Getting the Gospel Right
Scot McKnight says the church's problem is rooted in what we preach.

A few weeks ago Dave Johnson questioned our adherence to a gospel that does not call forth or expect transformation in our lives. In this post professor and blogger extraordinaire Scot McKnight continues the discussion. He contends that many of the problems facing the contemporary church can be traced to the individualistic gospel we preach. Both Johnson and McKnight will be featured presenters at the upcoming Spiritual Formation Forum in June.

When I was in high school, my youth pastor ? may his soul rest in peace ? opened his home to me and my girlfriend, Kris (now my wife). David King became our personal theologian and one thing that impressed me deeply at the time was this contention of his: he often contended in a rather robust manner that every problem that he encountered as a pastoral counselor could be traced to a "spiritual" problem.

Most of us would not agree with this conclusion, but many of us would contend that we do need to do more "systemic" analysis to find the underlying issues that give rise to many of the problems we now face in the Church. I'd like to suggest a significant underlying issue that gives rise to more than one problem today.

Because of some research I did on the "gospel" in the Bible, leading to a book called Embracing Grace, I have come to a conclusion not unlike that of David King: namely, when I see "problems" or "issues" in the Church, I often say to myself, "What kind of gospel would have been preached and responded to that would give rise to this kind of practice, problem, or theology?" At the bottom of lots of our problems is a "gospel" problem. Students of mine that grow up in Christians homes often admit to me that the gospel they grew up was this: Jesus came to die for my sins so I could go to heaven. This parody of the biblical gospel, I contend, is at the heart of many of our problems.

Example #1: We often hear pastors today wondering why Christians are not more committed to the local church and seem to have so little time for anything extra?

Example #2: We routinely are reminded that 11am on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of America's week.

Example #3: We often observe that there are far too many Christians who "have it together" with God but are "relationally a mess."

Example #4: Many evangelical Christians feel "most spiritual" when they are praying or reading the Bible and do not see their marriage relationship, their parent-child relationships, their sibling relationships, or their relationships with others ? in the Church and outside the Church ? as part of their "spirituality". Instead, those elements are at best "implications" of their relationship to God (which is the focus of spirituality) rather than central to that spirituality.

May 09, 2007

Displaying 1–10 of 19 comments

martin jacobs

May 14, 2007  9:39pm

I wonder how demographics relate to this post and the replies. I confess that, as a teenager, I became a Christian to avoid going to hell. 20 years later, I remain a Christian because the landscape that has unfolded is far more beautiful, more real and just bigger than a baby bulger like me could have possibly imagined. Scot's excellent piece and some of the responses reflect a more mature view of the Gospel, which I warm to at my time of life. Does this mean that the Church has matured, or has the demographic that addresses the issue reached a certain age?

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May 13, 2007  7:53pm

great post Scot! this is a huge challenge for our churches today. as i interact with youth i see how disconnected they are from their community and so enmeshed in self. it seems that the church, in large part, continues to strenghten this rather than posing challenges to self-centeredness. i know a major piece of my own formation was an experiment Klyne Snodgrass had us do in New Testament class. we had to read the Gospel of Matthew and reflect on how the text challenged our self-centeredness. what a challenge to a young seminary student who thought he had the whole faith thing figured out!

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Rich Tatum

May 13, 2007  6:03am

If McKnight is right, then what is needed is not a better definition of "the Gospel," nor is it better theology. Rather, what is needed is for our preachers and leaders to truly encounter the Gospel in relationship. I think McKnight's points are solid, and I appreciate his examples. But the majority of pastors are living, preaching, and "doing theology" in isolation. They are beyond lonely: they are ministering in exile while surrounded by parishioners. If the heart of the gospel is community (a Trinitarian God creating a community for redemption) then how can pastors who report having no friends truly preach a better gospel? How can pastors who have no mentors preach effective discipleship? How can pastors with no one to confess their sins to preach repentance? Thus, it would seem to me that our model of ministry which effectively elevates then isolates ministers is also part of the problem. And in truly circular fashion, may itself be traced to the kind of gospel we preach. Regards, Rich BlogRodent

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May 13, 2007  5:42am

To me, by God's work, the gospel is always the moment. The gospel, the living Word is always closer than a brother. We can appreciate our concern for the, " eye has not seen nor ear has heard, neither has it entered into the heart of man, what God has prepared for those who love Him." as we pray for "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven". It is dificult for me to phantom, as an un-educated person, how one can have a relationship with God and not further His kingdom. Unless I'm bottled up with the focus on myself as myself and my performance. It is also dificult for me to comprehend that evil is having his way in the moment rather than the Ultimate and only Good is having His way. The reconceliation between the individual salvation and the communial salvation still resides in Faith. All have a relationship with God's Son since He is the Light that lit every man. He is in every heart... crucified or risen; therefore, there are only two hearts present... the heart of stone and the heart of flesh. One a living soul and the other a Life giving Spirit. I Love what my Pastor once said. "I have some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that the world is mess. The good news is that there isn't a thing you can do about it. But Jesus can! Let us permit our heart to love others on the same treshold of salvation as we do our bretheren in Christ, in the moment. The educated and the illiterate both understand sacrifice and the fear that is in trusting someone other than the self. Let us cheer in Salvation even when the ebb of all that makes any sense is apparent. Gratefullness is coherent in not what we do but whom we have to do with and His commitment to us by promise and fullfilment." The definition of " I will make myself like the most High." is that there never is any rest with control ( as exhibited to us by our Lord Jesus Christ, to and on the Cross. ) The liquid is never the cup, the Church is never the Liquid as in the vine and the branch: Yet, even as He is, so are you in the world. He IS risen!

