What Is The Gospel?

Millions of people watched this commercial this weekend during a nationally televised NFL playoff game. It’s endearing, quality, and true. What an opportunity to share the gospel, and they did it well.

But what if it’s not the gospel?

That’s the premise of Scot McKnight’s latest book, The King Jesus Gospel. He is arguing that what we call the gospel is actually the Plan of Salvation, which “flows out of (and is founded upon) the Story of Israel and the Story of Jesus” (p.39). It is in the gospel, but it is not the gospel.

The gospel is larger than Jesus dying on the cross to save me from my sins. Resurrection, new creation, discipling, the kingdom of God, and Jesus being King of all are also central components in the gospel, but largely ignored when we evangelize. We have reduced the gospel to an individual’s forgiveness of sin and called it good.

Essentially what we’ve done is taken a verse like John 3:16 out of its context within the Story of God, a.k.a the Bible, and said here’s the truth, the whole truth, and we really don’t need any more truth. We have reduced the gospel to a bite-sized, Americanized, consumer-focused infomercial.

Which is great when you want to sell something quickly and to large masses of people. But it becomes dangerous when what you’re selling is an idea.

Communication is a tricky thing. Misunderstanding abounds in the minds of the hearers. I say ‘potatoe,’ and you say ‘McDonald’s french fries.’ I proclaim the unconditional grace of God and the free gift of salvation available to all in and through Jesus Christ, and someone hears, “I can go to heaven, and I don’t need to do anything!” And according to John 3:16, that’s true.

But is it true? Is it the gospel?

When we divorce discipleship from evangelism, is the gospel still the gospel? When we remove any idea of the people of God carrying on the mission of God in our salvation message, is the gospel still the gospel?

If the extent of a person’s relationship with God is that they once prayed ‘the prayer,’ will Jesus one day say to them, “Depart from me. I never knew you”?

To me, this is by far the scariest implication of the salvation culture we live in. The possibility that there may be millions of people in our churches (or loosely connected to them) with a false sense of security in their salvation.

To answer this question, we need to dive deeper into McKnight’s book and take a close look at the gospel Jesus preached, as well as the apostles.

What do you think? Have we strayed from Jesus’ gospel? Have we neglected some essential components of the original good news?

Can the Gospel Still Change the World?

believe → get forgiven → go to heaven

is that it?

that’s a neat, tidy little statement,
but to be honest, its impact on my life today is rather small.

the truth is, i’m still stressed.
truth is, i’m still messed up,
and i’m constantly getting dressed up
to hide it all.

is that all this gospel can do?

i’ve heard the good news is an “already-but-not-yet” kind of news.
but all i hear about is of the “not yet” variety.
can anyone address the “already” already?

is there more to the gospel?
if you can reduce it to three points,
share it under a minute,
or put it on a napkin,
might it have lost something?

in the land of infomercials
and ten-minute tutorials,
don’t give me information that lacks impact.
what my heart is longing for is (re)formation.

is there a gospel that can give me that?

i don’t want a self-help gospel,
and i don’t want a no-help gospel.
i’m looking for the real deal Jesus-save-me-now gospel.

i’m desperate for tangible, touchable hope for today.
answers to the complex issues of living in this world.

i need a bigger story.
the whole story from start to finish.
tell me who i am in this story, where i fit,
and that we will all live happily ever after.

most of all, i need a gospel for the here and now,
not just the hereafter.

Are We Losing A Generation?

A week ago, Relevant posted an interview with Kara Powell about her book, Sticky Faith, and the research that went into it. Having heard her talk about her book before, and having skimmed it myself, the problem and practical solutions they offer are spot on.

One of the biggest emphases in the book is strengthening the relational connection within a church between the young people and the adult community. Mentoring, cheerleading, and friending is what young people need from us oldies. The stronger the connections (as well as there being more connections) the more likely they will stick. I agree with this 100%, and our youth ministry is largely patterned around this idea.

But in the same way tying yourself to a pier doesn’t make you a tugboat, being highly connected to a church does not make you a follower of Christ. Let me share one of the scariest statements in the article:

Do you think there are any misunderstandings or misconceptions that contribute to young adults leaving the church?

The students involved in our research definitely tended to view the Gospel as a list of dos and do-nots, a list of behaviors. We asked our students when they were college juniors, “How would you define what it really means to be a Christian?” and one out of three—and these were all youth group students—didn’t mention Jesus Christ in their answer; they mentioned behaviors. So it seems like [young adults] have really picked up a behavioralist view of the Gospel. That’s problematic for a lot of reasons, but one of which is that when students fail to live up to those behaviors, then they end up running from God and the Church when they need both the most.

