The modern world was inclined toward reduction, efficiency, and things you can count.
I had been a disciple of Jesus Christ for less than a year when I first heard "the gospel question." It was May 1988, and I was spending the summer following my freshmen year of college working as a counselor at a Christian sports camp in the Missouri Ozarks.
Before the campers showed up, we counselors arrived early for a week of preparation and training. After long days of physical labor, we would gather in the evening to worship and listen to teaching designed to prepare us to lead our young charges toward God and athletic excellence. The topics ranged from end-times prophecies to prayer, sex and dating to evangelism and discipleship—all in the context of learning to throw a tight spiral, land a back handspring, or field a grounder.
On one such night the camp director stood before several hundred of us and asked the gospel question. Not the proverbial, "If you were to die tonight, do you know for sure where you would spend eternity?" Instead he said, "If someone were to ask you what the gospel is, what would you say?"
The question took me off-guard. I had no idea. And suddenly I was nervous.
I think I knew that Gospel was what the first four books of the New Testament were called, that it meant "good news," and that the good news was about Jesus Christ. As a new believer, I was smitten by Jesus and especially by his people, the church. I had surrendered my life wholly to Jesus and was seizing every opportunity to grow and be obedient to God.
But that night, for the first time, I was hearing "the gospel" referred to as an entity unto itself, with a definition distinct from the melded concepts of God, Jesus, the church, and everything I thought I understood. Not only did I have to admit that I had no idea what "the gospel" is, I also had to grapple with the fact that I wasn't even sure what I was being asked.
I don't remember what the camp director said next, but over the next few years I came to understand the nature of the question I was asked on that summer night. More than that, I learned what the right answer was supposed to be. At my university I discovered that "gospel" was a word that many Christians used as shorthand for the means by which a person could go to heaven after they died. Over time they had perfected the science of explaining "the gospel" in a simple and efficient way.
The gospel was understood to be a series of propositions meant to "save" someone. When these propositions were followed logically and sequentially, and subsequently accepted as truth in faith, the subject was assured of their eternal destiny—heaven after death.
But as I have continued in my faith and in ministry, I have continued to struggle with "the gospel question"—with what is being asked and how it has been answered. I haven't been alone. Many of us want to be faithful to Jesus, and we are seeking to be faithful to a broader and deeper Christian tradition than the one that evolved in America after World War II.
In many ways this quest comes down to the question I was asked sitting on a gym floor 20 years ago: "What is the gospel?"
Asking "Is our gospel too small?" implies that something is off kilter—that somehow we have gone off course in the way we answer "the gospel question." But it may not be just our gospel that is too small. It may be that we have been living in a world that was too small—the small, reduced world of modernity.
One of the features of the modern world was "reductionism": the belief that complex things can always be reduced to simpler or more fundamental things. To reduce something is to take it out of context and to take it apart. Church leaders have become experts at reductionism. Ministries that are successful in one context are reduced to "models" that we try to duplicate in other contexts. Sometimes such reductionism is effective. But when we use reductionism indiscriminately, we end up in a world so simplified it is barely recognizable.
So in a modern world, we tend to reduce the complexity and diversity of the Scriptures to simple systems, even when our systems flatten the diversity and integrity of the biblical witness. We reduce our sermons to consumer messages that reduce God to a resource that helps the individual secure a reduced version of the "abundant life" Jesus promised (John 10:10).
And the gospel itself gets reduced to a simplified framework of a few easily memorized steps.
As you might have guessed by now, if that's what is meant by gospel, then yes indeed, I believe our gospel is too small.
I don't know how you interpret such statements, but I can tell you what it is like to write them. It's scary. It seems dangerous to say such things these days. Everyone appears to be on their theological guard (which also tells us something about the reduced nature of our gospel). Those of us who raise questions about our gospel being too small find that our questions provoke fear—and when people are frightened, hospitality is often the first casualty.
In the absence of hospitality, we Christians are in danger of balkanizing ourselves. In the power vacuum that resulted in Eastern Europe when the modern empire of the Soviet Union dissolved, previously unified states were the scene of bitter wars fought to stake out homelands of ethnic or religious purity. To balkanize now means to divide (by ever more precise means of differentiation) one place, one thing, one idea, or one group of people from another.
As modernity's hold on us weakens, life is being balkanized. Whether it is actual physical territory, the battle-torn terrain of the culture wars, or the polarized environment of political rhetoric, we have never been so aware of our differences. Often in the church, our theological discourse and territorial disputes are no different. The impulse to create sovereign mini-states cleansed of perceived cultural and theological enemies often seems unavoidable.
A gospel you can live with
However, we are not the first followers of Christ to struggle with our understanding of the scope and scale of the good news. Indeed, we believe that "the Word became flesh": God revealed himself in a specific time, in a specific place, among a specific people. Jesus joined a story in progress. God entered and engaged. And this is the calling of the church as well—to join in and participate in God's story at work in the world—in our time and in our space(s).
The gospel must become incarnate. It's something that must be lived. We cannot approach God or the gospel a-contextually.
In the book of Acts, we witness the early church in a very similar situation—a colony of the kingdom of God contending for their new faith and struggling profoundly to understand the implications of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Talk about having to reorient your theological imagination!
