At its root, Christianity is a disciple-making faith. But in pluralistic modern contexts, what does it take for the gospel to connect with its hearers? Few people have pondered this question more deeply or successfully as York Moore, whose combined ministry of social justice and gospel proclamation has seen him bring a robust, faithful message to many, many thousands of people. Curious to glean his wisdom from today on evangelizing the future, I asked him the pressing questions that tomorrow's pastors and evangelists will need to wrestle with. Look for Part 2 on Thursday. - Paul
Paul: For many modern Christians, old-style gospel proclamation and concern for social justice seem worlds apart. As both a "modern abolitionist" and someone who's led thousands to conversion, how do you see their relationship?
York: Paul tells the Thessalonians that, "… [O]ur gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction," (1 Thess. 1:5). When the gospel comes to a people, it is never anything less than a "speech-act."
Evangelism is always a matter of proclaiming the news of God's love through Christ. However, when the gospel comes to a people, it is always also to be done with power through the Holy Spirit and with conviction. The way in which we understand a demonstration of power today certainly includes applying the gospel to places of brokenness and injustice. This is not in competition with evangelism—it is an extension of it.
Concern for social justice and healing for those who suffer is how the gospel is displayed. When the gospel is merely speech, it is hollow—empty, and without practical significance. For some people groups, the gospel comes with the power to heal. For others, with the power to address systemic political injustices, to still others with the power to restore families and communities. To the largest "unreachable people group" in the world—modern day slaves—the gospel comes in power to free them from the brick kilns, massage parlors, and cocoa fields of oppression and despair. The great news is that this is not an either/or decision for God—the same gospel that can free us from our sin, from death, and from hell is able to save little boys and girls from demonic oppression and slavery.
Our Jesus is able to both save us from the hell to come as well as the hell that is now.
Well said. With that truth in mind, at what point in your preaching do you notice people getting uncomfortable?
I have worked hard for over 20 years to be able to communicate the gospel powerfully to the "anti-churched." They're not merely non-churched persons, but people who are opposed to religion in general and Jesus Christ in particular. Because of this, cultural Christians and average "moral Americans" are frequently uncomfortable with my preaching. I introduce them to a vision of Christ that is radically incompatible with their domesticated, mythologized Jesus. For non- and anti-churched listeners however, the vision I paint of Jesus almost always connects with them in a deep, personal way.
After preaching a message entitled, "The God of Sex Slaves" in Los Angeles, a lesbian student named Maria approached me weeping uncontrollably. She said, "The Jesus you spoke about is the one I know who has been after me, even from my childhood. I couldn't put my finger on it before your message, but I knew God wanted something from me and now I know what it is—he wants my life, my passion, my everything." She continued, "I want to follow that Jesus!"
Having said that, I preach the "full gospel." I place heavy emphasis on sin, God's holiness and wrath, and on repentance. This element of my preaching produces discomfort in non-Christian hearers (as it ought to) as the gospel comes to them through deep conviction and through the work of the Holy Spirit to convict them and lead them to repentance.
"Evangelism" seems like a dirty word to many people—even Christians. How much credibility with an audience do modern evangelists have to earn before they can begin to share the gospel?
Surprsingly, the younger the audience, the more an evangelist can get away with. Because most young Americans have grown up in a secularized, post-churched context, they dont have the baggage associated with bad experiences with "organized religion." If I am introduced to a young audience as an evangelist, the sentiment is, "What's that?" or "So what?" The descriptor is a vacuous term.
I am careful to connect with my audiences around common human vision and passions. My work as an abolitionist helps me in this. When I'm introduced as an "abolitionist," it is intriguing and I have immediate credibility with the audience—I'm seen as an activist. I believe this is an expression of what Paul referred to in 1 Thessalonians as "deep conviction." We express our deep conviction by being doers, working in the real world to apply the power of the gospel.
I'm not sure that evangelists have to "earn" a hearing as much as they did in past American generations. Rather, we have the opportunity to re-create, re-define, and re-express what it means to be messengers who embody the gospel's power through deep conviction.
This is the right time to ask my next question, then. What, in your preaching, is "the gospel?"
I am a minimalist when it comes to gospel theology and doctrine. I believe the gospel is a very simple, yet magical message with the capacity to transform worlds and people's lives. Doctrine, according to N.T. Wright, is nothing more than the "portable story" of God. As such, the gospel needs to be unpacked and applied to our hearers.
Having said this however, at its core the gospel revolves around Christ's substitutionary work on the cross, the power of his bodily resurrection, and his identity as Lord or ruler of the world. This is the kernel of the gospel, the core by which the rest of the message is to be understood.
In preaching the gospel, we place this kernel between two sets of additional theological truths. To begin with, we help hearers understand Christ and his work by explicating the concept of sin, death, and judgment through the moral law of God (Gal. 3:23-25). As we help people see and embrace their identity as God's children but also as those marred by sin, we help them see their need for Christ's death and the power of his resurrection. As we help our hearers understand the certainty and severity of death and the holy wrath of God's judgment, we help them understand the cross in light of God's ultimate desire to provide forgiveness and covenant relationship with anyone who would respond. Second, the kernel of the gospel is to be followed up with the invitation to repent and respond to the righteousness of Christ and his rightful place as ruler or Lord of their lives and of the world.
Thus, I believe there are 10 normative "portable story" elements in our proclamation of the gospel:
- The moral law of God as it reveals sin.
- Sin: Not merely the behavior of sin but the process of sin in leading us to ruin and judgment.
- Judgment: This can be explicated in a wide variety of ways—from the abstract wrath of God as a concept or "hell," to concrete expressions like the Lake of Fire, or the judgments of God's wrath at the end of the age.
- The righteousness of Christ.
- The death of Christ.
- The resurrection and the implications of such.
- The Lordship of Christ.
- Response: This can be expressed also in a wide variety of ways from a "sinner's prayer" to some demonstrative behavioral expression. The important factor here is that there needs to be some demonstration of the hearer's understanding, acceptance, and incorporation.
Stay tuned for Part Two of this interview, publishing soon.
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