Over my handful of years in ministry and half a life as a Christian I have had a lot of conversations with people who are either on the outside of Christianity looking in or on the inside looking out. And I have found that there is a similarity between the obstacles keeping people from taking that final step into faith and the things that push people out. To put it starkly, their gospel is too small.
Too often inside and outside the church the gospel is communicated in a truncated, individualistic, and minimalistic way. It’s not always the same – different churches have different truncated gospels that they favor. But it always falls short of the universal, optimistic and boundary breaking gospel that I find when I read the Bible.
My sense is that these truncated gospels have developed over time because of an honest desire to reach people. These truncated ways of communicating the gospel (something that might fit on a tract, for example) were very effective for a certain generation of seekers, and are admittedly still effective for a certain percentage of the population today. They are brilliant at making the story of the Bible clear, easy to understand and immediately applicable to life.
The problem comes when someone comes to those truncated ways of communication the gospel and find them wanting. “Wait. You mean, if I don’t say this prayer right now I am going to hell?” “Wait. You mean if I haven’t had a certain spiritual experience yet I’m not really a Christian?” “Wait. You mean if I don’t give away all my money and live in poverty with other Christians I can’t call myself a follower of Jesus?” It’s not long until this feeling of discontent either leads someone out of the church or causes them to stop their seeking.
When I proclaim the gospel, I make every effort not to truncate it. I try to keep its full complexity and beauty and mystery. In fact, whenever I preach, I see myself as proclaiming the “gospel”. If by gospel we mean the good news (lit. gospel) of God’s activity in the world. It’s not as simple. It’s not as neat. It’s not as easy to apply to our life. And my penchant for complexities might not reach everyone. Just like the tract might not reach everyone. This is why we need multiple forms of church working together to bring the message of the gospel to people outside the reach of any church. Otherwise, I fear the gospel message in any form won’t even be recognizable to our children.
We use the metaphor of a garden a lot. As leaders, we cannot make authentic community or real church or discipleship happen, but we can help to create the best possible environment for these things to grow. The way I see it, the consistent proclamation of the gospel in its fullness and complexity is the rain that helps the garden grow. What about you?
Jason Mack serves as pastor of New Leaf Church in College Park, MD. He is an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene.