Monday, July 16, 2007

What is the Gospel...?

Scot McKnight, Blogger and Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University in Chicago, recently wrote an article, where he contends that many of the problems facing the contemporary church can be traced to the individualistic gospel we preach. The following is an excerpt from that article.

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

  1. a radically individualistic understanding of the meaning of life,

  2. a non-communal perception of what the gospel is intended to accomplish, or

  3. 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?

12 comments:

Jeremy said...

These are the kinds of things I have been running into within my own theology of salvation. I know in all of my being that salvation must be holistic, but, when I share the Good News with someone, I individualize it to almost being unrecognizable compared to what I know to be true. Is this a normal struggle or am I just strange?

Jerrell Jobe said...

Is it possible for the struggle to be normal and you still be strange? (smile - good to see ya jeremy)

I face a similar struggle when faced with a re-occuring question by Micah (my 4 1/2 year old) - "Daddy, why did Jesus die on the cross...?"

My reflex answer is "To forgive you of your sins...and so you can go to heaven when you die..." This is true and a right answer... but as stated above - not all truth and not the only right answer.

It is, it seems, an answer that has found great traction in America... But does this right answer, when the only answer, perhaps serve to deconstruct other major implications of the Gospel. It resonates well in America, because by-in-large this is a nation built upon the ideology of independence - which for most people = INDIVIDUALISM. Which can be a debunker of true Christ-follower'ship, not to mention one's spiritual formation process.

Therefore, as you mention, and I've experienced with my son - it's a reflex... It's all we heard for so much of our church experience. But Scripture demonstrates it being so much more...

I want my son to get the atonement and Penal-Substitution jazz... but it seems God equally wants him to get other dimensions of the Gospel as well...

I've tried, each time he asks me the same question, to affirm the former answers, but enlarge them, connect them to other things, or give a completely different answer (though just as biblical) and see what type of expression that creates within him...

...I don't have all the solutions...but I do know I want him to possess a wholistic view of of Redemption, Salvation and the Shalom of God...

Jeremy said...

I see what you're saying.

I've been raised with a mentality that creates a one-sided response to things. It was told to me that things like the creation, the atonement, and hell were fundamental in some sense and that what someone believes on those issues is a good gauge of whether they are a Christian or not. It's almost as if what Jesus taught was not as important as what I believed about Jesus and the cross and God. I was taught that if I think differently, or even just say the same things with different words, I am denying that the death of Jesus even happened.

I remember one time, a while back, I decided that I didn't want to be called a Calvinist anymore (Yes, I lean that way in my theology, so sue me). I never changed what I believed or even how I said it, but I didn't want to be associated in name with a people who have such a negative effect on people. In saying that, I was actually accused of apostasy and denying the faith "once for all delivered to the Saints" (whatever that means in a Reformed context).

That's where my struggle with the Gospel comes int play. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is more to it than just that Jesus died on a cross to keep people from going to hell, but it seems almost dangerous to say so. It's like I'm not supposed to think about those things. And that causes kind of a crisis of faith.

Anonymous said...

Great question on this blog entry P. Jerrell! I see that you too are processing. We are all coming along on this. Cool.

It is nice to hear from Jeremy again.

I have found this post to be even closer to the things that I have to discuss more than the last one. It's exciting, and now for my thoughts.

Someone once said that Jesus’ ministry is in the stops not the steps. I don't know how wholistic or even true that may be, but what I received from it is that my process is important to Jesus. My need to stop and just discuss things is important to Him.

I'm a pastor's kid and my parents tried hard yet didn't often say it right or get it right, but I'm so happy God leads me individually anyway, just like He lead me to this conversation.

So you said, "…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...we need to be more honest with ourselves. We get what we preach….”

Therefore, I wonder if the same is true that if we discover behind closed doors, around people who are closest to us, in our support system (our supporters), in our church core that everyone (or even most) is the same ethnically and economically, (socially), we can be sure that we are preaching something that is attracting only those kinds of people…drawing only those kinds of people near to us and we need to be more honest with ourselves. We get what we preach…

You also said, “How we live reveals the gospel we responded to and the gospel we believe.”