Unfortunately, this is not new information. Christian Smith found the same thing to be true in his research—and his book, Soul Searching, came out six years ago.

So we have bad theology, and that’s a bad thing. Our theology is more important than a vibrant community, sacrificial serving or dynamic devotion. A.W. Tozer thought so. He once wrote, “What we think about God is the most important thing about us.”

This is why I’ve been loving these two books: The King Jesus Gospel by Scot McKnight, and Simply Jesus by N.T. Wright. Not only do their last names rhyme, but they are both tackling the issue of who Jesus is and what the gospel is from a historical/theological perspective. And both books are A-mazing. (I can’t believe I’ve mentioned five different books in this post. I’m such a nerd!)

In the midst of losing a generation of young people, we must make a concerted effort to prove we see them, we care about them, and we will walk with them. But we must also take a close look at our message.

This is why I think there’s no time like the present to take another look at what the gospel is. We might rediscover some things about our identity and calling along the way. And we might help save a generation.

Revisiting Conversations With My Daughter, Part Two

Last week I revisited conversations with my daughter, and how I realized the silliness of cramming the gospel into a single 10-minute conversation. But this is our evangelical mindset: the whole of the gospel is fully explained in John 3:16; or can be sketched onto a napkin, or explained in 4 simple to understand statements.

I’m as guilty as the next guy for not seeing anything wrong with this kind of über reduction, but I’m beginning to grasp the faultiness in this kind of thinking. But more on that later.

Since those initial conversations with my daughter, there have been a couple other conversations that have stayed with me. In these short conversations, she has drawn back the curtain to her heart and what’s going on inside. Her self-awareness and insight amazes me and also shows the need for ongoing conversations.

One time, she again expressed sorrow and regret over how she acts and treats her brothers at times. She does not understand why she continues to be mean or selfish.

She does not understand why she is this way. And she doesn’t like being this way. But what she is beginning to see in herself is her sin nature.

Another time, as we tucked her in one night, she expressed frustration and confusion as to why God was silent. Why hadn’t He ever talked to her? Why couldn’t she hear Him? She is becoming more and more aware of how life in this world is not what it was originally designed to be.

It is so humbling as a father to be involved in this process. To be able to have these conversations with her and to anticipate the conversations to come.

These are real issues, and my daughter is not the only one feeling this tension or confused with God and His world. Many in our pews and outside them are asking the same questions and similar ones.

As we wrestle through answering these questions, a bigger question arises: has a reduction and simplification of the gospel made it harder to effectively answer complex questions? Could this be part of the reason our nation has been labeled post-Christian and the church is seen as irrelevant?

Is our gospel too skinny? To put it another way, could there a hole in our gospel?

What do you think? What is the gospel?

Your Opinion is Requested

I am tinkering with a major overhaul of the blog. And I had an idea for a snazzy new header (which is the top of the page and the first thing someone would see when they stop by), which I then “created” in Pixelmator (a wonderful and cheap version of Photoshop made for the Mac). The issue is I know it’s a little out there, but I also think it’s unique and attention grabbing. It’s a creative way to express God “friending” us today… or maybe it’s heretical, I don’t know. But don’t just take my word for it… give me yours.

Please ruminate on the picture (you should click on it to get the full effect) and then share your opinion by rocking the vote. BTW, the voting booth will be closed in a week. Thanks!

Revisiting Conversations With My Daughter, Part One

Last fall, I shared about my first-grade daughter’s spiritual questions and desire to please God. I shared how I responded (twice) by trying to explain grace. I shared the gospel with her using 1 John 1:9. The initial conversation lasted ten minutes or less.

It is this last part I want to revisit. Since the fall, I’ve been working my way through two books and doing some heavy thinking (at least for me). Both books deal with our understanding of 1) Jesus and 2) the gospel. Over the next few months, my plan is to dig through the goldmine of these two books and pull up the heaviest nuggets I can, and share the ideas that have been sparked in me through them.

Here’s one of the ideas as it relates to my previous conversation with my daughter: I am foolish to think a ten minute conversation is enough to impart the gospel to her. That the story of God can be explained in one verse and subsequently grasped by a six year-old.

