In recent years, Christian leaders from all denominations have taken note of the precipitous decline in numbers in our churches over the last half century, as well as the loss of influence on the surrounding culture that we have experienced. A number of thoughtful writers have even begun to refer to this time in the West as the post-Christian era. Several theories have been suggested as to why we find ourselves in this difficult place. And while the shift in culture is itself partly responsible, we need to also take a hard look at what we are presenting to the world as the message of Christ. Because as history shows, it is very easy to get off track or marginalize important elements of God’s mission to overturn evil with good. And whenever that happens, the light we emit to the world will be diminished, which can then eventually cost us our place in the world. What follows here are a few of the ways in which we can miss the central message of the gospel:
1. The Gospel on the Left
The main thought here is that our greatest problems are a toxic environment, institutionalized oppression, and other evils of society. If we could find a way to prohibit all forms of organized evil, that would then make it possible for all of us to live in harmony and bring about the Kingdom of God. In short, we need to identify and destroy evil through various social programs, legislation, and other cooperative means.
On the positive side, we have all seen segments of the church which ignore the basic needs of people around us, and have opted instead to offer “be warmed and be filled” to desperate people. So we can view the Gospel on the Left as offering an important critique for the church, as along as we do not neglect the other aspects of the gospel.
2. The Gospel on the Right
At the other end of the spectrum is the message that our greatest problem is not the condition of society but the condition of the human soul. The gospel shows us how to get rid of the stain of sin so that we can go to heaven when we die. Most of what we hear from this presentation of the gospel is the imminent danger of hell and our need to avoid eternal damnation.
Now the truth is that unless God changes the human heart, not much else will change. The Gospel on the Right is correct in locating the source of the problem. However, this emphasis is all too often accompanied by a view of salvation that is almost purely judicial in nature. We have violated God’s law and should therefore be punished. But Jesus has intervened on our behalf, and if we believe this is in fact all true, God will issue a pardon for our misdeeds.
What gets lost here is the truth that God wants to restore our relationship. That’s why He refers to us so many times as His children. The story would be much better told in terms of the prodigal: We had a relationship with God, gave up that relationship for other things, and lost everything the the process. God has now taken the initiative to rescue us from our plight and restore us to Himself.
3. The Gospel of the Consumer
This variety of the gospel may or may not be very explicit about being on the right or the left. The most important aspect here is that the gospel will meet your felt needs, primarily emotional and financial. Sunday morning gatherings are often full stage productions, and the pastoral staff spends a lot of time trying to figure out how they are going to draw crowds during the next quarter.
Again, a plus side. We have all observed places in the church where the gospel is presented in terms that are almost offensive, whether through trying to shame people into repentance or by focusing on all that is wrong with the world. The truth is that God is inviting us into life with Himself, both now and forever. He loves us enough to save us from ourselves! And that is a message with heart; one that draws people in instead of driving them away. The danger is that we can end up trying to draw people with our presentation instead of with the gospel itself.
Clarifying Our Gospel
The common problem demonstrated in the above areas is that the Gospel of the Kingdom can become so minimized we end up tacking it on the end of our message as an afterthought, or forgetting about it altogether. We need to be sure we keep the heart of the message: that God has decided to make his home inside us so that He can make us into the people He wants to have for his own. God is not just trying to see how many souls he can pull off this sinking ship called Earth before it goes down, nor does he want to build a just society without first changing the human heart.
God’s real desire is to transform human beings into light and salt for the earth and into creatures who live and breathe the presence of God in their lives. This is not an optional second-level goal for those who have first taken care of their eternal security. Nor is it some future result of fixing society. Rather, transforming us into the people of God is what redemption is all about.
May we always be mindful of this central focus of the gospel, and be careful about how we present this message to the world around us. To whatever extent we shift our focus to the right or to the left or for appeal, we risk marginalizing the gospel itself. And consequently, we end up contributing greatly to the lost ground we see all around us.
Clarifying our gospel is absolutely necessary to the future life of the church.