworthy, an Australian Evangelical Anglican and Old Testament scholar, wrote these words to his own traditional/conservative/evangelical wing of the church that he sees as being at real risk of losing the Gospel in its focus on the Gospel’s fruit of the subjective experience of the individual Christian –
The core of the gospel, the historical facts of what God did in Jesus Christ, is often downgraded today in favor of a more mystical emphasis on the private spiritual experience of the individual. Whereas faith in the gospel is essentially acceptance of and commitment to the declaration that God acted in Christ some two thousand years ago on our behalf, saving faith is often portrayed nowadays more as trust in what God is doing in us now… But when we allow the whole Bible – Old and New Testaments – to speak to us, we find that those subjective aspects of the Christian life, which are undoubtedly important – the new birth, faith, and sanctification – are the fruits of the gospel. The gospel, while still relating to individual people at their point of need, is rooted and grounded in the history of redemption. It is the good news about Jesus, before it can become good news for sinful men and women. Indeed, it is only as the objective (redemptive-historical) facts are grasped that the subjective experience of the individual Christian can be understood.
And I read Andrew Forrest’s article as a version of this same warning to his own progressive/liberal/mainline that is at real risk of losing the Gospel in its focus on the Gospel’s fruit of social action and a passion for social justice.
The fruit of the Gospel is transformation. Traditional/conservative/Evangelical Christians and churches emphasize the Gospel’s fruit of personal transformation. Progressive/liberal/mainline Christians and churches emphasize the Gospel’s fruit of social transformation. We all want transformation. The real question is, what effects this kind of transformation, personally and socially?
With Andrew Forrest and Graeme Goldsworthy I would argue that it’s the Gospel, the transformative message of new hearts, new values, new lives and a new world through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ and His indwelling and empowering presence in us, both individually and collectively as the church, through the Pentecost gift of the Holy Spirit. For the kind of transformation that we’re looking for, the Gospel is the power that we need. DBS +