Imagine you’re having “the birds and bees” convo with one of your kids. Do you just bring up the subject one time because they’ve reached a certain age and from there on avoid those topics like the plague? You did your job, so now for sure your kid won’t take any missteps or need any ongoing support or advice from you?

Of course we don’t think that would be good enough! The conversation can’t start then end when a child has reached “a certain age.” We have to have mini-conversations along the way: appropriate, timely and relevant to where they are. Sexuality is a complex issue and affects us on many levels.

Isn’t the gospel even more complex? Affecting us on every level? How do you explain an issue like depravity? Or a concept like grace? I don’t have all the answers, but I know you can’t do it justice if you’re limited to one verse or only ten minutes.

And can these concepts (and the gospel itself) be explained or understood apart from the context of story? The context of The Story?

I believe we lose something when we explain the Plan of Salvation without going into The Story the Plan comes from. Salvation must always be tied to the Story of Jesus, and the Story of Jesus is best understood in its context within the whole story of the Bible.

I can’t cram that into a ten minute conversation. And I probably shouldn’t even try.

Return to the Kingdom, Chapter Six

(Missed a chapter? Here’s One, Two, Three, Four, and Five.)

The ground shook violently.

All eyes looked to the Eastern Mountains where the kingdom lay. A great rumbling and thundering was coming from the mountains. To their horror and amazement, the exiles watched as the mountains began to crumble.

“We will be crushed!” someone cried. The crowd panicked, trampling each other as they ran from the ensuing avalanche of rocks and boulders. Only Lucius and his knights stood in place.

“Wait! Look!” one of the knights yelled, pointing at the mountain range. The mountains were collapsing in on themselves. No boulder would reach the village.

As the dust settled, the exiles saw a radically different terrain around them. The ground was completely level. The path back to the kingdom was straight and true.

Lucius laughed. “Do you know what this means? The King’s death eliminated his barrier as well.  There is now nothing and no one in our way to keep us from conquering the kingdom. The King’s foolishness is our gain.”

Lucius kicked the King’s body, then looked down in shock when his foot hit air. The body was gone. The clothes, stained with blood, and the walking stick were there, but the body was not.

“What madness is this? The King’s barrier disappears, and so does his body?” Lucius grabbed the nearest knight. “Ah, it doesn’t matter. We leave at once. Get everyone prepared. Gather the exiles and arm them. We march on the kingdom now.”

As the knights grabbed weapons, armed the exiles and prepared them for battle, a small group stood off to one side, huddled together and hoping to go unnoticed. But they weren’t. Two knights spotted them and ordered them to join. When they refused, Lucius was called over.

“What’s going on here?”

“Sir,” one of the older men answered, “with all due respect, we don’t believe it was right to kill the King. And we don’t want any part in taking the King’s land. We can’t go with you.”

Lucius‘ face darkened as he scowled. “Are you telling me your allegiance is to a dead man? That makes no sense. Now that the kingdom is finally ours, you want to give it up?”

“Sir, I can only speak for myself. I was a young man when we challenged the King. I have come to see the error of my ways, that I was wrong. I regret having made that choice, and not just because we all ended up here. I see now that the King was the only man worthy of being King of the kingdom. He was a better man than me. And a better man than you. I have no desire to live in the kingdom if the King is not on the throne.”

Lucius screamed with rage, “Do you all feel this way?”

One by one they nodded, from the oldest to the youngest. Men, women, and children.

Lucius smiled a wicked smile. “Fine, I will respect your wishes. None of you will live in the kingdom, but you are going with us. You will be the front line of our attack. We will use you as human shields when we face the King’s knights. And you will die.

“Since your allegiance is to the King, you will share his fate as well.”

Hit Pause, Restart

Two years ago I started this blog as a way to provide the students in my youth group with online devotionals. Silly me: Trix are for kids, and kids don’t read blogs!

It quickly morphed into a blog for families, a resource for the parents in our church to reinforce what we were talking about and to have faith conversations at home. A novel idea, I daresay, but also naive. Silly me: Teens still don’t read blogs, and they don’t talk to their parents unless they need money, food, or clean clothes.

In February 2011, I began blogging with what could mistakenly be called regularity. I was still trying to provide worthwhile material for parents of teens, but I had a handful of faithful readers that were encouraging me to write by their presence and comments (shout out to my mom!). And sometime this last year, a love of writing was reawakened in me.