I think we also may get close to what we preach. In other words, we can preach that God’s intent is to form a community with our mouths, but our children view whether or not we live that preach out before them. If we don’t intend to live that community way before our children and family, behind closed doors, and in our intimate circle of influence, what gospel are we preaching, what message are we sending our kids without even saying a word?

I FULLY AGREE with this statement you made P. Jerrell, “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.”
I believe this is worth doing so that our next generation will benefit.

Anonymous said...

I forgot to put A1 on my last comment that was me too.

Anyway, I need to share with you more about some mentors that I've had.

In this, "What is the Gospel...?" entry you said, “What kind of gospel would have been preached and responded to that would give rise to this kind of practice, problem, or theology?”

I may have a couple more examples.

Jesus is in essence the Gospel. Before I said that where/when I did not see Jesus disillusionment of who He is (or the gospel) came in. Often times when I did not see him, a Christian mentor was so-called leading me to the truth. Note: I have been guilty as well with some I've mentored.
However, here are my examples:

-Example #1 We routinely tell our children, "That is not how we act in church." I'm sorry, but who is to say exactly what or how acting in church is supposed to be like? I think we too much teach our children how "we" do church not what church is.

-Example #2 Many Christian mentors I've had expected me to want to be like them, or act like them at least to a great extent. Why? If God wants me to be restored to Him then who I am and not how I act or what I achieve that they want/value should be what's important, sought after.
I would say that it is a ..."radically individualistic understanding of the meaning of life," as you said. Even still it is imposed upon the one to be developed in our church culture. It is expected of us in order to come close to our leaders. It is Unnecessary Stuff, Cultural Byproduct as I see it.

Another development book I’ve read is “The Way to Love”, by Anthony De Mello. I got it off of one of P. Edgar's reading lists. Even though I am not illuminated by all of it, I have benefited from quotes such as this one,
"Therefore the first act of love is to see this person or this object, this reality as it truly is. And this involves the enormous discipline of dropping your desires, your prejudices, your memories, your projections, your selective way of looking...When you set out to serve someone whom you have not taken the trouble to see, are you meeting that person's need or your own? So the first ingredient of love is to really see the other. The second ingredient is equally important to see yourself, to ruthlessly flash the light of awareness on your motives, your emotions, your needs, your dishonesty, your self-seeking, your tendency to control and manipulate."

A1

Jerrell Jobe said...

A1,
Great question: “What gospel are we preaching, what message are we sending our kids without even saying a word?”

This is a questions that in a sense haunts me, in a good way. I think quite a bit about what if all “spoken words” were removed, what would my children’s understanding, articulation, experience be of the message of the Gospel and the Kingdom of God. The oldest is 4, but I know that the patterns instilled now have great influence, and if it is not a pattern now, to one day think I can download a new one when he’s older and more mature is ludicrous. Interestingly, over the past couple of weeks a buddy of mine and I have been chatting about this (spiritual formation of our children and our role as fathers…but that for another time).

Anonymous said...

Cool Jerrell, this has been my heart for the past about 4 years now. I really haven't gotten a chance to discuss it much with someone tracking like you are. I really look forward to hearing what else you have to say, love to chat more on this.

thanks
A1

Jerrell Jobe said...

A1,
My heart grieves for people who have had negative experiences with mentors and the like. Many have been experienced Unnecessary Stuff indeed, and in some cases what some would call “spiritual abuse.”

You raised an interesting thought/question:

You wrote: (Example #2 Many Christian mentors I've had expected me to want to be like them, or act like them at least to a great extent. Why? If God wants me to be restored to Him then who I am and not how I act or what I achieve that they want/value should be what's important, sought after.
I would say that it is a ..."radically individualistic understanding of the meaning of life," as you said. Even still it is imposed upon the one to be developed in our church culture. It is expected of us in order to come close to our leaders. It is Unnecessary Stuff, Cultural Byproduct as I see it.)-End Quote

I once was burned by a steaming cup of Starbucks coffee when I carelessly took off the lid to stir up the goods. But, I can still, on occasion be found sitting inside a given Starbucks, hot Grande-with Whip-Carmel Macchiato in hand.