Circumcision or no circumcision? Meat sacrificed to idols or no meat sacrificed to idols? Sabbath observance or no Sabbath observance? Gentiles or no Gentiles? The church constantly had to reframe its theology in response to the reality of Jesus and his Spirit being alive in the world. The church was constantly contending for the faith—and not just with their adversaries, but with one another. So one consistent theme in all Paul's letters is the necessity of unity. Yet as they contend and struggle along, they do so in a locally responsive way that generates life and engagement with the issues of their time, culture, and geography.
It is no less critical for us than it was for them. Just as the early, largely Jewish church was forced to reckon with the Gentiles' response to their witness, so the emerging world is forcing the church to reckon with the gospel in ways that it hasn't had to in a long time. Recent books like Robert Wuthnow's After the Baby-Boomers and David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyon's unChristian are helping us discover that we live amid postmodern people who embrace mystery, diversity, and complexity. Yet often our "evangelism" instinctively aims to convert them first to a modern worldview, then to Jesus.
Rich, robust revolution
Are there signs of life emerging that point towards a more holistic and robust answer to the gospel question than we were given? Where might the Holy Spirit be forcing his people to reckon with the scope of God's work in the world, to once again consider the nature and scope of the gospel?
As I listen to the "gentiles" who are coming to faith in my own setting, I am discovering that the version of "the gospel" I was given as a college-age counselor was largely missing the earthly, communal, and social nature of what God has been about since the beginning of salvation history. First with Israel, then with the church, God has animated a people to enact his saving way of life as a prophetic witness against, and a hopeful alternative to, the destructive narratives of the surrounding world.
In God's alternative reality, there is no aspect of our lives outside the scope of God's salvation and purposes. Salvation is not just then and there, it is also here and now. Furthermore, churches are not just collections of individuals who will one day be reunited as souls in God's presence. God's life starts and is available to people in the present—and heaven is understood to be that place where God's rule and reign are active among his people.
Jesus says, "Wake up! The kingdom of God is at hand" (Mark. 1:15). Have we likewise spoken with such confidence and hope in our proclamation? Has our articulation, and more importantly, our embodiment of the gospel invited people to become a part of an alternative reality, a community of salvation for this world and the world that is yet to come?
And here is the encouraging news: when Christians proclaim this richer gospel, the "gentiles" around us are intrigued.
A socially progressive journalist named Zack Exley has been documenting a massive cultural shift that is happening among young, theologically conservative evangelicals. Writing for the left-leaning, semi-socialist magazine In These Times, Exley has chronicled his journey into the surprising world of socially conscious, justice-oriented evangelicals who are living out their faith in increasingly radical and sacrificial ways. In his article "Preaching Revolution" (complete with a Che Guevara-ized portrait of Jesus on the red magazine cover), Exley wrote:
"Recently, I blogged a series of essays titled 'The Revolution Misses You' in which I called for progressives to revive the forgotten dream of practical yet radical change. Friends and colleagues immediately scolded me for using 'extreme' terms such as 'revolution' and 'radical.' 'You'll only alienate people,' they said. 'This will come back to haunt you.' At first I was surprised by what felt like a dramatic overreaction. But I soon realized why I had fallen out of sync with the progressive mainstream on the use of the R-words: I had been spending time listening to and reading evangelical Christians who are preaching revolution."
Exley's blog, "Revolution in Jesusland," has followed his pilgrimage across America to communities that embody this spirit of demonstrating the kingdom of God—not just for themselves in the transcendent then and there, but also for others in the immanent here and now. He is one of many people who would otherwise have written off Christianity who are ready to give the gospel another hearing (or perhaps better, viewing). They are realizing that salvation is more than what had previously been advertised.
Not redeemer only
My quest to understand the gospel led me to the source of the gospel himself: Jesus Christ, the gospel incarnate. I began to realize that every articulation of the gospel I had heard focused exclusively on Jesus Christ and his role as redeemer. It is obviously true and good news that Jesus and his life and work function redemptively. But when we reduce Jesus to redeemer only, we miss another essential element of our faith: that Jesus is also creator.
The Gospel of John begins, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made." Likewise, in the hymn of Colossians 1:15-20, Paul affirms Jesus as both creator and redeemer. While verses 18-20 describe Jesus as redeemer, verses 15 and 16 confess him as creator: "The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him."
I am discovering that our postmodern world is consumed with questions of creation—even if they are not framed that way explicitly. We can hear these questions whenever our contemporaries ask, "What does it mean to be human, especially as more and more of life is influenced by and even dependent on technology?" "How do we understand gender and sexuality and how both are expressed?" "How do we live in an ecologically responsible way?" "How might a just economy function sustainably?" Have you had these conversations? Have you talked to the teenagers among you who are verbalizing these concerns? These are the questions our culture is wrestling with.
A reduced version of the gospel will have little to say to such questions. No wonder so many have determined that the church and "the gospel" have very little to contribute to the world. The idea that the gospel has something to say about the eternal destinies of people has been drummed into them for a long time. But they don't see that we are equally concerned about what Jesus taught us to pray: "May your kingdom come, and your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."
People are not asking the traditional gospel question much anymore. Asking, "If I died tomorrow, where would I end up?" does not generate much life. But asking people, "If you had just a few years left, what kind of life would you want to live?" generates enormous energy. It is a question of hope, something our balkanized world sorely needs.
And perhaps not surprisingly, Jesus has a response to those who are asking such a question and on just such a quest. To them he says, "Wake up." "The kingdom of God is at hand." "Come, follow me."
Tim Keel is pastor of Jacob's Well in Kansas City, Missouri.
| Posted on February 27, 2008 | TrackBack