I’ve put aside the next three weeks to write full time on “Gospel”, working towards the publication of a book and study resource, and maybe even a new DVD in the Stories series. I’m pulling together material I’ve been using in workshops around Australia over the last four years, as well as in the Faith Stories DVD and study guide. I’m motivated to get something in print by what I’ve seen working with Christians in New Zealand and Australia over the last thirty years. Time and time again I am struck by the inability of Christians to articulate how their faith might have any relevance for the lives of their friends, family or neighbours, apart from their belief that they are called to live out their lives with integrity, compassion and generosity.
Somehow “Christian gospel” has been equated with a narrowly defined set of beliefs associated with personal evangelism focused on sorting out guilt (forgiveness), getting connected with God (reconciliation) and planning a long term destination in heaven rather than hell (salvation?). The call to live with compassion, generosity and integrity has been treated as a desirable after effect (gospel imperative), rather than having anything to do with the gospel itself. And so, for some, community service is seen as distraction from getting people saved and brought into a daily routine of Bible reading and prayer and a weekly routine of worship with other Christians.
Recent debate over ways of understanding the doctrine of atonement has brought this all into the open in Evangelical circles. By Evangelical I mean the Christian movement in which people are considered to be authentic in their Christian belief if they adhere to correct doctrine, profess personal trust in Jesus as their Saviour, treat the Bible as authoritative and seek to share Christian faith in a way that will invite people to become Christians. I’ve written a paper exploring a range of New Testament metaphors available to us, which when conflated together become a distorted, unhelpful, irrelevant or even dangerous framework for understanding the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
I’m aware of a much older debate from the early twentieth century, in which a line was drawn between those following a “social gospel” and those holding to what they perceived to be a personal and orthodox gospel associated with traditional understandings of the cross and the push for personal conversion. SCM, the Student Christian Movement, was split in half, with the formation of Inter Varsity Fellowship. That polarisation in the 1920s has led to a century-long crisis of faith formation.
Moving into the 21st century I think we need models of faith formation that include an awareness of the grace and action of God, the deep significance of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, an understanding of images, stories and beliefs carrying significance for the early church, through history and today, along with “gospel practices” for individuals and communities ranging from prayer, capacity for personal reconciliation, through to community development and advocacy for societal change.
Questions to address:
Where do we draw the line between gospel and good idea?
How do we deal with the legacy of “colonising” approaches to conversion?
It’s been said that the Christian gospel is God’s good news for our bad situations. Is that always the case?
Why do we use “atonement” as a metaphor to summarise the gospel when Jesus talked about the good news of the kingdom of God?