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Darren King

May 12, 2007  10:55am

I agree wholeheartedly with the points made in this post. What we call "the gospel" in most Evangelical circles today, is difficult to square with the words actually spoken by Jesus. But here's a question that arises in light of this discussion: if the gospel has been truncated in our American/Western context, why is that? How did that happen? What factors contributed to the situation? In my opinion it has a lot to do with a subconscious prioritizing we do when we study the New Testament. Typical Evangelical views on the Hell issue (i.e. say the prayer to receive Jesus or burn for eternity), for many, seems to trump other aspects of the gospel in perceived importance. And from that sense of prioritizing, stretched and fine-tuned over decades, comes our skewed sense of what the gospel actually is. Like Scott, I think we need to realign ourselves with the fullness of the gospel. However, I also think we need to pay attention to aspects of our theology that lead to a subconscious prioritization that ultimately ends with gospel truncation/distortion. When such distortion happens, perhaps our theology, as well as our "spirituality", is a root issue.

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Pastor Chris

May 11, 2007  10:14pm

What a great post! Its deep. I've come to grow in my own understanding of the gospel – to include incorporation into a community, and service to the world. It's more than just forgiveness of sin. It is my desire that we would preach a more "full gospel."

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May 11, 2007  10:26am

People think the gospel means "Jesus died for my sins so I could go to heaven when I die" because that's exactly what we are telling them, at least in my experience. I personally know pastors of large churches who would see McKnight's "parody" summation of the gospel and say yes, that's exactly what the gospel is. If you agree with it. This may be what we are saying because it's easier to "package" than a holistic gospel. I've heard the gospel defined as the word "did" versus other religions defined as the word "do". Jesus already "did" everything, according to this "gospel". In fact, any suggestion that the Christian life might entail "doing" anything is dismissed as works-based legalism. But what if the gospel shouldn't be easy to package? What if the nature of God's restoration of the world is way too involved and revolutionary to be compressed into a soundbite for people who happen to be riding a theoretical elevator with us? I think real evangelism requires longterm commitment to and Christian life lived amidst those it reaches out to. Incarnational evangelism isn't simply better or more effective than shock-and-awe blitzkrieg 4 spiritual laws-style evangelism (even if you change the content to be less individualistic and more communal). It's what's required for the kind of communal spirituality and Christian discipleship we're talking about. How one individual explain to another individual what a community of faith following Jesus looks like?

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May 11, 2007  10:09am

Great post. I think it shines a bright light on a glaring problem with a gospel that is so focused on Jesus being MY personal savior, without considering the broader implications. As for the need to keep it short and simple, that is great, but we live in a sound bite world where context and depth rarely seem to matter. The truth of the gospel is not something to be distilled to a couple of questions that lead to a memorized "pitch." Rather, we must be willing to engage the gospel together, and allow it to speak to us, whether it takes 30 seconds or 30 years.

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May 11, 2007  10:05am

Scot (and Tyler), you're sounding like great anabaptists. You present a needed corrective to our simplistic, individualistic notion of gospel. Jesus came to bring not a 30-second pitch, but a kingdom. I appreciate the focus on community as it relates to living out the gospel. Because, I believe, we are submersed in a consumerist culture, we somehow persist in trying to "package" the gospel into something people can carry home with them to their private existence. Your approach instructs us to say, "if you want to know the gospel, I'll need more than 30 seconds. Come see the community of Christ, how we live, how we love, how we worship, what we do because of Jesus."

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Rick Shott

May 10, 2007  11:52pm

It is interesting to see the comments on Christocentric soteriology when the major thrust is that the gospel and thus by extension soteriology needs to be trinitarian. I have a post about this on my blog (follow the link in my name). Ironically, I think this comes from our attempts to create simple 30 second blurbs to teach people. If these short snippets are all you need then theology would be extremely easy to teach. I think that Scot Mcknight spent a lot of time putting this together. It is easy to create a 20 page paper on this. For 5 pages some deeper thought is needed. A concise posting to challenge the blogosphere is hard. One major failure of evangelicalism is that we never think enough about what really matters. We reduce things too quickly and by too much. Thus God become less than He is and the church becomes emaciated. One final thought, give people a chance to show they are more intelligent than they are given credit for.

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