(Sidenote: If you are a bazillionaire and you’d like to sponsor me and my family for the next few years so I can write full-time, I’m still waiting for your call. My number is 1-800-Wishful-Thinking.)

Along the way, I think I have stumbled on the purpose of this blog: to articulate and give attention to the Story of God in a way that inspires and empowers the People of God. I still write for my youth, their parents, and of course, my mom. And now there are two handfuls of readers, and I write for you as well.

But mainly, now I write for myself. I have found blogging my thoughts and wonderings to be an incredibly enriching experience. I don’t know what this blog will be a year from now, but I know I’ll still be writing.

Thank you for coming along for the ride.
Thank you for reading and commenting.
It is an honor to write, and a greater honor to be read.

A New Year’s Quote

We will open the book.  Its pages are blank.
We are going to put words on them ourselves.
The book is called Opportunity and its first chapter is New Year’s Day.
—Edith Lovejoy Pierce

RE-POST: Conversations With My Daughter

(I’m taking this week off from blogging. The official name for this is Blogger’s Break, not to be confused with the more popular Blogger’s Blitz or the infamous Blogger’s BreakDOWN. Anyhoo, this last re-post is my favorite and is also the top post from the year. Originally posted August 24, 2011.)

I’d like to share a conversation I had with my daughter, our oldest who is now a first grader, that took place two weeks ago. I was putting all three kids to bed by myself and decided we would try something different to pray. I got us in a circle and said we were going to pray for the person on our right. (Then I showed the boys which way was right.)

The boys prayed silly prayers, imagine that, but when it was Addi’s turn she said she didn’t want to pray. Thinking she was just too nervous, I offered some encouraging, fatherly words that would surely convince her she could pray.

But she said, “I can’t pray… I did too many bad things today.” That got my attention, and I wasn’t sure how to respond. She looked at me and said, “I want to feel clean inside.”

That floored me. Instantly, my heart was both full and broken. I was a mess of excitement and nerves. This was the kind of conversation pastors live for, and here was my little girl opening that door.

I pulled her over to me, sat her on my lap, and gave her a big hug. I said a couple of things to her, then realized we needed to have a real conversation. So I put the boys to bed, grabbed my Bible, and we sat on Addi’s bed and talked.

I read 1 John 1:9 to her: “If we confess our sins, (God) is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” I explained that to confess simply meant to admit to God she had done bad things, which she had done. I told her because of what Jesus did for us on the cross, we are clean on the inside. I desperately wanted her to understand that this is what grace is all about, that she didn’t need to do anything, that because of Jesus she is forgiven and clean.

She said she understood. I prayed, and she repeated what I said. I asked her if she understood what she had prayed, and again she said she understood.

I wonder how much she did understand. I wonder how deeply a six-year-old can grasp amazing grace. I’m not sure how deeply I grasp it! I constantly find myself slipping back into old ruts of approaching God based on what I’ve done lately rather than because of what Jesus Christ did for me 2,000 years ago.

And I remember when I was about Addi’s age I prayed the sinner’s prayer to receive Jesus over and over and over again. I couldn’t tell you how many times I prayed it, but I know I had it memorized.

My constant fear was I had not prayed all the right words, I had left out a part, or I had not been 100% sincere. Ironically, in my prayer asking Jesus to save me from the eternal fires of hell, my focus was more on my own efforts to be saved. I did not get grace. My faith was pretty weak; I wasn’t able to trust in Christ alone.

From a developmental view, maybe I was unable to mentally and emotionally grasp the concept of grace at that young age. Maybe the same is true for my daughter. Less than a week ago, again at the end of the day, Addi said she did not want to pray. Then she said, “I think I need a new heart again.”

She felt bad for something that had happened earlier, and I love that she feels bad about being bad – I hope she never loses that! We had another conversation, and I explained how in a relationship it is important to say sorry when you recognize you’ve done something wrong. Then we prayed together.

I think her statement is indicative that she doesn’t get grace yet. As we go on from here and have more conversations, this is what I want to try to bring down to her level: that she is saved by grace and that her “job” is to believe that when Jesus said, “It is finished,” it really is.

As Paul Tillich wrote, “Faith is the courage to accept acceptance.” Faith is believing God’s grace is real and is for me. That’s what I want to be convinced of in the depths of my soul, and what I want for my kids as well.

I do believe God is hearing the heartfelt cries of my little girl, and it pleases Him to extend His Son’s righteousness to her. She might not fully get it, but in Christ she is forgiven and clean.

She is His.