As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I’ve started a five week series focused on dealing with the question, “What is the Gospel?”, using Scot McKnight’s book The King Jesus Gospel as a guide for the series. What comes to mind when you hear the word “gospel?” For some, the word gospel is most readily associated with music. There is gospel music as in the African American tradition, and there is also southern gospel, which includes a broad range of recordings all the way from Elvis Presley to Bill Gaither. Others use the word gospel as a colloquialism to testify to the truth of their story. You may have heard someone remark, “That’s the gospel truth…” Then you have the obvious association with the first four books of the New Testament: the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. As people of the Bible, we understand that the word gospel is important. In Sunday School children learn that the word gospel means, “good news.”
The gospel that we heard growing up primarily had to do with our sin, Jesus’ death, and going to heaven when we die. But is that really all there is to it? It seems as though there should be something more, that some how that simple description is lacking or is incomplete. It seems that much of our understanding of the gospel today is obsessed with getting someone to make a decision for Christ. The apostles, however, we obsessed with make disciples.
There are statistics that report numbers as high as 75% of Americans who have made some kind of decision to accept Christ. Those same statistics show that only about 25% of Americans attend church on a regular basis. No one would suggest that church attendance is the perfect measure of discipleship, but you would probably agree it is an important indicator to some degree. According to Barna research, 60% of teenagers have made a “decision” for Christ. That number swells to 80% among mainline Protestant churches and again to 90% for non-mainline Protestants. But when we compare those numbers to young adults between the ages of 18-35 we find some dramatic and discouraging information. Of the 60% general teenage population who made decisions for Christ, only 6% continue with any kind of meaningful practice of discipleship following high school. Among mainline Protestants, 80% drops to less than 20% and for non-mainline Protestants 90% drops to right at 20%. At the most conservative of estimates, we lose about 50% of those who make decisions for Christ.
The difference between decisions and discipleship is clear. But what do we do with it? What is our responsibility? Before we can get into it, we have to deal with one very important question: What is the gospel? The word gospel was a word used in the ancient world for declaring good news about an event. In modern times one would think that the gospel is a simple thing, whereas other subjects like hell, intelligent design, and same sex marriage cries out for debate. Those issues need to be studied and debated, but not until we get the gospel question resolved. Our current understanding of the gospel is only a pale reflection of the gospel of Jesus and the apostles. We need to go back to the Bible and find the original gospel. Our understanding isn’t necessarily wrong as much as it is woefully incomplete.
I believe the word gospel has been hijacked by what we believe about personal salvation, and the gospel itself has been reshaped to facilitate making decisions. The result? The gospel we understand no longer means what it meant to Jesus or the apostles. For most American Christians, the gospel is about getting my sins forgiven so I can go to heaven when I die. But if the gospel isn’t about transformation it isn’t the gospel of the Bible.
It appears that we’ve emphasized the call to personal faith which has created a salvation culture that focuses on and measures people on the basis of whether or not they can witness to an experience of personal salvation. The value we have is focused on who is in and who is out. Or, more personally, “are you in or are you out?” The difference between salvation messages and gospel is the difference between the decided and the discipled.
What is in jeopardy? What’s at stake? What questions should we be asking? How should we think about the gospel? That’s what I’ll take up next.