We need to consider a few more gospels, at least briefly.
The gospel of salvation
As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, sometimes we so focus on the getting saved that we have little understanding of being saved. Which leads to —
The gospel of evangelism
Now, just as it’s very much right that we be saved, it’s also right that we spread the gospel. There’s a lot right with evangelism, and nothing wrong with it — unless, of course, we do it wrong.
And one mistake we often make is to define our Christianity as nothing but evangelism: we are saved solely so that we’ll save others. Which is somewhat true but not the whole truth. And one problem with this approach is that it focuses the church on what we’re saving people from — hell — and not on what them saving them to be or to do.
The social gospel is the idea that Jesus came to save people from social ills — poverty, crime, and such. And there’s an element of truth in it. The problem with the social gospel is that it sees the solutions in humanistic methods — government programs, social programs, etc — rather than Christianity.
Therefore, in America much of the agenda of the social gospel has been taken over by the government, leaving the church looking for another purpose, such as electing candidates who will complete the social gospel.
The gospel of government
The government takeover of the social gospel is a huge part of the American psyche. We are trained from our youths to look to the government for our schooling, our health, and even our values. And when this attitude enters the church, the church finds itself looking to the government for salvation.
The Republicans figure the government can teach children to pray through government schools and teach children to abstain from sex through abstinence programs, thereby strengthening the church and helping its evangelistic efforts.
The Democrats figure the government can end poverty and crime — completing the social gospel agenda.
Both parties, at times, believe the government can fix entire other societies through the gospels of democracy and capitalism — and the US military.
The nice gospel
There’s version of gospel that is very common in these parts (southern US). We Christians are taught to be nice. Nice to friends and nice to strangers. Even nice to enemies. We are very nice people.
And for some of us, this is what it means to be a Christian. We say, “They’ll know I’m a Christian without a word from me because they’ll see how I live” — meaning, because I’m nice.
Indeed, I’ve been taught that if I can’t say something nice about someone, I should say nothing at all — meaning one of the most hateful things you can say about someone is that you can’t say anything about them!
Having grown up in the gospel of niceness, I was shocked to travel to places and meet atheists and don’t-care-about-religion-ists who are very, very nice people — nicer, indeed, than most of the people in my church. And I was shocked! I mean, if nice means saved, then how do I explain all the nice lost people I’ve met?
And how on earth would my niceness convince them I follow Jesus?
Many traditions center Christianity on the assembly, as obligation or a place of sacrament or encounter with God. Some traditions are very liturgical. Others very experiential, even sensual. The traditions vary very widely.
Many evangelical churches have fought the “worship wars” over new versus old musical styles, proving how emotionally attached we can be to our preferred worship experience. Many Churches of Christ have split over worship, desiring either a stricter, purer obedience to the rules or a greater openness that might encourage evangelism.
However, the scriptures do not center the gospel on worship. We were not saved so that we might assemble on Sundays and worship. God had nobler purposes than that!
The gospel of grace
I spent several years here. After I finally saw how to escape legalism, well, I celebrated. I reveled in my new found salvation — a real salvation! And I taught grace to anyone who’d listen.
And having learned this valuable, central, critical lesson, I figured I’d finally arrived. This is what was always missing. This completes the story!
This is, of course, the perfectly natural, understandable reaction to learning the truth of God’s grace, for those of us raised in legalism. But I was wrong. There’s more. Much more.
I mentioned this one in my post re kicking the smoking habit. It’s simply the idea that the gospel is about curing personal challenges, such a broken relationships, marriages, and addictions.
This approach to gospel preaching is popular in many evangelical churches, especially those seeking to have seeker-friendly services, as this is an aspect of the gospel that speaks to the needs of many un-churched peoples.
We also see this gospel when our preachers train as counselors rather than as evangelists, theologians, or managers — not that it has to be a one-or-the-other choice. We see the rise of this view of the gospel also has churches have hired full-time counselors and have initiated 12-step and Celebrate Recovery programs as outreach tools. And this view of gospel is evident in the recent movement toward refashioning elders as “shepherds,” meaning as men whose primary task is the giving of emotional support to the membership.
The gospel of relationships
“It’s all about relationships!” sometimes seems to be the rallying cry of the ministerial class. “If someone makes 7 friends in church, they’ll never leave!” And there’s much truth in this.
We live in an age when people are desperate for relationships — friends, really. And the youth culture is very friend-centered. When the church provides a vehicle for making friends and being part of a loving community, we provide a much-needed service.
But when the gospel is centered on gaining relationships, it becomes self-serving. If you join church to make friends, you are all about … you. And I just don’t think Jesus wanted the gospel to be so self-centered.
Besides, isn’t this what country clubs and social clubs are for? Surely, we’ve missed something when we center Christianity on relationships.
Many a preacher has a copy of Rick Warren’s seminal Purpose Driven Church on his desk. Many a church teaches Membership 101 to new members. Many of Warren’s methods have caught on, and they’re dramatically changing the American church.
The change has been to take churches away from mere housekeeping and to urge them to focus on their purpose. And in this gospel, the church’s purpose is to grow larger.
I’m a big fan of Rick Warren. But, again, the question is: is this a complete gospel?
The purpose-driven church movement has led to various methods to grow our congregations. Perhaps the most common is to become an “attractional” churches — as though the alternative might be repulsive churches (of course, there are a few churches that have adopted the repulsive church model! 😉 ).
The same idea is found in the phrase “goods and services church” — that is, a church that tries to draw new members by offering a buffet of benefits — sports teams, a gym, a coffee shop, great music, great classes, etc. And none of this is wrong. Rather, the question is whether it’s complete — what might be missing in such a church?
[to be continued]