Because of some research I did on the “gospel” in the Bible, leading to a book called Embracing Grace, I have come to a conclusion not unlike that of David King: namely, when I see “problems” or “issues” in the Church, I often say to myself, “What kind of gospel would have been preached and responded to that would give rise to this kind of practice, problem, or theology?” At the bottom of lots of our problems is a “gospel” problem. Students of mine that grow up in Christians homes often admit to me that the gospel they grew up was this: Jesus came to die for my sins so I could go to heaven. This parody of the biblical gospel, I contend, is at the heart of many of our problems.
- Example #1: We often hear pastors today wondering why Christians are not more committed to the local church and seem to have so little time for anything extra?
- Example #2: We routinely are reminded that 11am on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of America’s week.
- Example #3: We often observe that there are far too many Christians who “have it together” with God but are “relationally a mess.”
- Example #4: Many evangelical Christians feel “most spiritual” when they are praying or reading the Bible and do not see their marriage relationship, their parent-child relationships, their sibling relationships, or their relationships with others – in the Church and outside the Church – as part of their “spirituality”. Instead, those elements are at best “implications” of their relationship to God (which is the focus of spirituality) rather than central to that spirituality.
But, we must be more willing to ask this question: Why all the emphasis on love and peace and reconciliation and community in the Bible if these elements are not central to the spiritual life? Is not the Bible’s emphasis less on the individual being transformed than the community being created in which that individual finds transformation? Do our spiritual formation courses adequately address community formation?
My conclusion after studying the Bible on the meaning of “gospel” is that one of the major reasons for each of the above examples is a gospel that gives rise to
- a radically individualistic understanding of the meaning of life,
- a non-communal perception of what the gospel is intended to accomplish, or
- a God-only understanding of the gospel.
Let us not suppose that any of these examples has simplistic explanations, but let us think a little more systemically: if we preach a gospel that is entirely focused on “getting right with God” but which does not include in that presentation that God’s intent is to form a community (the Church) in which restored persons live out this Christ-shaped and Spirit-directed spirituality, then we can expect to hear lots of pulpit rhetoric exhorting us that the Church matters. And, if we discover on Sunday morning that everyone in our church is the same ethnically and economically, we can be sure that we are preaching something that is attracting only those kinds of people. And if we are hesitant to admit the implication of this ethnic, economic reality, then we need to be more honest with ourselves. We get what we preach. And we perform what we preach. How we live reveals the gospel we responded to and the gospel we believe.
Let me suggest, then, a more complete view of the gospel – one that focuses much more on the community of faith – that, if we give the permission to seep into every inch of our ministries, will perhaps lead to the day in our lifetime when these four examples will not be our present problem but our history’s memory. Now a definition: The gospel is the work of the Trinitarian God (a community of persons) to create the community of faith in order to restore humans (made in God’s image) through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ as well as through the empowering gift of the Holy Spirit to union with God and communion with others for the good of the self and the world. And all of this to the glory of God.
What then is Christian spirituality? It is the person who is restored to God, to self, to others and the world – all four directions for all time – by a gospel that emerges from a “communal God” (the Trinity) to create a community that reflects who God is. Do we preach a gospel that gives rise to holistic restoration and that can create a fully biblical spirituality?