I agree with you that there can be negative side-effects to some mentoring situations/relationships. The reasons are multiple. Yet, I ardently believe that mentors, disciplers, and spiritual directors still have there place within Christian Spirituality and our personal transformation thereof.

It is true we are “to be conformed to the image of His Son (Christ).” – Romans 8:29. And, thus Paul exhorted those in Ephesus to “be imitators of God”-Ephesians 5:1. This transformational process seems to be part of the Holy Spirit’s workings within a follower of Christ. Yet…

Paul also instructed a group of followers of Jesus saying, “I urge you, imitate me”-1 Corinthians 4:16 & again told the same people, in the same letter “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ”-1 Corinthians 11:1.

He could have said “imitate God with me” or “as I do.” But it seems that modeling Christian character and ongoing transformation is key (as it is with children – like you referenced).

So who do we imitate -- Mentors or Christ? It seems the answer is “Yes….Both/And.” This is what actually makes true Christianity something other than a "radically individualistic understanding of the meaning of life.” Community is at work… Relationships are engaged… We are learning & growing & transforming together. And at the same time – God is personally active – engaging – speaking – challenging – and – working within me…

I’ve experienced great transformation as I’ve pursued BOTH – and when one’s lacking – I’m usually not far from hitting a blind-spot.

I like “The Way to Love” by Anthony De Mello. I’ve read a couple of his books… He doesn’t hold back any punches and has a great way of explaining certain concepts.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much, that was heartfelt, I will pray over what you've said here and write back tommorrow.

A1

Anonymous said...

Jerrell,

I think I may have jumped in too soon with my comment on the "Godpel, Repentance, and Kingdom of God" entry. I needed to share with you this first. When I pray I don't often use words. I often ponder things in my heart, like Mary. It takes my heart a while to get it sometimes, it doesn't matter what my mind knows, my heart has to get it, or I don't have it.

What I recieved or felt from your last comment here was kindness. I want you to know that your kindness in corresponding with me here is helping to restore my faith. It's making me want to try again, and trust that I can have healthy mentoring relationships again.

I haven't done well with all mentors. I haven't had many mentors. I kind of "went off" in the next blog for the "Gospel, Repentance and the Kingdom of God". Please forgive me. I am the one needing repentance. As I bear my soul here, coming undone for all to read, and I just want the thorn to be taken out of my heart so I can breath free, just me. I must take a few moments to lament on where I am at.

I am often times like you with your hot Starbucks cup of coffee when I have something that I really need/want to say. Even though I appreciate kindness and it helps me to open up, I am not kind to those that I need to be kind to. I don't serve them well or allow them to serve me, especially if I feel that they have been unkind or inconsiderate. Isn't that the opposite of what being a Christian is all about? I know. Anyway, I admit that I have been a brat. When I want to share an idea or concern that I think is important I rip off the lid of my hot coffee and I just burn myself and others, burn everybody. What starts off as a nice little coffee conversation with a mentor turns into disaster! They're wanting to lead me, but I have something to share too. If they drink carmel latte and I want them to taste my chocolate mocha I often don't ask politely, and if they resist I chuck it in their face and try to force my way in. (ok maybe I'm not that bad) But why do I do that? There are a number of reasons.

First of all, what I am looking in a mentor is a long term relationship, not just an as long as it's good, or until someone better comes along, or we can't continue b/c you're too difficult, but a real commitment to me as a person not a project.

I don't want to hear that I've got a great smile, or I'm a good speaker, or "I see something in you", because anybody can see/say that. I want to be followed up on, known, I want my mentor to say, " I get you, I feel you, I see you."

Even though I appreciate the gifts God has given me like my smile or my speech, I am beautiful, not to downplay it like I was doing before b/c there is confidence there, but I guess I've been figuring out what church is, what the gospel is, what the kingdom of God is. I've been feeling it out in my heart and I havent' had the good words, or the good approach, or the maturity to communicate it. I'm a good kid trying to get it right and I guess I have a hard time coping. I want to be close to God and I want to be close to others, and I want Godly wisdom....
I am seeking.

I was lapsing when you found me on Chicken and Rice. I think as people we sometimes think we are better than the process, to good for the complicaitons, difficulties, and frustration, better than others. I had been there, wanting to quit, but kinda looking for a reason not to.

My growth is important to me because I realized that I am forming and I don't want to stay a little kid forever.

You said, "Community is at work… Relationships are engaged… We are learning & growing & transforming together. And at the same time – God is personally active – engaging – speaking – challenging –and – working within me…" END QUOTE

Godly mentors do have place in my life and are a gift from God. I think my greatest problem has been not feeling what's in the quote. I think I feel it now after blogging on this community link.

I've been feeling like I've been in a no talk family situation, feeling lonely and mistreated. I've never encountered a Christian leader who would even address or approach the reality of Spiritual Abuse with me. Also, I've had more Christian leaders than laymen to be my mentors. It's probably because I tendto lead, but my experience with Christian leaders as mentors is that they often busy and feel they are above being approached about such things as spiritual abuse. I don't expect anybody to be perfect, but if it doesn't get approached, how is it going to get better? We are all learning and growing, leader or not, walked with God long or not.

The meanest thing a leader ever said to me was, "Why can't you work with leaders?" I didn't receive it. "Can't" can be a crippling word. The truth is, I believe, as you stated is that God is working with all of us. If he sees the splinter in my eye, there may be a plank in his own and vice versa.

Why if we are all learning and growing, and transforming and being challenged together do we measure one another off like that? If our community believes what you said in that quote, then why do we tell unskilled members that they need to come up to our level in order to sit with us, work with us, speak to us? It makes me want to cry. I've often asked myself "How does a member of a church body develop well under this treatment?"

You also said, "I ardently believe that mentors, disciplers, and spiritual directors still have there place within Christian Spirituality and our personal transformation thereof."

I believe you are right. It is playing out right now. I am grateful for the care/guidance being bestowed here. Hope this helps to fill in some gaps with me.

A next question might be, "What is the Body of Christ?"

Thanks
A1

Jerrell Jobe said...

A1,

I appreciate what you just poured on the table... Reads like you're going through quite a process, attempting to sift through a number of experiences, not to mention in search...

...Anytime...any of us become bigger than the process...trouble always seems to be close behind...

...And as always "the pie is always bigger than the cream..." (I just made that up :-) in other words, the big picture is always significant in our seeing, perceiving and interpreting experiences and situations with a clearer perspective.

In regards to your thoughts: "If our community believes what you said in that quote, then why do we tell unskilled members that they need to come up to our level in order to sit with us, work with us, speak to us?"

I'm not sure where or how this message is being communicated...

Anonymous said...

P. Jerrell,

If it is understandable how that message is being communicated then I won't go into it further. That must be for another time,or another context of my journey with God. The spaghetti will sort itself out.

Anyway, I am so glad that I was able to help move the conversation along:) Everything blogged concerning church culture has been on target concerning the things I think about and helped to pull a lot out of my heart good or gooey that'd been sitting. In other words, I really neeeded that. The conversation has actually truly helped me to feel small again and not bigger than the process b/c now I see clearly that everyone is in process and our big, big God is sitting over it, in control, moving mountains and making His righteous judgements about everything. I love God. This engagement helped give me a new confidence in my own process and in myself, oh yes and in God too. I am right where I am suppossed to be! This will translate to my relationships in God good time. His plan for me is good and perfect.

Once again, thank you so much P. Jerrell for opening up the blog discussion and encouraging me in being a part of it.

You Rock!
bye 4 now

A1