I had been a disciple of Jesus Christ for less than a year when I first heard "the gospel question." It was May 1988, and I was spending the summer following my freshmen year of college working as a counselor at a Christian sports camp in the Missouri Ozarks.
Before the campers showed up, we counselors arrived early for a week of preparation and training. After long days of physical labor, we would gather in the evening to worship and listen to teaching designed to prepare us to lead our young charges toward God and athletic excellence. The topics ranged from end-times prophecies to prayer, sex and dating to evangelism and discipleship—all in the context of learning to throw a tight spiral, land a back handspring, or field a grounder.
On one such night the camp director stood before several hundred of us and asked the gospel question. Not the proverbial, "If you were to die tonight, do you know for sure where you would spend eternity?" Instead he said, "If someone were to ask you what the gospel is, what would you say?"
The question took me off-guard. I had no idea. And suddenly I was nervous.
I think I knew that Gospel was what the first four books of the New Testament were called, that it meant "good news," and that the good news was about Jesus Christ. As a new believer, I was smitten by Jesus and especially by his people, the church. I had surrendered my life wholly to Jesus and was seizing every opportunity to grow and be obedient to God.
But that night, for the first time, I was hearing "the gospel" referred to as an entity unto itself, with a definition distinct from the melded concepts of God, Jesus, the church, and everything I thought I understood. Not only did I have to admit that I had no idea what "the gospel" is, I also had to grapple with the fact that I wasn't even sure what I was being asked.
I don't remember what the camp director said next, but over the next few years I came to understand the nature of the question I was asked on that summer night. More than that, I learned what the right answer was supposed to be. At my university I discovered that "gospel" was a word that many Christians used as shorthand for the means by which a person could go to heaven after they died. Over time they had perfected the science of explaining "the gospel" in a simple and efficient way.
The gospel was understood to be a series of propositions meant to "save" someone. When these propositions were followed logically and sequentially, and subsequently accepted as truth in faith, the subject was assured of their eternal destiny—heaven after death.
But as I have continued in my faith and in ministry, I have continued to struggle with "the gospel question"—with what is being asked and how it has been answered. I haven't been alone. Many of us want to be faithful to Jesus, and we are seeking to be faithful to a broader and deeper Christian tradition than the one that evolved in America after World War II.
In many ways this quest comes down to the question I was asked sitting on a gym floor 20 years ago: "What is the gospel?"
Asking "Is our gospel too small?" implies that something is off kilter—that somehow we have gone off course in the way we answer "the gospel question." But it may not be just our gospel that is too small. It may be that we have been living in a world that was too small—the small, reduced world of modernity.