In his book A Peculiar People: The Church As Culture in a Post-Christian Society, Rodney Clapp talks about our living in a post-Constantinian world where Christianity is no longer the chaplain to the powers that be. We now rest on the margins, causing us to rethink our gospel. Because of this, Clapp insists we’re starting to foster a more prophetic gospel that challenges the nation-state.
This is a corollary to the political gospel. If we are not to be the nation’s chaplain, but rather stand outside the nation, measuring it by God’s standards, there may be times when we have a duty to speak for God — to be like the prophets of the Old Testament and announce when God’s will contradicts the will of the nation.
Now, we sometimes do this already, on issues such as abortion. The change being called for, however, is to no longer be prophets in the service of worldly politics, but to be prophets for God and only God. Hence, we should just as readily condemn wrongs of the Republicans as the wrongs of the Democrats. It’s not about winning. It’s about being God’s people.
The missional gospel
Building on the work of people like Lesslie Newbigin, the missional folks argue that the church is an instrument employed by Christ to advance the kingdom. That radically changes our understanding of both the gospel and the mission of the church. In most cases we’ve been taught that the mission of the church is to grow the church, and mission is an instrument employed by the church to do such a thing. The missional folks are reversing it, making everything go haywire for those who have always seen gospel and mission the other way around.
Now, I find Newbegin nearly unreadable (am I the only one?), but I agree with the thesis: the church serves in God’s mission. It’s not God’s mission is to serve the church. I mean, I’d love to have God as my personal servant, sending my church a bunch of tithes’ paying, hours-donating volunteers so my congregation can be 10 times as big as Saddleback! But that’s not how it works.
Now, I need to add a few additional “gospels” to the conversation not mentioned in the article.
Gospel of community
It’s becoming fashionable to call our congregations “communities,” and I’ve tried to spread the practice. Here’s why. You see, especially in the Churches of Christ, we tend to think of “church” as the set of all saved people. We are joined by a common salvation and little else. Hence, some of our members quite literally take communion at home from a portable communion kit rather than be with fellow Christians who are in error on some point or other. We see community as very secondary.
But the gospel idea of salvation is salvation into a community. We are added to the church — not just the set of all saved people, but an organization of people who serve and love and worship together as a single body.
Wright has been helpful in clarifying this idea in my thinking. Much of the New Testament is directed to the joining of Jews and Gentiles into a single community. Paul couldn’t bear for Peter to only eat with Jews. Nor for the Gentiles to refuse to support poor Jews financially. He felt compelled to bring them together into a single body. This unity Jesus prayed for had to be real and meaningful. It’s can be no mere abstraction.
Gospel of racial unity
The obvious, immediate corollary of this “gospel of community” is the fact that we cannot divide ourselves along racial or ethnic lines — and thus this is one of the darkest sins of the modern church. It’s as anti-gospel as can be.
Gospel of denominational unity
The gospel of grace teaches us that for those with faith, doctrinal error is forgiven. Hence, we should treat many of those in other denominations as brothers in Christ. And if they are brothers, be in community and mission with them — not in competition with them.
This is a common refrain, I’m sure, in many denominations, but I don’t see a particularly large impact on our communities. I mean, we’re doing better, but we’re at the baby-step stage.
Gospel of environmental responsibility
We in the Churches of Christ tend to vote Republican. And under the current administration, that means we are opposed to the environmental lobby. They support the Democrats.
But if the creation is being redeemed along with the people in it, how can we not be part of God’s redemptive work?
Many have argued for Christian environmentalism, but N. T. Wright has put the most meat on the bones. He’s pointed out that the earth will be renewed by God and be the place where we all live in eternity. The redemption of the earth will happen on the last day, just as will ours.
Therefore, he argues, part of the mission of the church is to help the redemption happen — just as we are responsible to help in the redemption of people. It’s an interesting, intriguing theory. And it shows how God’s people relate to God’s creation.
“Emerging” is one those terms that’s increasingly present in the literature and blogosphere and yet only very vaguely defined. This is because the idea is to express the eternal gospel in terms that communicate with the Postmodern world which surrounds us. And different authors and preachers attempt this in different ways.
Everyone knows the world has changed dramatically. And we were all taught about 10 years ago about how wrong Postmodernism is. And so we preached sermons against Postmodernism. My kids were subjected to lessons in the youth program about how very, very absolute truth is. They came home laughing, because at 14 years old, even they knew that some truths are absolute (2 + 2 = 4) while others are relative (“Broccoli tastes good.”)
Hence, with Postmodernism being so frequently preached against, it seems astonishing that we’d even try to express the gospel in Postmodern terms! And then we read books by Rubel Shelly and John York and even N. T. Wright building entire theological arguments on the “insights” of Postmodernism. It’s so confusing!
It’s confusing — but this may be the most important approach to the gospel going, because if we don’t figure a way to teach Postmodern people about Jesus, the church will die. In fact, we’re already in decline, and this is one very big reason.